Sunday 23 October 2016

George Hook on... 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

Published 05/10/2015 | 02:30

George Hook says we can learn a lot from people of experience. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
George Hook says we can learn a lot from people of experience. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

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.

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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 left-hand 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.

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