“£255,” said the jewellery salesman with the contrived nonchalance that comes from spending your day surrounded by absurdly small items costing a month’s wages.
£255 was indeed an absurd amount to spend on a ball-point pen. Of course this was not an ordinary ball-point pen. This was a Mont Blanc – and an engraved one at that. Engraving added another £20. I had no idea…
My company had presented me with the pen three months ago for being what they called a “Top Achiever”. In fact they gave me a fountain pen and a fibre-tipped pen as well. How much was the whole set worth?
“All engraved?” said the salesman. “About £900.”
I couldn’t believe it. How can a set of pens be worth £900?
More to the point, how could I have dropped the ball-point on the pavement while doing my prize draw – which was how I came to be buying a refill in shop where nothing in the window cost less than £2,000.
I came out shaking my head – not at the price. Or the fact that I could have been so careless. But because the company gives away dozens of these pens every year – on top of sending us on an £18,000 holiday … and the share options … and the rest. What on earth is the point of it all?
In the next half hour I found out.
Since I had been forced to come into Ipswich to buy the refill in the first place, it made sense to do my half an hour of prize draw in the town as well – my favourite spot was just down the road. I pulled out a form and a script, held up my planner and said to the the first person who came towards me: “Here you are, you can win a car or £10,000…”
Which seemed slightly surreal because only the day before, I had been at the other end of the country demonstrating it to a room full of people at The Cold-Market Academy. I remember looking at some of the faces in the audience and seeing expressions which said: “Yes, but you wouldn’t really do that…”
Oh yes I would – and again … and again.
If you are a graduate of The Academy you will know that we start off with a video showing how I used to do it – and how I used to get it wrong. In fact we had to speed up the video because it took me 22 minutes and 66 attempts to get one person to agree to enter the prize draw- and that was normal! Now I have a better script and it is hardly ever more than ten minutes or 20 people.
But on this occasion for some reason they kept on walking past. They said they were “all right thanks”. They said they were in a hurry. Some said nothing at all but walked past me as if I didn’t exist. It was a bit of a shock. Only 24 hours earlier I had been standing up and saying that this worked – that all anybody had to do if they wanted an appointment was stand in the street and say the same thing until someone gave them one.
I distinctly remember claiming it was infallible – that eventually you would get an appointment… anyone would get an appointment… the law of averages demanded it…
And yet the minutes ticked by and nobody stopped. Ten people ignored me – 20 ignored me. The little marks on the form where I record the numbers started to fill up all the space. I put circles round groups of ten so as to make it easier to count. They added up to more than 50.
For a moment there, a small morsel of doubt began to make its presence felt. I mean, if something’s not working, you don’t go on doing it do you?
I looked down at the form – at the little marks spreading across the white paper… at the beautiful, expensive pen which had made them…
And that was the point at which I realised why the company gives away pens costing £255. I didn’t even have to guess because there – staring me in the face, were the words “Top Achiever”.
That was me. I was a “Top Achiever”. So where did this doubt come from? If I was a Top Achiever, I was going to behave like one: From that moment on I started ignoring the people who ignored me. That is to say they no longer featured in my universe: I just carried on saying my ten-second script even if they had walked right out of earshot. I carried on while turning to the next person… and the next…
Sometimes there was nobody there at all but I just kept on saying the script. For the first time in the five years I’ve been doing this, I wasn’t reacting to other people. Instead I kept on saying my piece and it was up to the public to react to me if they wanted to.
Something very peculiar had happened. I had transformed from canvasser to street performer – and it felt terrific. Suddenly I was burning through the prospects: 50…60…70…the old…the young…it didn’t matter because I was in full flow and not stopping for anyone.
Which is how I came to be talking to the man with the enormous tattoo. It was so enormous that I could only see the top of it poking out of his shirt. Clearly it covered his whole torso and if I had to guess, it was Spiderman’s face.
Spiderman’s owner stopped. I carried on. His son stopped too. He had a snake crawling up his neck.
With a jolt, I stopped. They said: “What’s it all about? Then they entered the draw.
In fact they turned out to be really pleasant. They gave me an appointment for next Thursday. Together we retrieved the rest of the family (similarly decorated) from further down the street and established that Thursday was good for them too and I read the script once more.
As they walked off with their appointment slip and my phone number, I turned back to the form and counted up: 18 minutes and 73 “no’s”.
And here’s the question: Can anybody do that – even with the company’s standard-issue ballpoint which costs 25p and has a picture of a pig on it?
Well, on Tuesday the Cold-Market Academy goes to Surrey. Maybe we’ll find out…
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