I was a nerd as a teenager. You don’t need to know all the details but one indicator was that my crowning desire was to possess my own copy of Encyclopaedia Britannica. Priced (in the 1970’s) at a staggering £1200 for all 25 volumes it was so far beyond my means that I recognised it was a pipe dream which I would never likely achieve.
One day I responded to an advertisement in Reader’s Digest (another nerd indicator) for a free book of sample EB articles if in return an EB salesperson could make an evening sales call at my home. One evening he arrived. I helped him carry the complete set of EB from the boot of his car into the house. We put them on the dining room table and he invited me to browse. I entered a transcendental state, fondling the pages, reading snippets of entries on obscure topics, revelling in the quality of the binding and the paper.
In due course, we talked about the different hire purchase and instalment plans. I was newly married, earning buttons, and nothing he could offer was remotely achievable. He was a good salesperson; empathic, determined but not aggressive. Eventually, he realised I was a lost cause and he eased off the gas. I made him a cup of tea and we talked about his job. I asked if most of his home-visit sales calls turned out the same way as this one. He told me he made on average seven calls a week and successfully converted four of them into sales. He got no salary but the commission rate he earned was good and four sales a week gave him a prosperous lifestyle.
Hang on – two hours earlier I had helped him bring the books in from his beat-up 10+ year-old Vauxhall Victor. This was not a car which reflected the lifestyle he claimed. Had he exaggerated his success? Were cars not a status symbol as far as he was concerned? Was he in reality struggling to make ends meet?
So I asked him. He said that he had worked out that arriving at a sales visit in a flash car was likely to be counter-productive. For every potential buyer who might be impressed he calculated that there would be many others put off. Ultimately who was paying for the flash? The customers were, shelling out £1200 for 25 books. I wanted to ask him if he had a Lamborghini parked in his driveway but I didn’t. I will never know.
This incident came into my mind as I read about the trials and tribulations of Mrs Gillian Keegan, currently (at least at the time of writing!) Education Secretary. Not because of her wayward attempt at communicating reassurance about defective concrete in school buildings through a pre-recorded video, or her sweary outburst after an interview, but because she continues to flaunt her expensive jewellery, handbags and second homes enabling the press to have a field day and voters to be unsuitably distracted. She needs to meet my encyclopaedia salesperson and learn a lesson about the common touch.
Some negotiators need to learn the same lesson. I once sat in the magnificent office of an advertising agency CEO in the West End. He said he personally didn’t need any negotiation skills training (sic) but he wanted to run a Scotwork programme for his C suite colleagues. And, he said with a certain amount of entitlement, he needed a big discount on our fee. I asked him if he had decided which location the programme would run at. He named the most expensive hotel in the UK; nothing, he boasted, was too good for his management team. And that was the end of any discount he might have gotten from me.