The Power of Insulting Customers: Confessions of a Vacuum Cleaner Sales Rep

The Rolls Royce of Vacuum Cleaners

My connection with advertising legend David Ogilvy is that, early in our careers, we both sold consumer appliances door-to-door. Long before he founded Ogilvy & Mather in 1949, and following a short-lived career as a chef in Paris, David Ogilvy sold AGA cooking stoves to housewives in Scotland. Long before I founded Highlander Consulting, as a college student seeking money for gas and beer, I sold Fairfax vacuum cleaners to housewives in Connecticut.

Ogilvy claimed his door-to-door sales experience provided insights into the mind of the consumer that earned him acclaim as an advertising wizard. I credit my door-to-door experience with an appreciation for the power of insulting people as a sales tactic.

Created long before Star Wars, Fairfax vacuums looked like R2-D2, were priced at several hundred dollars and equipped with a motor so powerful it could nearly – to borrow a phrase – suck the chrome off a trailer hitch. Although my recollection of how I first became associated with the Fairfax Company remains fuzzy, I can recall every detail of my first home demonstration, given to an unsuspecting housewife by my sales trainer, a seasoned vacuum cleaner salesman straight from Glengarry Glen Ross.

Here’s a replay of our sales visit:

Sales Trainer:    Thank you, Mrs. Jones, for allowing us to demonstrate the power of the Fairfax vacuum. Before I do that, would you kindly show me the vacuum cleaner you’re currently using to clean your beautiful house?

[Mrs. Jones brings her vacuum out of the closet. The Sales Trainer plugs it in and then pulls out a glass jar full of dirt, hair, dust balls and other unpleasant items.]

Mrs. Jones:         Oh, my!

Sales Trainer:      Now I don’t want you to be upset, Mrs. Jones, I assure you that no permanent damage will be done to your rug.

Mrs. Jones:         Well, I’m not sure that…

[The Sales Trainer opens the top of the glass jar, and dumps the entire mess on to a portion of the rug.]

Mrs. Jones:         Oh, my!

[The Sales Trainer smiles at Mrs. Jones while he steps into the pile of dirt and grinds it into her rug with his foot.]

Mrs. Jones:         [Visibly upset.] Oh, my!!! How will I ever get that dirt out…

Sales Trainer:      Let’s see how well your vacuum cleaner handles this mess.

[The Sales Trainer vigorously vacuums the rug for several minutes with Mrs. Jones’ vacuum until no dirt is visible and the rug’s original appearance is restored. Mrs. Jones now appears more relaxed.]

Sales Trainer:      Would you say that this area of your rug is clean now, Mrs. Jones? Why don’t you get down and take a closer look, to check for any dirt?

[Mrs. Jones reluctantly agrees, bends over to take a closer look and runs her hand over the carpet.]

Mrs. Jones:         You seem to have gotten all of the dirt out. You really scared me for a moment.

Sales Trainer:      Well, let me give it a couple more passes with your vacuum, just to be sure it’s clean.

[The Sales Trainer begins to vacuum the area again. Mrs. Jones looks at me.  I look down at the floor until he stops the vacuum…The Sales Trainer sits down and directs Mrs. Jones’ attention to his new Fairfax vacuum which features a clear plastic fitting in the middle of the hose (for demo purposes only) containing a white, porous paper filter designed to collect any dirt before it enters the vacuum canister.]

Sales Trainer:      As you can see Mrs. Jones, my Fairfax vacuum is equipped with a special paper filter that will show us how much dirt is being collected. So let’s go back over that spot we just cleaned with your vacuum.

[With great fanfare, the Sales Trainer begins to vacuum the rug. As he does, he points to the white filter in the hose, which immediately begins to collect debris and turn black in color. Mrs. Jones stares at the filter. She looks quickly at the Sales Trainer, then at me, and begins to mutter something to herself as the Sales Trainer shuts down the Fairfax.]

Mrs. Jones:         That’s amazing…I never…

Sales Trainer:      As you can see, Mrs. Jones, your vacuum appears to have missed quite a bit of dirt and debris that was in your rug.

Mrs. Jones:         It certainly did.

Sales Trainer:      Mrs. Jones…may I ask you a personal question?

Mrs. Jones:         Well, I guess so…

Sales Trainer:      Mrs. Jones…Do you care about the health and safety of your family?

Mrs. Jones:         Why, of course I…

Sales Trainer:      Mr. Jones…Is this really the way you want your family to live…[long pause as he points to the black filter on the hose]…in a dirty, germ-filled house?

[Having just suggested that Mrs. Jones is an unfit housekeeper, she is clearly shaken and unable to respond. She looks at the Sales Trainer, and then at me. Expecting the worst, I shuffle my feet, planning a rapid retreat from the house. The Sales Trainer remains frozen in position, during a very long silence, staring at Mrs. Jones, waiting for her to answer his question.]

Mrs. Jones:         [Clearing her throat.] How much will your Fairfax vacuum cleaner cost me?

[The tension in the room evaporates. The Sales Trainer sits down, pulls out a contract from his valise, and proceeds to sell Mrs. Jones a new Fairfax vacuum.]

My tenure as a Fairfax vacuum sales rep was short-lived and highly unsuccessful, never having found the courage to ask Connecticut housewives the insulting question that would initiate a sale. However, to this day I continue to apply the important lessons in sales craftsmanship taught to me by my Fairfax vacuum sales trainer:

  • Know what’s important to your customer.
  • Be straightforward in pointing out a problem (or opportunity.)
  • Demonstrate a viable solution.

2 Comments

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2 responses to “The Power of Insulting Customers: Confessions of a Vacuum Cleaner Sales Rep

  1. Know what is important to your customers. This is what marketers and entrepreneurs should bear in mind. In order to sell, one should know what their prospects wants and needs.

  2. Pam

    To be fair, we had one of these vacuums (my parents bought it from my brother, budding entrepreneur, who gave us a demo) and it was a hell of a machine. There are working machines still out there!

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