When in doubt, don’t go out!

Who’s the worst salesperson who has ever called on you as a customer?

Relating the “Smelly socks sell, sometimes….” story in my last blog reminded me of another incident that ranks as the worst sales call ever made on me. This incident occurred when I was still working in pharmaceutical research in England.

As part of my duties, I was responsible for purchasing the radioactive isotopes my department used in our experiments.  When I first assumed that responsibility, the only source for these isotopes was a government owned facility. Since this was a monopoly, let’s just say that their pricing reflected that, and customer service was, frankly, non-existent.

One day I received a phone call from a German company who produced and sold isotopes, and were looking to gain entry into the UK market. Apparently the European VP of Sales and VP of Marketing were setting up appointments with people like me to discuss the possibility of buying from them. Apart from being fed up with dealing with the government agency, I was pretty impressed that two such senior executives wanted to meet with little old me, so I agreed to see them.

They were very imposing individuals, so much so that to this day, I can still see them in my mind’s eye. Dark business suits, white shirts, conservative ties, highly polished black shoes, very professional demeanours. I felt very shabby next to them in my T-shirt, jeans, and grubby lab coat. If they were unimpressed with me, though, they didn’t show it.

After qualifying my needs, they explained their plans for setting up a UK subsidiary, and that they were in the process of searching for a salesperson to spearhead that effort. They asked me if I would be prepared to meet with that person when they were hired, to which I readily acquiesced. I was looking forward to having a new source for the isotope purchases, and what that would mean for both my budget and my sanity.

Two months later, I received a call from the new salesperson to set up a meeting. Wanting to make a good impression, on the appointed day I got “booted and suited” which in a research laboratory setting meant a collared shirt, a clean pair of jeans, and an unsullied lab coat.

Things did not start well, and didn’t get any better. In fact, they got decidedly worse. About 15 minutes after the time set for our meeting, our receptionist called to announce that the salesperson had arrived, and brought him up to my office. I was absolutely taken aback by his appearance.

He was totally dishevelled. His suit looked like he had slept in it, his shirt and tie were stained, the top button undone, and the tie knot loosened. He looked and smelled like he badly needed a shower. And his breath stank of booze. His speech was slurred, and he could barely stay awake. He had obviously been on a “bender” the night before and looked like he had come straight from the bar.

He didn’t apologize or explain himself, and I didn’t ask. We spent a few very awkward minutes of him attempting to make sense before he mumbled that he didn’t fell well, and excused himself to go to the bathroom. When he hadn’t returned after ten minutes, I went to look for him and learned from the receptionist that he had stumbled past her and left the building without another word.

Now – he may have had a reason for being that way. Maybe his wife had left him the day before, or maybe he was grieving over a loved one who had just passed away. Whatever the reason, I never heard from him or his company again.

Until I went into sales myself, this was merely an amusing story. However, when I began my career in selling, I realized what a valuable lesson I had learned that day. I made a pledge that I would never meet with a prospect or customer unless I looked my best, was well prepared, and was confident that I could make a great impression. That has stood me in good stead, and I have been fortunate to have met with some measure of success. There have been a few occasions, though not many, when I have not felt my best due to illness or some other circumstance, and I have called to re-arrange appointments to avoid jeopardizing my chances of success.

The lesson I learned that day was:  When in doubt, don’t go out!