John Bull's First Job
Door to Door
By ROBERT MORLEY `You'RE disappointed that it's a vacuum cleaner?'
`Not exactly disappointed,' I told him . . . 'it's just that I thought, reading your ad- vertisement, it was a different sort of job.'
`Why not look on it as a challenge?' he asked. 'After all, you can always turn it in. We pay a pound a week basic and commission.'
I didn't turn it in for nearly six months . . . during them I learnt more about acting than I ever did on the stage.
Our vacuum cleaner had a gimmick. You could actually see the dust going into the bag through a perspex window let into the head. Also, it was one of the first vacuum cleaners to have a disposable bag. I found it almost im- possible to operate. I also found that clients en- joyed the demonstrations much more when they themselves were allowed to play. The problem, as always with door-to-door selling, was how to make a start. For several weeks I didn't believe it possible that anyone would ever buy one. Naturally they didn't. Then X took me in hand. I have forgotten X's name, which is perhaps just as well, as I met him years later in New Zealand, where he asked me particularly to keep my trap shut about him as he had by then created an entirely different background for himself.
X had the worst teeth and the best selling technique I ever saw. He was what in those days we called `dead common.' He also 'belonged to the club'; by that, I mean he was obsessively interested in, and occupied by, sex. In case any- one should think 1 am boasting, perhaps I should make it clear that even in those days I was never a member. Perhaps that was the reason he took me along. Not that all the sales were consum- mated on the sofa, but at a good many of them, and always as far as I was concerned unex- pectedly, X would dismiss me while he 'com- pleted the sale.' I used to wait in the car with strict instructions not to try anything on my own. Once X had marked down his territory, he was as fussy as a gamekeeper about the way he flushed the birds. He worked with a street direc- tory and never rang a door bell without knowing the name of the occupier. If by any chance they had moved on, so would he. He went a good deal by names and the look of the garden and the curtains. He preferred the unkempt front lawn and had a terror of lace curtains. Terror, perhaps, is too strong: he was always supremely relaxed . . . most salesmen tense when the door is opened, but X just stood there admiring in silence. He let them make the advances, just as later on he let them make the sales.
He despised the gimmick approaches we had been taught in school. The one about the opinion poll, for instance. 'You, Mrs. Bloggin, have been selected by our Board of Directors (of which I am one) to give us your considered opinion not about a vacuum cleaner but about a new system of domestic hygiene. We consider the vacuum cleaner will soon be a thing of the past. As one of the most influential and prominent ladies in this district your name has been given to us as one who might be willing to spare time to view a demonstration. There is, of course, no obliga- tion . . . nothing to buy . . . the appliance is not as yet on the market . . . it's just your suggestions we would like on how to improve the product . . . the colour, the weight, perhaps. We appreciate you are very busy . . . that it would be easier for you to view it another time perhaps . . . can we book an appointment? My directors and I could save ourselves time, trouble and expense by advertising in the press, but you and I know, Mrs. Bloggin, that that is simply not the way to solve the unemployment problem.
We must create jobs these days; none of us want a revolution, do we? But supposing we can't find work for our demonstrators, we shall have to dismiss them. I don't think they're in the mood for dismissal, Mrs. Bloggin. I am sure we can count on you to give a lead here.'. By this time Mrs. Bloggin was, in theory at any rate, softened up sufficiently to open the door to us, even if she locked it quickly afterwards to keep out the mob who might at any moment appear round the corner.
Having booked the demonstration, one's next problem was how to explain the presence of the `director'—sometimes, indeed, the 'managing director'—to carry out the work of the demon- strator. We found it wiser to put our cards on the table. 'Mrs. Bloggin,' we told her, 'following the lead you gave them, the response by the other prominent ladies around here has been nothing short of magnificent . . . all our demon- strators are fully employed right now . . . but I wasn't going to disappoint you, who after all are responsible for this marvellous result. I have come myself and you'll just have to forgive a managing director whose parlourmaid usually works one of these for him.' The parlourmaid touch was my own embellishment. Looking back on those days, I realise I talked too much. I still do. Our task was not made easier by the fact that we carried the vacuum cleaner unwrapped. `But I thought you said it wasn't a vacuum cleaner? I have one of those, I'm afraid.' You won't call it a vacuum cleaner once you've seen it work, madam.'
X played it by ear. Once, the door was opened to us by a butler. X produced his wallet and consulted an ominous blue form. 'Kindly inform her Ladyship that Inspector Newstart would like to have a word with her.' Newstart was the name of our product. The butler fell back, and we were in. Her Ladyship, when she arrived, was immensely relieved when X introduced him- self as an inspector for the New Start CompanY. `My butler told me you were a policeman.' X's amused incredulity was beautifully judged. I don't think he went to bed with her Ladyship to get the sale, it wasn't necessary: she was sufficiently grateful that he hadn't come to arrest her.
In time something of X's confidence rubbed off on me. I began to believe I would make a sale . . . then one day I made one all by myself. I never looked back. After three months I had nlY
own boys and a car which had seen better days. So had the boys, most of them. There was a middle-aged Irishman with an over-developed sense of humour. He would beat the knocker merrily and announce himself as 'Mr. Charlie Chaplin' or 'the Prince of Wales' . . . then with the door slammed in his face he would collapse on the step roaring with laughter. The other salesmen refused to work with him, as he queered the pitch. He never made a sale, or expected to do so. He was a man of immense charm and was supposed to have once arranged a demon- stration for a fire extinguisher he was selling and burned down an entire racecourse, an ex- ploit of which he was inordinately proud.
My team used to report back to me every evening before closing time; then we would drive to Bond Street, where the organisation had their offices, and see how we rated in the competitions.