by Tom Dooley

Today I was listening to the radio and flew into a rage. Later, when I had calmed down enough to speak intelligibly (if not intelligently—I figured I’d say it before you did), I went of on a rant for ten minutes about the subject of greeters. Okay, exaggeration. Maybe it was only for a minute or two, but if I’d slowed down and enunciated each word, my oratory would have carried on for closer to ten.

This is what made me so mad. It was a Texaco commercial, with the announcer outlining all the reasons you should get your gas at that particular company’s stations. In the middle of the usual unrealistic claims (like that using this gas will make your knocking, smoke-belching car run smoother, or that the bathrooms will actually be clean!), the announcer happily proclaimed that you will be GREETED when you drive up to the pump! My gawd, even now the idea makes my skin crawl.

Is this why unemployment is so low right now? Because millions of people are earning minimum wage to stand in the doorways of shopping centers and banks and video rental stores and now, of all things, GAS STATIONS, saying "Hi, how are you?" and "Have a great afternoon," to everybody that comes along? Do we, as consumers really NEED this treatment? Does it make any of us feel better? Granted, I might be an exception, but I don’t look for social validation at the entrances of the businesses I fraternize. I go to the bank to deposit (or more likely withdraw) money. I go to the video store to rent a movie. Etc., etc., etc. I certainly try to be friendly to the people I encounter at these places, and I don’t mind if they’re friendly to me, but what I’m really interested in is fast, courteous, competent service. I don’t want to make a new friend (which sounds cold, I know, but let’s put it this way, I don’t want to befriend someone who’s being paid to be my gas station buddy). I don’t want to waste precious moments of my day interacting with someone on a completely meaningless level. Finally, and most importantly, I DON’T want to be given a sales pitch, which, by the way, is the real reason many of these so-called greeters exist.

By way of illustration, I’m currently working as a bank teller as a little extra, part-time job. We all, as tellers, have to take turns being the "Lobby Manager," which is marketing doublespeak for "the poor bastard that has to stand in the doorway and greet the customers." Again, don’t get me wrong. If it was just standing out there and saying "Hi!" to people, and maybe even doing something useful like holding the door for them, then I’d happily do my share of it without a complaint. But it isn’t just that. We’re supposed to stop the customer and find out why they’re coming to the bank. We’re supposed to try to shake their hand. We’re supposed to ask them "probing" questions, like if they own their own home and if they’d like to fill out a credit card application, and etc.

Most of the customers don’t let you get past the "Hi!" part. They’re in a hurry. They’re overheated from the Arizona sun. They don’t want a home equity loan. By the way, if you think about it, aren’t most people already aware of whether or not they want a home equity loan? I wonder how common it is for Mrs. Jones to come home from the bank and say to her husband, "Bill, I cashed the kids birthday checks… oh, and I decided to apply for a home equity loan too. They were having a special on them."

One customer, when he made it through the line and came to my window, said: "They ought to fire that joker over there by the door and give you guys a raise." I told him to be thankful it wasn’t his job to be that joker over by the door. I really don’t think I’ve encountered a more subtly demeaning task in my life. I mean, there are lots of demeaning ways to make a living, but none quite so subtly demeaning as that of "the greeter" (oh, excuse me—Lobby Manager!).

It’s all part of living in a sales oriented society, though. People who work in sales, don’t take this personally. I know you have to make a living, and that many of you at heart are essentially good people. But if you’re good at sales, or worse yet, if you LIKE selling, then I have to wonder about you. You’re either a naturally charismatic person who projects genuine concern and trustworthiness to your customers, AND you’re selling a product you genuinely believe in and feel would benefit your customers; or you just might be a ruthless, two-faced liar who would sell your own mother down the proverbial river.

My boss at the bank says we aren’t so much selling products as we’re educating our customers so they can make informed decisions. Well, maybe so. Especially in a perfect world. But if it was just a matter of informing them, why do we have sales goals (marketing doublespeak for quotas)? And correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t there supposed to be something about integrity when it comes to banks? I mean, we’re really there to provide a service to people, right? They let us keep their money, which is a solemn trust indeed. Now we’re going to turn around and try to sell them something? Think about it. Would you want to trust your money to a salesman? In other words, just hand over what he’s willing to do just about anything to talk you out of in the first place, because it’s not only his job to do it, but his paycheck actually depends on how much of your money he gets?!

