Selling Yourself: Part Three

My time with sausages and pies was over for now, though I would re-visit this area of sales at a later date. Having sneaked a day off to attend an interview, I had a new job offer, and I was off, to sales pastures new.

The confectionery market is well-known to us in the UK. We have a national sweet tooth, and there are plenty of companies out there willing to exploit this. I saw an advertisement for one of those companies, although the sweets were only a small part of a more complex organisation. Jimmy Goldsmith, father of Jemimah Khan, and businessman extraordinaire, owned a company called Cavenham Foods, producing food of many types. As he is long dead, I feel it is in order to use the actual names.

One subsidiary of this, the third largest company in its field at the time, was an offshoot selling cheap sweets, alongside the Elizabeth Shaw range, of premium liqueur chocolates, and mints. I got the job after a short interview, and left the sausage company on a Friday, starting the new job the next week. I was to be a company representative covering a large part of South London, calling on retail outlets, and developing new customers where possible. Our largest competitor was Bassets, famous for their liquorice allsorts, as well as other, lesser-known sweets. This was a step up for me, a suit and tie job, good salary, no commission, and a nice new Ford Cortina car. I had arrived.

It is interesting to realise just how large the market in loose sweets was, (and perhaps still is) despite the low unit cost for the customer, of four for a penny, or a penny each. This was known in the trade as the ‘after school market’, as children returning home from school, with or without parents, would seek to get as many sweets as possible, with their small amount of disposable income. This is where we came in. Foam candy shrimps, chocolate flavour tools, rainbow drops, jazzies, foam bananas, milk bottles, and many other traditional favourites, were our main products. Selling at tiny amounts per unit, they nonetheless made a good profit for the shopkeeper, and also got the children into the shop, where they might also purchase drinks, comics, and crisps.

If their parents came too, all kinds of sales opportunities opened up. The retailer could hold large stocks, without tying up too much capital, and the point of display was simplicity itself; just rip the front off of the boxes, and plonk them near the till. In the more upmarket retailers, we could also introduce our liqueur range, and the mint crisps that sold at a premium price. Both of these were popular for taking to dinner parties, as an alternative to the ubiquitous After Eight mints.

Again, there was little training. A book listing the range and prices, and a large box, containing files on all existing customers, was all I got. There were monthly calls, and quarterly calls, as well as ‘suggested’ routes to take. Otherwise, it was all up to me. I had no sales targets, and no commission targets to achieve either. It was a simple case of making at least twelve calls a day, five days a week, and canvassing new customers where possible. I had to submit a daily paperwork trail, with the name and address of the customer I had called on, the time I arrived, and the time I left. Orders were sent in weekly, for delivery by the end of the month.

This seemed straightforward enough, but this seemingly innocuous accounting procedure was to eventually be my downfall, although I had no inkling of that at the time. I had a car full of ‘samples’ to offer to new customers, as well as stocks of each product stashed in the boot, in case of any quality complaints, or returned sweets. It seemed to me that I couldn’t go wrong, and could do this job standing on my head.

I did not allow for two seemingly unrelated factors. Shortly after getting the job, I moved away from home for the first time, to share a house nearby, with four friends. This was one of the factors. The other, was that my area was so large, that I had an enormous amount of customers. In one long street in South London, say Streatham High Road for example, I might have upwards of thirty shops to call on. These would range from small newsagents, to corner shops, grocery outlets, or traditional confectionery shops. If I arrived in the area by 9am, I had easily completed my twelve calls by 1pm, without moving the car. I could have carried on of course, and perhaps made thirty calls in a day, but this would have been seen as unusual by the company. After all, they expected me to spend a reasonable amount of time in each shop, promoting our brand, and selling as much as possible.

The trouble was, I had no difficulty selling the stuff. Every shop I went into wanted it, and was happy to order then and there, with the minimum of fuss and discussion. I might have occasionally taken some time to add on an order for the expensive liqueurs and mints, but they would generally take some, just to get rid of me, and to secure the order for the penny sweets.

