It all started with “do you want to win a free car?”
Several years ago when I was in college studying psychology, I went to SM Megamall in Metro Manila, Philippines to attend a convention. It was around 6pm when it happened. While walking at the top floors of the mall where art galleries, travel agencies, and convention centers are located, I happened to pass by a large booth surrounded by a group of people in business attire. One portly woman who looked to be in her 30s broke off from the group to approach me and asked if I wanted to win a free car.
I was certainly interested, yet I knew enough not to trust them completely. While it wasn’t a scam or anything, I had no idea I was about to walk into one of the worst sales strategies that I have ever experienced yet.
The Worst Sales Strategy I’ve Ever Experienced
While asking me to write my contact details on her clipboard, she informed me that joining the car raffle was free. It seemed like the usual mailing list promotion then.
As soon as I’ve written my contact details, she led me to her company’s office a few meters away. The place was well decorated and clean with glass walls, white marble flooring, and a facade with their company’s name on it written in polished bronze. Typical of high-end companies. I was unfamiliar with their company name so I didn’t know what they were about. In any case, there were tarpaulins and TV screens showing the pictures of previous “winners” of the car raffles. I didn’t believe it though, but I was still curious as to what this whole thing was about.
Inside the lobby, the lady turned me over to the friendly receptionist who asked for some information. After that, she turned me over to the next representative and the one who greeted me next was a rather attractive lady in her late 20s. I remember she had long hair, nice makeup, and she was unusually friendly.
I was still wondering what they could want from me. I mean, they won’t let random people win cars for nothing right? In any case, the pretty lady introduced herself as a “financial advisor”. I just finished reading personal finance and investing books like Rich Dad, Poor Dad, The Boglehead’s Guide to Investing, and One Up on Wall Street then so I mentioned that I was saving up to start investing in some mutual funds (index funds to be specific).
She looked at me with a blank stare that indicated she had no idea what I was talking about. I couldn’t believe it. A “financial advisor” who didn’t know about mutual funds? Was she really a financial advisor? That was the first red flag.
In any case, she asked me several friendly questions and she kept complimenting me on random stuff. She was, to put it simply, “flirty”. For a formal business setting and meeting a potential client, that seemed very inappropriate. Another red flag.
Further into the office
Just behind the lobby was their main conference hall. It was a large, well-lit room with marble flooring and several dozen polished steel tables with two or three chairs each. There was a counter off to the side, and at the back were doors leading to much smaller offices that were most likely employees only.
There were others there with us. Aside from a couple of groups of employees chatting by themselves, there were also about two other people there, most likely potential clients like me, who were each speaking to their assigned representatives.
The lady who was with me then led me to a wall with some large portraits on display. One was a picture of their founder, another had a large building on it which was allegedly their head office, and a few more that I don’t remember. The lady then started talking about the history of the company, how old it was, how much profit it makes, and how stable it is.
I had no idea why she needed to tell me all that.
Do you have at least P10,000 ($200) in the bank?
After the presentation, she then told me that to qualify for the raffle, I needed to have at least P10,000 (around $200 at the time) in the bank. I did have enough. She then led me to the banking counter to the side and told me they simply needed to confirm it through their secure banking system.
I thought it might be a scam and they might take some money (I checked a few days later and nothing was lost), but I decided to push through with it since I could always file a dispute or complaint later.
Sure enough, their machine was able to verify the amount of money I had, and I had more than enough. Remember that, back then, I was saving up to invest in an index fund… and to buy a second-hand PS3 which cost P6,500 at that time.
At that point, I still didn’t know why they had to do all that to check if I qualified for the raffle. Well, it became apparent a few minutes later.
What the Company was about…
After the bank balance check, the lady and I took a seat on one of the nearby tables. She then delivered a quick presentation about how compound interest works and how much a certain investment could grow over time, something that’s already been drilled into me by several personal finance books.
After that presentation, she finally revealed what her company was about. They offer investment-linked insurance plans. Basically, when I buy their insurance, a part of it gets invested in a fund that can earn a “whopping” FOR PERCENT PER YEAR. They bragged that it’s at least four to eight times BIGGER than what most banks’ savings accounts offer.
…I was not impressed.
I’ve done my research and stocks or equity investments (like that index fund I was saving up for) can earn somewhere around 8-12% per annum. That 4% was simply no good, in my opinion.
Upon checking the terms and conditions of the plan, I decided it simply wasn’t right for me then. The index fund takes priority. And that second-hand PS3.
It all made sense…
I suddenly remembered the way she introduced herself as a “financial advisor” and how she didn’t know what mutual funds were. She wasn’t really a financial advisor, she was a SALESLADY.
Also, remember how I mentioned that I was a psychology student back in college. The thing is, a part of our curriculum’s lessons included the psychology of SALES (it was a part of cognitive psychology class, if I remember correctly). The lesson covered sales techniques like foot-in-the-door, highball/lowball negotiation, sunk-cost fallacies, and many more. Due to how our brains are wired, many of them still work even if you know about them.
Yes, Yes… No.
