Archive for the ‘ Sales Tales 6: Lessons in Franglais ’ Category

Or don’t believe everything you read or hear, as my grandmother used to say.

We were selling car recovery equipment.  We had become the major supplier in the UK and were now looking to extend our markets into Europe.  At this moment, we were in France.

France is not an easy country to sell mechanical equipment into.  The market is split into two.  The Southerner largely do not come to Paris to buy and, conversely, the Northerners do not come South.

We had good competition in France too: Jige run by Jean Georges and the Fiaults, both Northern companies.  In addition, we had Spanish company that made simple, effective but inexpensive equipment.  To protect the guilty, let me call it Ramos; and it was run by Antonio.  As by name, he could have doubled as a Spanish waiter; but he was a pleasant, amusing fellow about 35 years old.  A lot of challenging, competitive comment would pass between us as we met at different shows.  In the end, I’m afraid, he had the last laugh.  A big laugh.

We were actively looking at a way to sell into Southern France when we heard this rumour.  There was to be one of those marvellous French Foires or Fairs in Bordeaux: ‘Foire Internationale de Bordeaux, Bordeaux.  Le plus grand rendez vous du Sud Ouest.’  It was to be held at the huge Parc des Expositions de Bordeaux Lac.  What was more the Fiault brothers would be there.  If they were there we must be on to a winner.  Bordeaux (avec les vins) would be fun too.  So we booked our stand, a cheap hotel, we loaded our demonstration vehicle and, at due date, we were off.

(A small aside here. We used to get our vehicles on loan from a large Ford dealer in the area.  We got to know the Commercial Vehicle Sales Manager there very well.  After some time he changed his job and subsequently we met up with him.  We asked him what was the big difference in his new job.  He said, I suspect half in truth, that for the first time he could now tell the truth when he met with customers!)

And so we arrived.  La Foire was amazing, thousands of people, thousands of everything. There were meats from the Ardennes, fruits from the Drome, wine from the Var.  And there stands representing the far flung colonies of French Africa: tie dyed fabrics from the Cote d’Ivoire, carvings from Senegal and so on.  There was every type of face and there was every type and colour of clothing.  There was laughing and singing. There was everything…..except. Except there wasn’t much in the way or vehicle recovery equipment there, only Fiault and Ramos.

We sat in Les Halles des Expositions for 10 days, for 10 whole days, intermittently though periods of long silence or while people sang and danced about us.  Just about no-one was interested in car recovery equipment.  Occasionally we spoke to the Fiaults, occasionally to Antonio.  Once we had lunch with Antonio and a long term woman friend.  That was about it.  Otherwise we wandered about the stands: a baguette or two with dried ham from the Ardennes; I even bought a tie-dyed cotton wall hanging of Don Quixote de la Mancha on his trusted steed, Rocinante.

Nights in Bordeaux were not good for our health either.  My work colleague, Tony, was like a ‘kid away from school’.  Everything had to be tried.  There was plenty of it.  The show ended late so we ate late.  Bordeaux wine tends to be expensive, so the cheaper end is the younger end; and the younger end, after a few long nights, starts eating holes in your stomach.

The 10 days came and went.  We hadn’t gained a single lead for a future sale.  We were lucky to sell the demonstration system cheaply off the stand at the end.  And we were both thoroughly liverish and exhausted.

On the last day, I went to one of the Fiault brothers.  Had they sold anything? NO.  Why had they come here?  Because Ramos and Antonio had come here.

So I went to see Antonio.  Had he sold anything?  No. Just about nothing.  Well, why had he come here?  He smiled.  His answer went something like this. “You see, Philippe, I have a lover here in Bordeaux.  I like her very much.  The only way I can come and spend time with her for a few days is to come to this Foire. Then my wife is happy I am away.”  It must have been the young woman he had introduced us too.

I don’t know what the sales message is that comes out of this experience and story.  It was an expensive ‘liaison’ whichever way you look at it.  Antonio was also closer to the order than we were..

My grandmother clearly knew a thing or two. I can now just about laugh about this ‘Bordeaux Episode’ in my life!









‘It could only happen to a salesman’

SALESMEN GET UP EARLY. They have to catch trains, negotiate motorways, get to meetings on time. It’s part of the daily sales task.

