The popular BBC TV programme The Apprentice had an international theme in this week’s episode.
For anyone not familiar with the programme, it involves a group of young, aspirational business people performing tasks set by the entrepreneur Lord Alan Sugar, who ‘fires’ one or more candidate in each episode until the last one left standing is offered a job.
This week, the candidates took the train to Paris and sought to sell a selection of consumer products to major and minor retailers. I think the first thing to say that inevitably there was a very severe edit of a huge amount of activity, and the edit tends to favour the most dramatic moments. We were presented with a group of highly motivated and self-assured individuals, with little to no prior experience of selling in another country, and who were of course determined to steal the limelight.
In one respect, the programme works a bit like the TV quiz show The Weakest Link, in that candidates are forced to work as teams, knowing all the while that there can be only one winner. This is what I don’t like about the programme really, along with the fact that it judges people on short-term results. It isn’t a very realistic business scenario.
But rules are rules, and the candidates got stuck in to the challenge with varying degrees of enthusiasm and success. The two teams were given a range of products to select, and were told that they had one pre-arranged meeting with the huge French retailer and mail order company La Redoute. I thought the child-seat/rucksack would be a winner (I was right) and that the teapot/lamp sucked (I was wrong).
Much of the programme focused on a candidate called Melody. Like most candidates, she came across as opinionated, super-confident and a bit intolerant. She was criticised for her input in rejecting the child seat rucksack. This was based on her ‘market research’ of asking people, apparently in a Metro station, about their driving habits. I’m no market researcher, but even I can see that a sample of people selected at a station may not be a representative sample of the population! The edit gave the impression that she had already made her mind up about the product, and was looking for opinions to support her view, while ignoring those who liked it. As she was accompanied by a colleague who spoke no French, nobody was able to spot her apparent ‘sleight of hand’ on this point!
The decision to reject the child seat/rucksack proved critical. The opposing team won a six figure sale from La Redoute for that very product, and hence won the contest. Melody and two others from the losing team were back in the board room to face Lord Sugar’s bitter wrath and to find out who would be ‘fired’.
Melody survived. And for all her mistakes, I thought it was a good decision. She probably put more into this task (from what we saw) than any other contestant. From the back of a car, she arranged six appointments through cold-calling. OK she was a bit precious about sharing them, but her energy was vital in a team where two of the other candidates, including the team leader, seemed apprehensive and shy.
One little tip I’d offer for non-speakers or weak speakers of a foreign language who are obliged to use what little skill they have. Prepare! More than once, a candidate made a call, opened with the phrase “Parlez-vous anglais?” and seemed completely stumped when the answer came in the negative. Even a poor French speaker could have cobbled together a few simple phrases using those dreaded online translators, and at least prepared a simple sentence to explain the reason for the call.
For this viewer at least, Melody was the star, even though she made a crucial mistake. Her two team mates could claim to have made no mistakes, mainly because neither of them really did anything, as far as we could see. Melody for me was the true ‘Accidental Exporter’ because she got stuck in, was not phased by the task, set up the meetings and made sales. Yes there are lots of ways they could all have done the task differently, perhaps listened to advice, prepared better, researched the market and so on. In so many ways, this was not a very realistic task, but I think it showed that exporting is not an impossible dream. God loves a tryer.
Motivational quote for today – (thanks to Gavin Ingham)
“To succeed in sales, simply talk to lots of people every day. And here’s what’s exciting – there are lots of people!” – Jim Rohn.