|Sales is a family affair: Tony, Neil and Adam.|
I'm resurrecting this interview with my lovely Dad and son, not for an ego-trip (although I'm human, like the rest of you), but because Alan Prokop on the Comments and Questions bit down below, has just demonstrated a whole host of Modern Selling points, primary amongst which is that selling (and networking) online as with offline, is a people-to-people art / science. And I also need to note that my Dad passed on some 3 years back (this interview was done in 2007), and that interested parties can follow the careers of Nick de Cent and Adam Warren, by clicking through to LinkedIn, which was a new connection we introduced in April 2011.
Some say salespeople are born to the job; others that you can learn to sell effectively. Whichever is true, three generations of Warrens have chosen selling as their profession. Editor Nick de Cent talks to Tony, Neil and Adam.
Tony Warren first started selling back in the 1940s, his son Neil in the 1970s and his grandson Adam this century. Between them they have almost 85 years of sales experience. (Tony also has three other sons who have all, from one time or another, been involved in selling at various levels.)
Tony is now semi-retired but remains the proprietor of his own business, after a lifetime selling for blue-chip industrial companies. Neil, who has focused on publishing and media sales throughout his career, is publisher of ModernSelling.com and owner of a database company. Son Adam has recently joined NTL Telewest as a business account manager – handling some 250 accounts – from Zen Internet, where he was a business sales executive.
Each has seen the focus within the world of professional selling change quite dramatically.
For Tony the biggest innovation during his career was the switch from ‘being a verbal salesman to a showman’.
He says: ‘It was IBM (which in those days was selling typewriters and other mechanical devices) training, I think, that made that conversion for me.’ He learnt early on, having switched from a leather-processing company, that you don’t just tell people about your product, you actually have to make the whole presentation an event.
|Tony Warren: IBM taught showmanship.|
‘Early days were just verbal contact, and then IBM was the awakening that there is more to this than just chatting to people,’ he recalls. The showmanship aspect was very definitely taught to all sales people at the IBM academy. ‘It was thrashed into us mercilessly – “Show, stop talking, and show”.’
Dawn of the computer age
Neil began his sales career at the dawn of the business computer age. For him, the big breakthrough was the ‘automation of client contacts’. When he started, the science of client relationship management revolved around a plastic box of contact cards or a Roladex file – the order of the cards dependent on the system devised by the previous rep from whom you inherited them. ‘It could be alphabetical; it could be anything. You could probably tell which was a “busy” card because it had six other cards stapled to it. Other than that, there was no defining factor.’
|Neil Warren: box of contact cards.|
Worse, it didn’t take much for an individual sales person to fall out with the system and bin the lot. And then, of course, if you wanted to send out a mailshot (this was pre-PCs, let alone email – Ed) you had to hand-draft all the letters and get them typed. From the 1980s he has seen a sales person’s equipment evolve from a telephone, a card index file and type-written letters into the tools of the trade we now all take for granted – CRM, PowerPoint, mobile phones, word-processing, email.
For Adam, the defining factor has been mass-market communications technology, which has grown ever faster, more sophisticated and more reliable even for the few years he has been in the profession. ‘Broadband was non-existent, then in 1998-99, it became available in the UK.’ Now it has become almost all-pervasive; we can send and receive data on our BlackBerries; salespeople on the road have no excuse for being late because they can find their way about with SatNav. ‘It’s gone from nothing to everything,’ he declares.
|Adam Warren: broadband growth.|
But the essentials of professional selling remain the same: it’s all about communication.
With such advances, does the world in which Tony started out, still exist? Probably not, is the answer. ‘No, I don’t think it does. The role has changed.’ In his heyday, the job was straightforward. A typical day was essentially concerned with making sales, Tony says matter-of-factly. ‘Sometimes you needed to assess how to make more sales first thing in the morning; sometimes you needed some more customer contact; maybe you needed some more closing; sometimes you needed more information – whatever it was, it needed to be done “today” to close more sales. Simple.’
