Benjamin Pratt: Depth of a Salesman


Car Dealership in 1947

Classic Image of a Car Salesman. Don O'Brien took this photo at an Ohio Ford dealership in 1947 and released the photo for public use via Creative Commons.

Part 1

I'm going to tell you a story about a salesman.

Are you bracing yourself for a terrible tale?

He's a used car salesman.

Even worse?

Then, let me add this detail: He's an African immigrant selling used cars.

Are you suddenly thinking of those infamous Internet scams with origins in Africa? Diamonds waiting somewhere if you'll only wire $1,000 to Nigeria?

Well, you're wrong. This is not that kind of story. Quite the opposite.

As Willy Loman's wife Linda insists about her besieged husband in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman: "Attention must be paid." Like most sales people in America, Loman "never made a lot of money. His name was never in the paper," Linda tells us. "But attention-attention must be paid to such a person."

I did. I paid attention. And, this week I'm going to tell you the story of how we met-and what happened when we did.

His given name is Abraham, but his name tag at the dealership invited me to call him "Abe." He came to this country from Ghana in West Africa. And, when I went to shop for a used car, Abe told me that his primary value as a salesman is ...

But first: What's your guess? What is Abe's primary professional value?

Here's what he told me: Honesty. Or, as he put it "being completely honest about the condition of the cars and the range of our prices."

Do you believe him? Be honest, now.

I was skeptical, too. But he explained why he ranks this value of honesty above all others: "People don't expect a car salesman to be completely honest."

As you read this week's five-part story, think about your reactions to details in what unfolded that day between Abe and me. You're free to share this story with friends-even to repost or copy or print out this true story.

All I ask is that you do something good in the world, this week-by starting a discussion with friends. Healthy conversations make for healthy communities.

Part 2

Now I'm going to make a confession: I'm prejudiced.

I'm biased. Are you aware of some biases that crop up as you navigate your life, week by week?

Here's my prejudice: I would never buy a Cadillac or a Lincoln.

As Abe and I ambled through the dealership's selection of used cars, I confessed my bias and he wisely didn't try to argue with me. My attitudes run _ very _ deep.

Of course, I realize that today I'm a well-educated American of means-certainly not wealthy but well to do by comparison with the majority of the world's population. Buying any car is a marker of wealth around the world.

But, as Abe and I strolled, we did come face to face with a beautiful Lincoln and I told him: "I can't drive a Lincoln. When I was growing up only the rich or the pretentious drove a Lincoln or a Cadillac. Even though that was many years ago, I still feel I would be betraying my family roots. Call it my class consciousness or reverse snobbery, but I just can't buy one."

We kept walking, but I couldn't stop talking.

"I'm too aware of ethnic, class and wealth distinctions in our society. Seriously," I said, "sometimes the wealth gap in our world makes me cry."

That's honestly what went through my mind. I'm confessing what I thought-and Abe, a truly expert salesman, knew what to do: We simply walked past the luxury cars and he didn't push. He didn't even comment on what I had said.

But what do you think? Am I being overly sensitive? Am I over-thinking my personal responsibility in our country's ever-widening wealth gap? (Dr. Baker has written about this theme repeatedly over the years, including this column in early 2015.) Maybe you've got a completely different perspective on Lincolns and Cadillacs. It's OK to take issue with me.

But, for a moment, consider my biases from Abe's perspective. Sales people face customers every day with a wide range of prejudices-spoken or unspoken and often running as deep as mine.

What do you think Abe should have done in response to my biases? Anything?

Part 3

I surprised myself and perhaps I surprised Abe in the next step I took that afternoon.

I didn't haggle.

When the dealership was evaluating our trade-in vehicle, I freely admitted to a problem with our 10-year-old car. Then, after they returned with an appraisal, I didn't question it.

I didn't question the price of the used car that I finally selected. Abe told me the car was reliable. I looked it over and accepted what he was telling me.

I bought without haggling.

Are you surprised? Or, do you think I'm naive? Maybe you are thinking even worse me: What a fool!

I know that haggling is as old as village markets. Before villages, I know the first hunter-gatherers bartered with others they met who had a diversity of goods. There's a strong pro-haggling argument that says the system is fair and tends to focus people's shopping on things they need at prices they can afford.

But there are anti-haggling arguments, as well. Those arguments focus on the unfairness of charging more for goods from desperate or uninformed customers. Shopping for a used car is often unfair from the mysteries of hidden flaws to the typical customer's lack of automotive savvy.

However you feel about traditional haggling, the practice is declining worldwide with the comparative power of the Internet. Even areas of Africa and Asia without electrical systems have smart-phone service (powered by motorcycle engines in many cases)-so Internet pricing is just a few taps of a phone screen away, even in remote villages. And for my part, I had checked out Blue Book listings before I drove over to Abe's dealership, so I had some basis for my trust in this deal.

And, there's news this week that I am not alone in preferring not to haggle. Bloomberg reported last week that the success of no-haggle prices at a flourishing Toyota dealership near Phoenix has prompted the company to try this approach in its Lexus sales at other dealerships. Bloomberg writes:

Not that Lexus is plunging in. Saturn once had a no-haggling policy, but that didn't save the brand from withering away inside a cash-strapped, pre-bankruptcy General Motors Co. And while luxury auto sales are booming, Lexus is locked in a dogfight with Mercedes, BMW and Audi. So it plans to start testing fixed pricing at 12 stores next year and see how it goes before asking other dealerships if they'd like to try it.

