Saturday, August 14, 2010

From my book ‘ON THE ROAD AGAIN’

Back in Melbourne, it took me a while to recover from the bout of this new strain of flu which, in the meantime, had reached our shores. I still cringe at the thought that I may have started this flu epidemic here. But eventually, I was on the road again and busily calling on my customers and clients, physically somewhat weaker but wiser in product knowledge.

It was our monthly sales meeting in the office of my managing director, Declan Doherty. As usual, we were all there: myself, my colleague Ken Butterfield and our receptionist, the lovely Marilyn Bevan who had just brought us our morning coffee, steaming hot with a biscuit on the side. Sometimes our bookkeeper lady, Norma Hazelwood, would join us with her concertina-type computer readout for her various comments about our customers and their payment patterns.

Ken Butterfield, an extrovert, was as noisy as ever. ‘Hey Pete, what did you get? Cappuccino? I like my coffee like my women – black and strong!’ He nodded happily to himself and took his first sip. An ‘Ah!’ emanated from his lips, followed by further sipping sounds.

‘Thank you all for being on time – so let’s start this meeting!’ The resonant voice of Declan, my boss, sounded this morning especially fruity and well-rounded. It was like hearing a Shakespearean actor and It never failed to impress me. I could picture him on stage or maybe in a pulpit, dressed as a bishop. He was always well-shaven and in his tailor-made suit, with his elegant manners, he was the epitome of a successful company executive.

Ken, my colleague, eased himself back in his comfortable chair and tried to draw another careful sip from his cup which was still far too hot for a proper gulp. For a moment, he looked bothered because this was the time of the day when he really needed a cup of coffee.

He was a pleasant colleague, with great knowledge of the flooring industry, but he was also equipped with lots of gossip and funny anecdotes which sometimes bordered on the weird. Also, he had the habit of uttering words and phrases that were rather uncommon: ‘When cocky was an egg’, for example. If a landmark was imposing and could not be missed, he described it as ‘standing out like dog balls’.

Also with us this morning was Lionel Harting, our sales representative from South Australia, a well dressed, quiet gentleman whose heavily lined face showed the stress and strain he faced obtaining business in his state. But despite all these worries, he was also a scoutmaster with a very successful group of boys who were winning awards at state-wide scouting competitions.

Norma came into the meeting with her voluminous computer readout and dropped it with a heavy thud onto the large conference table, thereby creating the desired attention. With her horn-rimmed glasses, she looked around at everybody. I must say that I felt straightaway guilty because some of my customers were very bad payers of their bills.

Marilyn, having finished serving everyone coffee or tea, left the room. As always, she carried out her tasks with care and kindness. However, I noticed her eyes were somewhat reddish, as if she had been crying and I made a mental note to find out what was the matter with her.

I was brought back from my thoughts by Declan’s beautiful BBC voice. It reminded me of a recent meeting we had with Melbourne’s health authorities. Declan and I had gone to the head offices of this government office for a meeting that was attended by about eight top health officials, all wanting to know about the latest in flooring technology.

Declan took control of this meeting by making a speech about our company, the latest products and how we could help arrest the spiralling maintenance costs in various institutions like hospitals, nursing homes, schools etc. His Shakespearean voice sounded so pleasant, his accent so superior, clear and precise. His speech was peppered with special phrases and words which have such a hold over our lives. There were plenty of ‘however’ and ‘furthermore’ to be heard, plus ‘one ought to appreciates’ ‘it is often said’, and ‘in the light of’. I listened with rapture to his resounding and superior diction, wistfully thinking ‘if only I could speak like that, everybody else seemed to be under the same spell as they listened to Declan’s intonations.

He spoke with gusto, letting the words dissolve slowly on his tongue. But apparently he got carried away by the spell of his own words. He must have listened too much to himself because suddenly he stopped, looked up at me and asked in front of everybody: ‘Peter, what are we talking about?’

The shock I felt was instantaneous. ‘About the resilience of our floorings, their ball bouncing properties, space indentations versus point indentations’. I threw him a lifeline, which he took up immediately and away he went, massaging our eardrums with his speech. I had thus saved the day.

Returning to the current situation, to our Monday morning meeting, I found Declan dealing with sales promotion campaigns, such as giving product presentations to groups of architects. But the largest company promotion was planned for the end of the year - an Apprentice of the Year competition to be held in Sydney, with all important personalities from the trade and Government attending.

‘Peter’, he faced me with a challenging glance ‘I would like you to contact the offices of Albermann & Silver for a lunch-time promotion. They are currently working on important projects, as you are aware of, and I am not sure that they are fully informed of our product range.’ He nodded in self-confirmation. ‘Please give them a call and arrange for a suitable day and time.’

‘Yes, of course,’ I heard myself say, ’now that we have received new samples and catalogues I could make it a really good product presentation!’ ‘Splendid, Peter, I leave the details up to you!’