Sometimes that meant closing sales even when it wasn’t in the best interests of the company or the customer. If the pipeline was particularly empty, you had to close what was available. And commission was a big driver? ‘Yes, it was. Family and overheads – you had to earn your money,’
Interestingly, although the UK in the 21st century is a very much richer country than bankrupt post-war Britain, grandson Adam confirms that commission remains a big focus today. ‘Commission is still a very big part of why and what I want to achieve,’ he declares.
For Neil, his first role at Haymarket Publishing wasn’t taxing – to sell £500 a month, which he never failed to achieve – so it was really left to him to plan his day. ‘Move on.’ His second publication House Buyer had a limited circulation and when it came to driving down to Reading to sell a special area feature, it was a pretty thankless task. ‘There was probably only one copy of House Buyer magazine in the whole Reading area, he recalls.
|Warrens: changes down the years.|
‘I moved onto Morgan-Grampian and they had quite a structured culture, although you didn’t feel it was imposed on you,’ However, volume of calls was an important issue. ‘They definitely believed you should have five meetings a day, four days a week. So you had Fridays in the office to do the administration for all your calls and to set up 20 consecutive appointments for the following week or the week after – all in the right place, all at the right time, all with people who wanted to see you!
‘And I said, “This can’t be done; show me anybody who is doing it”. But that was their kind of mindset. If there’s a rep that’s sitting here in the office, get out! They tried to impose that on us. Some had a token gesture; some had a go at it, and others didn’t bother.’
Early days of selling
Life in general was entirely different in the early days of selling, according to Tony. In the days before consultative selling, closing the sale irrespective of the circumstances was all-important. He describes a particular incident which has stuck in his mind from a time when he was field sales manager for forklift truck manufacturer Lancer Boss.
‘We’d gone to Grimsby to close an order for four forklift trucks and we were doing a demonstration for this timber yard on how the timber could be rearranged and costs saved. At about 5.30pm, the pulley that lifted the forks on the truck failed. It all came crashing down to the ground and there was I in charge of this mess, thinking “What am I going to do now?”. I did nothing, is the honest answer, apart from trying to mollify the owner of this timber yard.
‘We lost the sale and when I got back to the company I was called in by the chairman (Sir Neville Bowman-Shaw, a very charming gentleman I met at the BESMA sales awards dinner last month – Ed). He said: “What’s this order we lost in Grimsby, then, Warren?”
‘I told him the story and the reason why, and he said: “What the f*ck did you do about it?” I told him that I didn’t do anything, as the service department had closed and we couldn’t get another truck out there at that time of night. I waited until the next morning. “Why didn’t you give me a bell, Warren? Why didn’t you ring me? I would have got in my car and come out with a bloody pulley – you idiot!” I just sank into the floor and thought “here’s a lesson to learn”. The sale is the all-important factor. Whoever else you might upset, get that customer satisfied today.
|Tony: typical day was 'frustrating'.|
Was that an average day? A typical day was a frustrating day, according to Tony. ‘I knew what I wanted to get done in the course of a day. It just seemed that everybody else was there to impede me!’
On the phone
In contrast, Adam’s average day consists of answering the telephone to new business (they phone you in an inbound call-centre environment!) and solving existing customers’ problems. He is also in charge of a number of business accounts, setting up appointments with the larger ones and going out and meeting them, generally on a fortnightly basis. The huge difference is that Adam’s working life is mostly office-based while Tony spent his time out and about.
In the 1980s, Neil found himself at a transition point, spending half his time in the office and the other 50% on the road visiting clients. He cites the rise of specialist telesales departments, particularly in publishing, but also in financial services and other sectors, as a major development during his early days in selling. The days of the all-purpose sales rep were already numbered.
