Epistemology and Buying

Thursday, September 27, 2012

I have a general policy that has served me in good stead over the years: If someone tries to sell me something, but something about his pitch doesn't make sense to me, I don't buy from that person. Why? The short answer is that I prefer to go through life with my eyes open, and that nobody else's judgement can substitute for my own. In this particular kind of situation, the sales pitch (or its equivalent), should help me understand why I should buy -- not flatter me, play to my fears or weaknesses, or whatever else dishonest salesmen get away with these days with so many people around who don't want to think carefully. That said, it was interesting to me to learn, as I recently did in a conversation that there are other benefits to such a policy.

My wife and I were having dinner with some friends, and the subject of hiring babysitters came up. We and they, not from the Boston area, have used internet services to find potential sitters, but with different success rates. I have been happy, without exception, with all my hires, whereas the other couple have had problems with sitters who have simply not shown up or who have quit on short notice. Our friends attributed my satisfaction to a factor that may well be in play: we are in the middle of town and have easy access to a better pool of talent than they do. I have to concede that that's true: You should see some of the applicants I've been able to turn down!

Nevertheless, I still think I am a better screener. Among the consistently strong fields of applicants, I have summarily weeded out people whose motivations for applying didn't add up. In one case, I wondered how much money a fifty-ish woman who planned to commute thirty miles each way in a truck (which she would need to park once here) planned to make on the rate I offered. To this doubt I quickly added such concerns as her ability to arrive on time, how reliable her vehicle would be (if she actually needed to baby sit to make ends meet), and why she felt a need to cast such a wide net over such a densely populated area (based on how far she was willing to commute). Basically, I thought something like, "This makes no sense to me," and hit the reject button.

I described this candidate and a few similar ones to them and was surprised to hear the voice of experience: "People like that don't think things through, and then, when things don't work out, they blame you." I could see that right away, but I'd never really considered why I got some of the screwball applicants I have gotten. I also learned that, some people basically baby sit for something to do, and quit when they become bored with it. (This caused me to realize I needed to start explicitly using a criterion I'd effectively been using by accident all along.) The couple had tried sitters quite similar to some I would never have touched with a ten foot pole! Of course, they learned from their experiences. Nevertheless, I found it interesting that my insistence on understanding why someone wants to do business with me probably often insulates me from the bad thinking of those others. In addition, I learned that my fastidiousness regarding sales helps protects me not just from dishonesty, but also from bad thinking and incompetence.

-- CAV

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