I was also now living with friends. Those friends had jobs, but they were also in a band, and had lots of other friends calling around. We played records, listened to music that they had written, and they rehearsed constantly, once home from their day jobs. It was a fun environment, and not conducive to holding down a regular job. I wanted to be at home, to be around my friends, and to enjoy myself. Selling sweets for a multimillionaire didn’t seem all that important, even though they were paying me a decent salary, and providing me with a new car. Very soon, I began to arrive home early, having completed my calls and getting my orders. I had to do some creative paperwork, so as not to disclose my actual hours. I would put down my last call as around 4pm, with paperwork to be completed afterwards, and I made sure never to post anything before 5.30pm, as that would have been a dead giveaway.

It didn’t take me long to realise, that if I did twenty four calls in one day, which was easily achievable, I could alter the dates on all the forms, and have the next day off. As long as I was careful with the posting times, and the general record of the calls to the shops, I was fairly safe. The orders were still flowing, and I had an order to call conversion rate of well over 90%, the second best in the whole company.

A month later, and I took the next step. Working very hard on a Friday, I could cover enough calls to never have to go out on a Monday again. I even got some cooperation from shop owners, telling them that the order dates would be different, for ‘accounting purposes’. They didn’t care, as long as they got their sweet bananas, or sugar mice. I soon worked out that fifteen calls a day over four days was all too easy to do, so upped it to twenty a day, still finishing by 4pm. This meant that I could work for three days, and still complete the sixty calls a week required, as long as I applied myself midweek. I stopped working on Fridays, as well as Mondays, and started to enjoy a long weekend, every week. I had ‘invented’ flexitime, although I didn’t know it as that.

The funny thing was, that I actually increased sales. Nobody before me had ever done better in that area, and my sales of the premium brands had almost doubled on the previous year. When I turned up, the customers were always pleased to see me, and would comment that things were good, and that they liked our products. I could see nothing wrong with my part-time working habits, as I was always high up in the sales charts, and even received letters telling me that they were exceptionally pleased with my progress.

I bought a lightweight grey suit, ready for the coming summer weather, and set about revising my area, to make life even easier. I would drive to the most distant customer first, which meant that I was slowly working my way back nearer home, instead of ending up with an hour’s drive at the end of the day. I had also taken to eating the goods on the go, eliminating the need for lunch or breakfast stops. I do not recommend a diet of foam candy animals and chocolate covered bananas though, as I was soon becoming well-known at the local dentist, and spending my life in a permanent sugar rush.

One day, I had a moment of panic; one of those times when your back goes cold, and you realise that you have missed something vital. I wasn’t doing enough mileage. Even allowing for the extra calls, dropping two days a week meant that I was down at least eighty miles a week. Although I had made up these mileage figures, for the benefit of the paperwork, they did not actually show on the odometer, and the car was due to go in for a service. This left me with the farcical situation, of having to drive up and down the nearby A2 trunk road, back and forth to Dover, until I had clocked up the requisite miles. I spent almost a whole weekend doing this, and realised, for future reference, that extra miles would have to be factored in.

Nothing this good lasts for ever, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. It is always the small things that catch you out. Conversely, it was my popularity, and the increasing sales of our products, that brought about my demise. One of my customers, that I had recently called on, had placed a very large order. Even so, it seemed that he had quickly sold out, and needed more stocks. I had split that order into two, showing a non-existent call on him the previous week, as part of the juggling process that managed my ‘time off’. In those days, there were no mobile phones, so the customer in question contacted the company directly, asking for me to call in and see him. As they should, they checked when I had last called, and were surprised to find that it had been so recently, and that an order was in the system for him.

When they rang him back to tell him this, he was adamant that it had been a while since I had called. They then contacted the calls shown on my paperwork for that day, and asked them if I had been there also. Of course, I hadn’t, as I had not even left the house. This prompted a behind the scenes operation by Head Office, as I continued my personal plan, oblivious to their discoveries.

Late one morning, after sleeping in, I noticed a car parked across the street, A smartly-dressed man was inside, apparently making notes on a clipboard, that rested on the steering wheel. This was most unusual, in a residential street, where all our neighbours had usually left for work by then. As it was a Monday, I had no plans to go out selling, and I already had my day’s paperwork completed, timed and dated, and ready for posting that evening. I went and had breakfast, returning to the front window some forty-five minutes later. He was still there, parked directly opposite my company car, which had plainly not moved. My instincts told me that something was amiss.