On this day, I was on my way to Kings Cross to catch a train.  The time was around 6.30 am, maybe 6.45.  I live in London on one of the wide, leafy, neo-Georgian streets north of Marble Arch. It was a beautiful late summer morning:  blue skies, sunny clear light. No-one about, no cars. ‘Not so bad to get up early on a morning like this’ I thought as I locked the front door.  I turned to walk down the street towards the station.  As I walked, I noticed a box van parked on the yellow line opposite the car parking bays.

The van advertised things like bread rolls and pitta bread from Park Royal.  Park Royal is just down the A40 from London and professes to a number of small bakeries. The headlights were full on. No-one in the driver’s seat.  ‘He won’t start that up in a hurry if he doesn’t get back soon,’ I thought.  But as I walked towards the van, I saw it move. ‘He must be in the back’. I walked round the back.  Surprisingly, the shutter blind was pulled down leaving only a small gap, perhaps 9 inches. I bent over and looked in.

What I saw, I have never seen before or since. It was the driver, a tall, slim, good-looking chap with dark hair.  He was crouched, reaching forward.   The thing about him was he was stark naked.  Not even socks. He also clearly didn’t need any Viagra; or he had just taken a couple of tablets. He reminded me of the Bayeux Tapestry, the scene of the returning soldier. I couldn’t see the object of his desires who was (hopefully) hidden amongst the bread trolleys.

He turned his head towards me.  ‘Your headlights are on’.  ‘Thanks mate’, he said and he gave me the thumbs up.  I continued on my way to the station.  I didn’t want to miss the train.

As walked down the pavement and away from the van, I mulled over what I had seen.  Why there? Who could the girl have been?  At least the bread trolleys seemed empty and the buns delivered!

‘It could only happen to a salesman’

I began my sales career by joining Xerox UK as a trainee salesman.  As a trainee salesman, I received the same money as a Centre Group Economist for Viyella International which was taking over much of the English textile industry at the time.

The Xerox office was in Great Portland Street, a modern 4 or 5 story building, just north and to the left of Oxford Circus.  Between Great Portland Street, and in and around Berner Street, lay the heart of London’s cut-and-make garment industry, small blocks with a myriad of fashion shops on the pavement side while behind them the infill of cut-and-make, low level sheds with sloping, black-felted roofs.

As a trainee Xerox salesman you were only allowed into the office on Friday afternoons to hand in your call reports and orders and to chat with your managers & sales colleagues.  Salesmen tend to be very good buyers.  They see the value benefit in all kind of things; so a lot of the jokey conversations was around ‘what did you buy this week’ followed by screams of laughter as the humourists pointed out the disbenefits.

So there I was in the office every Fridays afternoon, usually after 2.00pm.  With time to pass until the pubs opened, I would look across at the higher rise offices the other side of the block and look down at the sculptured effect of the shed roofs as they interwove with each other.  One day I looked across to the adjacent office buildings and` noticed something rather strange.  It was a low, narrow window with sight obscuring glass.  What was strange about it was there was a blob of purple pressed against it with what, as I focused on it, seemed to be shoulders.  Now I could see, above the colour, the longer hair of a woman.  Yes.  It must be a woman with her back pressed to the window.  There must have been a basin under the window for her to sit on.  Then, as I looked, a face appeared over her left shoulder; and, yes, the whole thing seemed to be moving up and down, not a lot but definitely moving.  It is difficult to remember how long it took until it went away – maybe 10 minutes, maybe more.

I didn’t say anything to my sales colleagues but, when I came into the office the next Friday, the same thing happened.  The blob of colour was there, sometime purple, sometimes blue.  Always about 4 o’clock. And the next Friday.  Obviously someone was collecting seigneurial rights before returning home for the weekend and the wife.

This went on for about four Fridays before I told my colleagues and, for a couple of Fridays, the office picture windows overlooking the sheds were filled with Xerox employees enjoying the break after a hard week.  Obviously people in the cutting sheds became aware of everyone looking out of our windows and they too came out onto the shed roofs to see what was going on.

