The Safety Valve in Handling Complaints

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Most people, when trying to win others to their way of thinking, do too much talking themselves. Salesmen, especially, are guilty of this costly error. Let the other man talk himself out. He knows more about his business and his problems than you do. So ask him questions. Let him tell you a few things.

If you disagree with him, you may be tempted to interrupt. But don’t. It is dangerous. He won’t pay attention to you while he still has a lot of ideas of his own crying for expression. So listen patiently and with an open mind. Be sincere about it. Encourage him to express his ideas fully.

Does this policy pay in business? Let’s see. Here is the story of a man who was forced to try it.

A few years ago, one of the largest automobile manufacturers in the United States was negotiating for a year’s requirements of upholstery fabrics. Three important manufacturers had worked up fabrics in sample bodies. These had all been inspected by the executives of the motor company, and notice had been sent to each manufacturer saying that, on a certain day, his representative would be given an opportunity of making his final plea for the contract.

G. B. R., a representative of one manufacturer, arrived in town with a severe attack of laryngitis. “When it came my turn to meet the executives in conference,” Mr. R. said as he related the story before one of my classes, “I had lost my voice. I could hardly whisper. I was ushered into a’ room and found myself face to face with the textile engineer, the purchasing agent, the director of sales, and the president of the company. I stood up and made a valiant effort to speak, but I couldn’t do anything more than squeak.

“They were all seated around a table, so I wrote on a pad of paper: ‘Gentlemen, I have lost my voice. I am speechless.’

“ ‘I’ll do the talking for you,’ the president said. He did. He exhibited my samples and praised their good points. A lively discussion arose about the merits of my goods, And the president, since he was talking for me, took my side during the discussion. My sole participation consisted of smiles, nods, and a few gestures.

“As a result of this unique conference, I was awarded the contract, which called for over half a million yards of upholstery fabrics at an aggregate value of $1,600,000—the biggest order I ever received.

“I know I should have lost that contract if I hadn’t lost my voice, because I had the wrong idea about the whole proposition. I discovered, quite by accident, how richly it sometimes pays to let the other fellow do the talking.”


Joseph S. Webb of the Philadelphia Electric Company made the same discovery. Mr. Webb was making a rural inspection trip through a district of prosperous Pennsylvania Dutch farmers.

“Why aren’t those people using electricity?” he asked the district representative as they passed a well-kept farmhouse.

“They’re tightwads. You can’t sell them anything,” the district man answered in disgust. “And, besides, they’re sore at the company. I’ve tried. It’s hopeless.”

Maybe it was, but Webb decided to try anyway, so he knocked at the farmhouse door. The door opened by a narrow crack, and old Mrs. Druckenbrod peered out.

“As soon as she saw the company representative,” said Mr. Webb, as he related the story, “she slammed the door in our faces. I knocked again, and again she opened the door; and this time she began to tell us what she thought of us and our company.

“ ‘Mrs. Druckenbrod,’ I said, ‘I’m sorry we’ve troubled you. But I didn’t come here to sell you electricity. I merely wanted to buy some eggs.’

“She opened the door wider and peered out at us suspiciously.

“‘I noticed your fine flock of Dominicks,’ I said, ‘and I should like to buy a dozen fresh eggs.’

“The door opened a little wider. ‘How’d you know my hens were Dominicks?’ she inquired, her curiosity piqued.

“ ‘I raise chickens myself,’ I replied. ‘And I must say, I’ve never seen a finer flock of Dominicks.’

“ ‘Why don’t you use your own eggs then? she demanded, still somewhat suspicious.

“ ‘Because my Leghorns lay white eggs. And naturally, being a cook yourself, you know white eggs can’t compare to brown eggs when it comes to making cake. And my wife prides herself on her cakes.’

“By this time, Mrs. Druckenbrod ventured out on to the porch in a much more amiable frame of mind. Meantime, my eyes had been wandering around and I had discovered that the farm was equipped with a fine-looking dairy.

“ ‘As a matter of fact, Mrs. Druckenbrod,’ I continued, ‘I’ll bet you make more money from your hens than your husband makes with his dairy.’

