On the buses and trouble with truffles?

After meeting with Nigel Morgan yesterday and having a nice coffee and chat, we got talking about the Apprentice and he inspired me to share some of the knowledge that I have stored in this brain. A classically trained sales person with 15 years media sales management experience, he reminded me of what I know, but often don’t tell people about.

I don’t know about you, but week ‘10’ of BBC TV’s The Apprentice has left me screaming at the screen. Like millions of other fans, I simply couldn’t believe that 24 year old Investment Banker Chris Bates offered such a ludicrous deal to the ticket office. It could have gone so horribly wrong and I found myself willing the the ticket office to sell just one ticket, but take 20% of Team Synergy’s total sales!  Even my 13 year old son worked that one out! Furthermore, 25 year old team leader & part time Rottweiler Joanna Riley then went back to the agency the following day to try to renegotiate, surrendering what little respect they still had left! Sometimes in business you get a lucky break, however in winning the task, I think “Team Synergy” used up a lifetime of good fortune! In truth, Lord Sugar should have fired them both to highlight the fact they had ignored two of the most basic rules in business! Namely, the ability to listen to your customer’s needs and secondly to protect your business reputation – whatever the cost.

Paul Allen my old boss made us complete a “fact find” with each customer,  minimum 30 questions.

With simple questions containing who, what, when, where, why, how.

1)     Who are their potential customers?

2)     What business are they currently doing?

3)     When is the busiest time of day/week/month?

4)     Where do customers come from?

5)     Why do customers buy from them?

6)     How much business are they doing?

7)     What is the ideal customer?

8)     How much does a customer spend?

9)     What are they buying and what profit margin are they looking to achieve?  And so on…

Only then could we understand our customer’s needs and consequently what products (if any) would provide real benefit to their business. Once this was established a comprehensive proposal was constructed to illustrate to the customer how their needs can be met through our services.

Looking back at the negotiation skills in week ‘9’ the girls and guys failed to ask the fundamental questions, how much should we be paying for truffles?  If we buy more than x, how much discount can we get? And no one asked who is the supplier?  A restaurant for truffles seriously?!

How much more effective would the ticket agency negotiation had been if Bates had found out how many tickets the ticket office could sell and at least gained some insight into their expectations on price and commission prior to offering an upfront discount!

So for two consecutive weeks, these “best of the best apprentices” failed to create a proper sales strategy and gave us all a poignant reminder of some of the most elementary business basics! Let’s face it, if we did business that way, none of us would be around for very long!

So the fundamental question has to be: If these candidates really are the best the UK can produce, why are they so poorly trained? Week after week we have seen “talented and experienced” business professionals not only failing to fact find and negotiate effectively, but also believe that Pinewood Studios is a furniture store and that the River Thames is the second largest river in London! It is no wonder then that a new OECD School League Tables published this week shows Britain’s educational system now ranked below that of a number of minor ex-Soviet Republics. Perhaps rather than destroying the streets of London, students should be asking for better value for money if tuition fees are to be tripled! … but that’s different issue!

We often take for granted the business experience we have accumulated over the years so when we sometimes feel vulnerable and not fully equipped to deal with all the challenges our businesses throw at us, think back to weeks 9 & 10 of  The Apprentice and take heart from the fact that no amount of today’s education can replace what knowledge you have amassed over time!

As for The Apprentice Class of 2010, let’s hope Lord Sugar has some competent sales trainers on the payroll who will probably deserve a “six figure salary” if they are to knock this bunch into shape (and if not I am available at competitive rates!)

Thanks to Paul Allen who contributed to this blog, as one other thing I have learnt, never annoy your boss or tell him where to go, coz you never know when you’ll need his help!!