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Troubled Water

Michael Flack, 1:46 am ET

I RECENTLY MADE a good decision, all thanks to director John Frankenheimer’s penultimate film, Ronin. In it, Robert De Niro plays a mercenary who, early in the movie, refuses to enter the roadway under Paris’s Pont Alexandre III because he’s wary of getting caught in an ambush. It’s a decision that saves his life and that of his colleagues. When he’s later asked about the decision, he replies, “Whenever there is any doubt, there is no doubt.”

A few months back, my wife received a postcard offering a free set of steak knives or a 40-piece socket tool set. As my wife really likes steak, she called the number on the postcard and set up an appointment with a salesman from EcoWater Systems, a water-softening industry leader “with game-changing innovations,” who would give her the knives after we listened to his sales pitch.

A few weeks later found Sam standing in our kitchen testing our water for hardness and asking us innumerable questions about our clothing, cleaning and coffee needs. After about 15 minutes, my wife broke into his spiel and asked him if he “could cut to the chase.” He replied that he couldn’t and, over the next 45 minutes, explained how a whole house water-softening system could make our clothes last longer, our house cleaner and our coffee taste better.

And we could have all this for only $115 a month—for the next six years. Now, I was concerned about the hardness in our water causing future plumbing issues, plus the other benefits sounded nice. My wife appeared excited about a future filled with less lint in the dryer, better tasting water and healthier, softer skin. Still, $8,280 seemed a bit steep.

But what did I know about the chemistry of tap water? I started to get a little concerned about making the wrong decision. Then Sam said the magic words that made all my worries go away: “You have to make a decision right now… as soon as I leave, the offer ends.”

I immediately visualized De Niro drawing his Colt .45 semi-automatic and shooting the sniper hiding under the bridge—who was about to shoot his colleagues—and thought, “Whenever there is any doubt, there is no doubt.”

I immediately asked Sam, “So… where are my steak knives?”

I knew I might be on to something when Sam said the offer would actually be good until later that day—right up until he “submitted the time sheet to my supervisor.” I then reinquired about my knives, adding, “How many of these deals do you actually close?” When he replied “90%,” I knew he was full of it and I just wanted it to be over.

When Sam left, I was without soft water or steak knives, as he was out of the latter. All he had left was the 40-piece socket set. My wife was relieved I didn’t bite, and later mentioned that I was way too smart to fall for Sam’s schtick. I thought she might be laying it on a little thick, but then figured she might be right. As De Niro said in The King of Comedy, it’s “better to be king for a night than schmuck for a lifetime.”

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Tooney
Tooney
8 days ago

Whether I agree or not, a Michael Flack post with its reader comments is always entertaining time well spent.

mjflack
mjflack
5 days ago
Reply to  Tooney

Tooney, appreciate the kind words.

Jamie
Jamie
10 days ago

“Whenever there is any doubt, there is no doubt.” Dumb advice, in my opinion. If we are even the tiniest bit honest with ourselves, there should always be some doubt. Certainty is the common ingredient in every recipe for failure. I don’t care if you are buying illegal guns (like the team in Ronin) or investing, or making almost any other tough decision. There is always uncertainty, so there should also be some degree of doubt. How long of a list of black swan events do you need to convince you?

mjflack
mjflack
10 days ago
Reply to  Jamie

Jamie, so I should have had the water softening system installed?

Jamie
Jamie
9 days ago
Reply to  mjflack

Not at all. I agree completely with your decision (I didn’t intend to suggest otherwise). It’s the movie quote that I think conveys a mistake. Certainty is very rare (doubt is almost always present), so you have to use some other metric(s) to guide the decision. In this case, you calculated the total cost and concluded that it is very unlikely that the benefits of the water softening system is worth $8,280. I agree with your conclusion. Yet, you also concede some concerns that hard water might end up causing plumbing and/or laundry problems so you are left with some amount of doubt no mater what you decide (which I guess is the point I was trying to make).

Carl Book
Carl Book
8 days ago
Reply to  Jamie

When told the deal is only good for today, I am always certain it is best for me to walk away. With investments, I think the key is when it appears to be too good to be true. Anytime I have bought one of those, it has turned out to be untrue.

AnthonyClan
AnthonyClan
8 days ago
Reply to  Carl Book

That’s the lesson – a good deal for both parties rarely has an immediate deadline.

Susan Flack
Susan Flack
10 days ago

I admire your style.

Jonathan Clements
Admin
Jonathan Clements
10 days ago
Reply to  Susan Flack

I fear this isn’t an entirely disinterested assessment.

Newsboy
Newsboy
10 days ago

Memories of that infamous sales promotion from the movie Glenngary Glen Ross came to mind as I read this…1st prize is a new Cadillac Eldorado – 2nd prize is set of steak knives… 3rd prize…you’re fired.

Last edited 10 days ago by Newsboy
OldITGuy
OldITGuy
11 days ago

Nice reminder of a rule-of-thumb I learned a long time ago: No one “coming to your door for free” is there with a “good deal you can’t beat” with a little research (assuming the product is even something you need).

Rick Connor
Rick Connor
11 days ago

Mike, thanks for the great advice. Had I watched that movie a while ago I might not have ended up with a timeshare in Hawaii. Great story.

mjflack
mjflack
10 days ago
Reply to  Rick Connor

Rick Connor, if you need to sell it, I recommend you knock on Jamie’s door.

Jamie
Jamie
9 days ago
Reply to  mjflack

I’ll take 2 – no doubt about it!

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