‘And everybody else, that is, Lionel and Ken, please prepare a list of suitable prospective clients we could approach with similar activities.’ Everybody nodded in agreement. ‘Norma, what do you have to say?’ he handed the meeting over to her. Whereupon Norma burst into a lengthy litany about customers who do not pay their bills. She looked at us representatives with eyes saddened by such human depravity. I noted down some well-known habitual recidivists from my own sales territory and felt a trifle shameful as if it was my own fault.

When she had finished, Norma almost lovingly stroked her thick concertina folder, then took it in her arms and walked out of our meeting. Her back was straight and her chin held high as her mission was accomplished!

‘Well, gentlemen, I thank you for coming and wish you all a successful week! And then Declan followed up with his standard joke: ’Don’t sell too much, ha, ha’

With coffee and biscuits consumed, we slowly filed out of the meeting room and into our main office where we found our desks littered with little notes and messages.

‘Here are some more messages for you, Peter!’ the gentle voice of Marilyn reminded me. Looking up from my clipboard, I noticed again her reddish, sad eyes.

Taking the set of messages I started a conversation: ‘Thank you, Marilyn. And I’ve brought you something from the towns I’ve visited, something for your souvenir spoon collection.’ I handed her three silver-looking spoons with special heraldry at the end of the handle. She had asked me once shyly whether it was possible for me to bring her the occasional spoon from my country trips and I had accepted this as one of my standard tasks. From then on, after every trip, I would bring her some spoons and she must have had a sizeable collection by now.

‘Marilyn, what’s wrong with you? You seem to be very sad or upset today’ I probed. ‘Is there anything I may help you with?’ Whilst her gentle eyes welled up with tears that ran down her pussycat face, she confided in me that Frank, her boyfriend, had been unfaithful to her. It was something she had never expected and this is breach of trust was destroying her.

This was serious! I tried to comfort her as best as I could and she did appear to be a bit relieved to have the opportunity of confiding in someone. .

A phone call interrupted our sensitive moment. Norma was pointing to my desk where a receiver, seemingly impatient, was waiting for me.

‘Hi Pete, it’s Lyle Barkman here. How are you today?’ It was a retailer and he sounded like he wanted something from me. ’Pete, as you know, business is a bit quiet at the moment and I wonder if it is possible for you to recommend me a bit. As you know, I have a floor layer and some staff in the shop……….’

I felt embarrassed about being asked for help. ‘Of course, Lyle, I know you give good service and the standard of your flooring installations is excellent. I shall gladly recommend your services. Would you post me some business cards of yours? I would make good use of them. Don’t worry, times may be tough but we see this through together.’

‘Thank you very much, Pete. I appreciate your help!’ Lyle assured me.

As soon as I replaced the receiver, the phone rang again. ‘This is Joan Madison from the Coonan hospital. We have a complaint about your flooring: it is difficult to maintain……’

I knew from experience that there is no use in trying to convince someone over the telephone about the simplest way of maintaining the floor. By the way she described the floor getting darker all the time, I knew they did not change the mopping-up water in the bucket. Naturally, the water gets dirtier and dirtier until it cannot clean any more but leave a dirty slurry on the floor surface.

The best way to handle this was to go there, get the cleaning staff together and demonstrate this most simple procedure of mopping and changing water in the bucket. I always did this with cheerfulness and used to end the demonstration of a clean floor with the words ‘There you are – and I am only a rep!’ Therefore, I made an appointment with Joan to go and give my cleaning demonstration.

After this phone call, I got up, ready to leave as I had a list of calls waiting for my visits and the office was getting busier by the minute. Marilyn, sweet little Marilyn, was talking to people on the switchboard, finding out what they actually wanted before switching them through to the appropriate person.

A temporary accounts girl was busily processing a stack of data in front of her, accomplishing this task with nimble fingers racing over her keyboard. She was oblivious to everything around her, utterly absorbed by the task.

Norma was on the phone again, speaking with tardy customers about overdue payments with a fixed expression on her face that seemed to say: ‘Don’t give me that excuse!’

Then she dropped everything, stood up, straightened her dress with the flat of her hand then quickly walked through our large office into the ladies room.

I followed her with bored eyes. ‘Nothing unusual here’, I thought, but the pneumatic door may have not been working properly because it took a longer time to close. Just before it did, I had a glimpse of Norma absentmindedly hiking up her dress before entering a cubicle, revealing large grey bloomers before the slow-closing door blocked this not very pretty sight!

‘Oh, for heavens’ sake, pull yourself together!’ I reprimanded myself and impatiently walked out of the office.

My last glimpse was of Declan still talking to somebody in his elegant office and waving me ‘Good bye’ with an elegant wave of his hand that showed off a golden Rolex watch.

Peter Frederick

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