“Should I just leave now?”


“Should I just leave now,” I asked.

“Yes, I think that would be best.” was the reply.

So ended one of the most ignominious sales calls I have ever made.

At the time, I was selling scientific instruments for a company headquartered in Princeton, NJ. I was living in Toronto, and my territory was Eastern Canada. My typical customers were research scientists in the Physical Sciences: energy, metallurgy, mining, environmental studies, etc.

We had received an enquiry about one of our instruments called an Optical Multichannel Analyzer (OMA for short). OMA’s sound complex, but they are quite simple, really. Basically they’re instruments used in long term Physical Science experiments to count “events” such as a flash of light, a pulse of electricity, or a change in a magnetic field. Many of these types of experiments continued for months, and often years.

I called the scientist who had made the enquiry (we’ll call him Dr. Smith), and we discussed his research, and how he would use the OMA. Although there were several competitive counters on the market, it was obvious from our conversation that he was very interested in ours. I asked the prospect if he wanted to go ahead with an order, and he replied that he was prepared to do that, but asked if it was possible for me to bring one to his lab for a demonstration so he could try it before he ordered it.

I told him I would see what I could do, so when I got back to my office, I called our factory to see if we could get one shipped up to Canada. They said that would not be a problem, and that, in fact, if the scientist liked it, he would be able to keep it if he was prepared to order it immediately. This was a nice $15,000 order so I was quite happy with that arrangement.

I set up the appointment to meet again with Dr. Smith. Since I had not seen this particular instrument before, I asked the factory to ship the OMA a few days prior to the demonstration so that I had time to learn how to use it before I went to see Dr. Smith. Regrettably I hadn’t reckoned on the diligence of our Customs agency, and three days later, it still hadn’t arrived. I called Princeton to find out where it was, and they told me it had been shipped the day I requested it. Upon tracing the package, my fears were realized – the shipment was missing a key piece of documentation, and was being held by Customs until the document could be produced.

Finally, on the day before my appointment with Dr. Smith, the appropriate document arrived, and I was able to extricate the instrument from the grasp of the Customs department. Unfortunately, it was late in the day by this time, and since I had a date that night, I didn’t have a lot of time to familiarize myself with the counter.

That’s okay, I thought – I’ll look at it in the morning before my appointment. However, the morning got away from me, and soon enough, it was time for me to go and see Dr. Smith without me ever taking the counter out of its box. I wasn’t too worried, though. How difficult could it be? All Dr. Smith had to do was plug in a few leads, we would turn the counter on, and away it would go. No worries.

I arrived at Dr. Smith’s laboratory, and after some preliminary chat, we unpacked the OMA and set it up on his bench. Dr. Smith plugged in the leads, looked expectantly at me, and told me it was ready for me to turn on.

With Dr. Smith looking on eagerly, I searched for the On/Off switch. And I searched and searched and kept on searching! This thing wasn’t very big – about 12” x 12” square, and about 6” deep, but do you think I could find that switch? Heck, no!

After what seemed like 2 hours, but was probably only about 2 minutes, I looked around at Dr. Smith in frustration and asked him if he knew where the On/Off switch was. Wordlessly he examined the counter and then declared that he couldn’t find it either. This was becoming very embarrassing. After another fruitless search, Dr. Smith wondered aloud:

“You don’t know where the switch is? But your company makes this machine.”

After another minute of head scratching, Dr. Smith finally picked up the instrument and looked on the bottom of it. Sure enough, there was the switch, with a prominent sticker beside it saying: DO NOT TURN OFF WITHOUT PERMISSION. I found out later that the switch was hidden underneath so that no-one could mistakenly turn it off in the middle of an experiment that might last for months, if not years.

I was elated at this discovery, but Dr. Smith was not. In fact, he said nothing at all as he quietly unplugged his leads.

“So – what do you think?” I asked.

Without looking up at me, he slowly shook his head and with more than a little disdain, replied:

“I don’t think so.”

I thought about explaining that the package had gotten held up in Customs, but that would have been a poor excuse. The fact is that I should have postponed my date and spent the previous evening familiarizing myself with the instrument, and no amount of excuses would have been sufficient to assuage my incompetence. I saw the sale evaporate before my eyes.

“Should I just leave now?” I asked.

“Yes, I think that would be best.”

I learned a couple of lessons that day:

  1. It just goes to show that if you don’t go the extra mile, you will miss out on what could have been.
  2. Successful people do the things that are necessary, instead of the things that they want to do.
  3. Before demonstrating anything – instrument, software, hardware or whatever – make sure you know how it works before attempting to demonstrate it.

Try it – it works!