Today, with sales resources increasingly expensive to employ and technology relatively cheap, the trend is to focus expensive field-based salespeople on key accounts. As a result, travel is as likely to be to Sweden as it is to Swindon.
|Neil on first company car: 'felt loved'.|
This change in the way salespeople’s roles have evolved down the years is perhaps best illustrated by taking a look at that most cherished of perks – the company car. When Tony started, he was given a 6-cylinder Ford Zephyr straight away (and his salary doubled instantly from £300 a year to £600. (This was 1945 – Ed.) It took two years for Neil to be given a company car, and even that was an embarrassment, given that it was a green 1100cc Fiat 128. Not exactly a hot hatch, but it was a start. ‘I felt loved,’ he recalls with just a shade of irony.
Adam, however, being office-based, doesn’t receive a company car at all, ‘just a bit of petrol money’. These days, cars really are only provided to essential users or as management perks, and Adam spends about 80% of his time on the phone and 20% on the road.
Turning to the question of whether selling has become more professional, Tony remains slightly sceptical, though he admits more graduates are involved in the sales sector these days. ‘I’m not sure the job itself has become more professional. IBM in those days was already a very professional company, so the training was professional. There weren’t any sales colleges – and still not as far as I know – where you went for sales training, but you were given your product training and off you went. You either survived or you didn’t. (This is slowly starting to change with, for instance, the new sales management course at Portsmouth – Ed.)
Along with all the other changes, the work rate required to succeed has also increased. Says Neil: ‘These days it’s sheer hard graft. And you have to work smarter.’ Adam agrees – the ‘image of the rep down on the golf course is a myth’.
Drifted into sales
In the past, many salespeople simply drifted into the profession. Would that be a fair summary? Not exactly in his case, Tony says. ‘It was pure opportunism.’ After national service, he found himself with a world of opportunity before him but no direction, although he admits: ‘I’d no idea what I wanted to do.’
He took his first job as a management trainee. ‘However, I could see that I would just be a “gofer” and I wanted to be more in control of my destiny. I was a control freak.’ So, looking out of the window at work one day, Tony noticed a salesman arriving in a car – a Vauxhall Velox – and, in those days, the lowly management trainee was still going to work on a bicycle. The decision to move into sales was made.
|Adam: scientific approach.|
Neil, however, is a classic case of arriving in sales by pure chance or perhaps more accurately as a result of forces beyond his control – that is to say his best mate’s mum.
Clearly fed up with unemployed students cluttering up her house, she took matters into her own hands and suggested he find a job. Neil expands: ‘Rick’s mum made me do it. She was sick to death of the noise of the backgammon board at 4am.’
Being from the current generation, Adam has taken a more scientific approach. ‘It was a development of trying everything else. I thought sales would be a route to something else but I took to it like a duck to water.’
So, if there is one tip the older generation could offer Adam as a sales professional embarking on his career, what would it be? Tony: ‘The principle of listening twice as much as you talk (two ears, one mouth - Ed). Also, ask the right questions.’
Ask yourself what you believe in
Neil also has some advice: ‘Find the product or company you really want to be involved with. Ask yourself “what do I believe in?”, “what do I stand for?”, “what turns me on?”.’
And from Adam’s fresh perspective, what tips can he offer his peers? ‘Don’t just expect to end it at the sale; you have to do far more.’
Finally, what of the sales ethos? Has it changed at all? Do salespeople have any morals or scruples at all? ‘Yes’, says Tony emphatically, ‘minimal but yes’. (General laughter.) ‘What I learned was the sales not to make. In the early days, any sale was important; but sometimes you knew the product was not exactly right for the job and the customer would eventually find out. Those are the sales it’s better to avoid.’
Tony Warren (Deceased)
Current job title: ‘symbologist’ – md, entrepreneur and merchant
Last employed role: account manager for a printing company
Current job title: publisher and entrepreneur
Last employed role: managing director, The Publishing House Limited
Current job title: business account manager, NTL Telewest (Mar 2007)
e-days Business Development Manager (Nov 2011)