It takes a lifetime for some of us slow ones to learn this, but much of our life is selling. Our abilities, our competence, our ideas, our platforms and sometimes our dreams. Of course our work. So, I do believe that it is a useful investment in one’s youth to have done some selling. Street selling preferably. A lemonade stand. A T-shirt business. Collecting for charity on street corners. This last one is probably the most useful – unsheltered, raw contact with those who are rushing past and have little interest in the cause you are espousing, less even in shelling out money – just the lessons of rejection are worth it for a lifetime.
There is another totally ego-destroying, soul-depleting, show-us-how-much-spine-you-have exercise is cold calling. On the phone or in person. Show up, be shown down. In between the two you have that sliver of opportunity, and when you convert that, there is no greater high. It is a fine skill, honed with daring and practice, the pure art of persuasion. It takes all you’ve got – and more. You learn to sing your words to their tune, the tricksy bit being that you barely have seconds to figure out their tune. It comes naturally to some, or so it seems to those of us who look on with envy, plodding diligently on to the next call, and then the next. “It gets easier each time”, was the sage advice that was given to me once by someone who is quite senior now. Advice I have always held close – for it gives both hope and a reason to do it better next time. It does. He was right.
It was probably the best summer and the worst summer of my life. These were the days before call centres took over the cold calling duties that hapless interns like myself were handed. I wonder what interns do these days.. oh yes, we had analytics and crunching and presentations too – we saved the banks millions with our deep young insights. And we cold called. For a few hours or what felt like a few thousand calls, each afternoon, we summer interns sat in a conference room with a phone instrument allocated to each. It was just past the era of rotary dials, thankfully, so the rubber end of pencils was pressed into duty lest our first-time-manicured fingers tell the tale of this dreary duty. Each of us was handed a thick book – the directory of exporters in Delhi and we had to finish calling each one of them within the week – and enlist as many of them to use the bank’s export processing products. Basically to export via the bank’s channels. Traders, Exporters, Delhi, Summer, Afternoon – novice callers. This was a recipe made in hell and I still shudder when I see big yellow books with black print.
But we learnt. On the first day not one of us was even able to engage a caller for over a minute, let alone talk to them about their business banking. Over time we learnt to slowly engage – start with open ended statements, gently embed questions in our patter, collect data from conversation – build empathy and resonance – the arts of persuasion are wiles after all. At the very least we built a very very useful database for the bank. At best, we built a small business for them. So many of them had not even thought that a foreign bank would engage with small traders – mistakenly. However posh a brand pretends to be, it is ultimately driven by business. If it is value added business, you will see it done in domes of glass and chrome, the glitter of that lucre lighting up many other potential deals. If it is a volume business, with lower margins, all that changes is the setting – back offices, basements and now call centres are pressed into action. We probably sowed the seeds of call centres. Gentle competition, a single minded focus on a goal and six insecure over achievers in a room can bring you miracles.
So, mister banker, when you look at your stable, middle of the road, small enterprise trade and collections business, do remember to thank us (you’d have been one of us then, so it is easier) – we added another stone to it’s foundation.
In turn, I will thank you, you exploiter of summer interns, for putting us through the churn. We hated it then, but even today, as my voice modulates to match the person I am calling, I remember that hot and horrid summer and silently tip my hat.
And whisper, Never Again, O God, Never Again.