Big Issue!

Just a friendly piece of advice – If you’re planning a trip to  London, don’t choose the hottest day for a decade to do it. And especially don’t choose that day if you’re travelling by  train. I made both mistakes last Wednesday, and it wasn’t much fun.

It all started well enough. Despite warnings that there may be delays because the heat was warping the tracks (what the hell are they made from…plasticine?) the train arrived on time.  Shamed by my daughter into booking a ‘cattle class’ ticket, I was relieved to find that our allotted seats were clean, comfortable and close to the luggage racks, which we needed.

Anyway, we settled down for the journey and  scrutinised our fellow passengers for  signs of ‘danger’. Does everyone do this? If I see someone ‘undesirable’ sitting close by, I try to assess how long I might be stuck with them. I remember finding myself sitting across from a particularly undesirable family (‘Benefits Street’ meets ‘On The Dole And Proud’)  on a train from London to Doncaster a couple of years ago. My daughter was clinging to the hope that they might get off at Peterborough. I didn’t have the heart to disillusion her. My better ear for accents told me they were almost certainly from Hull. Not good.

Everyone looked fine on Wednesday though, apart from the bloke sitting opposite. I couldn’t guess how many stones he weighed, but it was a lot. He had one of those low hanging belly’s that seem to have a life of their own – a bit like walking about with a water filled space hopper around your waist I’d imagine.. He was long past the stage where trousers were a viable option, and was now wearing the extreme bloaters last resort – Cotton Traders jogging bottoms in thousand wash grey.

If I’m honest, I anticipated the danger, and it wasn’t long before it became a reality. The beast (I think I’ll call him that) levered himself out of his seat and I couldn’t help noticing that his jogging bottoms and shirt were soaked in sweat, I noticed that a nanosecond before the smell which drifted across the carriage in a noxious cloud you could almost taste. My daughter looked at me in horror and we both automatically and independently held our breath as he waddled down the carriage and the stench  slowly subsided like a dispersing cabbage-induced fart.

“He’ll be coming back in a minute.” I warned.

I know!” she said while frantically spraying perfume everywhere, including on me.

When the beast returned, we had a repeat performance. Lots of breath holding, lots of perfume spraying. And this happened again and again for the next half hour as he got up, buggered off to God knows where (although my money would be on the buffet car) and came back again.

Why can’t he just stay where he is?” whispered my daughter.

After about an hour, our prayers were answered. The beast fell asleep. Yes, he was snoring like a pig, but this was much  preferable to him moving. It was then that I noticed his companion who had been quietly sitting next to him all along, but hidden from view by his bulk.  I don’t know whether it had anything to do with the fact that she clearly had no sense of smell, or that the fumes were now fetting to her, but she started to sneeze…loudly….and  again…and then again…one after the other.

Nooooo” hissed my daughter, “Please don’t wake him up!”

It reminded me of that scene in one of the Harry Potter films when they are all desperately trying to avoid waking the giant for fear of what dreadful consequences might ensue.

Thankfully, the sneezing didn’t wake him, and the beast didn’t stir for the rest of the journey. About a mile out of Kings Cross we made our escape, fearful of  either being gassed or steamrollered on disembarking – as train announcers like to call it. Not sure what’s wrong with good old ‘getting off’.

Anyway, spurred on by the desire to avoid suffocation we were off the train and in the taxi rank ahead of the crowd. Fifteen minutes later, we were at the University we’d gone to visit, twenty minutes ahead of our appointment. Could we register now? No we most certainly could not! What could we do instead?  We were offered two alternative courses of action:

1. Start a queue outside in the blistering  33 degree sun and end up sweatier and smellier than the beast.

2. Go for a sandwich.

We chose the latter but had cause to regret that when we returned at the appointed hour to find a queue literally three streets long…in the aforementioned blistering sun. By the time we’d got to the front I’d pretty much decided this was one of the worst places on earth, and the next three hours of an attitude that can be best summed up as “We’re really great so we can’t be arsed to try to help or impress you”, did little to disabuse me of  that notion.

Maybe the people running the open day could learn something about selling  from  a  Big Issue vendor I met later.

After the open day, I had an appointment across town a couple of miles away. I didn’t know the way, but  had two  hours to kill and so decided to walk. My phone had given up doing anything useful – like telling me where I was – which is why I found myself staring at one of those signs they have in central London, with ‘You are here’  helpfully in the centre to give you a clue…well…where you are.

I had only been there a couple of seconds when I was approached by a Big Issue vendor who I had been  vaguely aware of in my peripheral vision.

“Where are you looking for sir?”, he asked?

“Just trying to figure out where I am.” I replied.

“Well down there is Covent Garden, “ he said pointing in the appropriate direction, “Go up there and you’re in Leicester Square…and then if you…”

He went on to give a 30 second explanation of where I was in relation to other places of interest in the area.

Okay thanks”, I said “Suppose I’d better have one of those off you. How much are they?”

Thank you very much sir”, he said  “I’m having a really bad day. Nobodies buying anything and someone spat at me earlier. Can you believe that? The minimum price is £2.50.”

“That’s terrible,” I said “Here’s a fiver.”

Now there might not seem to be anything remarkable or interesting in that whole exchange, but I think  it demonstrates how you can take a product which other people are struggling to sell, sell more of it – and even command a higher price.

I knew I was being ‘worked’ but it was a pleasure!

