Mike Humble recounts a strange and troubled soul he once worked with. While promising to make no reference to the fact that creating an essay… is rather like making love to a beautiful woman!
One of my all time favourite TV shows since reaching adulthood was The Fast Show. Readers of a younger generation may be baffled, but for those who are not aware of this superb telly nostalgia, at the time it caused a sensation when it hit the screens. With characters like Unlucky Alf, Paula the Weathergirl or Ted and Ralph, The Fast Show was one of those programmes you would stop in for and discuss and dissect at work the following day – just like you would have done at school following the previous evening’s Minder. The cast was collectively some of the finest comedic talents this Country offered and subsequently made household names of likes of John Thompson, Paul Whitehouse and my favourite – Charlie Higson.
One of the many sketch characters played by Mr Higson was Swiss Toni, a failing yet ultra smooth talking used car salesman sporting a 1960s Tony Curtis hairstyle and an off the peg Italian style suit. I found this man hilarious, not simply for the fact he was a motor trader, but also because he was so symptomatic of many a salesman not that long ago. Toni had a troubled soul, and part of the gag was the fact that he was teetering on the brink of a nervous breakdown, and during discussion with his trainee Paul, Toni would go off on a tangent, comparing every aspect of the motor trade like, ‘…making love to a beautiful woman’. Obviously, Toni’s wife had left him and the only sinking wreckage he could cling onto, was his sales job.
The BBC commissioned a full series of Swiss Toni which sadly bombed, but as a quick sketch piece of comedic genius, Swiss really encapsulated the sometimes sad and lonely place that even the busiest of showrooms can be. Employed by a large Rover dealer, I worked with circa 1994, was a used car salesman called Frank, he had sold cars from the used pitch for a number of years with considerable success. Why he had not become a manager or dealer principle was obvious, he had no leadership quality or sound acumen, but the public loved his smart suits and Cossack adorned hair. No one really knew Frankie that well, he kept himself very much to himself and lived miles away from this Midlands based dealer, but I was to find out more for sure.
Frank Kennedy sadly passed away a few years ago, and even though at best you could only scratch the surface of the man behind the Debenhams suit, he was a fascinating person to know. Even though collective sales people are all in competition with each other, you still have a laugh or a joke and often need to push in the same direction, not with Frank, he worked on his own agenda. When in full cry, he chirruped like a Canary with customers but to the rest of us, he was very quiet and spoke with few words and seldom socialised after work. You could not place your finger on it, but there seemed to be a deep hidden rage or temper within and rumor had it that some years back his business partner did a flit with the money, ruining him financially.
After coming off the tools and eventually going into sales, our paths crossed again almost 10 years later and he was still the same. Now working at a PVH-run MG Rover dealer, Frank once again ruled the used car site, never setting the world on fire, but making a decent living none the less. Frank used to charm the birds from the trees, especially with the mature customers, but his weakness, which subsequently became his downfall, were younger customers or the buyers who would not commit on the spot. If Mr and Mrs Goggins came wombling onto the pitch armed with a brace of walking sticks foaming at their mouths looking at a low mileage Dover white Rover 45, Frank would be away and out of his seat as fast as a Greyhound lure.
Should a younger couple or a mid-30s man stride into the fray, Frank would pass and allow one of the other lads to attend to the customer. This factor is known in the trade as ‘Cherry Picking’, an easy habit to fall into and something every salesman had been guilty of at least once. In one of those cruel twists of fate that is now symptomatic of car sales, we gained a new Dealer Principal for no real reason other than change’s sake, and, rightly or wrongly, this new chap wanted to make his mark on things. In no time Frank now found himself selling brand new cars and the poor bloke was like a fish out of water. Gone was the whiz bang fast turn over with used cars, Frank simply could not cope with people saying no or wishing for a little time to ponder and around the same time, his marriage collapsed, slowly yet surely Frank turned into Swiss Toni.
Well, it all came to a head one Saturday afternoon after a couple came in to view a new showroom model. I was sitting with a customer so Frank went and did the honours. The husband of the couple was on crutches owing to a long recovery period following a motorbike accident. I knew this because they both lived not far from me and it had also featured on the local news – the guy was very lucky to be still alive. They chatted, took a test drive and seemed to like what they experienced so, subsequently, figures were cobbled together with the aim of doing a deal. To help my colleague, I knew the couple on face terms so, every now and again, I would stick my head in and ask if everything was okay with them trying to boost their confidence.
There seemed to be some disagreement over part exchange allowances, so the new metal was discounted to act as a counterbalance, but the customer was failing to understand how the numbers crunched and became a tad fractious. The way I have found to work when in this situation is to simply say, ‘don’t worry how much we are paying for your car, let’s both worry about how much you want to pay for ours.’ The cost to change is the only thing that matters. Small discount with good part ex price or huge discount with market value part-ex price – the outcome is the same, it’s all in the dialogue. Either way, the customer was just a little confused about how the numbers worked; after all, buying a new car is a sometimes daunting experience.
Sitting just a few feet away, I was feeling the pain and embarrassment and it was almost like watching a plane crash from afar – nothing you can do to help, just wait for the loud bang with gritted teeth. Deciding to play devil’s advocate, I entered the fray to try and iron things out by suggesting we left them to ponder at his desk for little while. Making a let’s split gesture to Frank, we made them some drinks and popped outside for a sneaky puff, but my workmate made it quite clear outside he did not want any help. Far from being someone who takes pleasure in watching someone hang themselves, on this occasion, I decided to sit in the viewing gallery having had a genuine offer of assistance rebuffed with mild hostility.
Frank sauntered back to the couple sat at his desk and the husband asked if the deal could be explained to them one more time before they decide. This was sadly the straw that broke the camel’s back for Frank. Thumping his hand on the desk, Frank yelled, ‘Jesus wept! It’s your legs that are knackered not your head surely’. Well, in one of those surreal moments of silence, the couple with perfect timing looked at each other, swigged their coffees down and quietly walked out of the showroom without muttering a word.
Frank was duly summoned into the Sales Manager’s office for tea and biscuits before being seen quietly walking out of the premises about 15 minutes later!