Paula Deen and my experience with racial stereotypes in the HVAC industry

“The chickens came home to roost; that is all there is to it.” — Malcolm X

Smithfield Food drops her contract.  QVC doesn’t have any plans to have her on the air.  Neither does the Home Shopping Network.  Neither does The Food Network.  She reschedules an appearance with Matt Lauer.  Her own ham handed YouTube apologies reek of panic before being quickly deleted.  Paula Deen, a celebrity with a reported net worth of 16 million dollars and a personal brand built on thrombosis-friendly foods like “The Fat Larry” and “Deep Fried Lasagna”, implodes while her sponsors drop hurtin’ bombs all around her.  Brand experts speculate that she’ll never be the same.  From here on out Paula Deen will most likely be the Martha Stewart of butter y’all.  

Let’s not forget the fact that Paula had an affair with a married man for 10 years.  Nor should we dismiss her well-timed decision to accept a three million dollar endorsement/spokesperson agreement with Novo Nordisk immediately after admitting that she’s diabetic–shilling their diabetes medicine while scarcely improving the nutritional content of her recipes.  To paraphrase Anthony Bourdain, “I should be in the leg breaking business and then sell crutches.”  And even if recent allegations aren’t true: that her brother “Bubba” calls President Obama the “N word” or that she orchestrated a Civil War era plantation-theme wedding, or that she herself admitted to using racial slurs in the past…even if all of these things aren’t true (and they are), it’s going to be very hard for many people to trust the Paula Deen brand anymore.

In light of Paula’s nadir I’ve been thinking about the racial and social stereotypes that I’ve heard in many of my HVAC training classes.  I wish there weren’t a lot of them…but there are.  And I really wish that nice men and women hadn’t said them…but they did.  I’ve heard things like: 

“Arabs always want the lowest price.”

“I hate selling to lesbians because you never know who the man is.”

“It’s tough to sell against a Mexican who’s probably here illegally.”

“You know they’re Mormon because there are ten kids in the house and a trampoline.”

“Asians expect you to negotiate and if you don’t then you aren’t getting the sale.”

It’s always awkward when someone says something like this.  Obviously because the comment is rooted in very stupid stereotypes.  But also because, given the growing diversity in the HVAC industry, there is often a very diverse group in the room at the time.  How does an Iranian business owner feel when someone insists that “Arabs” only care about the lowest price?  How does a Chinese salesman feel when someone argues that “Asians” always expect to negotiate?  Stranger still is that the ONE comment I’ve NEVER heard is:

“I love selling to white people.  They always buy the most expensive stuff and they never beat me up on price and they’ve got amazing credit but always pay with crisp one hundred dollar bills.”

Funny thing, that.

I’ve never heard an overtly violent or nakedly hateful slur in my sales training classes.  But I’m not letting anyone off the hook for their attitudes.  A stereotype may not directly foment hateful action toward a fellow human being but it does set the stage for an “Us versus Them” engagement in which the “Them” in question is alien–outside ‘the norm’–and therefore an easy target for uninformed and narrow-minded criticism.  Which is a nice way of saying that it’s a retarded opinion given the racial and social diversity that any contemporary businessperson deals with every day.

Selling is about building trust between two dissimilar individuals.  Brand building is about creating trust between a product and a consumer.  And if consumers don’t trust a brand (and most don’t) then their first reaction is to not buy the product.  Stereotypes creep in to attitudes.  Attitudes shape actions.  Actions manifest themselves in business and at the kitchen table.  And a salesperson’s actions are the ONLY thing that consumers can use to determine whether or not they trust the salesperson and company in question.  Subtle, unspoken stereotypes become a lose-lose-lose proposition when a salesperson’s bias costs him a sale because he pre-judges the customer.  Subsequently the customer loses an opportunity to work with a (hopefully) fine organization.  Finally, the entire process corrupts the company’s brand. And word starts to spread…

It takes a tremendous, massive, spiritual effort to repair trust.  It takes time and clear, sincere, consistent actions.  Repairing trust is more than a few well-meaning words in to a video camera.  Paula Deen is wealthy.  She’ll always be able to retreat in to wealth.  But people will never trust her in the same way and she’ll know it forever.

I don’t know any salespeople who are worth 16 million dollars.  But I do know more than a few salespeople who blithely underestimate the corrosive impact of their stereotypes in terms of how people view them, how diverse customers may view them, and how they are slowly corrupting their employer’s brand of trustworthy service. 

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4 responses

  1. Amen Matt!! The one constant that I was reminded of when reading your blog was the unity within each of your racial/social examples. We must never forget that we are not just providing solutions and creating relationships with whom we are presently with, but we are planting seeds and awareness for all that our clients come in contact with in the future!!
    Thanks again Matt….keep ’em coming!!

  2. Rather tangled web Miss Paula has woven. Interesting, insightful perspective Matt. I need to read your blogs more often. –Marilyn

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