I will never forget the last Friday.  It was a beautiful English day, clear, blue skies with the sun turning golden towards the later afternoon.  It looked like a scene from the Sermon on the Mount; or the Feeding of the 5000.  At 4 o’clock precisely the roofs were covered in people, hundreds of them,  looking up at the magic window.  They were dressed in vivid colours with a preponderance of black and the very white, white shirts and the white of their cutting aprons. A magnificent sight. The stars took their position. Slowly and purposefully the purple jersey and the 2 heads gathered and began to move rhythmically together. But clearly, for the face looking out the window, the colours had changed.  Instead of the sombre black roofs, there was a kaleidoscope of colour, of people laughing, pointing and talking with each other, drinking drinks and eating the odd leftover sandwich.

Then, as suddenly as it had begun, it was gone.  No more Fridays. Only the memory.  On both sides no doubt.

“It makes you want laugh…. & cry”

Selling in a foreign language is never easy, never easy when you have to feel your way through to find the words.  French is no different.  Maybe, like me, you have had French hammered into you for years.  You have an immense vocabulary hidden away somewhere. You can conjugate and decline endlessly. But the words you want just don’t spring to mind when you need them most. So you rely on different devices.  You can say the same thing again, but louder, in the hope that a glimmer of understanding appears on your respondees French face. You can search your memory for synonyms of the word you are seeking, often synonyms with a faintly ancient feel or sound to them, and say these with a heavily French accent.  Many English words ending –ation lend them to frenchific-ation; or you can go to the verb and remove the –r in the hope you find the noun. In this story, this is what I did.

I was running the sales operation for a UK based truck-mounted recovery equipment company.  We had grown rapidly and were setting out to conquer Europe. We were at the Paris Motor Show. We had already just been to the Barcelona Motor Show.  We were exhausted. It was the third week on the trot. Our inner tubes were burnt with orange juice and late eating.  We had had enough. Perhaps we had become flippant.  Humour doesn’t always translate well into different languages either.

Selling car recovery (depannage) equipment in French isn’t the easiest either.  There is no international vocabulary available in this market. There are words like winch (treuil) and bodies which slide back (glisser) to know.  And the French use different concepts to the English in the way they choose words (one French agent suggested it was better to translate the English into Chinese first before finding your way to the French) In English we have the word the word ‘light’ (lumiere). Then we have all the lights: we have traffic light, headlight, rear light, flashing light and so on.  For the French, they have different concepts and words for each – feu rouge, phare yet feu arriere; & rampe.  And so the amateur linguist’s vocabulary must extend with no obvious connects.

So here we are at the Paris Motor Show, Tony the owner and me.  Exhausted.  Slightly bored.  We had to be there.  We were not doing much business.  Our customer group was the French vehicle recovery industry.  They come in two sorts.  Short, fat, bald-headed men, with fingers like sausages and the black, oily grime of years staining under and around their nails, still wearing their blue overalls and their steel toe caps shining from their boots.  Or they are well groomed, with tailored hair, leather jackets and imitation crocodile shoes.  I was in an interesting and interested conversation with one of the latter.  He was accompanied by his overpowdered wife, spreading rather too far into her 40’s for the tight fitting black skirt and jacket she was wearing, dyed hair worn bouffant style to accentuate the height of her 6” stilettos.  She was accompanied by a miniature Yorkie with the liitle bow on her forelock.

My visitor in due course left the stand to look around. The routine of demonstrating the equipment to the ‘tyre kickers’ returned; and so, about a hour later did my friend with the wife and the crocodile shoes.  He looked like an interested buyer for the equipment on the stand. We were interested sellers.  We certainly did not want to take it back to England.  We regreeted one another.  The stand was full of smiles. We talked for a while, the specification, the chassis constraints, and so on.  Then he held his own counsel for a few moments before he asked (in French) ‘What will you give me if I buy one of these?’ This is what is called in selling is called a buying signal.

In the car recovery trade, as you can imagine, conversations can become very basic.  All men together kind of stuff. So I launched myself on to a humorous, sale closing response.  What I tried to say, when translated into English, was ‘I will give you a discount of 20% and maybe even a kiss’.  But, sad to say, in my French it didn’t work out quite this way –

‘Je vous donnerez un remise (discount) de vingt (20) percent et meme peutetre un…’kiss. What is kiss in French?  Baiser to kiss. Take off the –r. Baise.  That’ll be it …et meme peutetre un baise.’

With these words, his femme (wife) swung round on her 6” stilettos and was gone. He lent forward, looked me hard in the eye and was gone too.  Not a single word. Never to be seen again.

That evening I phoned my Belgian agent, Michel a Walloon.  I explained what had happened. He laughed. ‘You didn’t say what you intended, Philippe’.  ‘What did I say, Michel?’ ‘You said you would give him a 20% discount and, how do you say it, sex.’  ‘Does the word you’re hesitating to say begin with an  -f, Michel.  ‘Yes, Philippe. It does.’  ‘Oh dear’.

Well.  Let’s face it.  I didn’t take the order this time but I did learn a bit more French.



“They would make you laugh if they hadn’t made you cry.”


Management Consultancies love to capture the import of what they do in a single word or phrase.  They hold internal brain crunching sessions to find their way to the real ‘meaning’ of their consulting practice; and then to find the word or phrase that captures it.  Usually it has something to do with the wondrous depth of their analysis.  As with most internally generated ‘buzz words’, they mean more to the Consultants than to their client audience who, of course, were not part of the originating meeting.  Nor is any attempt made to adapt the concept for the listening ear.  Silence and misunderstanding are the usual outcomes, in this case sheer, unbridled amazement if not horror.

This story concerns a consultancy based on the South Coast of the UK.  They too thought their analysis was primus inter pares. Rather like an MRI scan, it revealed all, every detail including the unexpected.  That’s what they did.  They revealed all.  A bit like opening your dressing gown; or your kimono.  That’s it.  We open the client’s kimono for him to reveal all, all he needs to know to fully understand the length and depth of the issues facing him.

I again ran the sales operation for this consultancy.  It was a pleasure because the consultants really did deliver on time the project benefits and more.  On this particular day, we were visiting a small, medical equipment company situated in what are known as the Home Counties near to London.  We thought we were in with a good chance here.  We had already met with the Managing Director and he was interested in what we could do for him.  This meeting was with his Operations Director within whose responsibilities the hoped for project would take place.

We arrived in reception full of hope.  My colleague was a gruff, tough talking Scot, the type you would want to scrap with in the Gorbals. Let’s call him Hugh. He was one of our Directors.

The Operations Director turned out to be a woman.  She spoke aesthetically, sharply and directly.  Middle aged, pale and severe in appearance, the first impression was, if she hadn’t been an Operations Director, she would have been a nun.

The meeting went very well (though I say so myself).  We reprised the ground covered with the Managing Director and identified the areas he felt would benefit from our intervention. We sought her opinion and what she would like to achieve.  We discussed likely cost benefit outcomes and timescales.  She was clearly very interested.  The next step was the next step. How should we bring the programme together? Her thin, lined face was framed in fair, greying hair which accentuated the severe line of her chin and the paleness of her cheekss.  She smiled.  “Tell me” she said, “describe for me in one sentence the essence of what you can do for us?”

This was clearly Hugh’s moment.  He had been silent far longer than he would have chosen.  His face lit up.  He had just the line for her. “We will help you to open your kimono” he said.

For me the pale image of an aging nun standing there, rudely awakened from her slumbers and naked except for her kimono which was open, sprang immediately to the mind’s eye.  But I shall never be able to describe adequately the look on her face. Disbelief was soon replaced by a stoney stare. For her, humour had no part to play in such innuendo, sexual or not…  Clearly the last thing she wanted was to open her kimono publically.  In particular she did not want Hugh’s help to open her kimono.  That was it.  In a nutshell.

I tried desperately to return to the previous ground we had covered, to happier times.  She was just not interested.  The door was closed.

As we took the long road home, Hugh was unrepentant to the end.  Something like “Silly cow.  I wouldn’t have given her one even if she had begged for it”.

Another one for the history books.



