The Close or Mr. Coffee and the Tiger

Everything in this post is true. Some names have been changed to protect me. 

It’s 1984. 

I’m sitting in a stuffy conference hall in downtown Los Angeles, surrounded by mustachioed men. All men in 1984 had moustaches. They made the beardy craze of today look weak. 

I have my notepad and workbook. I’m pretty sure people were smoking. Wide eyed, bemused, and utterly naïve I sat for what seemed like 8 hours, and was enraptured by the guru, no, KING of sales training, Mr. Tom Hopkins (feel free to cringe a little). 

You’ll be thinking, how in the world could she remember this, 31 years gone? I remember it for one reason – Mr. Coffee. I was reflecting today that for all the scores of conferences, courses and training I’ve been on, I normally glean one or two nuggets that become part of the soup (or compost) that is me.

This is (more or less) what Tom said: “Ask the closing question, then SHUT UP. Pretend you are watching your Mr. Coffee drip coffee maker. You know what happens if you remove the pot before it’s done! All hell breaks loose! A splattering, sizzling mess! WAIT! Just wait for that last drop. SHUT UP. Just wait. There is gold in the last drop.” 

I drew a coffee pot on my pad. The drips. Just wait. There is gold in that last drop.  What happened when I did this? I created an anchor.  

I have always been proud of being a salesperson. Maybe it’s just because I was always selling something that solved a problem. Maybe I wasn’t, but I always saw it that way. My first job was with a computer peripherals company – we sold printers and terminals, modems and cables, protocol converters and ribbons. For the first couple of years I learned all of the admin and accounting jobs. I liked talking to customers, helping them solve their problems, and I was good at it. It never felt like selling, not really. In 1987 and 1988, I sold more IBM 3151 green screen terminals than anyone else west of the Mississippi. 

I’ve carried those skills through my career and through my life. Over time the propositions and solutions became more complex. I was always at my best when the technology I was selling was making a market, and I was making change happen. 

I didn’t close every deal. I still had trouble reconciling the ABC principle with the coffee drip. Subverting my ego, endeavoring to truly listen rather than always be thinking of the next clever thing to say. It’s hard! But honestly, if the coffee drip hadn’t been anchored into my brain, it would have been even harder. 

When I moved to the UK and looked after and worked in multi-cultural teams, things became trickier. The stereotypes come to life – what happens when a confident, assertive American woman meets a neurotic sex-obsessed Englishman? Oh sorry I’m talking about my husband there – let’s use another example – an arrogant, dismissive Frenchman? Or a bureaucratic, humorless German? 

It became even more interesting when we emigrated to NZ. Kiwis can be incredibly passive-aggressive. Malaysians say yes when they mean no. Chinese sometimes say nothing at all, constantly deferring up. 

What’s the common thread? Silence. Asking the question and waiting. It’s the one technique that works with everyone, everywhere. 

I’ll close with a story that may seem too fantastic to be true. The cultural context: Macho Mexican Mafiosi. I’ve already shared my bungy background. One of our sites was a franchise operation in Mexico; operated by a tycoon I’ll call Carlos. The terms of the arrangement were that they licensed the brand and systems and payed a royalty. 

Royalties were to be paid monthly, but this never happened. Excuse after excuse, which meant that at least a couple times a year, me another manager had to fly into Acapulco to ‘collect’. 

Carlos operated a couple dozen establishments. Each night, drivers would go from place to place collecting the cash. From around dawn, a small armada of women would count the money, in the counting house, on the grounds of Carlos’ palatial home. Creditors would line up outside the gate, and wait for their turn for payment. 

On one occasion, I flew into Acapulco via Las Vegas (where we had another site) for a 3-day trip. I was told I would be seeing Carlos that first afternoon. By the morning of my departure, at least 3 meetings had been set and cancelled. On the last morning, we drove up to the house and the uzi-armed guards at the gate let me through. Carlos spoiled his son, and had given him a baby tiger for his birthday. The tiger was chained up in the garden. 

I was escorted through the counting house, into a sub-room that was like a bunker. Carlos sat behind a big mahogany desk. An assistant sat behind me. I presented the invoice. I recall it was something like $47,238.00, which represented 6 months royalty. 

Carlos hit the roof – swearing, yelling, screaming at me to tell my boss he was a loco bandido, slamming the invoice on the table. We negotiated a little. I gave a little ground. Gave my bottom line. Carlos was still steaming. But I just waited. I sat there, silently. Not reacting. Not explaining. Not negotiating. Drip. Drip. Drip. 

How was I feeling, inside? I was freaking out. This was like a scene out of a bad B-movie! But I didn’t panic, because somewhere, deep inside me, I knew that the silence would work. 

After what seemed like an eternity, Carlos got up, opened the wall safe behind him, and took out stacks of cash. His assistant counted it. I counted it. Then I left. I was a little nervous on the way to the airport.