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It's A War Out There! (work in progress)

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               “The more I want to get something done, the less I call it work.”
                                                                               Richard Bach


 (This is a chapter from my work in progress, "Kitchen Sink Confidential")
 
                                                It’s A War Out There! 

We’re signed up for two days of furnace sales training in the usual featureless frigid hotel meeting room convenient to the airport, white tablecloths draped over long folding tables set with note pads, stubby pencils and sweaty pitchers of ice water, the urn of transparent coffee and trays of stale pastries at the back of the room. Dan the sales trainer is half motivational speaker/half grizzled tin man full of tricks and war stories. But we are eager pupils, craving the promise of a cornocopia of leads, of overcoming any objection, of closing, closing, closing every sales call! We want to be the annointed ones who set sales records and vacation in forty-foot motor homes.

My last sales training was in Transactional Analysis. T.A. has many uses: in psychotherapy, organizational work, education and in business, and one of them is in training sales teams. In T.A. sales theory a major purchase often begins with pain. The car is making a funny noise. You try not to think about it. But it’s an old clunker and last month you shelled out five hundred bucks for a new alternator. You’ve been hoping this wasn’t going to happen. This is Stage One: Pain.

Next comes Stage Two, which is information gathering. You call your uncle who knows about cars. “I told you not to put any more money into that piece of %$#@!” “What should I do, Uncle?” “Go take a look at the new Honda Civic.” So you go to the Honda dealer where you are chatted up by a nice salesman and you take his card. But you aren’t ready to buy. You’re in Stage Two, but you haven’t suffered enough pain to bring you to Stage Three.

A week later you’re driving to work and the noise is getting loud enough to be heard even when you turn up the radio. If you miss any more work you might lose your job. The pain is increasing. There is no option but to face the unpleasantness of buying a new car. You go back to the dealer (information gathering) with your uncle. The salesman has been trained in transactional analysis. He sees that you are wavering, so he takes you through the pain again. What kind of car are you driving? Have you been putting money into it? And it keeps breaking down? Don’t you need reliable transportation?

The basic idea of T.A. sales theory is to keep the customer going around a circle of stimulus and pain until she reaches Stage Three, the high noon of Action. Action is buying. But until she is ready to take action you keep her going around the circle by reminding her of the pain that brought her to you. It makes me think of the Buddhist Wheel of Life from which one wishes to be released from all suffering.

The salesman is going to ease the transition to investing your discretionary income in car payments instead of knockoff designer bags and sushi. Also you are worried about the matter of your embarassing credit score. But it seems that he has a special love for people with shitty credit who might need dealer financing. He will handle Uncle by letting him get a “good deal” on the price. He’ll make a little on the base price and a lot on the financing and options and clever fees. 

We are here to have Dan teach us how to sell pricey furnaces. The lead usually starts with a service call. You have no heat, or your furnace is making grunting noises. The serviceman, who gets a commission for every lead he generates, suggests having a salesman drop by. Dan likes to arrive in a suit and change into coveralls. He crawls around under the house or up in the attic, wherever there are furnace ducts. He tells the client he is making a heat loss calculation. What Dan is really doing is looking more professional than the other salesman in a suit who didn’t crawl around under the house.

A heat loss calculation can be a selling point if the competition didn’t do one. It’s also a chance to show off your infrared heat sensor and some charts and spreadsheets. It doesn’t tell you anything you didn’t know when you walked into the house. But you do whatever it takes to differentiate yourself from those weasels at Company X. Whoops, I didn’t mean to say that word. But you should always check with the state license board before you hire a contractor to see if there are any complaints outstanding against them. Have you seen our book of testimonials from satisfied customers? And look, here are some awards from our trade organization!

You aren’t selling furnaces. You’re selling comfort. Warmth. Air-conditioning so you don’t suffer in July. Electronic air cleaners that (supposedly) remove pollutants and pollen from the air. Humidifiers that keep your skin from being itchy all winter. Dehumidification so you do not sweat in summer. Zoned controls so you can set different temperatures in up to five areas of your house. Multiple cold air returns so the heating and cooling are distributed evenly. If you’re just selling furnaces you are selling a cheap, low-margin commodity. If you’re selling comfort you are selling an expensive, high-margin job.

As in everything, the affluent get more of this comfort, and the less affluent get the roaring box with fire inside that blows scorched air at low-efficiency. The affluent get the high-efficiency unit that maintains an even temperature without drafts. The less affluent pay less, but a fifth of the energy they buy goes right up the chimney to contribute to global warming. Who said life was fair?

Most Americans get the fire in a box. Truth is, heating and cooling-wise, America is a third world country compared to much of Europe or even Australia. Our sales trainer represents a foreign company. Many furnace shops wouldn’t know how to sell or install sophisticated heating and cooling equipment if the jobs were handed to them on a platter. Their mindset is that furnaces are a commodity and you have the best chance of getting the job if you have the lowest price. We’re backward in cellphones, we’re the last to get proven new drugs, backward in safety of children’s toys, we make badly designed clunky cars that fall apart, and that is about where we are in furnaces.

To understand why this is so, let’s take a quick look at the history of the modern forced-air furnace, known in the trade as the scorched air furnace. They became popular, like many good and bad things, here in California after World War II. Developers were building vast subdivisions of cheap houses because there had been a population explosion during the war. And there was plenty of raw land and good jobs to lure new families to the state. But they needed to keep the home prices low because incomes weren’t very high. The forced-air furnaces were designed to be cheaply made and easily installed. Many of the early ones were made by plumbers and sheet metal workers in small shops. They were basically a sheetmetal box with a burner and a blower and a few simple controls. And they were terribly inefficient. But natural gas was cheap and the builders didn’t care what inefficiencies they passed along to the buyers.

