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29 June 2018  •  By: Perry Robb

Old Sam

J.E. Coulters was my first place of work and the main Ford dealership in which the bold Constantine Rogan had introduced me to the finer machinations of the motor industry. It was a lively place to work in the mid/ late 1960’s, and despite everything that was going on politically in Northern Ireland we sold lots of cars, albeit at a time when Ford had circa 30% of the U.K. Marketplace.

The Ford product was innovative, reliable and well ahead of the competitors at the time. As a result of an inspired marketing plan Ford also dominated most forms of Motorsport: – Formula 1 with the great Cosworth engine; Formula Ford – the entry point for anyone wishing to get into single seater racing; and Rallying and Saloon car racing with the high-performance versions of Escorts and Cortina models.

As a consequence of this sporty background every self-respecting young person just had to get into a Ford, once he could afford to buy a car – hence the market dominance.

For many years the most popular salesman at the dealership was the venerable Sam Wilson. When I joined Coulters, Sam was in his mid-70’s and still going strong. The nerves were playing up with him a little bit, and sometimes the way he went about things he reminded you a bit of ‘Corporal Jones’ in Dads Army: – … ‘don’t panic…don’t panic.!!!!’

In fairness to the bosses at Coulters they looked after Sam and recognised his loyalty to the firm, despite the fact that at this time he really only looked after his ‘pet’ customers.

He grew up on a farm in the country and had that country look about him – square set, tussled silver hair, ruddy complexion, and eyes that told you he was straight – which is exactly what he was. He always wore conservative clothes, usually a tweed of some sort, checked shirt, and always brown dealing boots (Chelsea type boots for the uneducated).

Sam worked in the dealership for about 40 years and for most of that time occupied a small office at the front of the showroom, which was visible to the general public as they walked past on their way to and from work.

If the bold Sam noticed someone looking in he would always wave at them with a great big beaming smile, and consequently many of those people when the time came for them to buy a new car, their first port of call would be to call in and see Sam.

Sam was never the most successful or slickest salesman in the business.  In his day he did a decent job and was exactly what the customer was looking for; he was trustworthy, reliable, approachable, rang customers back, and always looked after their best interests.

In his later life he was never good at converting sales from ‘difficult’ customers because confrontation didn’t sit easily with Sam. If he didn’t like the way the customer was behaving or was intimidated by them, he would just step back a bit in his negotiations and let the customer drift away somewhere else.

A good sales manager who knew his team could often manage and monitor these situations, and step into help with the negotiation process. Maybe even moving the customer to another salesman if he felt a sale may be missed. We all like to be comfortable with whom we are dealing, and this works both ways.

In any sales team there has to be a ‘tail end Charlie’, someone who may be towards the lower end of the sales league tables a little too often, but in my book, provided that individual was doing what old Sam was doing then he would get my vote every time.

Mind you, with the rise and rise of HR (Human Remains) departments over the years, it’s very easy to get carried away with rigorously enforced ‘performance criteria’ and ‘minimum targets’ etc., in a theoretical attempt to improve the efficiency of the sales executives.

These types of measurements inevitably lead to large and frequent staff turnover, and they create significant extra costs and disruption within the business.  Significantly, they also add to the ‘importance’ of HR function, a function in my book which should always be kept at arm’s length.

I remember when our HR Owen Porsche business was bought by the Porsche Retail Group in the early 2000’s, at an early board meeting the German FD asked me why our staff turnover was so low, and yet we were still the largest Porsche Centre in the UK.

I said two reasons:

  1. I told him the Sam story, and
  2. I told him we didn’t have an HR department.

Customers like consistency and courteous helpful staff, so if any sales executive is doing a ‘Sam Wilson’ like job – especially in this Internet age – I think I’d still be happy either employing them or doing business with them.