Sunday 26 September 2010

This won't make you pregnant!

By Richard Morley

A few months ago I was present as an American Business man attempted to entice a group of us Europeans to buy his product. He claimed his devices, he had two different models, would rid the air around them of pollution. One device was a model of what was eventually intended for larger, industrial purposes. It consisted of a clear plastic box which contained both the anti-pollution apparatus and an electric element which would cause burning and smoke. He set up the model and plugged it in. Immediately the clear plastic box was filled with a cloud of light grey smoke.

And then he made his first mistake.

“Now”, he declared, “I’m going to show you some magic”, and at the press of a button the air in the box instantly became clear.

Now I have some idea of the electro-static method his devices used. It’s been around for some time and similar things are even sold on Amazon. But it’s NOT magic!

Some in the audience asked, “How does it work?”

And along came mistake number two: he said, “I have no idea”.

“How can you expect us to invest in a technology you can’t explain?” asked a member of the audience. “If you can’t tell us how it works, how will we know if it is suitable for purpose”.

“Well”, shrugged the salesman, “I use a microwave oven every day, but I don’t know how that works”.

The questioner, now with a definite air of disbelief in his voice, said, “But if you were selling me a microwave oven I would expect you to know the principle of operation”.

Different members of the audience then joined in with speculation on how the device works, and the salesman replied he couldn’t comment as he didn’t know.

I was hosting this event and at the end thanked the salesman for his “interesting” talk and afterwards had a few words with him. “You know you didn’t make a single sale”, I told him, and explained why and used a term he could understand: “In Europe, we won’t buy snake oil”.
“But it’s not snake oil”, he protested, “it works. It’s been very successful in the States”.

“I don’t doubt it”, I commented. “But you won’t sell it here (specifically in Spain) unless we can trust you and if you can’t explain how the thing works, we won’t”.

I then noticed he was wearing his second device around his neck. It resembled a small mobile phone with two brass (or perhaps even gold) contacts on its top edge. “What’s that meant to do?” I asked.

“It purifies the air in front of me”, he said. “It means I only breathe in clean air”.

I was doubtful, and feeling a little mischievous, and holding up my smouldering cigarette, remarked, “So, if I blow a puff of this cigarette smoke into your face (something I would never do, let me point out before the comments come thick and fast!) the smoke would just disappear before it reached your nose?”

Of course it wouldn’t! And he knew it. So, he changed the subject away from his products to the matter of selling, which, and now I will reveal the truth, that although this was actually his prepared sales pitch and the devices and the sales talk were quite real, the salesman was rehearsing his pitch against an audience of the attendees at my English Speaking Group, here in Madrid.

“I don’t think that went too well”, he stated with ironic understatement.

“You lost us the moment you mentioned magic”, I told him. “If you going to produce a rabbit from a hat, then we would accept magic. Selling us technology means you have to explain”.

“But these things are selling like hot cakes in the States”, he alleged, “and it’s the same sales talk”.

Which demonstrates quite well that the United States and Europe is divided by more than the Atlantic Ocean.

There are many stories told of cross-culture, cross language marketing mistakes. Some, like the Chevrolet Nova car not selling in Spanish speaking countries because “nova” means “no go” are myths. “Nova” is a quite unpejorative Spanish word and, besides, something that didn’t work would be described as “no funciona”, and Parker Pen’s supposed translation of “It won’t stain your pocket or embarrass you” as “no manchará tu bolsillo, ni te embarazará”, which would have meant, “It won’t stain your pocket or make you pregnant”, was caught well before the advertisement went to press.

However, one American airline, vaunting the comfort of their leather seats, did exhort its passengers to “vuela en cueros” or to fly naked!! But I cannot point the finger here as I have made the same embarrassing error while mistakenly trying to compliment a married female friend or her selection of leather jackets and skirts: “Me gusta verte en cueros”, I told her. Luckily she has a sense of humour or my face could have been red from a slap as well as embarrassment.

