On my way home from dance last week, at the crosswalk on 5th Ave and 9th Street, I noticed a guy walking slowly in front of me. He was weaving a little as people do when they’re texting, except he was looking down at a piece of paper and then back up at the street sign.
He turned around, right in my path, and stopped me just like I knew he would.
In New York, people always stop you for directions when you’re wearing workout clothes.
It makes sense. If you’re on your way to or from a workout, you’re probably a local.
(A note: try and stop someone who’s already sweaty and sipping a juice, not someone walking briskly. No one wants to stop for you when they’re on their way to a class and trying to get a good spot.)
“Excuse me,” the guy said, looking up from his piece of paper. “Do you know of a church around here that gives out food? I’ve got to get some food for my kids.”
As a matter of fact, I did. We were right by it. “There’s one I’ve seen giving out food right over there,” I said pointing in the direction of the big, beautiful church on 5th. It’s an architectural landmark on my corner.
“First Presbyterian?” he asked.
“Yes, exactly.” I was proud for knowing my ‘hood. And my churches. And my food banks! It made me feel pro-social just to know where they are. I should volunteer, I thought.
“Yeah,” he shook his head. “I checked there, they only give out food in the morning. I missed it. I’ve checked all these places” — showing me a whole list of churches and free food pantries with their addresses on his piece of paper — “and I missed all the times. But I’ve gotta get food for my kids today.”
What about the Farmer’s Market at Union Square, I suggested. It was late afternoon, right when they might be getting rid of unsold produce.
He’d tried there already. “They give it all to City Harvest.”
This guy had done his homework. I took out my wallet.
Of course, all I had were 20s, which made me feel rich and guilty in itself.
I’d been taking mental notes on his missing teeth and wondered if this was all a “caper” — that’s what they called these cons on The Wire, capers — to get drug money. But that thought made me feel even more West-Village-white-lady-in-lycra rich and guilty, so I pulled out a 20 and handed it to him, thinking, I’ll be fine without the 20. Even if there are no kids and it’s just for his own food. Or even if it’s just for drugs. You do what you’ve got to do. But I hope it’s for food for his kids.
I felt part like a decent person, part like a possible fool but so what, and part like a tool for being so self-congratulatory about giving away 20 bucks.
Five days later, I’m on my way to dance class, walking a few blocks east on Broadway.
Just below Grace Church, a guy’s in my way on the sidewalk, looking down. I try to dart around him, and see he’s looking at a piece of paper…with a list. He looks up at me, now walking in step with me, and reveals that big, toothless gap as he says, “Excuse me –“
I look right at him with my best, “Really?” face.
He makes a U and goes the other way. Never mind.
I knew it! This guy hangs out near churches, stops people who’ll point him to those churches and feel good that they at least tried to help. I already knew it might be a scam — the premise of it, anyway: that he’s been trying all these places, spent all day crossing them off his list — and so what if it is, yadda yadda, But now that I knew for sure I’d been taken, I felt like a jerk.
Mostly because he didn’t recognize me. All he saw was a potential sucker in workout clothes.
(Also because he didn’t really scam me — let’s face it, I scammed myself. The guy didn’t ask me for a dime.)
Couple of business lessons here:
1) Make people feel helpful.
This guy’s ruse is smart. Not only does it build trust by making it look like he’s done all this boots-on-the-ground research; it gets people wanting to give him money without him even asking for money. How? He makes them feel involved and helpful. When they point him to a church, and give him suggestions, it confirms their belief, “I’m a helpful person.” And then they’re inspired to be more helpful, by opening the ol’ wallet.
Here’s what you can do in your own marketing:
Ask your audience for things that are easy to give: advice, input, encouragement, sharing a post, or giving to a charity you like.
2) Always sell us what we already bought.
Here’s the one thing this guy’s strategy is missing, that could’ve made it so much better. You know how after you buy a pair of shoes, ads keep showing up for those same shoes on Facebook? And you click on them even though you already bought, just to remember how great they are? Or, even after a vacation, when you see the hotel you stayed in featured in Conde Nast Traveler and it makes you think, “That was the best vacation ever”?
We want confirmation that we love what we paid for. It makes us buy more.
