How an earring cost me a $150,000 sale

Someone smarter than me once said: “If you aren’t making mistakes, you’re not learning.” I seem to have taken that to heart, because I sure have learned a lot over the years! This is the tale of one of my learning experiences.

This story is about cement. The properties of cement can vary widely depending on the mix of the raw materials that go into it. To ensure the right “pour”, and avoid potential disasters, the composition of the final mixture has to be exactly right for the particular building application for which it will be used. I share this with you because some years ago, I was selling for a company that made a $150,000 instrument that used X-ray technology to accurately measure the composition of cement while in production.

I was living in Toronto at the time, and we had a very good prospect at a cement plant in Cornerbrook, Newfoundland. My boss and I decided that it was a good enough opportunity for me to take a trip out there and make a sales call on the General Manager of the plant. We didn’t make this decision lightly. Canada is a big country, and a trip to Cornerbrook for a 1-hour sales call involved a day’s travel there and a day back, plus two night’s stay in Cornerbrook due to the paucity of flights. It was a big expense, but it was a big opportunity. We believed the sale was 75% made and that a personal sales call would be enough to seal the deal. So, off I flew to Newfoundland and I made the sales call the morning after arriving in Cornerbrook. I turned up at the plant, and was shown into the GM’s office.

Since this was a meeting with the senior executive on site, I was dressed in a way that I thought was appropriate – booted and suited with my best “bib and tucker” (as my Mum used to say!). The GM most definitely wasn’t suited and booted. In fact, he looked like he’d just stepped off the production line at a cement plant! Go figure.

To say the first few minutes were awkward is something of an understatement. Everything about the prospect’s attitude and body language was signalling that he didn’t think this “suit” from Toronto had anything worthwhile to say. I felt like a fish out of water, but decided to ignore the feeling and press on with the meeting anyway. The trip was costing too much not to.

I made some small talk about how beautiful Cornerbrook was and launched into my opening statement.  My first qualifying question was met with a stone-faced silence. I figured maybe he was uncomfortable with my being dressed in a suit and tie, but as I sat waiting for an answer, he suddenly leaned over to his right in his chair and stared at the left side of my head. With a look of utter disgust, he pushed himself upright in his chair and remained stoically silent.

And that was when I realized what the problem was. Two days before I left for Cornerbrook, I had decided to get an earring. It was all the rage at the time, and the ladies loved a man with an earring (in fact, my wife told me it was one of the things that attracted her to me when we first met!). The problem was that when they pierced the ear and put in a hoop, they stressed that I could not take it out for at least a week. I took them at their word, and left the hoop in. I didn’t really think much about it after that. Until the trip to Cornerbrook that is.

At this point, we were only ten minutes into the meeting, and it was clearly going nowhere. I tried another question which was met with another stony silence. I didn’t know what to do at that point, so I meekly asked him if this was a good time for our meeting. With a disdainful look, he stood up, said he had to get back to the plant, and walked me to the door. That signalled the end of the meeting, and I knew that as I said goodbye him, I was also saying goodbye to a potential $150,000 sale.

The meeting had started at 10:00 am, and it was now 10:10, so I had 24 hours to wait until my flight home the next morning. And here’s the thing – the only good part of this was that Newfoundland is an incredibly beautiful province with magnificent vistas and wonderful people, and so I spent the day sight-seeing.

When I finally made it back to Toronto, I didn’t have the nerve to tell my boss what had happened, so I told him the prospect had decided to go with the competition, which actually wasn’t a lie since that is what he eventually did! Would he have bought from us if I didn’t have the earring? We’ll never know, but I think we would have had a much better chance.

There were several lessons in this for me:

1. Think about what the prospect’s facility is going to be like, and anticipate how your prospect will be dressed.

2. Dress appropriately for the prospect you are calling on. Suits are fine for offices and boardrooms, but for production facilities, construction sites, etc., best to dress it down a notch, (like khakis and a golf shirt, and no tie).

3. If you are going to be a slave to fashion and do something radical like a piercing or a tattoo, try and keep it out of the work place. You never know how people are going to react.

Try it – it works!

2 thoughts on “How an earring cost me a $150,000 sale

  1. My 18 year old son is thinking about getting a tattoo and he believes my view is dated (30+ yrs old). I assure him that although today’s youth live behind a digital veil, they will inevitably encounter someone who will pass judgement even before a word is said. It was true 30 years ago and evidently it is still true today. thanks for sharing.

  2. Hi Jacques,
    You’re welcome – thanks for the great comment. Please feel free to share the article with him. I went through the same experience with my daughter and since I’ve always encouraged her to be independent and make her own decisions, of course she went ahead and got one. But – it is small, a wonderful tribute to her grandmother and it is very discrete.

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