The Twat from Doncaster

I’ve forgotten his real name now, if I ever knew it: people in the office just referred to him as “that twat from Doncaster”. I never even met him: I just heard him shouting, from the next room. On the day of his visit, we trainee reps were sent next door, out of the way, while he ran a training session on Telephone Action for the more advanced reps.


Our official title was Wine Adviser, but rep was the term generally used in the office. We were salesmen. We spent two days a week on the phone to prospects who’d responded to the firm’s advertising, trying to make appointments, and three days a week of travelling round to these appointments, trying to sell wine. We were paid by commission, to motivate us to sell. The firm had all sorts of other motivation strategies for us, too: you got your name up on the notice-board if you made more appointments than anyone else, or if you sold more wine than anyone else, and I think you got your photo up on the wall if you actually hit your sales target for the month, which occasionally someone did. If you did hit your target, they’d just give you a higher target for next month though.

Of course, we invented our own unofficial systems for motivating each other too. In theory we were supposed to make around half a dozen appointments for each day, but in practice you were lucky if you got that many in a week. The firm didn’t waste much money on new advertising, but instead just re-circulated old response slips that people might have sent in months or even years ago. Often, when you said Can I speak to Mr John Smith please, or whatever the name was on your prospect slip, you’d be told I’m afraid Mr John Smith died last year. We had a First Corpse of the Day Award in our office, and I won it several times myself.

At that particular point in my life, it was the sheer mindless simplicity of this job that appealed to me. You only had one aim: to sell wine. It didn’t matter how you sold it, or who you sold it to; it was just the quantity that mattered. There was no mission statement, no earnest concern to include more ethnic minorities, or people with disabilities, or any other under-represented minority group: you just had a target sales figure. If you didn’t hit the target you got paid anyway, for a while, but if you kept missing it then you got sacked. Which is what happened to most reps within a couple of months.

This particular day, a champion supersalesman from the Doncaster branch had come over to run a training day, for the more established reps, on how to become supersalesmen. We newer recruits were spared this on the grounds that we were still finding our feet, and shunted aside into a separate room for the day. We weren’t ready for that level yet. We were still trying to digest our Basic Training on how to handle customers. We just knew basic things like: smile while you dial. On the phone, always stick to the script as much as possible. Always start with How are you today? Tell prospective customers that you’re going to be in their area this week. Never tell them any prices in advance. When you visit them at home, always start with a daft offer, like three or four cases of the most expensive wine, so that when they laugh at that you can suggest something that sounds almost reasonable by comparison. If they say they don’t want to buy wine today, tell them you know they want to really. If they tell you where they can get good wine at half your price, tell them we can be beaten on price but not on quality. If they say they need a few days to think about it, either tell them this price is for today only, or that the wine is rare and likely to run out tomorrow. If they ask anything vaguely technical, about vintages or vineyards or additives or anything like that, just make something up and tell them any old bollocks and they’ll probably believe you. These are the basic rules of successful salesmanship. In essence, that’s the training that Wine Advisers receive.

In reality, most of the prospects we rang didn’t answer the phone, and even when they did, very few had any interest in buying wine. Many of them didn’t drink alcohol at all: they were diabetic, Muslim, whatever. The firm’s advertising promised rewards, which might be alarm clocks, coffee mugs, binoculars, anything really, for simply filling in the form and posting it back, and that was all most people were after. We were supposed to make a judgement, from the phone conversation, as to whether it’s worth driving over to see somebody; but in practice, we spent most of our working week operating as a free gift delivery service. Most prospects would also avail themselves of our free samples of wines from around the world; some would gorge themselves on the stuff. Very occasionally, someone would actually buy some. It wasn’t bad wine at all, if a bit sweet for my taste, but it wasn’t cheap, and you could only buy it by the case – which means twelve bottles at once. It might work in France, but that’s not how people buy wine in Lancashire.

So we were curious about this advanced training. What were these secret methods the supersalesmen used? Why were we not allowed to know about them? Half way through the day, the branch manager came in to give us a galvanising glimpse of our future. This supersalesman from Doncaster, who we were honoured to have in our office for the day, apparently made thousands (or was it millions, I forget) of pounds every month by specialising in the customers who the ordinary salesmen have given up on. If we made it through the probationary trial period, if we got anywhere near our sales targets over these first few weeks, then maybe we’d be initiated into the secrets too. I was intrigued. We were going to learn how to sell wine to people who can’t afford wine, and to people who don’t like wine. We were going to learn how to sell wine to people whose doctors, or whose religion, had told them they mustn’t drink wine. We were going to learn how to sell to people who never answered the phone: we were even going to learn how to sell to the dead. We were going to hit targets, get our pictures up on the office wall, laugh our way to the bank. So then, buzzing from this inspirational talk from our branch manager, we returned with renewed vigour to ringing round the jokers on our prospect slips. But just as in the morning, just as every day, most people didn’t answer the phone, and most of the ones who did said they didn’t remember sending the slip back, or said they don’t drink and they’ve got no money and they’re about to go into hospital or leave the country. So, since we hadn’t had the supersalesman training yet, we had to give up and try ringing the next person on the list instead. We were just amateurs.

At the end of the day, the recipients of this supertraining all seemed too stunned to be able to tell us anything about it: all they wanted to do was go home. A few days later we found out what we’d missed. The supertrainer’s technique was to set up a flipchart, and stand in the middle of the room shouting at the reps while they rang customers. If someone’s phone call resulted in a sale he put a tally mark next to your name, made a note of how long it had taken you to get that sale, and gave you a target for a shorter time and a bigger sale next time. If the phone call didn’t result in a sale – which is to say, most of the time – he would go red in the face and yell You might as well give up now! You might as well go home! You’re a waste of space! Why do I bother wasting my time coming all the way over here from Doncaster giving you training! The reps were quite concerned for his sanity, and for their own safety, but despite the noise he was making, and the atmosphere he was creating, they struggled to remain reasonably calm and professional, talk politely to the customers, not give out any hint of the pressure they were under, and hope desperately that the screaming and ranting in the background wouldn’t put their customers off too much.

Next time you get a nuisance call – Good morning Mr Jones, and how are you today? –  tell them you’re not interested. If it’s wine, say you’re a teetotaller. If it’s solar panels, say you live in a rainforest. If it’s double glazing, say you live in a cellar. If it’s cut-price cars, say you’re more a horse person. Tell them you’re broke, the bailiffs are at your door, you don’t speak English, you’re about to go into the Hospice, you’re about to emigrate to the Moon. If the salesman won’t accept any of this, and still insists that his product is exactly what you’re looking for, then you’ll know you’re dealing with someone who’s had the supertraining. Or maybe he could be in the middle of the supertraining right now. The Twat from Doncaster might be standing right in front of him, timing the seconds, wielding the flipchart marker, foaming at the mouth, busting a blood vessel ...

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May 2014

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There are many tips around the internet for how to deal with nuisance callers. Click here for one of the best ....

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