If this guy had recognized me and said, “Hey, it’s you! Thanks so much for helping out the other day, it made a big difference,” I probably would’ve thought, “Best 20 bucks I’ve spent” and pulled out my wallet again.
Instead, I was like, “OK, I was a jerk last time you pulled your con. Not this time. Especially since you don’t even remember me.”
Here’s what you can do in your own marketing:
Make people feel remembered. Remind them how smart their purchase from you was. Even with your opt-in freebies, you should send an email to tell them why that pdf or video or discount they signed up for is so useful and effective. They’ll be more likely to open it up and use it and value it.
3) They always try me twice.
This same week, at the Farmer’s Market, one of those Lubavich (ultra-religious, outreach-y ) Hassidic Jewish women in a wig and frumpy-length black clothes wandered up to me when I was tasting jam samples and said, “Excuse me, are you Jewish?” I said no. I am, but you never tell these people (they’re from a syes, or they try to pull you over to their van and convince you to be way, way, way MORE Jewish. Find God on the High Holidays, wear a wig, have 10 children! No thanks. I find God every day, in free jam samples — especially the strawberry rhubarb (and yes, I do occasionally buy, and I have a full punch card to prove it). She wandered away looking for someone else.
Not three minutes later, a few stands down where I was buying tomatoes, she came up to me again. “Excuse me, are you Jewish?” I gave her that face: Really?
How is this a business lesson? Only for me. There’s a pattern here. I have a forgettable face, which is liberating because it means that when I go back to the same stand for more samples, they see me as a whole new person — not some schnorrer who’s trying to make a whole lunch of free cut-up nectarine pieces, free fried shishito peppers, and free whatever-else-you-can-stab-with-a -toothpick. More samples for me!
What’s your takeaway? Would you feel scammed by this guy?
Put lesson #1 into effect and prove to yourself that you’re an awesome person, by leaving a comment!
Helaine Bunck says
Very good blog. Thanks for such a valuable content.
It’s all in the comments, they add so much more to the already wonderful, truth bomb-ful, fun and valuable blogs/emails…learning each sentence, getting my copy writing ninja skills sharpened for some serious action! Story and lessons were great, His scam was great, your donation was great but the wonderful part was you being asked if you were Jewish…why would someone ask that?!?!?!?!
You were scammed for $20. A drag, but not that much of a big deal. It’s not great that he is scamming people, but there might be some very good reasons for this-survival! You don’t know his story or what he has been through. I’m retired now but worked with individuals that struggle with homelessness, mental health challenges and addiction issues for many decades. No one chooses this life. Anytime a client told me their story, I completely understood why they were in the situation they were in.
“his junkie bone structure” Junkie is not a nice word in any context.
Laura Belgray says
Thank you for pointing it out. You’re right. Edited.
I actually laughed out loud reading this email. Thank you for the very helpful reminder to treat my email list like they aren’t brand spankin’ new to me in every email.
As always, awesome, laugh out loud copy.
Wow! What a nutrition bomb of marketing goodness. I began reading the Email (because I really do read all of them, — even the repeats) and wasn’t sure if I was ready to fully relate or engage. But Lo ‘n Behold, after the encounter with Mr. ‘I missed all the good stuff in life’ I was right there there feeling like I got ‘Got’ for a dub ($20). My emotional state was now primed for the lesson on how to properly follow up with customers. A free sample size master class in story based marketing.
I could throw around words like ‘Genius’, and ‘Artist’, and ‘Wonderous Woman of Copy Writing ‘, but I don’t want to sound too much like those voices she hears all the time in her daydreams.
Any Shrimp, Thank You for the great post and lesson.
Peace Love Unity and Having Big Fun
Dr David Arelette says
Years ago I was getting out of my car to get to a MBA class, Asian guy said needed to get home by train but had lost his wallet when he’d left it when calling his pregnant wife at a pay phone, she was at home about 40 kms away, I said the train people will give you a pay later ticket, he said they had stopped doing that. I said I have no way to help you, he said give me your business card and I will post you $10 for $5 for me next week. Like Laura I was in a hurry and wanted to heip him so handed over $5. No money ever came. Next semester, parked in same street, he came along, same case, he did not remember me (far less attractive than Laura). I played thru his list of issues, then said I was just on my way to sit on the bench of the local Magistrates Court and his face looked familiar, so if came with me, I could get him $10 from the Court Funds and the local police could drive him to the station. he lost interest rapidly. Rule One – assume the world are all scammers, never offer money, offer something delayed, the real ones will wait.