I started out this editorial with a lot of anger about greeters, but now I see that there is a split in what I really dislike. First, as I said, I have a general aggravation with all this unneeded friendliness. I don’t go to Wal-Mart because they employ cheerful old folks to greet me at the door. I go there because they have cheap prices. If their prices weren’t cheap, it wouldn’t matter if they had voluptuous young models of the appropriate sex giving hugs at the door—I’d go to Target. At least to shop. I might have to re-think my social validation theory. But you see my point. The second part of my problem with greeters is the sales part. And this is where I have a big, BIG problem. The old folks at Wal-Mart are completely innocuous compared to the greeters whose job it is to SELL you something. Which brings me to my problem with sales people in general. Or not so much the sales people as the sales techniques they use, and the companies that make them use those techniques because of the slick-haired, Old Spice wearing marketing "experts" whom the companies have hired and who say these techniques will work. They’ll work, all right, but by work I mean they’ll garner a few sales from the people who don’t mind being conned, the people who are too weak to say no, the people who’re downright gullible… And they’ll "work" in that they’ll alienate me and anybody like me who just flat-out doesn’t want to be treated like the "sucker" in PT Barnum’s famous saying.

A few weeks ago, I was in Rocky Point, Mexico for the weekend. Sitting on the beach, you can bear witness to Sales Technique Number One. It’s called, "Don’t take no for an answer." While I was there, about thirty different venders were walking up and down the beach selling everything from styro-foam hats in the shape of frogs to cinnamon bread to jewelry, watches, clothes, sunglasses and blankets—you name it and somebody was lugging it up and down the beach. What this meant if you were sitting on the beach somewhere was that every minute or so someone would come up to you and ask if you wanted to buy one of these items. If you were trying to sleep, they would wake you up. If you were trying to read, they would interrupt you. When they had your attention, and you politely but firmly told them "No," to whatever it was that they asked you, they would always hold out another item and ask again. Only after you had given two separate, polite but firm "No’s," would they shrug and move on to the next person. A minute later, it was someone else, and the exact same routine. It was like they had all attended the same beach-sales seminar. When they got to the end of the beach, they turned around and headed back, asking everyone again, twice of course, until they got to the other end and started back again. The effect was such that it seemed like there was a never-ending stream of them, all day long. Persistence, then, is probably the first rule of selling. I’m going to suggest, though, that the "sales" mentality, beginning with this sort of invasive, bone-headed persistence, is actually counterproductive and stupid.

Take Rocky Point, for example. I liked it there, but if I had a choice of going to a place where I knew I wouldn’t be pestered by vendors all day when I’m trying to read or sleep or carry on a conversation, then I’d probably go the extra distance to vacation there instead. And I would advise all my friends to do the same (and even do the same to several thousand readers, if I happened to be the editor of an electronic magazine). But if the good people of Rocky Point would figure out that all those beach-walking salespeople are spoiling their town’s value as a vacation destination, and perhaps set up a boardwalk of booths like they have at many U.S. beaches, then I’d probably go there more often. I’d advise my friends to do the same, and so on. I might even buy a few of those styro-foam frog hats, too, if someone didn’t come and bug me first.

Unfortunately, no one is going to stop the endless hoard of vendors from spoiling the beach at Rocky Point, and it’s only going to get worse in America as the sales marketing people have their way with us. Now if you go to a shoe store, chances are good that the salesman will not only be trying to sell you shoes, but he’ll ask if he can demonstrate a leather cleaning product. He’ll do this by cleaning one of your shoes, so then you’re left with the option of buying the product or walking away with one white and one gray shoe. Whether he successfully talks you into the cleaning stuff or not, he will probably try to sell you a special shock-absorbing insole, too. This is because the marketing guys have determined that customers are vulnerable without their shoes on, and the guy trying to sell you that insole has some "goals" he’s trying to meet.

Again, though, this kind of mentality is, or at least should be counterproductive. I’m probably not going to shop at this shoe store again because of the fact that I like to make my purchasing decisions free from such distractions. I can only hope that others will do the same thing. Then, the marketing guys will decide that sales are down, and the only way to bring them up is to be more aggressive. They’ll put a "greeter" in the doorway of the shoe store, whose job it will be to "educate" the customers as to which items are on sale while asking "probing" questions such as "What sports do you play?" and "Do you have a dog?" One can only hope that this will be the beginning of the end for this shoe store, and all others like it. Somewhere there’ll be a shoe store that doesn’t have a greeter, and that doesn’t try to sell you insoles while you’re attempting to decide between Nikes and Filas, and they will suddenly be on top. They’ll be joined by the bank that proudly advertises they don’t have a lobby manager, and the beach that lets you sleep all day in the sun if you want to, and the gas station that lets you fill your tank and drive away without so much as a peep. These will be the new economic success stories, and the new batch of dweebs in the marketing departments will write textbooks on the latest sales trend, which will be to simply give the customer good products from which to choose and then leave them the hell alone!

Until then, have a great day. We sure do appreciate your business.

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