This little parable might serve as advice to any young salesperson involved in demonstrating a product. You just can't be too careful.
Author's Note: It has been three years since my dad, Stuart Daw, passed away. Shortly thereafter, I began writing this column and promised, sometimes, to include some of the timeless thoughts and musings found in his countless articles and stories. This month, I've dug up a story he always loved to tell, as much for its lesson as its humor. He published this back in 1994, but the lesson is eternal.
John Wyndowe, my old partner, was as honest a man as one could ever know. I worked with him one way or another for 27 years, through which he exhibited many other virtues, too. He now is happily retired as a 75-year-old ski instructor.
He started his working career as a salesman, but wound up in what for him was a more comfortable role, production. To give you an insight as to why he was not sales-oriented: one day I was writing a piece on coffee, and I had a mental block over whether there were 3,500 or 4,500 beans in a pound. I called John at the plant and asked him. He said he didn't know but would call back.
In an hour or so he called to say there were 3,377 beans in a pound. I asked him how he determined that, and he said he had counted them.
"You mean you actually counted a whole pound?" I asked. When he answered yes, I suggested he might have considered counting the number of beans in an ounce and multiplying by 16.
After a brief hesitation, he played a trump card -- he said if he had done that, he would have had an even number, which in fact would have been out by at least one bean. Now, setting aside the varying bulk density of coffees that could mean a variation from pound to pound, and the truth that one could safely say "around 3,500 beans," this was a man who was firmly rooted in reality -- a stickler for precision.
A prospect might ask us in 1963 if we had ever had a complaint on our coffee, and if I said "no," John might say, "Stuart, don't you remember that time in 1950 when Joe Doakes had a complaint?"
Apart from the fact that Joe Doakes's complaint might not have been valid, John likely wouldn't have even granted me the statute of limitations' seven-year exemption.
I can recall only one time when he lived through what would be a classic horror story for any salesman, and in which his honesty and trusting nature let him down when he, unsuspecting, encountered a dishonest man. John had come into the coffee business 10 years ahead of me, and had for much of that time been trying to get the coffee business at what was then Toronto's largest restaurant account, situated on the corner of a busy intersection on the main drag, Yonge Street.
After countless tries, he finally got the owner to agree to a competitive demo, pitting John's coffee against the brand in use. The restaurant had a twin five-gallon urn, in which two pounds per batch were used. John arrived for the afternoon appointment ready to employ his considerable skills as a coffee brewing expert, at which he usually applied the same precision as indicated in the bean story above.
WHAT EVIL LURKS
But the restaurateur apologized for having to ask John to come back the next day, as he had an emergency situation, which couldn't be set aside. John left his two pounds of coffee on a shelf beneath the coffee urn, and returned the next morning, carefully cleaned the urn coffee compartments, rinsed the starch out of two urn bags (which were then standard equipment) and emptied the two pounds of his coffee into the right-hand side of the urn, the standard brand into the left (we always put our coffee on the right, by habit -- that way we would not have to remember which was which).
John hand-poured the hot water over the coffees, carefully monitoring the temperature and time of extraction. He knew his coffee vis-a-vis the competitor's -- it was a better blend; it had a slightly higher roast, meaning the liquor would be darker, too.
But something was terribly wrong here. The liquid coffee rising in the right-hand gauge glass was a bit lighter than in the left. This concerned John, but he went ahead and let the urn bags drain, mixed the coffee, and invited the owner to a table to begin the sampling.
Drawing the two cups from each side of the urn, John brought them to his nose, and discovered that the bouquet on the left was somewhat better than from the right. And it was definitely darker. But John, before even letting the coffees cool down for tasting, began extolling the virtues of the coffee on the right, waxing eloquent in his praise.
By now, the reader may be way ahead of me. Yes, the restaurateur had done the dirty deed. The night before, he had meticulously taken a razor and cut the glue from the tops of all four coffee bags, opened and switched them, carefully re-sealing them so it couldn't be told that they had been tampered with (shades of the Tylenol scandal).
When John began tasting, he realized his horrible mistake in not trusting his senses, not comparing the roast color of the dry grounds, and not smelling their comparative aroma. He was locked in, but he decided to brazen it through. And of course the restaurant owner, delighted with himself at having pulled such a clever little caper, had him dead to rights.
The demonstration was lost. We never, ever got the business.
The lesson for John, and all other people involved in such exercises, is surely to maintain your fix on reality, and to trust your mind and senses. Use your knowledge as a buffer against those who would deceive. Given that, you can rest assured that trust, honesty, and openness are far better than mistrust, paranoia and deceit in achieving your values.
© 1994 Stuart Daw
KEVIN DAW is president of Heritage Coffee Co. (London, ON, Canada), a leading private-label roaster serving the breaktime management industries in North America. He is in charge of coffee buying for Heritage. A 30-year veteran of the workplace service business, Daw has served as a commission coffee service salesman, a principal of a vending operation and president of a bottled water company. Since 1990, he has concentrated on coffee roasting. Active in industry affairs, Daw is a Specialty Coffee Association of America Certified Brewing Technician, a member of the National Beverage and Products Association Hall of Fame, a recipient of the National Automatic Merchandising Association Supplier of the Year Award and a NAMA Coffee Service Committee member.