“Bang! She was off! Sure she did! And she loved to tell me about it. But, alas, she couldn’t make her old husband, the blockhead, admit it.

“She invited us down to see her poultry house; and on our tour of inspection I noticed various little contraptions that she had built, and I was ‘hearty in my approbation and lavish in my praise’. I recommended certain feeds and certain temperatures; and asked her advice on several points; and soon we were having a good time swapping experiences.

“Presently, she remarked that some of her neighbours had put electric lights in their hen-houses and they claimed they had got excellent results. She wanted my honest opinion as to whether or not it would pay her to do the same thing….

“Two weeks later, Mrs. Druckenbrod’s Dominick hens were clucking and scratching contentedly in the encouraging glow of electric lights. I had my order; she was getting more eggs; everyone was satisfied; everyone had gained.

“But—and this is the point of the story—I should never have sold electricity to this Pennsylvania Dutch farm-wife, if I had not first let her talk herself into it!

“Such people can’t be sold. You have to let them buy.”


A large advertisement appeared recently on the financial page of the New York Herald Tribune calling for a man with unusual ability and experience. Charles T. Cubellis answered the advertisement, sending his reply to a box number. A few days later, he was invited by letter to call for an interview. Before he called, he spent hours in Wall Street finding out everything possible about the man who had founded the business. During the interview, he remarked: “I should be mighty proud to be associated with an organization with a record like yours. I understand you started twenty-eight years ago with nothing but desk room and one stenographer. Is that true?”

Almost every successful man likes to reminisce about his early struggles. This man was no exception. He talked for a long time about how he had started with four hundred and fifty dollars in cash and an original idea. He told how he had fought against discouragement and battled against ridicule, working Sundays and holidays, twelve to sixteen hours a day; how he had finally won against all odds until now the biggest men in Wall Street were coming to him for information and guidance. He was proud of such a record.

He had a right to be, and he had a splendid time telling about it. Finally, he questioned Mr. Cubellis briefly about his experience, then called in one of his vice-presidents and said : “I think this is the man we are looking for.”

Mr. Cubellis had taken the trouble to find out about the accomplishments of his prospective employer. He showed an interest in the other man and his problems, He encouraged the other man to do most of the talking—and made a favourable impression.

The truth is that even our friends would far rather talk to us about their achievements than listen to us boast about ours.

La Rochefoucauld, the French philosopher, said: “If you want enemies, excel your friends; but if you want friends, let your friends excel you.”

Why is that true? Because when our friends excel us, that gives them a feeling of importance; but when we excel them, that gives them a feeling of inferiority and arouses envy and jealousy.

The Germans have a proverb: “Die reinste Freude ist die Schadenfreude”, which, being interpreted, goes something like this: “The purest joy is the malicious joy we take in the misfortunes of those we have envied.” Or, to put it another way: “The purest joy is the joy we take in other people’s troubles.”

Yes, some of your friends probably get more satisfaction out of your troubles than out of your triumphs.

So, let’s minimize our achievements. Let’s be modest. That always makes a hit. Irvin Cobb had the right technique. A lawyer once said to Cobb on the witness stand : “I understand, Mr. Cobb, that you are one of the most famous writers in America, Is that correct?”

“I have probably been more fortunate than I deserve,” Cobb replied.

We ought to be modest, for neither you nor I amount to much. Both of us will pass on and be completely forgotten a century from now. Life is too short to bore other people with talk of our petty accomplishments. Let’s encourage them to talk instead. Come to think about it, you haven’t much to brag about anyhow. Do you know what keeps you from becoming an idiot? Not much. Only a nickel’s worth of iodine in your thyroid glands. If a physician were ‘to open the thyroid gland in your neck and take out a little iodine, you would become an idiot. A little iodine that can be bought at a corner drugstore for five cents is all that stands between you and an institution for the mentally ill. A nickel’s worth of iodine! That isn’t much to be boasting about, is it?


So, if we want to win people to our way of thinking, Rule 6 is: