The Italian Job

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Could you sell business cards door to door in Italy without speaking Italian? Paddy Gourlay recounts his days as a very English speaking salesman near Milan.

The advert in the paper said it all - Sales people needed to sell business cards in Italy. Must be under 24 years old and respectable. Lodgings provided but commission only pay. Knowledge of Italian useful but not essential.

It was 1992, the height of the last recession, and I had just graduated from Bristol University with a degree in politics and philosophy. The job sounded ideal. Within two weeks of applying I was on a plane to Milan. There had been a short interview in a hotel in London where the boss of the company, Sophie, asked me three questions before giving me a starting date. Age, education and status. There was only one nagging question that I asked: "How can I sell business cards in Italy when I don't know a word of the lingo."

"You'll see," she promised.

There were eight of us in the group, four boys and four girls, and we stayed in a very basic farmhouse above the beautiful Lake Como surrounded by snow peaked mountains. Business was simple. Every day, except Sunday, we piled into two dilapidated cars at seven o'clock in the morning to find virgin territory, a village or a town where they had never heard of us. Then we would divide the town up between different streets so that we would each have about twenty shops and businesses to visit. And that was it. The only tools we had was a folder with different styles of business cards, a fake document from the European Union, and an ingenious sales script.

The first week is spent shadowing one of the other sales people during the day and learning the sales pitch off by heart in the evening. It took about ten to fifteen minutes to say and was, in a word, a scam. After my first morning, I realised why English- graduates were so essential. The more Italian you knew, the more hindrance it was.

After finding the owner of the business, I introduce myself as a young student here to learn the language and customs of this beautiful country. I excuse myself for having such a poor accent and so limited a vocabulary. But I would be delighted if the owner could spare a few moments to tell me about themselves, their business and this lovely town. When you first start, you move straight into the second half of the pitch at this moment but the more experienced sales people, with a smattering of Italian, would gently chew the cud for a while. For all the talk of culture, it was Paul Gascoigne, then playing for Lazio, who was our staple diet for chat.

In the next part, I explain that I am part of a group of twenty students travelling the country and competing against each other for a great prize - £3,000 in ECU's, the currency of the European Union. These were the days before monetary union. I would then whip out a tawny coloured certificate that had my name and address at the bottom below a circle of stars in the middle with ECU printed in bold letters in the middle. But to win this prize, I explain, I need 3000 'stars'.

"This is the closing date of the competition," I said pointing to a date that was perennially two weeks away.

"And these are the number of stars I have yet to collect." In my left palm, I had scribbled a figure like 92. For extra urgency, I would often scrawl out one figure and replace it with four less to make it look as if I had already won four stars that day.

"I have only two weeks left to collect 92 stars, will you help," I would plead.

From the back pocket, I pull out a bundle of old and tatty business cards, collected on my journey or donated by others in the group. On the back of the cards, people have written messages like 'good luck Paddy' and 'all the best for the future'. Little did I realise until near the very end that one card read 'sod off back home you English bastard.' And with these messages, people have drawn four stars.

"These people have all given me four stars," I say. "Will you do the same?"

Sometimes you have already made a sale in that town or a neighbouring one, and the owner would recognise one of the cards. It was a very good sign. But on most occasions, this was the point when the sale fell flat, although not the hospitality. Italians are generous to a fault and would more often than not offer you something else. Most of these businesses were small shops, bars or restaurants, and often run by families. The trick was to visit a bistro just before lunch so if there was no sale, there was a good chance of a bowl of pasta.

But no business was too small or too big. I remember walking into a firm that could have been a multi-national for all I knew. As I tried to explain to the receptionist why I needed to see the owner, the big cheese himself walked past. Charmed by my initial spiel about Italy and its customs, I was ushered into his office. When I asked how many stars he would give me, he dryly answered a 'million' before politely making his excuses.

However if the owner said they would give you some stars, I would jump for joy and scribble out the current number on my hand.

"To give me four stars, you need to buy 200 business cards from the company that is sponsoring my travels around Italy and providing the great prize so that I can continue my studies here. Which one do you like?" The folder is produced and the owner is faced with a variety of different style business cards to choose from. The owner usually forgot altogether about the stars. The cards on offer were good quality, although maybe a tad expensive.

When they picked a card they liked, I would ask them to find their old business card so that they can write me a message of good luck and draw four stars on it, like the others. During this time, I would make out the order form and the receipt.

Lastly, I would explain that the cards would arrive within two weeks. I needed them to clearly write the details they want produced on these cards and to staple their old business card onto the order form. Then I would collect half the money up front - about £50.

The final act was the cheesiest. To keep up pretences, it was important to scribble the new number on your hand and thank the owner profusely. Once, I met the daughter of one such owner in a nightclub. Needless to say, I went home alone.

Sophie took most of the money. She said she owned houses in Milan, Paris and London after more than twenty years of the same pitch, and I believed her. In a normal week, we would bring in between £500 to £1000 each. We got twenty per cent a sale. But it was fun, educational, and only slightly twisting the truth. The new cards always arrived.

"Have you ever done this in England," I asked Sophie once.

"No, the English don't have the right mentality," she said wryly.

About the Author
Paddy Gourlay is a freelance journalist and can be contacted at paddy.gourlay@btinternet.co.uk