Archive for May, 2013

‘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!


The truck self-loading body was miniaturised to load and carry cars and lighter equipment. It was an ideal solution for car recovery at the time as cars increasingly became automatic, ‘softer’ in the front and lower to the ground.  A ‘spectacle’ frame was added to the back so a second car could be towed. Technical advantage was all about the weight of the body and payload, the loading angle and the gizmos that could be added to facilitate the task. We were lucky to have two good design engineers, Mike and Preston, which meant we could design for safety and produce repeats of the same design suitably modified to fit the range of chassis available.  The major customer group became the car recovery operators and the car associations.  Orders from the heavier equipment operators became the icing on the cake – higher values and bigger margins.

With increased cash flow, I became the Sales Director with direct line responsibility and a share of revenue. The ‘spectacle’ frame was now redesigned to fit a 3.5 tonne truck.  A fully fitted recovery vehicle with spectacle lift would sell for the same as the bigger, sliding car body.  Revenues began to soar as our speciality sellers showed their engineering competitors the way in closing out the orders.

With the new design of cars and the threat of damage, it wasn’t hard to persuade the recovery operators to move away from truck mounted cranes.  The problem was they were all scratching around to make ends meet as the car associations lowered the rates they would pay.  So the operators tended to buy just the equipment and bodge up their own bodies and lockers.  This equipment represented only a third of a fully ordinanced recovery vehicle.

At the same time, competition started to become stronger.  They couldn’t compete on the sales skills side but they could and did start cutting prices.  The recession arrived which hit the recovery trade.  Things were beginning to get tough. We put on our thinking caps and asked those vital, market-making questions: who else could use our equipment and why. Companies and people use the same equipment to achieve different purposes. For example,  Xerox makes copies. Customers don’t want copies, they want things particular to their business copied. So there is little purpose selling to a lawyer with the same vocabulary you would use, for example, with an accountant.

The answers to our questions became clear: car dealerships.  In the recession new car sales had fallen and the dealerships were looking round for ways to increase revenue.  Why not buy a fully equipped recovery truck, which would advertise your dealership, and use it to bring in breakdowns to your workshops and accident victims to your body shop?  A no-brainer. The names of the dealerships could be clearly identified and our sales team flew around mopping up the orders. Revenues had now increased sixteen fold.

The rest of the story was really about house-keeping rules. We kept marketing spend to areas like shows and activities where we could measure the response.  We had to keep our sellers amused.  We were in constant contact discussing their activities from their returns and offering such support as we could. Generally they were loners and liked to be the one there at the time the order was taken.  And they had little respect for their colleagues when it came to selling so we made a point of keeping them all fully informed who was selling what and to whom.  Otherwise we infilled with an occasional get together at to a patient hostelry so they could share their stories from the trenches and laugh at their management.

One sales tale worth a mention concerned our relationship with a car association.  We always did good business with them until one day their orders started drying up and going to a French company (which made good equipment too).  We then found we were becoming part of a self-fulfilling prophecy: being asked to quote on a very high specification only to lose on price to the same French company who then supplied at our original specification at a price higher than ours.  We had to face up to it.  There was no point sitting there year after year losing orders to a competitor for what seemed unfair reasons.  So off I went to see the boss.  I explained the situation as we saw it and hoped the Association would prefer to place their orders with a local supplier at a lower price, all other things being equal.  After I finished, he spoke these immortal words “You seem to be suggesting my managers are dishonest.” This was answered, as a good seller should, with SILENCE.  Anyway, to cut the story short, the orders started to flow again and everyone lived happily together forever after.

There are several key sales lessons in this.  You as a seller always have the right to go to the top when the shareholders’ interests are not being served by their employees.  As a maitre d’hotel of a top London restaurant once said to me “Always speak to God, never the saved”. If you are being mistreated, you must go high and face up to the hiatus.  You cannot lose an order you haven’t got.  Finally, if there is a row, there is always a tendency for the participants “to kiss and make up”.  The thing you must be absolutely sure about though is that you have right on your side.

You now have all my secrets