How to Win Friends and Monetize People

Just after New Year’s, I got an email from a former colleague. The subject line carried the sender’s name and said, “Do Not Delete.” I recognized the name — we’ll call him Stephen, since that’s his name — though it’s been years, I think, since I last saw him. His message asked for my home address so that he could mail me something. He was a little cryptic about what it might be, saying only that it wasn’t what his mother hoped he’d been sending. (What his mother hopes for, I’m guessing, is a wedding announcement.)

I let the email sit there for a day or two before replying. I sent him my home address, which is publicly available for anyone who wants to spend 10 seconds looking for it, along with a 23-word greeting. Why did I reply? What was I expecting?

I was curious. What was it my non-bosom-pal Stephen wanted to share with me? Maybe he was inviting some old acquaintances to a party of some kind; nothing extraordinary in that. Maybe he had just found out he was terminally ill and wanted to bid his friends goodbye (I’ve never shaken off the shock of getting a flyer in the mail announcing the memorial service for a friend I hadn’t seen for awhile and hadn’t known was dying). Maybe he’d won the lottery and would be showering those most dear to him (me?!) with surprise checks (that’s what I’d have done if I won — I’m sure of it). I didn’t think about it too hard, though, and by the time a big manila envelope from Stephen arrived in the mail last week, I had more or less forgotten about it.

Here’s what was inside:

A one-page letter from Stephen talking about how, after 15 years as a writer and editor, he had changed careers a couple of years ago and gone into real-estate sales. You can probably guess what came next: He talked about how rewarding and challenging his new line of work was. He cleared $6 million in sales last year. And now, he wanted to reach out to his wide circle of buddies and semi-buddies to spread the good news and ask for referrals, either directly from us or from anyone we know who might be contemplating a real-estate deal. For our convenience, he had enclosed his business card.

I’ve got to say this: The letter has as much class as any of its kind can have; which is to say, not much. It was well thought out. It was nicely crafted. It had a friendly tone (I’d quote it, but the message seems to have found its way into the recycling). But at its heart — the mysterious email, the group letter personalized with the salutation “Hi, Brekke!” scrawled at the bottom — the effort was still crass, right out of some playbook on how to “leverage” friends and family as part of creating a successful business enterprise: “I know and like you. You know and like me. I’m in a new business now. Won’t you let me sell you my service? It’ll help you as much as me.”

Don’t get me wrong. First, I’d feel different if I were dealing with someone I’m close to. With a real relationship in place, I certainly wouldn’t resent the suggestion that I might consider using a service, and chances are I’d try to figure out a way to help. Second, I don’t have anything against people who make their living in a tough, unforgiving profession. Sales is brutally direct in its feedback on your product and performance. To do well at it requires a combination of knowledge, preparation, endurance, optimism and perhaps charm with which I, for one, have not been abundantly blessed. Third, I don’t dismiss the advantages of engaging someone you know and trust to help with a daunting business transaction. I got an attorney who played on one of my old softball teams to help Kate and me when we bought our house in the late ’80s. And the last time I wanted to refinance the (same) house, I looked up a former colleague from my last news gig who has since become a mortgage broker.

Would I have gone to either guy if they had first let me know beforehand, the way Stephen did, that they viewed our acquaintance as a sales opportunity? I can’t say for sure, though it’s clear that I have a low tolerance for marketing. For me, the difference is that the only marketing either the lawyer or the mortgage banker did was to be themselves; and until I initiated a conversation about doing business, I never got the feeling either one of them saw me as a potential source of income or our relationship as a resource to be monetized.

6 Replies to “How to Win Friends and Monetize People”

  1. We have a friend who is a contractor. For many years, he made it a policy NOT to do work for friends. He has since loosened up – he did our kitchen, in fact – but he never advertises his services. We solicited him.
    We have other acquaintances, not to mention my brother-in-law, who have solicited us, as you had been. (In our case, it is always those pyramid-type businesses, such as Amway.) And our reaction, every time? Nyet, nyet and nyet.
    The whole idea gives me the creeps: the person doing business no longer sees you as a friend, rather as a bank roll.

  2. This reminds me of when I was in first grade or so and wanted to take piano lessons. I saw an ad in the local paper and showed it to my mother, who said, “A good teacher doesn’t have to advertise.” I waited until I met someone who played and asked her for her teacher’s name. [[[The pertinence of my thoughts to your remarks ends here.]]]
    Deanne Malcosky was the best pianist at Richardson Elementary, and her grandmother, Ida Telford, was a wonderful teacher who encouraged my love of music and even pushed me to enter the Akron area young composers contest two years in a row. (I placed third, then second to Deanne’s first. Thanks for asking.)
    Unfortunately, Mrs. Telford remarried and retired from teaching and my playing went downhill fast. I didn’t take to Mrs. Butcher as well; she wasn’t nearly as kind or firm as Mrs. T., treated me more like a kid than a musician, and I was distracted by her husband’s whooping-type cough in the next room.
    Of course other extenuating circumstances led to my eventual shift from music to literature, not the least of which: a notebook is easier t carry than a piano.

  3. Yeah, Debbie, that’s pretty much the way I feel about it. My dad was just telling me about the daughter of one of my mom’s former coworkers who came up to their apartment once to try to sell them on becoming Amway representatives. This is when my mom was in her late 60s and my dad was in his 70s. Dad says they laughed it off and told the woman they were poor candidates because they hardly knew anyone due to their advanced age. No harm done, and she went away. Still — what kind of jerk would even make a pitch like that?

  4. I wonder if it would be possible to make money by starting a nickel betting pool on the day and time of when the rapture will occur? We could clear the docket on a year to year basis, hand out a few prizes to keep it legit and keep it all going til’ rapture day when we have a big payout. By then we’ll have enough green to own condos Boca Raton.
    As to those Amway folks. The kind of person who does this is currently called a Ford Motors/GM worker. Their move to Amway is a manifestation of the “ownership society” in action.

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