Sunday, November 23, 2014

Commerce and guilt

I've been writing some about my transition to an increasingly sales-focused role, though the fact is, it's not my first time.  I had a spell as a consultant when I was selling my firm's services, looking for clients, spinning what we could do. The big difference is that now, more than ever before, what I am selling is my own services.  Though actually, in some regards it's not all that far from being an academic, going to conferences, presenting one's research, because that was all about trying to win the audience over to your point of view, and trying to be the best one on your panel.  And one of the keys to it then was to always have the shortest paper with the fewest points to make.  People loved it when you got done before their eyes glazed over.

But it's different when you're asking people to entrust their money to you.  It's a big ask. And people have a negative association with sales, in particular financial sales, but sales in general.

And some recent conversations have made me think back to what I think may be the best post I ever wrote here on the Grouse, certainly one of the most amazing conversations I ever overheard.  It was on the NJ Transit train from Metro Park into Manhattan, a mid-afternoon train.

I slunked into a seat and broke out my lunch. Roast beef on rye, fritos.

Across the aisle from me sat a woman sitting facing her roughly thirteen-year old daughter, dressed in a hot pink shirt, jeans, sneakers. I munch away, not paying much attention, until I hear her say to the girl: "And now I want to talk to you about negotiations. What happens when a supplier is trying to get a higher price out of you and you want to keep the price low" (door opens, random train noise) "You've got to always keep a stone face, impassive. Never let a customer get to you. If you have feelings, save it for home, for the dinner table."

By now I'm convinced that I'm not hallucinating. The mother is briefing the daughter on how to be a merchant. At this point mom reaches down and takes the daughter's hands in hers: "(train noise) is going to teach you about cash control, inventory management... there are three types of corporation: a sole proprietorship, a C corp, and an S corp (open door)... You should always have more than one product, and never buy stock in a company with only one product."

And so she went on, passing to her daughter all the rudiments of trade. And always very tenderly and solicitously, never turning imperious. I looked at the daughter to see if she was bored and annoyed, but no, she was fine, listening to Mom hold forth.

Wild. It was like a whole nuther dimension. My mom fancied herself an entrepreneur, even went to the White House for some small business hoo-ha when (cough cough) Reagan was occupying it , but she never passed on the gems to me like this. Just the parable of the talents, and some yummy frozen tacos for the nights she got home late from the office.

This conversation was so striking to me because, having been raised somewhat Christian, certainly liberal, often in quasi-Marxist circles, I circulate within a world which is at the very least profoundly ambivalent about money and material success.  We all like to live nicely, and we appreciate a good bargain, indeed we search for them, but we tend to regard commerce as low and dirty, even as we benefit from it.

So the idea that a mother could be instructing her daughter about commercial education in this deeply loving way was just bizarre.  And yet every day now, time and again, I put myself out there asking people to let me help them with their money.  After working my ass off for many years to get to the place where I'm skilled enough to be able to help them.  And it's hard at times to get past the wierdness of it all.

In truth, the cultural rift here goes back to the way Max Weber elaborates out the way the concept of salvation differs from Judaism to Christianity.  In short, the way he saw it (could be wrong), Jews believe in this-worldly salvation, whereas Christians believe in other-worldly salvation.  Which endows us with profoundly differing feelings about commerce and profit.  Hence "It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven."

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