“It would make you laugh if it hadn’t made you cry”

Again, I was running the sales operation for a management consultancy.  It had an unusual product range and a huge chief executive.  His management philosophy was based on the answer to this one question: “Where does the 2 tonne gorilla sleep”.  Answer “Anywhere it effing pleases”.   He never ever changed his mind.  He’d ask for a decision, accept it and, some months later, you’d find you were doing what he had suggested in the first place.  He also had the strange habit of employing higher level people who had failed in their primary career.  Maybe he thought they would renew as stars in his firmament.  They never did.  I was with one of these for this meeting.  His name was Michael.  Ex-advertising, foppish hair, not too tall but arrogant in tone.

The Consultancy had just had an internal think tank meeting.  What exactly are our USPs?  They had reached a key decision in their consultancy way.  The key advantage of our consultancy lay with our ability to carry out analysis to levels no-one else would wish to go; and we would identify key parameters that others might think better forgotten ie, and in the vernacular, we would dig through the shit and we would dig up the shit.

You can see the strength of this concept.  But, I am sure you would also agree, it needed some refinement to make it a persuasive sales message.  Not so with Michael.  He had stopped at the idea.  He hadn’t worked through to the way it should be delivered, advertising background or not.

So there we sat, Michael and I, in the London Office of a large division of ICI, the ICI that was.  I remember it clearly.  ICI offices always seemed to look as though they could double as government offices.  No real creature comforts.  It was Michael’s meeting.  I was in harness, to support and develop as needed.  Our client was a senior Director.  Pleasant.  Modest in self-presentation. Nice smile.  No fool.

Michael set off.  No real questions to understand the client company, the client need or positioning.  It was all about who we were, what we did and how marvellously we did it.  Michael loved it.  He held the stage. The client listened attentively or perhaps politely.  Then Michael got on to his main theme: SHIT.  How we dug shit up, how we shovelled it, how we dug through the shit, all the things the client would have difficulty finding anyone else to do.

But Michael.  Can’t you see the implication behind what you are saying?  Are you suggesting the client company, ICI, a major chemical company, is, in fact, full of shit?  Who knows?  But the client didn’t catch on to the theme with excitement.  So we left the meeting with a “I’ll call you if I find something which requires your skills”.

Not the shitty comment Michael could have drawn.  But we never did do business with this company. That’s shitty enough.




“They’d make you laugh if they hadn’t made you cry!”

Despite folklore, SEX AND THE SALESMAN DON’T MIX.  Sex and consultants don’t mix either.  There is never a better shade of grey when it comes to this subject.  If you want the sale, messing around is a good way to mess it up.

Salesmen can get to know personal assistants or administrators pretty well.  On the phone to the boss regularly.  Get to know quite a lot about private lives. Quite easy to suggest a drink after work, particularly if you are condemned to an overnight stay in the crappy local business hotel.  Same with consultants.  They can live on the client premises for months, weeks away from home for 2 or 3 nights a week, weeks away from the wife or girl friend.  Can make the routine of project analysis quite exciting at times, too exciting at others.

I can think of 2 incidents during my business life which could or did impact on revenue flow, both in the area of consultancy and consultants.  With one, the affair began brightly enough.  A welcome break from the tedium of living away from home.  Nice to have someone to see after work.  Makes the hotel quite cosy.  The trouble is the girl wanted more, like to go back to his place, to spend the weekend together.  But this would bump into his alter life.  Not in the plan.  So the rot sets in, cars are scratched, tyres let down. A lone figure waiting for recovery trucks in the car park soon drew the attention of management.  And the story came out.  Fortunately, for this consultant whose company banned such behaviour on pain of dismissal, the client Managing Director forgave and the project continued.

Not such luck for our second consultant.  He started an affair with the Managing Director’s secretary.  It was a brilliant thing.  He loved the project.  He loved being there.  He loved the time away from home.  He even thought he loved the girl.  That is, until the Managing director found out.  The fly in this particular ointment was that the Managing Director was also sleeping with his secretary.  No forgiveness this time.  The project was ended on the spot.  He was out on his ear. And he was out of his company as well.

Here endeth this lesson.


You would have laughed if you hadn’t cried (with laughter!)

