LEARN­ING FROM A MASTER

We can learn a lot from old folks, says Ge­orge Hook, as he re­calls the great­est sales­man that he ever knew

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Life - - FIRST PERSON/THE LOVES OF MY LIFE -

There used to be a reg­u­lar ar­ti­cle in the Reader’s Di­gest called “The most un­for­get­table char­ac­ter I ever met”. Ev­ery month, an up­lift­ing tale of a very spe­cial man or woman was penned by some­one whose life had been en­riched, touched or changed by a very spe­cial per­son.

The idea might not get the same trac­tion to­day, as the gen­er­a­tion gap in Ire­land is greater than ever be­fore. Near-uni­ver­sal third-level ed­u­ca­tion has dis­pensed with the idea of ap­pren­tice­ship and learn­ing from “the old dogs for the hard road”.

Re­dun­dancy has cut a swathe through ex­pe­ri­ence in com­pa­nies. Men and women over 50 are dis­pensed with on at­trac­tive fi­nan­cial pack­ages, to be re­placed by ea­ger beavers who be­lieve that ex­pe­ri­ence does not have a value.

The great­est sales­man I ever met spoke with the soft burr of his na­tive Ul­ster, and he in­ter­viewed me for my first job af­ter col­lege. He was area man­ager for an ac­count­ing-ma­chines com­pany called Bur­roughs, and I was hes­i­tant as to whether a life in sales was for me.

Malachy Sher­lock, sens­ing my re­luc­tance, took me for a cof­fee. Although the cafe was within walk­ing dis­tance, he in­sisted on us­ing his Jaguar. I was might­ily im­pressed; Ire­land in the 1960s did not have sales­men that drove ex­pen­sive cars. Look­ing at this snap­pily dressed man-of-the-world, in a car be­yond my wildest dreams, I signed on the dot­ted line. Malachy could sell dreams to ea­ger young men or tough-minded busi­ness­men.

Two weeks later, I started work, and my ed­u­ca­tion be­gan. Half-a-cen­tury ago, the ‘Sun­day suit’ was kept in the closet for go­ing to Mass. Malachy quickly dis­abused me of that no­tion, with les­son num­ber one: your best clothes are for earn­ing a liv­ing.

So I was taken round to a be­spoke tai­lor on Grafton Street, and Malachy grandly or­dered not one, but three new suits. Each suit was a month’s wages, which my men­tor dis­missed with rule num­ber two: a sales­man must al­ways look like he does not need the money from the sale. Young Hook, now down a quar­ter of his an­nual salary, looked like a mil­lion­aire.

Worse was to come. My new boss be­lieved that shoes lasted longer if only worn once ev­ery three days, so a visit to Boylan’s Shoe Em­po­rium saw me armed with three boxes of footwear.

Clothes may make the man, but sales de­fine the sales­man. I now had a ter­ri­tory that stretched from the left­hand side of O’Con­nell Street up to the Phoenix Park, and north to Fin­glas.

Sher­lock’s hand­book of ter­ri­tory man­age­ment de­creed that a sales­man could only sell if he was in front of a cus­tomer, and sit­ting at a desk was a waste of time. So we tramped the highways and by­ways of our ter­ri­tory in search of prospects. The golden rule was that 75pc of your busi­ness came from ex­ist­ing cus­tomers, and Sher­lock was a master of deal­ing with un­happy users of the equip­ment.

In my first cou­ple of weeks on the job, a cus­tomer threat­ened that I was never to darken his doorstep again.

Malachy of­fered to solve the cri­sis. As we waited in the client’s of­fice, he no­ticed a pic­ture of a boat, and as­cer­tained that the irate owner was a keen sailor.

Seated in front of the apoplec­tic owner, my boss steered the ques­tion to sail­ing in Dun Laoghaire har­bour. I watched, in awe, as the cus­tomer’s anger be­gan to thaw, and the threats of equip­ment go­ing out the win­dow sub­sided. Malachy taught me the valu­able les­son of how im­por­tant it was to know the per­sonal life as well as the busi­ness life of the cus­tomer.

The next three years were the most im­por­tant train­ing-ground of my life as I learned at the feet of a master.

To­day, I look at young men and women who feel that noth­ing can be learned from peo­ple who are older and more ex­pe­ri­enced.

I watch com­pa­nies dis­pens­ing with price­less knowl­edge in re­dun­dancy pro­grammes.

Above all, I feel priv­i­leged to have known some­one who gen­er­ously shared his craft with me.

‘Young Hook, now down a quar­ter of his salary, looked like a mil­lion­aire’

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