I also remember her using the yes-set close. She asked one question whose obvious answer was “yes” (something like “is being protected from emergencies good?”). Then she asked a second question that had another obvious “yes” answer (something like “do you want to earn more money from your savings?”). The third question confirmed the benefits of the first two and asked if I wanted to get them by buying the insurance plan.
I said no.
While she kept explaining the plan and its benefits, I kept refusing since I simply don’t want it. I had a better investment in mind. Even when she offered the lowest and cheapest plan they had which cost around P3,500 ($70), I still refused even though I seriously considered getting it.
While I was still trying to be cordial and friendly, I could tell the lady was getting exasperated. She was no longer asking friendly questions and giggling at my answers. She was all business now.
She tried the yes-set close technique one final time. For the first question, I answered “yes.” The second question, I also answered “yes”. On the third question where she asked me if I’ll buy the policy, I said “No.”
Like glass shattering…
I can never forget that moment.
She was still smiling, but her face twitched.
Imagine someone who’s clearly annoyed or impatient, but is still trying to be friendly or optimistic. You can imagine them smiling right? Now imagine the point where they finally snap and get angry enough to actually try hurting someone. Can you picture how their lips would twitch and how they grit their teeth while smiling? That was exactly what I saw. Anger, all because I didn’t want to buy the insurance plan she offered.
At that moment, the whole room grew cold. The emptiness and silence of the office was palpable. I was trying to be friendly and courteous the whole time I was there and I was seriously considering their offer, but at that point all friendliness and camaraderie between us shattered like glass.
The lady was silent for a few moments. Then she called her senior for help.
A gray-haired man with a beard and moustache approached. The man, who looked like he was in his 50s, pulled up a seat, plopped down on it as if he owned the place, and joined the two of us at the table. Unlike the lady who spoke courteously in both English and Tagalog, this one only spoke in rough Tagalog. With his gruff voice and forceful demeanor, I could tell he was a “hardball” type of salesman.
Imagine a manager called to deal with an annoying problem and you can picture how that man looked. I remember he first asked the lady if she gave the full presentation from start to finish, if my bank balance qualified, and if she fully explained the policies to me. She confirmed that she did.
He then asked the same yes-set questions. I gave two yes answers, and a firm NO to the offer. He seemed to understand what kind of “prospect” I was.
With everything that had happened until that point, I was definitely not going to accept their offer and there was nothing they could do to convince me otherwise. The man let out a sigh and he pushed even harder. He said since I had enough in the bank, it’s certainly a good idea for me to invest it with them because of all the benefits I’ll receive.
Now, I can’t forget this next part of his speech.
He said that if I was to walk around in the mall and break P10,000 ($200) worth of merchandise, I’ll lose the money anyway by paying for it.
I jokingly said “I’d run before anyone saw it.”
They didn’t laugh.
A few seconds later, I thought of the fallacy of that argument. Sure, I had enough to pay in case I break something, but was I actually gonna break something that day? Of course not. I kept it to myself.
Next, he told me that this was my only chance to accept the investment. If I leave now, then even if I came back later and waved hundreds of thousands of pesos at them they won’t ever let me in. That got me thinking. I considered their offer again, but I still decided against it even though I might regret passing over that opportunity.
THEN I realized something…
What they were doing was similar to a shop permanently banning any customer who came in without buying anything. That’s bad business. If they treated ALL their potential customers that way, they’ll quickly go bankrupt. It just didn’t make sense.
I realized they were LYING.
Now I was mad.
To be fair, their sales strategy was good. From the way they lured me in with the “win a free car” offer, to the small requests (foot-in-the-door), from establishing rapport (the lady’s initial friendliness), to the comprehensive explanation of their policies’ benefits and the yes-set close attempt, it was good.
But when they lied to me like that with the “false scarcity” sales technique (similar to “limited time only” sales and “last 10 in stock” announcements when they really had thousands), they went way too far. That friendly and flirty interaction with that saleslady earlier? I’ve confirmed that it was all just an act and it felt VERY insulting. There’s a reason why integrity is an ingredient of success.
I wanted to leave, but it didn’t seem like they’d let me until they get my money.
I sat there quietly and looked around the room. I’ve been in some potentially dangerous situations before in the streets of Manila, and I was considering the worst possible scenario. The room was empty except for a few other employees. The old man’s “what if you accidentally break something in the mall” comment now sounded like a threat. Were they going to break something in the mall, blame it on me, and make me pay? Or will they do something worse while they had me cornered in that secluded office?
I won’t let that happen. Not without a fight.
A few moments passed and I believe the two salespeople in front of me sensed that I was uneasy. Since their sales strategy was going nowhere, they finally allowed me to leave.
I met the receptionist again at the lobby and she was still as jolly as when I met her earlier. She was oblivious to what happened inside. She then led me to a large touch-screen TV with the free car raffle. There was a number on top and a set of spinning numbers at the bottom. I had to match them all in order to win.
I knew it was bullshit so I simply pressed the buttons to get it over with. As if they’d give me the one-in-a-billion chance of winning, if there even is a chance. The numbers didn’t match of course, and they were finally done with me. I was finally able to leave.
It was already past 9pm at that point and the mall was already closing. I left the building and took the train home. I never got to attend the convention that day.