Taylor: Manipulative messenger zeros in on the mark

Manipulation goes all the way to the pulpit with 'guilt trip' sermons.

I’m not particularly interested in vacuum cleaners. As a comedian at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival commented, “All they ever do is collect dust!”

But I am interested in the sales techniques used by their representatives. Last month, a Filter Queen sales rep demonstrated both his product and his process at our house.

“Filter Queen?” you may well wonder. “Are they still in business?”

Yes, they are. And not much has changed.

Thirty years ago, I got suckered into a similar demonstration. The representative showed me how his vacuum cleaner could suck up a one-inch steel ball. His sales pitch asked a series of questions, all carefully phrased so that I had to give answers favourable to his equipment.

That process hasn’t changed, although the technology has. Instead of playing with steel balls, this representative demonstrated to me how much dirt his vacuum cleaner could suck up from carpets and baseboards that had been vacuumed earlier that week.

Of course, without his special test filters, we couldn’t duplicate his demonstrations with our existing built-in vacuum cleaner. Advantage, to him.

His sales technique was painfully obvious—ask only questions to which the prospective victim can’t help supporting. If I get into the habit of agreeing, the reasoning goes, I will sell myself on his product.

Things haven’t changed much. A friend described how he sold encyclopedias door to door over 50 years ago to pay his university fees. Same process—never give the victim an opportunity to say “No.”

“Do you consider education important for your children?”

“Wouldn’t you like them to have an advantage?”

“Do you think knowledge is valuable?”

If he could get into the house, my friend said, he could evaluate the family’s interests, and use those to focus his questions. “When they open the door, I move forward, just a fraction,” he explained. “Everyone has a comfort zone; instinctively, they back up a couple of inches. I move forward again. It takes only a few moves before I literally have a foot in the door.”

Recently, a total stranger confirmed that she had used exactly the same technique to sell make-up door to door.

Unfortunately for this particular Filter Queen rep, I recognize when I’m being manipulated. So I played along dutifully. I saved my “No” until he asked me to sign on the dotted line.

But I couldn’t help comparing his sales process with the way that most of the churches and charities I know operate. Instead of approaches that encourage people to say “Yes,” we typically try to make them feel guilty. Especially the most faithful members. You’re not doing/giving enough; you’re letting us down; we might have to shut down this program…

I have occasionally joked that my church should run a travel agency called “Guilt Trips.”

I wonder if the desire to avoid being manipulative pushes those of us in persuasive professions to go too far in the other direction. Labour disputes, for example. Lobbying for justice issues. Politics. Dealing with bureaucracies. Often, negotiations start with a frontal attack on the other position.

Perhaps, without copying door-to-door techniques, we could at least start by seeking common ground.