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The Apprentice Week 9 – Sellers, Closers and Negotiators

Just listen won't you - I've got to get to Sandhurst

Just listen! won't you - I've got to get to Sandhurst

The Apprentice Week 9 – Getting Real

This was my come-uppance week. Sralan had a good show and even Ben showed a bit of the self-knowledge one despaired of him ever acquiring.

It is a troubling aspect of The Apprentice that everyone later on The Apprentice You’re Fired (TAYF) suddenly becomes more likeable, more truthful, less aggressive and arrogant than when they were still in the show. This touches on what seems to me to be the most important issue – independence of mind, character and spirit. I want someone to say courteously “good morning” and withhold the apparently obligatory “Sir Alan”. Someone able to focus totally on satisfying the requirements of the task on hand rather than trying to satisfy Alan Sugar, or even the demands of the producers. I’m looking for the genuine signs of leadership – and it is as rare as hen’s teeth.

In Ben we have lost the best ‘Closer’ I’ve seen on the programme in two seasons. ‘Closers’ should not be confused with Salesmen: many very good Salesmen are poor Closers; and you have to use Closers carefully or they will simply blow long and careful negotiations out of the water with their impatience and arrogance. But for the right business – high volume, repeat sales, middle to low ticket items, good Closers are both efficient and essential. The art of ‘Closing’ is knowing the critical moment in the sales process when the balance of initiative switches. Good Salesmen make a customer want to buy: the Closer spots the moment at which they are ready to, and intervenes confidently and decisively to reinforce the customer’s instinct to go for it before other possibilities, other options, doubts return and the process almost has to start again. Many excellent Salespeople sell themselves out of the sale. There is the skill of bringing someone to the point of wanting to buy and the separate and distinct skill of recognising the moment when you have succeeded. So locked in to selling mode, even good Salespeople often miss this moment – the Closer never does. He has the deal wrapped up, the money in and is on to the next customer while the poor Salesman is still trying to further convince someone whose need has switched from someone wanting to buy to someone seeking more and more reasons not to.

Closers are efficient: they turn in sales because they play the averages and don’t waste time on people their instinct tells them aren’t going to buy. It is a critical sales skill to distinguish between these main types – people who will buy; people who might buy; and people who ain’t gonna buy no matter how much time you give them. But Closers generally make poor Negotiators – they don’t have the patience – they just want to close and move on. This was a critical element in the key failure for Ben’s team this week. When challenged rightly by AS about not negotiating a better deal on the very high ticket Rocking Horses – Ben said “we tried to get him to come down on price, but he wouldn’t”. For the Negotiator the game starts when someone says “no“; for the Closer it ends. Closers always believe they can make a sale: Negotiators always believe they can get a better price.

I hate the whole business of selling but one has to admit it is a psychologically rich process. It’s not just hindsight: Debra and Ben both realised that selling top ticket, high quality rocking horses at £1500 – £4,000 was as much a risk as an opportunity. Their sales mentality dominated their negotiating instincts – “we only have to sell 1 and we’ve won.” The Salesman always believes he can sell. The Negotiator says “I can get a much better price and that will either improve margins or tunrover, or both.” It is a matter of articulacy and refined linguistic skills. The guys offering the rocking horse would know all about the problems of selling a kid’s toy however well made, for the cost of a small car. A low throughput business by definition, it was obvious that they were operating with a fat margin. Negotiators live off the fat of fat margins. If Ben or Debra had had the instincts of Negotiators rather than Salespeople they would have ‘sold’ back to the vendors all the problems they would themselves already be familiar with in getting people to part with such serious money. They might also have pointed out that the kind of people who have thousands to spend on a child’s toy with the inevitable transience of children’s passions, are not necessarily the kind of people flogging round a Baby Show with the hoi polloi looking for a bargain. (Their sentiments – not mine). They needed a bottom line from the vendors and to get it they would have had to construct a reason for them to give it e.g. sharing the benefit of marginal sales equally. For the vendor the more horses they get out there the more their beautiful horses would sell themselves to admiring friends and relations who want the same thing. For the Baby Show, either don’t choose the rocking horses or screw the margin: get 5 or 6 horses out there at better than cost as a ‘special one-off Baby Show price’, exploit the publicity and wait for the on-sales to come through. Then you can hold your margin: e.g. by limiting supply, “sorry these are all made to order by craftsmen and that takes time; if you want one soon it has to be at this price” etc etc.

I thought the birthing pool at about £70 had a lot of potential and James seemed absolutely right for selling it. I think they sold about 6 or 7: if they had focussed on that as their key product they really could have sold more. For under £100 just the pre-birth opportunities for relaxation, safe exercise, and floating away the constant drain of gravity would have made it a winner. They didn’t sell enough benefits. They had all their money on the horses – never a good place for money to be.

If not negotiating was the key failure of James’ team Lorraine was guilty of a real Lulu too. Not knowing that others would be selling the same product against you at the show was a novice mistake. That the other seller was undercutting you on price was plain stupid. Either you do a deal with the vendor for an agreed minimum price on the day and compete on selling skill or you demand the same buy-in price and then compete on price/value. The buggy was a good choice of product and they sold them well until word got round about the price disadvantage.

Lorraine’s struggle with the buggy was a set up for the cameras. If she was in trouble then Howard and/or Kate could have shown her. There was absolutely no reason for any one of the three of them to screw up opening and closing the buggy on the day in front of customers. That was just for us to have a laugh. The kiddie scrum cap wasn’t necessarily a dumb choice £16 is well inside the average anxious parent’s guilt limit. First question every time should have been: “is this your first?” Put all your effort into first time parents. By the time you’ve got 2 or more lids you begin to realise that in spite of the odd tragedy, toddlers are remarkably hard-wearing and you aren’t going to get a muddly scrum cap on to any kid with siblings to take the mickey of him. As for getting all the kids into them – in your dreams.

That said Lorraine has blossomed since the departure of Pretty Phil and Howard is beginning to come into his own in the same way i.e get the aggressive blow-hards out of the way and reason and intelligence has a bit of room to breathe. Proven post hoc absolutely right about the Margate campaign poster last week Howard was positive, on the ball and committed this week. He Kate and Lorraine made a good team. Given the gigantic egos on The Apprentice when the number is odd, smart players long to be on the smaller team. Both Kate and Howard have good presentational skills, though Kate is on balance the better Salesperson. Horses for courses though: any project manager not putting Howard’s thinking and analytical skills to good use is being stupid. The crunch will come though when Howard is PM again. With only the non-aggressive James left he might just come into his own now. He at least has two strong points against Debra that she is bright enough to accept privately at least. If he can get her working with him that would be a managerial accomplishment of some weight. One has to say that might be more likely in the real world than on the show – Debra is playing the ‘game’ to the hilt.

An interesting week. If you watch for the fun of seeing unpleasant people behaving stupidly and getting their just come-uppance then it was a quiet show. However there are signs that some of the maturity that these young people probably brought to the show is beginning to come through now they have got past the ‘on-TV’ mugging and bragging.

I was very surprised that Ben went – he was this year’s ‘Michael’ the rough-edged, lots to learn but ballsy guy in whom Alan Sugar sees his younger self. I knock Sralan enough each week – so credit where it is due, he acted against his partial instincts this week and probably got a marginal decision about right. I really can’t see him employing Lorraine or James. Yas seems to me to be as good as the PM she’s got. Her instinct to bossiness seems to distract her when she’s in charge. However with Kate v Howard and Yas tucked in behind the two leaders it looks as if the interest in the series will last the course.

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