Sunday, 21 January 2018

A break from the tedium of air travel

Passenger planes are just busses of the air these days. Any idea, from the early days of aviation, that air travel was luxurious has long been lost.
The joy of air travel: waiting, waiting, waiting
It's the queues that are worst, whether for check in, for security or for the plane itself. So picture me, if you will, combating boredom as I waited to board a flight home from Boston the other day. And imagine my relief when the monotony was interrupted by a pleasurable experience.

I was right behind an English couple that was deciding where to store its duty-free purchases. In his carry-on bag? In hers? Some in one, some in the other? I wasn't that interested in the debate but was following it in a desultory sort of way, as preferable to merely chafing against impatience. But as the man turned towards me and I saw his face, a strange sensation came over me. He seemed familiar. Could it be that I knew him?

As the thought occurred to me, I noticed that he too had noticed me and was looking at me more intently than one might expect from a stranger in a queue.

"Gary?" I asked.

"Good Lord. Mr Beeson. Imagine meeting you here."

We couldn't talk for long. Now I would have liked to have a few minutes to chat with them, which naturally meant that the crawling speed of the queue suddenly felt far too quick. Still, we could catch up on a little news, and I learned that Gary had just completed an impressively long consultancy project that had kept him in Boston for four and a half years.

I last met him nearly three years ago. At the time, I was looking for a new job, a state in which I've found myself far too often in the course of a long, varied and not always entirely fulfilling career. He helped me get a couple of interviews with his company - just being invited to interviews, as anyone who's been unemployed knows, is no easy task - and if they didn't lead to an appointment, that was in no way a reflection on his efforts on my behalf, but entirely down to my not having the right mix of experience (and possibly skill, if I'm entirely honest).

However, I first met him long before that. Over quarter of a century ago. We shared a boss then, in a company where I handled marketing and he handled sales.

He was one of the most colourful figures in the long panoply of salesmen I've come to know. A glowing example from the column of those I class as 'successful and deserving congratulation'. There have been plenty in the opposite group, the ones I see as 'inept and in urgent need of firing'.

As an example of the latter type, I was thinking only the other day of Richard, a salesman with whom I had the misfortune of working some years ago. We visited a client who at one point told us, "It looks like a good service, but I'm worried that…"

Before he could go on, Richard interrupted.

"There's something else I want to show you which I'm sure you'll like…"

I wanted to kick him. The client had been about to voice an objection. Nothing is more precious for a salesman. To be told an objection? So you can address it? What could be more helpful? In many cases, clients tell you nothing about what they don't like, but do tell ten other people. And my colleague had stopped this client telling us.

But if Richard couldn't listen, Gary had another fault which was a virtue in disguise: he couldn't hear. That is, he could hear a great deal, but had an invaluable selective deafness to things it was no advantage to hear.

I was in an office where he was talking on the phone. He was apparently talking to the secretary of a senior executive (yes, it was those long-ago days when executives still had secretaries).

"I'm afraid I just don't understand," he was saying. "Yes, yes, I have his letter, but I don't know what he means. I really need to see him again, so we can get to the bottom of what he's thinking."

She was clearly telling him that her boss wouldn't give him an appointment, but he was insistent that he had to have one. And eventually his persistence paid off. After ten minutes, he at last got the appointment he wanted.

I was intrigued by what had been so incomprehensible to him. How obscure could a letter be if even Gary, who was certainly bright, couldn't follow it? I wandered over to take a look.

The letter was a single paragraph. A couple of sentences at most. I can't remember the exact words used, but the gist could not have been plainer. It was saying "no". The client didn't want our product. And he could not have said it more clearly.

A salesman who can't hear the word "no"? I appreciate, in these post-Harvey Weinstein days, that an inability to hear that word is an inexcusable failing in certain contexts; in the sales environment, however, it's a huge asset.

I don't remember whether Gary actually picked up the order in the end. It doesn't matter - he was highly successful across many clients so, even if this one didn't come through, he had an attitude that clearly worked well overall.

It was a great pleasure to run into him again. As well as a comforting break from the monotony of airline queues. If only I could guarantee an experience as enjoyable every time I fly.

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