What do you think? You can touch off a healthy discussion with friends if you bring up haggling. Feel free to use my true story. You can dismiss me a "fool" or praise me as a values trend setter-but get people talking.

Part 4


Abe told me something else about his approach to selling cars-something I've heard before but hadn't thought about as a key to effective sales.

"Some buyers show up knowing exactly what they want," Abe told me, "but many are foundering in a sea of choices. So, I ask people to describe how they plan to use the car. Then, I can make specific suggestions.

"The key is to understand what customers _ need . That's more important than what they say they  want _."

I thought: Smart man. I worked for many years as a pastoral counselor and I know the value of uncovering the true "needs" in a person's life.

As Abe talked, I thought of George Bailey's crisis in It's a Wonderful Life. Do you know the scene?

Its a Wonderful Life bank run with George Bailey and Mrs Davis played by Ellen Corby (1)

The sure sign Bedford Falls will survive the panic is when Mrs. Davis, played by Ellen Corby, tells George she only needs $17.50 to get by.

In the midst of the Great Depression, the powerful Mr. Potter at Bedford Falls' main bank had an opportunity to close his evil grasp on nearly everything else he doesn't already own. George Bailey's tiny Building & Loan is threatened with a "run" by its nervous customers. Potter hopes that the Building & Loan will collapse-so he can buy up the assets at pennies on the dollar.

George Bailey is about to leave on his honeymoon as he wades into a turbulent sea of customers. He finally decides to use his own honeymoon savings to survive this panic. Unfortunately some hot heads-including a tough-talking man named Tom-insist on taking all of their money out of the Building & Loan.

Bailey complies and his fistful of cash is dwindling by the minute as he settles account-holders' demands.

What saves George? And the Building & Loan? And ultimately Bedford Falls itself?

Bailey keeps repeating the message: "What do you _ need _?"

And finally, the message gains traction in this little community. A man named Ed turns the tide.

"What'll it take? What do you need?" George asks Ed.

"Well, I supposed $20," Ed says.

"Now you're talking! Fine! Thanks, Ed!"

Then, Mrs. Thompson admits that she can make do with $20, too.

And the sure sign that the community is getting George's message comes when Mrs. Davis, played by the delightful Ellen Corby, comes to the teller's window. She tentatively asks, "Could I have $17.50?"

George grins! "Bless your heart! Of course you can have it!"

And the town survives the panic.

What do you think of Abe's insight about sales: The "needs" matter more than the "wants"?

What do you think of that scene in It's a Wonderful Life? Is it pure Hollywood fantasy or could that scene really unfold today in your community?


mister-rogers-neighborhood (1)


Part 5

AFTER Working with Abe the used-car salesman that afternoon, we both found ourselves using the R-word:


Just as Abe told me at the outset that his primary professional value was honesty, in the end, he summarized his goal as a salesman this way: "I need to gain a buyer's respect."

Why didn't Abe challenge my prejudices against driving a Lincoln or Cadillac as we began to stroll through his rows of used cars? "You have your reasons and I respect that," he told me.

As we finalized the deal, I told him something similar: "Thank you, Abe, for being honest and respectful of me."

Does that word "respect" sound hollow or superficial to you? Are you suspicious of anyone who talks to you about "respect"?

Perhaps so. The value of respect has been twisted in so many different directions-from politics to popular culture-that perhaps the term is nearly worthless now. The leading presidential candidate in Republican polling is a man who boasts about his lack of respect for others.

Here are three questions guaranteed to start a spirited discussion with friends: Would you like to see a revived culture of respect today? Do we even share that value anymore? And, if we do, is it possible to rebuild a widely shared sense of respect among the people we encounter each day-like I encountered Abe?

Before you dismiss the idea, consider that "respect" was among the most frequently used words when the late Pope John Paul II spoke or wrote in English. Most American Catholics know the phrase "respect life" and the two words often are reduced to an anti-abortion bumper sticker.

But, if you read John Paul's longer teaching documents, you will discover the great breadth of meaning he intended that phrase to convey. John Paul wasn't talking just about the inception of life; he was talking about respect for the unique value of each man, woman and child living on the planet. The late pope wrote some withering critiques of both big business and big government that demean the precious nature of human life-each person's life-through violations of basic human rights. John Paul saw a tragic lack of respect for life in everything from unrestrained capitalism to the death penalty, from a lack of health care to a lack of living wages.

Respect--it's still a potent value.

Here's my perspective: I think the world is held together by the mass of honest folk who do their daily tasks, tend their own spot in the world, and have faith that at last the Right will come fully into its own. And, I respect that.

Is that an unrealistic view of the world? Is it possible to achieve true respect between two strangers who meet for just a couple of hours in a realm as unlikely as a used-car lot?

The late Fred Rogers thought it was possible. In fact, he described the awe we can experience at such a connection between two lives:

It's very dramatic when two people come together to work something out. It's easy to take a gun and annihilate your opposition, but what is really exciting to me is to see people with differing views come together and finally respect each other.

Ultimately, that's what I shared with Abe-there's nothing more potentially contentious as buying a used car. But, in this case-I drove away with a smile and a nod toward Abe.

Mr. Rogers was right: It was exciting.

_ Remember: You are free to share, print out, repost and use these columns to spark conversations with friends. _

Care to read more?

Benjamin Pratt is the author of three books published by ReadTheSpirit BooksHis occasional columns appear in ReadTheSpirit online magazine, the website of the Day1 radio network and in other online clergy networks as well.


Taken with permission from