Engaging survival mode, I quickly telephoned the company, saying that I had been unwell during the night, and was calling in sick. I had never done this before. I hoped that this would put a stop to any developing situation, and offered to telephone all of my planned calls for the day, and reschedule my appointments. This seemed to do the trick. Twenty minutes later, and the suspicious car had left; I breathed a sigh of relief, and set about altering all the paperwork that I had completed the previous week. I went back out to work the next day, and made sure that I left early, and returned late, even though this meant me parking up in a local Park for almost an hour, so I was not back at the house too soon. With the paperwork suitably ‘corrected’, and all orders re-written with new dates, I felt relaxed, and ready to resume my previous working methods. Perhaps I had imagined too much, and the man in the car was nothing to do with me at all, just a double-glazing salesman, writing up his orders.

I should have trusted my gut feeling, but I was young.

Two weeks later, I was telephoned early one morning at home and requested to visit Head Office, which was on an industrial estate near Heathrow, and to be there by 9am on Monday. This was fairly unusual, so I asked if there was to be a sales meeting, or a presentation of new products. The secretary on the other end of the phone, told me that she thought it involved swapping my car, for a newer model, so could I be sure to bring both sets of keys, and all the user manuals. This sounded good. there had long been talk of getting us the larger estate cars, as we carried so much stock, and the large boxes of customer records. And when you are a young man, the prospect of getting another brand new car, especially a different model, is always exciting.

I missed some salient points though. Fans of Sherlock Holmes will notice, that no mention had been made of getting my appointments covered, and I had not even been asked if it was convenient, for me to use most of Monday doing this, as it would presumably involve letting down customers who expected me to call. I also ignored the fact that my existing car was still relatively new, and I had been the first to use it, so it was very unlikely that it would be changed so soon. In my confident young mind, I also shelved the notion that I should have mentioned these points, as I had become so used to not working on a Monday, it hadn’t even occurred to me to question it.

I arrived in good time, and was offered a cup of tea by a secretary. After a wait of nearly an hour, I was asked to go into the office, to see the Sales Manager. There were three men sat around a desk, all perusing paperwork. That paperwork looked strangely familiar. I was told to sit down, and nothing was said about new cars, or excellent sales results. They started to ask me about specific dates, when and where I had been on those dates, and what orders had been placed. I said that I would have to consult my copies, and the customer files, to be sure. I looked at my diary, and soon realised that all the dates they were asking about, fell on a Friday or Monday. After a bit of waffling from me, they finally revealed the extent of their investigations.

They had re-called on all the customers that I had claimed to visit on those dates, during the last month. In some cases, the shop managers or owners had actually been on holiday during that time, so could not have been present, to place the orders. They did remember me calling though, but they were certain that it was the previous week, and on a Wednesday. My managers produced a wad of my submitted paperwork, with red crosses next to every call that they had managed to prove was incorrectly listed. The game was up. They asked me what I was up to, and I simply told them the truth. The job could be done the way I was doing it, and the sales had increased as a result.

I don’t know what made them more angry, the fact that I had been duping them for so long about my working hours, or the realisation that all their procedures and controls were meaningless, as my sales boost had proved. I stuck to my guns, adding that I worked more hours during my three-day week, than most of my colleagues did in five days. I also had a box full of happy customers, and some of the best sales figures in the company. I knew that they were annoyed, but did not really see it as a huge problem. If I did the calls, and got the sales, what difference did it make what days I worked?

Well, we know that they didn’t see it my way.

The Area Manager was so annoyed, that I thought he was going to physically attack me. I suspect that his own job was under threat, as he was supposed to have been supervising me, but had been happy to leave me alone, when I was doing so well. I was instructed to leave my keys on the desk, surrender all outstanding paperwork, and given my cards, and some petty cash, so that I could get a train home. Instant dismissal, with only a nominal reference. This was my reward, for exposing their shortcomings, and being the second best salesman in the company. I couldn’t really blame them. After all, I had been taking the piss, and it had been good while it lasted.

So, I walked out of the door, and didn’t look back. It was only the second job that I was ever sacked from. I bought a local paper on the way home, and saw some interesting adverts for jobs in it. After two telephone calls, I had an interview arranged for Saturday morning.