We were a consultancy presenting to a pharma company, a pharma company also heavily involved with  OTC (Over The Counter) healthcare products.  They were in a period of change and were interested to know what we could add in the way of speeding and adding value to the outcomes, at the least making sure that the outcomes actually transpired. Consultants often argue that change is better managed by consultants.  It’s like surgery and surgeons, they say.  A surgeon can always operate on himself.  It is generally much more messy though.  It is much more painful and the outcomes can be uncertain.  Better to rely on an expert.  There were 3 of us and maybe 5 of them, each heading up different departments that were partners to the change, fortunately, as it turned out, an all-male conclave

The aim of this first meeting was to set the field for future discussions.  We would hear from them the areas they were looking at, their approach, their methodology and timetables; and the deliverables they were seeking to deliver.  We in turn would learn from this to make our PowerPoint presentation relevant.  We would talk through our approach and methodology and give examples of the types of projects we had run for similar companies in similar areas, the deliverables we had achieved both expected and unexpected; and the likely return on investment.  Our USP would be that we would undertake a short review of the nominated areas to identify and agree together the level of benefit available.  Then we would take ownership of the project and personally manage the benefit delivery to time schedule in conjunction with the internal teams.

Our desired endgame for the meeting was to identify specific areas where we could facilitate project outcomes before meeting separately with the divisional heads to agree the way forward in each situation.  The Financial Controller stood up and went to the white board.  The company had decided to divide itself into 4 Divisions each with its own Divisional MD and structure: Sticking Plaster, Wound Management,  Orthopedic Casts and A another (the name escapes me).  All serious stuff.  We sat there mulling over the words written on the white board.  Then a voice.  “Which Division will the tampon business be attached to.”  Silence.  Then a nervous giggle from the table.  Then another as the implications of the question became clear. Then uproarious laughter.

Anyway, the meeting did continue when the laughter had died down except for an occasional chortle as the situation was remembered.  The good news is that from now on all inhibitions had gone.  The meeting came to a successful conclusion. Projects were identified and, in due course, successfully delivered.

It all points to the power of humour in the sales situation (though some of us might have preferred a better subject!)



“They’d make you laugh if they hadn’t made you cry”

I ran the sales operation for a management consultancy.  One of my roles was to develop the sales skills of Managing Consultants.  Managing Consultants, if you know the breed, think they are good salesmen. Their position is epitomised by the statement “I am a very good salesman though I am not very good at setting meetings”.  Martin was the Managing Consultant this time round.

This day Martin and I were visiting a successful paper company in the Birmingham, West Midlands.  We were meeting the CEO.  Good start. At least we began with the chance of a decision.  The CEO was a Sikh, urbane, charming, very English, clearly with a very good grip on his company.  You get Sikhs like this in the UK. His name was a Sikh name, he wore a turban – he was clearly a Sikh and Sikhs originally emanate from India, and India is a land where the Hindhus pay homage to the cow.

I introduced the meeting – who we are, the issues we tackled and and why we thought a meeting could well be valuable.  Over to you,  Martin.  It was Martin’s turn.  I had suggested to Martin on the way to the meeting he should rely on questions to draw out the information needed to position his sale. Preferably open questions, preferably questions beginning HOW, WHY, WHAT, WHEN and WHO. And to move the questions from the general to the specific.  So he started.  Questions about the customer’s market, his competitors, his turnover, what  the CEO felt were the issues he would have to face (good).  All a bit awkward and without a sense of direction.  But the CEO was smiling and as urbanely English as ever.

Well Martin, having covered the first part of the sale for better or for worse, began to dry up.  He didn’t understand clearly that a sale has a framework; and he didn’t understand how to move the customer into the negotiation.  Silence fell.  I struggled not to interject, to save the day.  Martin had to find his own way.

He sat there pondering his next step.  The customer sat expectantly.  Suddenly the tumblers fell into place in Martin’s head.  All the impacts of the meeting came together.  The words poured out:

“Are there any sacred cows in your company?”

We sat there in amazement as the implications dawned. We knew what he meant. Were there issues in the company that would make change difficult?  But he didn’t say that.  He chose the cows and with the cows, without redeeming humour, he chose certain death. The meeting wandered on but the moment had passed.  We bid our fond farewells and left.  Fortunately, on the way home, Martin did not say how well felt the meeting had gone or that we would be doing business together sooner rather than later.