The screen glared back at me like my seventh grade schoolteacher after she caught me turning around in class. I fumbled for my morning cup of coffee, making a feeble attempt at getting an early morning buzz. Outside, the rain drizzled in the warm spring weather, putting me into a sort of lazy dreaminess. Anyone that’s ever been in sales, can probably relate to the ‘slump’—that stretch when you begin questioning everything you thought you ever knew about selling. Well, I was in the midst of one such slump. I was in the midst of a stretch where newbies were selling to customers who were ‘just looking’ while I couldn't sell a five-time repeat customer who came in by appointment with a cash in hand. I was mulling in my misery, listening to the little demon on my shoulder telling me that I was worthless, a nobody, and I would be better off working in the detail department. At least there I could close something, even if it was just the trunk of a car after I finished vacuuming it.
One month earlier, I had been salesman of the month. I had been a hero, head and shoulders above the pack of some 25 salespeople at our store. Now, one month later, I was no more than a green pea. Yesterday was gone. Feast or Famine. Hero to Zero. It felt good to wallow in my own pity.
I was right in the middle of daydreaming about my imaginary log cabin nestled in some tall pines in the heart of the woods—a more distant dream now that I couldn’t sell cars, and with the rain coming down, I could almost see myself gathering my fishing pole and some night crawlers for a day at the lake, right next to ‘said’ cabin.
My daydreaming was rudely interrupted by the ringing of my cell phone.
I glanced at the screen. “Good morning, Cindy. How are you this morning?”
“It’s been a long morning. My husband is at the hospital in critical condition.”
My dark little office in a back corner of the dealership slowly came into focus as Cindy’s story unfolded. “The doctors aren't sure if he will survive. I just wanted to call and let you know, since you sold us the car.”
My mind flashed back to three years earlier on a morning not unlike this one. At the time, I was pretty new in the car business. A middle-aged couple pulled up, cracked the window of their car, and asked if I still had the 2004 Chevy Impala they had seen online. I pulled the wrinkled sheet of paper that had our used cars from my back pocket and scanned it, confirming that the Impala was indeed, still available. The couple exchanged glances, no doubt trying to decide if I am going to be their salesperson, or if they should go on down the street to the next dealership and look at some of the other cars they had scribbled down on their list.
Finally, the man said, “This is our first stop, but we gotta start somewhere. Got any coffee inside?”
The man’s name was Richard, and I did have coffee inside, and thus, a friendship was born. As we sat in my office discussing the difficult winters in mid-Missouri, the conversation gradually came back around to car shopping. Having built up a decent amount of trust, I asked the couple the dreaded question—dreaded because if they had their heart set on the Impala, I might lose them. “Why do you want a seven year old Impala with over one hundred thousand miles on it anyhow? Is it a payment thing, or are you partial to Chevys?”
The question landed as softly as could be expected. Richard informed me that he didn’t much care about the manufacturer, and Cindy, his wife, suggested that it was more about monthly payments, and based on the price of the Impala, it probably gave them the best chance at hitting that payment.
I was a little nervous at the thought of suggesting a vehicle they hadn't come in to see. There is a fine line between switching a customer to what you know is a better choice for them, versus coming across as being pushy. But after asking a few more questions, we discovered that we could get them a much newer Toyota Corolla, with half the miles, stretch their payments out a little longer, and still keep it within their budget. The decision was a done deal when I showed them the crumple zones that come standard in a 2010 Toyota Corolla, along with enough airbags to create a mattress of sorts, all safety features not found in a car six years older. Richard and Cindy took delivery of the Corolla and drove off, happy customers. The couple had stopped in a few times over the years, mostly for coffee, and to catch up. Now, Cindy was calling me to inform me that her husband was in a struggle for his life.
One week later
Cindy came into my office with tears streaming down her face. In that moment the only two people in the world were just her and I.
“Cyndy, what is wrong?” I asked, fearing the worst.
“Mose, we have known each other for some years, right?”
“Yes Cyndi, we have,” I said, bracing myself for the news.
“Well, Richard is going to make it,” Cindy said. “And I just wanted to stop by and tell you that you are a very large reason why?”
“I… I don’t understand,” I managed to stammer.
As Cindy told the story, I found myself completely humbled by her generosity. Richard, it turned out, had met another vehicle who had crossed the center line. The two vehicles collided with a head-on crash that exceeded a total of 110 mph. In the blink of an eye one life was lost while the other was spared. The newer car, with the safety features I had firmly suggested for them, was the only reason her husband’s life had been spared. Of this, Cindy was one-hundred percent confident.
For me, the rest of the day was a blur. Although I was not ready to accept responsibility for a life and death situation, I could not help but go back into the farthest depths of my memory and question if I had ever sold an unsafe car to a customer, and if, in doing so, was I than also responsible for the lives of those people?
Cyndy's words, raw with emotion, had awoken me out of my slump. For the first time in my life, I fully grasped the meaning of the word ‘accountability’. Although I was unable to repeat as salesman of the month, it forced me out of my self-pitying state. More importantly, I became aware that there are consequences for actions.
As Cyndy drove off in her brand new Corolla, I closed my eyes and breathed a prayer of thankfulness that this time fate had dealt the cards right. But how easily could it have dealt a completely different hand...