The fact that this vendor was located near to an information sign was no accident. It gave him the opportunity to engage with potential customers without approaching them to sell something. Not only did it give him the opportunity to engage, but it also gave him the opportunity to create a sense of obligation. He had given  help, free of charge, with no prior contract or agreement that he would get anything in return. I, in turn, felt obliged to give something in return.

This is a common human trait. When people are given something for free, they feel compelled to return the favour. Not only that, but they feel compelled to return the favour with interest. They usually end up giving more back than they received in the first place. Social Psychologists call this reciprocity. Reciprocity is so strong that a person will often feel obligated to return a favour regardless of whether they like the person who originally gave the favour and even if they did not want the favour, If you want to know a bit more about this, look up an interesting experiment carried out  by  Dennis T Regan of Cornell University in 1971 called ‘The effects of a favour and liking on compliance’.

Now once the vendor had secured a sale, he went for ‘the kill’ by trying to extract as much from the transaction as possible. He attempted to make me feel sorry for him by telling me he’d had a bad day and been spat on. I don’t doubt that he has been spat on at some point in his Big Issue selling career, but it probably wasn’t  that day. My hunch is that it’s a line he’s learned will induce sympathy and a higher selling/donation price.

I  went on my way with a smile on my face, a decent enough magazine to read, and a few valuable lessons which I think many people in business could use…

1. Find a way to enter a dialogue with prospective customers in a non-threatening way.

Most people are ‘scared away’ by a direct selling approach. If this guy had tried to sell me a copy directly I’d have walked on. But by entering into dialogue offering to help, I was temporarily disarmed. The implication here will vary greatly from business to business, but if you can start a conversation along non-commercial lines, it will make the subsequent transaction all the more likely. If you think about it, I suppose I’m doing the same thing with the very blog that you’re reading.

2. Give something away without condition or express obligation.

Study after study has shown the power of reciprocity. The human condition is such that once we’re given something we don’t feel comfortable until we’ve restored the balance and given something back. So give some thought to what you could give away in your business. It could be advice or  help as in this case, or something more tangible like a sample product, a trial quantity, a free book or something else. The important thing is that no obligation is stated or implied. It isn’t necessary because human psychology will ensure that the obligation is created and then met.

3. Once the sale is made, try to increase the order value.

The Big Issue Seller tried to increase the selling price, (and hence, order value)  by engendering sympathy. That might work with a charity based product but is unlikely to be appropriate in a commercial environment. But increasing the value of an order after a purchase decision has been made is certainly something which you should think about carefully. It can turn a break even venture into a profitable one and a profitable venture into a fortune maker.

The more orthodox routes to increasing order value are to sell a higher quantity of the first product or to sell complementary products. So if you have a customer who has agreed to buy a widget, you could immediately offer to sell him more widgets (in exchange for a discount) or offer something he can use with the widget he just bought. The appropriate approach will obviously depend on the product you’re selling.

The important thing is that these extra products can be sold at a lower profit margin because fixed selling costs have already been covered on the original sale. So it’s a win-win for all concerned.

If you find yourself making a sale, taking the money and being grateful you’ve actually sold something, you could be leaving a lot of value on the table with these up-sell opportunities.

So four hours after my encounter with the Big Issue seller I found myself walking back to Kings Cross, unable to face either the London Underground or an aircon-free taxi. It had been about over 12 hours since I left home, during which I had sweat away something akin to the weight of a small child. As I boarded the train, I was very conscious of the possibility that I may smell almost as bad as ‘the beast’ on the  outward journey.

I still don’t know for sure, but the disappointed look on the faces of my fellow passengers as the train exited Peterborough station with me still on it, suggests I may have been right to be concerned!

3 thoughts on “Big Issue!

  1. Roy Aylmer

    Entertaining observation again, thank you John. I come across the ‘sympathy’ angle from time to time, one in particular being the birthday scam. I think they based an episode of Hi-di-Hi on the same idea.

    On holiday in Madeira we took a mini bus tour of the north of the island. Our Driver Guide showed us many interesting lava formations and waterfalls; it was a very pleasant trip. Just before we got back to our hotel, obviously angling for a big tip, he told us we were lucky to have him, he had not wanted to work today because it was his birthday.

    That evening in a restaurant, whilst chatting with the couple at the next table, I recalled our trip round the top of the island and the coincidence of the guide’s birthday. They said it was funny that they often went on trips on “The Guides” birthday, we all laughed.

    The four of us were sitting near the flambé set-up and the flambé chef Rohi was good company. He exchanged jokes with us all evening; we suspected he was also eavesdropping our conversation.

    Our taxi arrived and Rohi and the driver had a good laugh in Portuguese, obviously at our expense. When we got in the taxi, the driver told us that we were very lucky to get him tonight, because not only was it his birthday but it was also his wife’s and all of their children’s!

    1. John Harrison Post author

      Excellent. I wonder how many people use variations on this approach? I read od a related idea in Ted Nichols’s book, ‘Magic Words That Bring You Riches’. It’s not sympathy as such, but when booking a restaurant, he always says “We’re celebrating tonight.” Helps him get a better table and premier service

  2. Roy Aylmer

    Hi John, just a comment on todays newsletter, Cleaning With A Difference.

    A few years ago I lived in Brighton and every Thursday in the local paper “Sits Vac” column
    A restaurant advertised for, “Topless Waiting Staff Required”
    I had to eat there and so did all of my friends

    Needless to say, the waiting staff were all fully dressed men
    but the ads got the bums on seats, so to speak
    The food wasn’t bad from what I remember


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