Jamee @ FranklyJamee.com says
The point you made about having a forgettable face made my jaw drop. I’ve long since believed I’m forgettable. Folks don’t remember me either. Although I don’t think I’ll forget you. Best emails ever. Maybe the forgettables stick together. Thank you for the advice!
Kellie Sue says
Hi Laura! Ok — I love reading your stuff IN my email body when I’m on my phone. Faster. Simpler. Less waiting and clicking, and loading.
I love reading your blog posts on your site when I’m on my Mac at home.
I love reading your blog posts, because I dig your voice, what you have to say, and a lot of the time, I’m thinking similar versions (mostly your non/anti pc posts) of the same thing, but I don’t have the ovaries to spit it out and just say it.
And, thank you for continuing to write your posts and including me in your secret club FOR FREE.
Peter Fritz says
FINALLY, I got around to reading this! I must have an equally forgettable noggin because a man gave me his amazing performance two days in a row.
“I felt part like a decent person, part like a possible fool but so what, and part like a tool for being so self-congratulatory about giving away 20 bucks.” When I read this, I thought, shit, that’s EXACTLY how I feel every time I do this!
But these days, I’ve settled into the idea that I might be getting scammed or I might not, and being okay with that. If someone’s prepared to do their homework, rehearse, and then debase themselves in public for twenty bucks, I’ll pay.
Jacquie McArdle says
I love how you made this into a business lesson. You did the right thing. He needed that twenty. Stay away from those free jam samples in Union Square…You have no idea who else dipped into them before you… just sayin’
I think I’ve run in to this same guy–different city. Boy, he gets around! 😉
It’s always that same, universal line, “it’s for my kids!”
1) You do not have a forgettable face.
2) The Lubavitch lady should have said, “Don’t gimme that. Of course you’re Jewish.”
3. My motto is, “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on you again.”
Gregg Sugerman says
Look at it this way, you got a great blog post for $20. Sign me up for that kind of deal all…day…long….
Oh, and hands down: a) Like when I write the whole blog in an email
P..S are you Jewish? are you Jewish? I always say no too, but then I start feeling like if there IS an afterlife, am I going to lose points and not get a nice room and/or free drinks because I denied my religion? It all seems so biblical…or like an REM song.
And I’ve never known what goes on in those vans. They say you get a mitzvah, but I think it’s more like they feed you mind altering matzoh and before you know it I’m wearing thick ankle length wool coats in August…
Zofie Lloyd-Kucia says
Loved reading this Laura and thanks for the tips!
Katherine Kazak says
Hi Laura! I love that your humorous and interesting posts. And it’s very convenient to be able to read a whole thing in the email and not to be redirected.
Paula Doherty says
I think this was one of your best stories, expertly tied into your message. Loved it. I never would have given him a $20 because who carries cash anymore? Bed, Bath and Beyond coupons, yes.
Great question about email vs blog full read, as I am finally about to publish my first newsletter (email) linked to my blog (free content). Personally, if I’m in email, I’d rather just sit and chow it all down there. I know from B-School we’re supposed to do all thes things to get clicks and keep driving people to our sites, but I’m getting really tired of pop-ups when I’m trying to look or read. It makes me DIS-like the site. It distracts from the message. But for you I will click down to the last button.
Anna Tsui says
Great lessons here.
I wouldn’t call the homeless guy a scam artist. Often we feel like homeless people should look a certain way or even beg for money in a certain way but at the end of the day they are really looking for $$$ to survive, whatever that means to them.
I think it’s great you opening up for you heart and your wallet. Just because he has a good system for getting donations doesn’t mean you’re a sucker.
Having a background in economics and working with the homeless I actually really enjoyed this story <3
I love reading these emails in my 5 minutes of “I’m supposed to be sending an email, not reading one” time.
I read rhe email and rarely come to the actual blog. And I also love how i legit feel like I’m getting an email from a friend (with mad funny writing skills) when i see your emails. Props.