That first Monday morning of my new job, suffering from the shortest haircut I had ever had, I waited nervously in ourLondon training department with my fellow recruits for our tormentor to arrive. Having all assembled ridiculously early we compared notes and discovered we had, without exception, suffered similar fates at interview. McColl had not arrived by 9.00am, our advised start time and we grew more nervous by the minute. Finally, at 9.15, the door burst open and in he bounded with an energy that belied his advancing years. Silence didn’t break out; we had all sat wordless since long before 9.00am barely daring to breathe. He stared at us with that awful unblinking gaze and proceeded to inspect each one of us in minute detail before taking up position at the front. We waited.
“This course is entitled “An approach to selling,” McColl barked at us. “But it could just as easily be called an approach to f***ing! If you don’t ask for the order, you won’t bloody well get one and if you don’t ask for a f***, as sure as hell you aren’t going to get one either! So, don’t waste time in the evenings this week,” he went on slowly breaking into a broad grin, “get out there and try your luck, it’s bloody good practice.” We roared with relieved laughter. During each day that week McColl worked us hard (and we worked equally hard at our homework). By Friday evening we were pronounced fit to be junior salesmen for the London Division. And it is no exaggeration to say that by then Rex McColl was our hero and every one of us would have followed him into hell.
An interesting footnote to that initial course was that it was the very first in our company to produce salesmen that didn’t employ the scripted approach. The accepted wisdom in all major firms until that time was that the sales message was simply too important to be varied; it had to be learnt and delivered word-perfect. Every potential objection had been envisaged and answers scripted that had had to be delivered verbatim. Woe betides any poor soul who forgot his lines when accompanied by his manager! My cohort was the first to break free and be allowed to use our own words (within guidelines) to sell ourselves and to win the orders. All these years on I laugh when I receive the dreadful, scripted telephone cold call; what goes around comes around (but it hasn’t been improved).
The following Monday I collected my very first company car (a Morris Minor Traveller, for those interested in such things, which was then the only new car in our road) and began a week of shadowing a number of the old hands. Now a member of a 350 strong national team, it was still a fairly mechanistic process calling on large numbers of grocery outlets, counting stock, calculating sales and order requirements and selling-in whatever special offers or new products there were that visit. As a junior salesman my role was to cover for the territory salesmen absent on holiday or sick leave (no ladies in our team then). Our company was at that time a force to be reckoned with. Brand leaders across all of our ranges, we as manufacturers, ruled supreme over mere retailers. Tesco or corner shop, if we were on TV with a new product, you simply had to have it; and they did. We even got to the point where we controlled the layout and space allocation of our products and even allotted space to competition. Halcyon days for manufacturers.
It wasn’t long before I was assigned my own territory, making anything up to 28 sales calls in one day. I quickly learnt the ropes and found that if I managed to make my first call by 7.30 am (usually a large supermarket accessed by the goods entrance) I could usually finish by mid-afternoon. That first summer I worked on my tan in many of London’s parks and had the first of many car crashes (usually due to letting my attention wander in traffic – this was the dawning age of the mini-skirt). I forget how many accidents but it was far too many. Finally, after suffering a collision, when someone drove into me whilst I had parked, I was admonished by the lofty figure of Frank Cryer: “You might well have been parked, with the handbrake on, but you would have done well to ask yourself if you should have been there in the first place. Your luck is running out here!” Shortly afterwards the company announced that all salesmen had to undergo the Institute of Advanced Motorists test; I passed at first attempt and again two years later when we were all required to undergo a retest. Despite the advanced driver training, I still drove far too fast and was soon caught in one of London’s first radar speed traps.
In those days supermarkets were in their infancy with none of the giant stores we have today. But lack of sheer size was more than compensated for by some of the characters managing them. There was one infamous character managing a Tesco store in Clapham Junction I had heard plenty about but had yet to meet. Breezing into his store before official opening time one morning, I was stopped dead in my tracks by the PA system booming into life; “Get off my f***ing clean floor , you stupid c*@&! Can’t you f***ing well see it’s just been washed? F*** orf.” I somehow never did manage to forge what might have passed for a relationship of equals with him and some time later he was stabbed by a shoplifter he was trying to apprehend.
Another well known terroriser of humble salesmen was the manageress of a rather scruffy but busy supermarket in Brixton. Having suffered meekly several verbal onslaughts from her, I found myself at the receiving end of one of her merciless outbursts one afternoon (when I was probably a little under par). I forget the details of the actual exchange but I stood my ground and gave as good as I had been given, storming out after informing her that I couldn’t deal with someone as ignorant as her. Racked with guilt (and the implications) over the following days I went back, looked her in the eye, and made an abject apology. She stared at me for what seemed an eternity before grinning broadly and informing me “Well, I would never have thought you had it in you. Would you like a cuppa?” We were best mates after that.
The supermarkets in the 60’s were like the Wild West in comparison to today’s slick operations. Thieving was going on both sides of the tills. Head offices ran the branches as a cost centre billing the branches for goods at the official selling out price, which was supposed to be strictly enforced. But with ‘shrinkage’ (damaged or spoiled goods and loss from shoplifting) running at an average of 2.5% nationally, managers would have to employ more than a little ingenuity to get the books to balance. One of the easiest ways was to lean on salesmen to issue credit notes for stock damaged on delivery that didn’t exist. However, a good trick was ‘buncing’ – putting an extra amount here and there on prices to offset the losses. Officially frowned upon as a practice, managers could get away with this as area directors’ main concern was also balancing the books.
The more adventurous managers found that a penny here and there (so to speak) could easily be diverted into their own pockets. For example, stores had to cash up each day and bank the contents of the tills and this sum had to tally with the till rolls. More than one store had the idea that if they closed off the tills an hour earlier each day they would end up with a surplus set of till rolls and takings. One legendary manager even had the nerve, when his new, extra large store was being built, to fit in an extra till; his very own.
Over and above learning to be street-wise and survive the rough and tumble of life in the stores, I worked hard at my role and took pride in my work and sales results. However, at my first annual appraisal I was complimented on the sales results but taken to task over my ‘appalling administration’. Horrified, I determined to improve and did, managing the following year to be patted on the back for the best administration in the division.
I was succeeding and I was enjoying myself. How long could this happy state of affairs last?