The business side of woodworking September 2013 
Kerry Knudsen

Tiger ethics

I once accepted a publishing job that was to start in three months. However, the relationship I had with my PR clients was such that I had to notify them in time to accommodate the transition. This gave me three months with very little to do.

Reviewing what I considered to be my assets and weaknesses, I elected to take a job in car sales. I joke that I needed a shot of assertiveness training, but I actually wanted to get some practice in direct sales, and I figured that would be the best. Besides, win or lose, it was not going on my resume and I might even earn a buck.

I had a buddy arrange an interview the next Monday at a large dealer nearby. When I arrived, the manager was not there. Unknown to both me and my buddy, the manager had spent the weekend in Texas, trying to capture his wife who was on a tear with some new flame. When he walked in two hours late, he looked bad. He had not spoken with my friend. I thought he had.

Another half-hour passed, and I was called in for the interview. It went exactly like this:

“Mr. Knudsen, I understand you want a job selling cars. Is that correct?”

I said, “Yes.”

“Mr. Knudsen,” he said, “when I have salesmen working for me, I want them to be aggressive. I want them to have what I call ‘the eye of the tiger.’ Do you see yourself as aggressive?”

“Sir,” I replied, “If this job requires it, I will find out your wife’s bra size.”

I’m not sure why I told this story. It seems there is a moral in there, somewhere. For one thing, it is possible to get a response from a 40-pounder hangover. I can’t really describe his face, but I can tell you I had answered his concerns about aggression. His name was Geoff. My buddy was astounded that I survived the faux pas. Geoff – I hope things are going well for you. We had some good days.

I actually learned a lot on that job. One day I watched one of the salesmen try to fleece a widow. I was appalled. I asked him whether he considered taking money from a grieving woman to be ethical. It went exactly like this:

“I have ethics,” he said. “That woman is grieving and she is looking for a car. If I don’t sell her that car, she will just go down the road to the next salesman, and he will take her money. So you see, she is going to lose her money. The question of ethics involves my kids. My ethic is that my kids deserve her money more than that other guy’s kids do.”

I am not often without words, but that one did it. Pardon me if anybody reading actually subscribes to that “ethic.” I don’t. However, it remains my best example of how rationalization can turn any idea any direction, and it is the duty of adults and the mentally firm to resist it. It is also our duty to recognize it and admit it. Of interest, the ethicist in this story was on work release while serving a sentence for cocaine peddling. I guess everybody has an ethic.

Another character decided he was my “mentor,” and provided me with a book – on loan for only two days – in which were all the deepest secrets of closing deals against the will of the customer. According to my mentor, the book was banned and not for sale except by direct mail. I read it, and I know those secrets.

The manager’s boss was named Smith. On my last day, I finished some paperwork, tidied up my desk, gathered my stuff and stood. From his spot across the room, on an elevated platform they called The Tower, Smith stood, as well, and saluted as I walked out the door. In those few months, I had been the highest-grossing salesman and the salesman with the highest single net sale in the history of the franchise, but that’s another story. I hope life treated Smith well. Among cat-herders, he was the best.

I never met Geoff’s (ex) wife, so I never had to make good on my claim. I never used the book of “secrets” against anybody, but I can often stop car salesmen from using them on me. It has helped me save a buck.

That job also taught me that all work has value, and I am not too good to do it.

Happy Thanksgiving.

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