Not long ago, I spent several months as a business-to-business telemarketer. It was, by far, the most challenging – and in a way the most empowering – job I ever had. Sales doesn’t come naturally to me, but it was a skill I wanted to cultivate. But as with my ability to grow plants (I think about them and they die), my sales skills looked a little bit scraggly by the time another – more well-suited – opportunity came along.
But during those few months, I couldn’t help noticing how telemarketing is a lot like disability advocacy, and in some unexpected ways.
Read your Audience
When you make a sales call – any kind of sales call – it’s not enough to be friendly. In fact, if you’re too friendly, you can come across as sleazy or a pushover. Conversely, you can’t be too aggressive, because pushiness can be spotted a mile away. No one will buy your product or book an appointment with your service if you make them feel like you’re only in it for the sale. Even slight word changes can be the difference between making that sale and pushing a prospective buyer away.
Similarly, there are so many ways to do disability activism, some more successful than others. The “friendly educator” may get some individual positive results by remaining peaceful, while still feeding into the narrative of disability equating to docile compliance. But the chip-on-the-shoulder anger – over everything – can create equally damaging results, thrusting aside barriers while simultaneously alienating the very people to whom we are advocating.
Whether in sales or activism, it’s important to read an audience. Some people will respond to friendly coaxing; others do require a more forceful approach. In either arena, I have found that reading a situation will likely provide better results than a one-size-fits-all methodology.
And yet, no matter how one presents oneself, it’s important to be authentic; people can see a phony mask of sincerity or bravado a mile away, and few things shut them down more quickly.
It’s Hard, Dirty Work
When I was making sales calls, I felt a certain sense of shame surrounding the work I did to make a living. There’s a huge stigma around cold-calling unless it’s only one part of multi-faceted job duties. It’s not a warm-and-fuzzy industry, and it has been given a bad name by disreputable companies with pushy sales tactics and unethical practices (for the record, I worked for a company that strongly stressed ethical conduct). You make call after call after call, hoping to build enough trust and rapport with each contact to get that sale. If you are successful enough at it, your success can buoy you up when inevitable rejections drag you down. But your job – day after day after day – is to try and try and try again.
In a similar way, unless disability issues directly affect someone, few people seem to want to discuss activism. The main disability narrative – of recipients of charity, of helplessness, of pity – doesn’t leave much room for strong, vocal or visual opposition. And when this gets brought up, it frequently feels like we’re speaking into an echo chamber and hearing the sounds of crickets in response. Sometimes it feels very very thankless and exhausting, and many people seem to think that it’s our full-time job to educate the public on an on-call basis with no compensation – material or otherwise – for it.
You’re doing it Wrong!
There’s always a peanut gallery. It can be both a huge benefit – for encouragement and solidarity – and soul-destroying because of all the second-guessing. In sales, you’re either not pushing hard enough, not creating your own opportunities, not getting the job done. On the other hand, you’re wasting your time on prospects that are just too polite to tell you “no.” In disability spaces, I’ve seen so much finger-pointing. We’re “too pushy”, “too soft”, too understanding, or won’t just let it go, cut our losses and move on. And while I’m all for “best practices” (they’re important to provide some guidance) we all have our unique style of doing things that can still get the job done even if our colleague doesn’t do things exactly the same way. In fact, my successful sales style – and activism style – will differ from someone else’s. And I think they should; that doesn’t make any particular style wrong or bad, just different.
Some people Just Won’t “Buy it”
In sales, you can do everything right, and still your prospect isn’t interested. It’s not personal, not about you, and there’s nothing you can do about it.
Sometimes you make your “sales pitch” at inopportune moments, and sometimes – no matter how gentle you are – any pointing out of inequality or access concerns are just not ready to be received. This doesn’t mean we stop trying; it may mean we need to reflect on our strategy, ask some probing questions, or – in some situations – make an executive decision to cut our losses and move on.
But There are Those that Will
Acceptance can come from some truly unexpected places. I called one company just after they’d watched a Youtube video put together by the company I was fundraising for. They were so startled by the coincidence that they threw a huge commission my way; it was the biggest sale I ever made, and it came out of nowhere.
Sometimes, it’s easy for people with disabilities to constantly be in “fighting” mode (to maintain our right of equal access, personal autonomy, or basic human respect), and we can lose sight of the people in our lives who do “just get it”. Sometimes, they come from unexpected corners – from the teacher who asks great questions to the parent who both nurtures and empowers to the friend who knows how to do just the right things at just the right time to the stranger who asks how they can help and respects our reply. Sometimes, we write off opportunities so easily because we feel so discouraged by all the rejection and mental gymnastics just to get through the day. And yet, those moments of brilliance, of comeraderie, of success, spur us on to keep trying.
So What do we do from Here?
Even seasoned sales reps need to fine-tune their pitch to connect with prospective donors or buyers or customers. Just because something used to work doesn’t mean it will be effective next month or next year. Similarly, I do think disability activism may need a facelift as well, to allow each of us to self-advocate in the way we do best without pointing fingers at how wrong everyone else is. Sometimes aggression is necessary, and sometimes it gets in the way; sometimes we swat flies with a sledgehammer when luring them with honey would’ve been better, and sometimes we let things go that we probably shouldn’t. But the best salespeople – and the best disability activists – are always learning and questioning, fine-tuning their craft. Even though my days as a telemarketer are over, I’m still an advocate for myself if no one else. Everyone hears “no” sometimes, and, in my case, far too often it is because of my disability; but hopefully with more of those great people who do get it, we’ll soon live in a world where there will be more “yes”s than “No”s, and the “no”s are based on facts and bad timing, not negative perception.