The Greatest Liar in the Universe

The Greatest Liar in the Universe

A few months after I joined a carpet company as Export manager in 1997, and after my first few overseas jaunts on their behalf, my then boss and now very good friend asked if he could accompany me on one of my expeditions. My first had been to try and stop a German distributor from suing the company for the non-supply of sampling materials. He had driven countless kilometres ‘bigging up’ our products to his 14 sales agents, and the non-appearance of the samples had caused several to drift to other suppliers.

I was put on a flight to Hamburg with the senior UK sales manager who was there to offer me his support. The trouble was, he had a very strong Glaswegian accent that I was finding it difficult to understand, so while I was able to decipher most words until he got up to speed, there was no hope of our German friend doing likewise. Ho Hum. We made for our car hire point at Hamburg Airport to take the drive north to Kiel, but my colleague was not confident about driving “on the wrong side of the road on the wrong side of the car with the gear stick on the wrong side”. So that was going to be my job too.

It was my first trip so I wanted to be clear headed for our meeting in Kiel the following morning. My companion was visibly shocked that I didn’t want to go out for a drink with him after our evening meal. I wasn’t planning on arriving at a first meeting feeling hungover (a principle that you will see in a later paragraph, slipped from time to time!)

Our negotiations the following day went swimmingly well… or mine did. Every time my colleague spoke, a look of incredulity came across our client’s face, until he spoke no more. I stopped the potential law suit and agreed a reasonable way forward, putting my personal reputation on the line in the process. This meant that when I returned to the office I was going to make it crystal clear that when samples are promised, samples are sent, no matter what the quantity. I didn’t need to ask twice, so what the previous incumbent had been up to I will never understand.

As things transpired, my boss accompanied me on a second urgent trip to Austria to try and find out why a very tall and smartly turned out Austrian chappie was refusing to settle a longstanding bill with us. In short, the guy was a crook although we did manage to claw back 50% of what he owed. We had such fun (not) on that trip, arriving too late at our hotel for any form of food and then the boss lost a cufflink on the drive back to Salzburg while (for some reason) waving his hands out of the open sunroof, and almost missing our flight back to Manchester. Clearly, he enjoyed himself so much that he decided to accompany me on a week-long tour of Scandinavian distributors.

As someone who is allergic to crustaceans, I made the huge mistake of being tempted by a king prawn on our flight to Stockholm the following month, and thus spent a sleepless night in the harsh company of my Swedish hotel room toilet before rising early to witness the October 1997 South East Asia financial crash happen before our eyes on an overhead TV screen at our distributor’s office. It did not feel at that point that we were going to have an especially good week.

On to Helsinki where we spent two nights. We met our distributors for an evening meal and promptly consumed three bottles of wine (possibly each) over dinner as we got along famously. Famously enough to then be taken for a lunch of cabbage soup after the following morning’s meeting – not the world’s greatest hangover cure! We did some very good business that day but decided we would take it easy that evening ahead of an early flight to Oslo.

Well you can guess can’t you?

I almost couldn’t take the 7am flight but it was without incident and we arrived in Oslo fit enough to get through another very good meeting before resting for a few hours and taking a tour of the city. Our final meeting of the trip was to meet our distributor and some architects in Bergen, flying in and flying out on the same day. Pleasantries exchanged, our distributor then presented our products very impressively, winning orders in the process. Trouble was, he told them a complete pack of lies about their performance qualities, including fire test accreditations (there was plenty of information on the product sample books to contradict his almost every word).

I passed a note to my boss to ask him to stay quiet and we would resolve any problems after the trip. This guy clearly knew his customers very well, and they respected his ‘knowledge’ so it felt better to pick up the pieces after the event than cause him to lose face publicly. We did retrieve the situation, but never worked with that distributor again. Sad really because he was great fun to be around, and his customer manner (apart from the fibs) was excellent.

I travelled for a week every month from August 1997 until the end of that year, mainly to meet selling partners who were either on the point of leaving us or suing us and to convince them to work with me. I managed to retain everyone but the serial Norwegian liar, and it formed the basis of a successful seven years with the company. However, it struck me how easy it can be for a company to lose reputation. I was told at interview “all you have to do to be better than the last guy is turn up”, and so it proved. Extending basic courtesies and fulfilling easy promises was all it took (and on the Scandinavian trip rather a lot of socialising!)

Article written by John Reed - Associate of Strong & Herd LLP

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