We were in the Shetlands. Sales were excellent because the isolated communities there had joined our mail-order book club en masse. Persuading Shetlanders in the pre-internet age of the mid-1980s to join was not a problem. But we were running out of houses to visit after only four days!
Now, a golden rule of sales is never pre-judge who may or may not be a customer and treat every door of the day with the same belief and enthusiasm as your first door. That’s the ideal, at least.
In our job, if we saw a garden strewn with kiddies toys, windows with colourful curtains, we knew the likelihood was that there would be readers at home. Mammy with cook books, Daddy with DIY, and of course, the jackpot – kids having books bought for them.
Using this simplistic logic, the odds of getting a sale increased dramatically in such a home when compared to, say, an OAP’s home where there’d be little money, or much hearing ability. This was around the time of the film Fatal Attraction and the term ‘Bunny Boiler’ had come into common useage. We called OAPs ‘Kettle Boilers’, because you could often see them doing just that through their windows. These were to be avoided. Precious time could be taken up explaining the Book Club offer to an OAP who would likely say “no thanks” eventually while your colleague, you imagined, was sitting in a warm, comfy family home, surrounded by adoring kids treating him like The King of Books while he sipped coffee, laughing heartily as the Mammy put pen to paper, with him musing over what he’d spend his commission on.
Meanwhile, you’d be repeating a sentence for perhaps the third time to a Kettle Boiler who was probably only pretending to hear you in a house colder inside that it was outside thanks to OAP’s saving on heating bills. You’d be looking out the window at the garden opposite, toy bikes and wee plastic cars scattered all over the lawn, colourful curtains and a home that seemed to vibrate with life. I can’t begin to describe how your heart would sink when you caught a glimpse through the window of a colleague leaving that home opposite, smiling, while you shivered, listening to your Kettle Boiler only now up to the 1960s part of his life story. Or worse, extolling the virtues of the library, where, didn’t I know, books were free, “free I tell you!”
This was the background to the last day on Shetland. The scores were tied between Pat, Danny and I – each on 53 sales for the week. ‘Away Trips’ always had higher scores than normal and, as the Team Manager, it was imperative I was the winner of the trip.
It was like the Champions League as opposed to everyday sales leagues. Danny and Pat had their own motivations to win. They hated each other, in a brotherly sort of way. Danny knew which buttons to press on Pat to throw him off his game.
“The names not Patrick! Right!”
“Aye, it is.”
“No it’s not! I’m called the shortened version of ‘Patrick’! Got that?”
Danny paused, ostentatiously wearing his thoughtful face.
“You mean, ‘Rick’?”
“No! I don’t mean ‘Rick’! It starts with a ‘P’!”
Danny’s face lit up with affected Eureka.
This was the context in which the three of us turned round the last corner in Shetland to find a tiny cul-de-sac with around six small houses. We all knew that, according to our laws of science, 50% would be “outs”, leaving possibly three or four unfolding drama, knowing that picking the wrong door here would lead to a year’s worth of ridicule.
I spotted, as I am sure Pat and Danny did, the salesman’s mirage. There it was. Punterville. Toy tractor abandoned on the path, the door slightly open, young voices screeching about something. A mother’s impatient responses. This is what we called a ‘Basic (easy) Sale’. And only one of us was going to get it. We continued to idle up the pavement, each determined not to let on to the other what we were thinking – that any second now a brutal dash to the Basic Sale would take place. There was another house slightly further ahead of the Basic. A young woman was hanging out washing. Another prospect for sure. The other houses all looked deserted.
As Team Leader, I’d to lead by example, to always take the toughest choice and leave the easy sales to the team. Makes you better and wins respect. But that day, in sodden, gale-swept, freezing, desolate Shetland, I could have done with that cup of coffee and the warm feeling of signing up the Basic. I could probably out-run Pat and, probably, out-think Danny and could forgive myself too.
Then I saw the last remaining house. At the window was an ancient OAP with grey hair at the sides of his bald head. He was running a kettle under the tap, very slowly. My heart sank. I just knew this house was my destiny today. I’d be the loser looking out the window at Pat and Danny skipping down the cul-de-sac together, hand-in-hand, signing, as they both celebrated signing up the women we’d seen and heard.
At that second, Pat, while Danny was in mid-sentence about something, suddenly burst into a sprint.
“Oi! Rick! You B*****d!” shouted Danny as he too took off.
Pat was laughing hysterically knowing he had a lead he couldn’t lose on Danny. However, as he approached the gate to the Basic, his momentum carried him past and Danny, a real sprinter, now laughed as he caught up and simply opened the Basic’s gate and sauntered up the path, while Pat was shouting, “That’s my ******* sale you *******!!
He recovered his decorum and reluctantly accepted second prize, the woman who was hanging up the washing.
I, meanwhile, walked up the pathway of the Kettle Boiler like a doomed sailor walking the plank, fearing a ferry journey home with Pat and Danny raising questions over my suitability as Team Manager if I could not achieve better scores than them. The door opened. “I’ve just put on the kettle, son. What can I do for you?”
The old gent loved reading and couldn’t get to the library. He was the easiest sale in the world. His home was warm. His coffee was like the finest rum. So, I would be equal top with Danny and Pat after all.
The Kettle Boiler went to get his £2 joining fee and I saw, out the window, Pat and Danny standing together, obviously waiting for me. That was quick I thought and they looked anything other than celebratory. I later learned that the Basic was already a member of the club, having joined through a magazine ad, and the woman putting out her washing didn’t want to speak to Pat as she’d heard him shouting at Danny. Shetland was not Glasgow, it seemed.
Now it was their hearts’ turn to sink, with me preaching a sermon about the need to treat every door as the same, to occupy their 18-hour ferry journey home.