Monday, July 2, 2012

You Balled Me on the Flies

“You balled me on the flies”, the sales manager said. 

At this point, I’d better give some background for this 30 year old incident from my car selling days, a career that came to an end in the eighties. 

“Low-ball” was a term given to the practice of offering to sell a car for a price that could not be implemented because it was too low. It was intended to bring price shoppers back to the salesperson. Obviously, the practice could backfire badly. The verb form, “to ball”, was used for any circumstance in which the given figure was lower than reality. I steered away from this practice. It prevented sales and produced ill-will and bad tempers. Now, back to the story. 

It was one of those beautiful hot summer days in bright light. Details stood out in the mind and eye as if painted by a master draftsman. The car that pulled into the dealership was as long as a city
block. It was so long that local pilots must have used it as a landmark, a huge vehicle from the late 70’s. 

I immediately noticed from the showroom that the family in the car was accompanied by a fly trapped inside with them, a fairly ordinary thing on these hot Summer days. The family got out of their car and came into the showroom to buy a new car. We worked out most of the details of the sale quickly, and everything was ready to go except for the value of the trade-in.

I was trained to deal with the hopes and expectations of the car buying public. One hope was that the trade-in possessed some great power, the power, through its value, to lift people out of poverty like the coach in the Cinderella story. Often, unfortunately, the coach had already turned back into a damaged pumpkin. Then there was the reasonable  expectation that the trade-in would be a down payment on a new car, and not just a new car, but a new and more beautiful way of navigating through life. It’s a tricky, tricky business. The car is an extension of the person. Hopes, egos, and self-worth are on the line. I learned that one must tread carefully and gently when dealing with the trade-in.

There was usually a sticking point in every car buying transaction, a “fly in the ointment”, so to speak. In this case, it soon became shockingly clear that there was more than just one fly in the customer’s car. A quick mental estimate from a safe distance put the number of trapped and circling flies at about twelve. And, worse, we’re not just talking about flies here, we’re talking about FLIES! These were the size of juvenile pterodactyls.

    I did like my sales manager. When he was still a salesman, he explained to me some of his selling techniques and philosophy. He purposely dressed in very drab colors and thrift store clothing. He stooped, and rolled his shoulders forward. He didn’t smile until a potential buyer smiled. He spoke slowly using simple language, showed no emotion, mixed dull plaids with duller solids, and wore ties the color of dirt, all to make people feel welcome and comfortable. I didn’t adopt these practices, but I knew what he was driving at, and I knew it was important not to react to things that seemed out of the ordinary when dealing with the public.

I did my best to take the presence of the flies in stride. I never mentioned them to the customer at all, but the fact remained that my sales manager eventually had to evaluate this enormous fly trap, and that meant he had to drive it. In the midst of my intense personal reactions to the idea of getting into this car with all the flies, I felt it my duty to prepare him for the ordeal. In the sales office, I pointedly told him there were about a dozen flies in the car, and that they were large. He took this news in his usual bland and unfazed manor.
I watched in a state of apprehension as he approached the trade-in. Very, very slowly he walked around the car, not even looking at it, but opening all four doors all the way as he went. A brilliant strategy! But it wasn’t working. No flies left the car. We waited. He waited outside beside the car, the usual bland expression on his face. I waited inside the showroom. Nothing changed.  After what seemed like eternity he got into the car and drove away. 

At this point, I should state that I always tried to be entertaining while waiting with the customer for some process to take place, like evaluating the trade-in, or waiting for a credit report. In this case, I thought it prudent to avoid some of my favorite jokes, those about waiters and flies in the soup.

When the sales manager returned, he went directly to the sales office down the hall, speaking to no one. I pulled myself together enough to find my feet and followed him. In the sales office I discovered a changed man, red-faced, sweating, bland expression gone. He was peering at the  write-up sheet for the sale. He looked up at me when I walked in.  “You balled me on the flies,” he said, the blandness gone from his voice and expression. I was shocked. He thought I low-balled him on the number and size of the flies! Had I generated ill-will and bad temper in my sales manager? Was he going to be sick, to have a stroke, drop dead on the spot? He got redder, rose from his chair behind the desk, stuck his head in a nearby closet, and made a loud retching noise. He then returned to his desk, resumed his “drab” routine, and looked as if nothing had happened. This broke the tension and I doubled over laughing until it hurt. Fortunately, he did the same. The other sales manager came into the office, saw us in that state, lost it himself, and fled from the office.

We closed the sale.  A closed commission sale is always a kind of rebirth for the sales person. The trade-in was sold to a used car lot. They did all their own mechanical work. They had their own garage, their own tools, their own fly swatter, hopefully a pneumatic one. The used car dealer would recondition the trade and  sell it again, a new ride, a new hope for someone else.

The sales manager fully recovered and soon returned to being a salesman with his usual drab colors and his aw-shucks shuffle. The customer drove off in a new car, their ego intact, although their amazing ability to live with giant flying insects went unrecognized, that is until now. Their life was renewed by new transportation and they left behind about a dozen flies, or was it more?