This continued until the late 70’s when California, under Governor Jerry Brown, implemented the first building and appliance energy efficiency standards. Builders had to install insulation and other energy-saving measures, such as furnaces that met some very modest levels of efficiency. The standard was that furnaces had to be about 80% efficient, which meant that 20% of the energy the homeowner paid for would still go straight up the chimney. But it was revolutionary at the time and the pattern for similar legislation across the country.

Over the years, the industry developed far more efficient furnaces, but the builders install them only where they are mandated, or as an additional selling point in expensive custom homes. The basic rule of subdivisions is to do everything as cheaply as possible. And builders prefer to hire sub-contractors who have minimal skills because they will work for very little money. This is one reason that I am here with my minions in this class, learning how to sell high-efficiency equipment, so we don’t have to be peons working for peanuts.

Sales training is industrial psychology, which is more advanced than the head-shrinking kind in that it really works. If it didn’t the average American family wouldn’t be carrying way more credit card debt than they can handle. If it didn’t work our over-sized homes wouldn’t be full of wide-screen TVs, exercise equipment we never use and bales of clothing.

Our sales trainer Dan, here in the Pine Oak Room of Hotel Fridge, is very firm on the need for positive attitude and enthusiasm. When someone asks you how business is, no matter if you haven’t sold a job in a month, the answer is “Fantastic!” or if things are even more dire, “Unbelievable!” He pronounces it “On-bee-leeve-a-bull!” with an accent on each syllable. I don’t know how these people can stand themselves. Reminds me of a contractor I know who was saying this right up until the government seized his shop for tax liens. Me, I come from the old school of “How’s business?” “Don’t esk.”

But there is some magic here. I am caught up in the beauty of this mission of bringing comfort and happiness to humanity by selling a lot of these expensive boxes. A tiny image of a forty-foot motor home is taking shape in the reptile part of my brain. I can see the transformation in the eyes of my employees, they are really moved by the inspirational-motivational sales trainer. They want to be like Dan. I want them to be like Dan. But I don’t want to be like him -- I can’t see myself becoming that slick. I just want to make more money in this game.

Dan may be slick, but I admire his confidence. He invites me to join him for lunch and we get into his rental car in the hotel lot. While telling me about a wartime experience in Vietnam he backs up rapidly, colliding sharply with a passing car. Both cars have considerable damage. He hops out, apologizes gracefully, exchanges insurance information, and in a few moments we’re on our way and he is continuing his story, not even a little upset.

This I do find inspirational, because I tend to lose my composure when I crash into other cars. On the other hand, I am the kind of cautious person who looks carefully before backing up. And I didn’t go to Vietnam, I was more like a protestor against the Vietnam war. Dan is a warrior, on the battlefield and on the battlefield of selling expensive furnaces. Sales trainers like to talk about being in the trenches, killing the competition, winning the campaign -- it’s a war out there! When my daughter was being trained to sell cars they actually told her that selling cars is a war and the customer is the enemy.

I am in this world of selling these expensive boxes, but not of it. I sometimes feel like I am impersonating the salt of the earth plumbing and heating contractor I supposedly am. Truth is, I am not much of a consumer, not even much of a believer in capitalism, or the marketplace, or buying things you can’t really afford, or manipulation to induce people to buy things they can’t afford. I think it would be better to be a little chilly in winter than to go into debt to not be chilly. Did I mention that we can offer convenient financing?

But regarding the wealthy, I am Robin Hood. Take from the rich and give to the poor (me). The rich deserve to have nothing but the best, especially in furnaces. Their wealth is dead money, sitting in brokerage accounts, not circulating. It is in the nature of being wealthy to have a lot of dead money lying around. My job is to put some of it back into circulation, where it can do some good in the world. Spending money is good money, circulating in the economy, creating jobs and goods for people like me and my employees. Money my employees get is all good money, because they immediately spend most of it.

To be honest, I am not much of a spender myself. Personally, I prefer saving to consumption. Money in the bank is freedom to be the captain of your own ship. If you don’t have money you have to do things like work at a job, which means taking orders, and having your time and energy at the disposal of others. There is nothing material in the universe I want badly enough to give up an iota of my personal freedom. Our average national savings rate was less than one percent last year and if that is a defining characteristic of Americans, I am not much of one. Or, I should say, that I am not much of a twenty-first century American. Henry David Thoreau or Benjamin Franklin would understand me perfectly.

Ben developed the high-efficiency furnace of the eighteenth-century, which he modestly titled the Pennsylvania Stove. But it soon became known as the Franklin Stove. And he nobly refused to patent any of his many inventions:

"... as we enjoy great advantages from the inventions of others, we should be glad of an opportunity to serve others by any invention of ours; and this we should do freely and generously.”

The Franklin stove was the state-of-the-art furnace from 1742 until the appearance of the cast-iron boiler in the late 19th century. That’s 150 years! And Franklin stoves are still being installed in country homes here and in Europe.

I’m proud that one of the brave rebels who founded our country was a furnace man, just like me. The difference between us is that he also invented the lightning rod, the flexible catheter, bifocals, the odometer, Daylight Savings Time, swim fins, started the first free public library, and discovered the gulfstream. And he was an inspirational-motivational guy too, like Dan, with a knack for publicity for his newspaper, the Almanac and his printing businesses. Ben retired from business at forty saying:
   “I would rather have it said ‘He lived usefully’ than ‘He died rich.’ ”

Five hours into day two of the sales training and I’m studying the fascinating pattern of the ceiling tiles, and regretting the awful hotel lunch, too mind-numbed to venture out in search of better grub, and wondering why God has placed me here, amongst His furnace people -- there must be a purpose, a hidden message in this stack of handouts and workbooks in front of me, a way to live usefully...