A couple of lifetimes ago I made my living as a salesman for a power transmission systems dealer. This is a story of a somewhat challenging sales call. It was a potentially big account so I brought my boss with me -- which wound up making things a little more challenging.

This particular prospect was a middle management type for one of the big seafood processing plants in the Los Angeles area. Our discussion came around to reliability, which was understandably enough a topic of enormous importance to him and his company.

Maybe he'd had a bad day, maybe it was just his style, but at some point he began shaking his pencil in my face as a way of emphasizing his point that "These systems have to be reliable! Our downtime costs are outrageous!" and so on and so forth. I had no problem, of course, with his point; I totally understood and agreed that reliability had to be the top priority for anything my company would provide his. What I didn't care for was his blasted pencil wagged in my face, especially since I hadn't done anything to deserve this kind of crap.

At the same time, he was a potential customer (and a big one); to make matters just a bit trickier I had my boss with me, right there in the meeting. Now what? I asked myself. I really didn't want to antagonize the prospect, and I certainly didn't want my boss to make a note like "picks fights with potential customers" in my personnel file. But I just didn't see any reason for this guy to be treating me like some kind of a peon when I was in fact doing my best to figure out how to help his company accomplish something.

As sometimes happens at difficult times, inspiration struck. I leaned back, away from him, and fairly far off to the side, almost positioning myself as an outside observer watching the whole event. From this vantage point I pointed at his pencil, grinned at him just long enough to get his attention, and in a very pleasant voice asked him:

"Is that thing loaded?"

A couple seconds went by; maybe not my life but certainly my job flashed before my eyes; suddenly he broke out in a big grin. He put his pencil down and we continued our discussion.

I honestly don't remember whether we wound up selling his company anything or not but I certainly got a charge out of getting such a "real-world" result from my sense of humor.