I was trying to think of the deal that I’ve had to work hardest to get, and this one springs to mind as it involved learning something new and making an ass of myself. I have a rather flippant way of telling stories so just in case anyone thinks that it is my intention to make fun of an impediment; let me be clear, It’s Not!
There were four of us in the showroom that day, and there was no Sales Manager to watch over us, I was actually working but the other 3 had taken a time out and gathered at my desk to chat and drink coffee. If there’s one thing that I hate its walking into a shop where the staff stare or ignore you and you feel like you don’t belong there. The customer had come in through the big roller shutter door which was open at the back of the garage and we hadn’t heard him approach, all 4 of us turned to look at him when he coughed to attract our attention.
You only get one chance to make a good first impression and we’d all blown it big style. It got even worse, we were near a new Industrial estate and the flow of people coming in to ask for directions was relentless, even more, irritating was that they all seemed to think that we should leave customers who were looking at cars, just to deal with them. More often than not when we the salesman was interrupted the customer took it as an opportunity to escape, and would say “It’s ok I was just going anyway”, you would lose the chance to sell a car just because the guy seeking directions couldn’t read a map, was too impatient to wait his turn, and Sat Nav hadn’t been invented yet.
A lot of the direction seekers were foreign lorry drivers so as we Brits do when communicating with foreigners, we just shout in English and assume that it will miraculously translate into their language. We were all fed up of being interrupted when we were in the middle of our sales patter so we had started to just ignore them, treating them like they were invisible and concentrating on our customers. The guy standing in front of us was holding a pad and a pen so we all thought here we go again and wrongly jumped to the conclusion that he wanted directions, and that we’d spend the next half hour shouting directions in “Frenglish” like Officer Crabtree from Allo Allo.
He must have sensed the hostility that we all felt towards yet another person who we thought was going to waste our time and was here to pick our brains but not contribute to our wage packets. He just stood there like a rabbit caught in the headlights, clutching his pen and paper. I was the first to speak as the others turned away and continued to drink their coffee, “Where you looking for mate?”, I asked. The guy seemed to be making a lot of effort to speak, but just a couple of noises came out almost like a stifled yawn, I said “Pardon” but another one of the lads, laughed and said, “sorry mate I don’t know where that is”, The guy scribbled on his pad and thrust it towards me, it said, “I’M DEAF” then clearly upset he turned to walk out.
I felt dreadful, I grabbed my pad and pen and ran after him, I apologised profusely for our unacceptable behavior via my pad and asked him to come back into the showroom, he wouldn’t but he wrote on my pad “I may come back next week, with my friend” . I had recognised the sign he made as he left the showroom, Loose Fist moving from side to side, it was the same sign that I used to demonstrate my anger to other motorists who’d upset me. I knew the gesture for OK which is used by Scuba Divers “O” made touching thumb and forefinger together, I didn’t want to upset him again and I just hoped it was the same in sign language and it wasn’t another version of the same gesticulation but meant you were a W***** and you also had a small (you know) He seemed alright so I gave him my card, and wrote on it the days I would be working.
This was in 1984 so there was no internet and I had to resort to the Yellow Pages, I located the Royal Cross School for the Deaf, which was in Preston and not too far away from us. The receptionist listened as I explained my predicament. I needed to learn sign language in the next 6 days, she gave me the name of a tutor, suggested the books I needed to read and wished me good luck. I confessed that I wasn’t confident that I would be up to the task, but she assured me that Chimpanzees and Gorillas had been taught to “sign“. Koko the Gorilla had a vocabulary of 200 to 300 words, that was probably more than I knew in English, if she’d known that my teachers at school were the first ones to coin the phrase “It would be quicker to teach a Monkey”, she would have realised that It was a new brain I needed not luck.
I had managed to learn the sign language alphabet and a couple of other general signs, so when I saw him come into the showroom accompanied by his friend I stood up and saluted him, this is the “sign” for hello, (or so I had been told) I probably looked like the Benny Hill character Fred Scuttle and my deaf customer started to laugh, the more I tried to sign the more he laughed, before long tears were rolling down his cheeks, I must have been like the “Officer Crabtree of Sign Language, but it taught me a lesson and showed me how frustrating it is to be forced to try to communicate in a language that only a very tiny percentage of the population can understand.
There was a slight flaw in my plan that I hadn’t envisaged when he signed back to me his fingers moved so fast that I hadn’t got a clue what he was saying. I am pretty sure he was doing it on purpose to show me how he had felt when we greeted him the first time. His interpreter friend saved the day when he grabbed my hands and laughing he said: “please stop doing that, you’re causing a draught”. From then on he translated and between the 3 of us we negotiated a deal. Even though I was as good at “signing” as I am at Chinese writing my customer had appreciated that I had thought he was important enough for me to try and learn.