And Misubishi did have to rename its “Pajero” model after it found out that the word they should have used was “Pájaro” and the slight orthographic error was a huge blunder in meaning. (Look it up – this is a family friendly blog!)

I am going to stereotype badly here, but between the US and Europe there are differences in the way we speak to each other. When it comes to selling the US all-bells-and-whistles (some might say smoke-and-mirrors) evangelical hard-sell is not appreciated in Europe, and in Spain the immediate lets-get-down-to-business style is just plain weird. C’mon guys, you have to have a coffee or two, drink or three, night on the town, before beginning those all important negotiations. Oh, and unless you are a lawyer or banker, get rid of the damn tie!

At least in Spain business does get done. Meetings with a client I had in Saudi many years ago involved lots of chat and gossip and time restraints might mean the business would not be concluded that day and I would have to return again – and again! It once took me three days to present an invoice, but then, anything that involves a Saudi actually paying for services rendered is fraught with difficulty.

I presume the European relaxed style would be regarded as just time wasting in the States, so it’s a two-way street.

The good news for Americans, often to my chagrin, is that the US, as opposed to the British accent, is considered easier to understand by many Spanish, except when it is spoken too fast. Recently an American teacher of English lost a client because after several months of lessons, the student still couldn’t follow the fast paced speech. But, and here we can raise the Union flag with pride, the accent they personally want to speak is the British one, or so they tell me to my face.

Way back in the seventies, when Willy Brandt was leader of Germany, he told us Brits, “You can buy from us in English, but you must sell to us in German”. That should be a recognised fact of selling anything. You should approach your customer in his language and in ways he is familiar with. Do not expect them to understand your American Football or English Cricket metaphors. English sales people shouldn’t tell Americans the product will “go like a bomb”.

I teach many Spanish managers English because their companies want to do business with the English speaking world. I have lost count of the students I have met at the English Villages where I volunteer who want to perfect their language skills before taking up a new position in the UK or the States – and I am horrified at the English and Americans who come to Spain for work and then think they can learn the language once they are here. (Before I get comments from those of you who say this is not you, I know many of you did learn Spanish before coming here, but you will know, as I do, there are many who didn’t.)

And before those that know me comment that my Spanish needs huge improvement, let me point out I didn’t plan on living here. I just sort of ended up here after many years in other countries. I’m getting there, folks.

The salesman with whom I began this post should, if he was a good salesman, have known that Spain (or the rest of Europe) is not the USA. Successful sales professionals from distant lands have taken on a Spanish persona to accomplish their goals. Be warned, many are bewitched by the country and never return home.

Oh, and as far as I know, his Spanish language skills were zero.

As well as language teaching, I also coach Spaniards in interview techniques when applying for a position at one of the many multi-nationals that have made Madrid their European base.

Now the boot is on the other foot.

These Spanish business men and women have held executive posts for years and are now unemployed victims of “La Crisis” and looking for work. They know they want to work for and English or US company and have the language skills, but during our sessions I find myself ploughing through 14 (yes! Fourteen) page résumés (CVs). No HR manager wants to wade through a couple of hundred of those, so we work on some serious editing, which includes removing a great deal of exaggeration (or downright lies) and this is met with protest at every step.

Yet applying for a job is probably the greatest sales pitch anyone will ever make. The product is YOU and you had better know what you are selling.

Which reminds me of the lady who wrote in her cover letter that in her present position she had relations with one hundred and eighty-seven clients!

We all have a lot to learn.


  1. I once translated (Spanish to English) a 52 page CV. I don't know who the applicant thought was going to read it...

  2. Those two people probably had no idea how to write a CV. CVs in spain, as many other places, should not exceed one page.

    By the way, this is my first comment on your blog. I founded it a few months ago and have been following it since.

  3. Very amusing Richard - I always enjoy the tongue-in-cheek element of your writing!

  4. Love the last line. Well stated! Haha
    -Former Recruiter (who doesn't miss reading resumes)
    Current ESL teacher, Korea