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Learning the art of the pitch – in an unlikely place

for the globe and mail/Ben Clarkson

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Sometimes the best lessons are not given in classrooms.

For more than two decades I lived in the world of corporate sales. In that time I attended several courses on the science and art of selling. Over a series of mind-numbing days of lectures and exercises, reinforced with reams of documentation, we were taught about the importance of assessing our customers, understanding their needs and agenda, persisting in the face of rejection and, finally, the art of negotiation.

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Those teachers could have learned a thing or two from an uneducated, wizened old guru I met on a southern Indian beach.

Twenty years ago, I took my parents to Kanyakumari, a small town at the tip of the Indian peninsula. Three bodies of water – the Bay of Bengal, the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea – all meet there, providing spectacular views of different coloured silts swirling and merging.

Kanyakumari is one of the few places in the world that affords a breathtaking view of sunrise and sunset on the same beach.

Legends tell of a goddess who resides there, guiding lost naval vessels with the shining diamond of her nose ring. She is called "Kanyakumari" or "Kumari amman," which translate, curiously, to "the virgin lady" and "Mother Marie." So, Kanyakumari is claimed as a holy place by both Hindus and Christians. The Church of Our Lady may be the only one where the beautiful statue of Mother Mary is clad in a sari.

Tourists and pilgrims flock to Kanyakumari. The crowds can be overwhelming. But perhaps even more overwhelming for the unsuspecting tourist is the number of vendors and beggars attempting to lighten people's wallets. From peanuts to the multi-coloured sands, everything is for sale.

One evening, my parents and I were walking past the shops lining the beach, trying to find a quiet spot. We were instantly surrounded by vendors and beggars. Children tugged at our clothes looking for alms, while vendors thrust picture postcards, shells and souvenirs at our faces.

It was impossible not to feel guilty about our comfortable lives when faced with such poverty. However, it was not in our power to satisfy all these needs, so we pressed on. The only way to survive this onslaught of solicitation was to avoid eye contact and answer in monosyllabic negatives: "No. No thanks. NO THANKS. NO!"

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As we made our way toward the beach, an old man came up to try to sell me a necklace made of shells. His face was covered with deep lines and his spare body was beginning to hunch over. He carried a bag full of shell necklaces, rings and other trinkets.

The shell necklace cost all of five rupees, but I knew that if I gave in to one vendor I would soon be surrounded by hordes of them. And I really did not need another trinket to add to my already overflowing collection. So I resolutely rejected the necklace as I had rejected all the other offers.

The old man, however, would not take "no" for an answer. He kept thrusting the necklace in my face and kept pace with us.

At one point, when he saw that I was getting irritated and annoyed at his persistence, his shoulders slumped in resignation. He stopped pushing the necklace toward my face and said, "Okay, I understand. You don't want another necklace. You probably have much better ones at home."

I squirmed a little at this, but kept moving away with determination.

Then his whole demeanour changed from vocal vendor to walking companion. In a conversational tone, he said: "You know, I am old enough to be your grandfather. I would love to have a cup of coffee! You think you could buy me a cup of coffee? You would do that for your grandfather wouldn't you?"

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He had the body language of an old, impoverished man whom life had dealt a rough hand. But he had such an engaging smile on his face that I had to laugh.

He had assessed me perfectly. I could resist a vendor, but how could I resist the plea of a man who could well have been my grandfather?

Acknowledging the mastery of his change of tactics, I fished out a five-rupee note and gave it to him with a laugh, telling him to go buy himself a cup of coffee.

A wide toothless smile, deepening laugh wrinkles and twinkling eyes lit his face. It was a face that was not only thanking me, but sharing the joke of his triumph with me.

As I started to walk away, he cried, "Wait! I want to give you something!"

He fished out his inventory of shell necklaces and chose the biggest of the lot. He handed it to me, pushing aside all my protests.

"This is not for the money," he said. "I want to give it to you as my gift!"

I stood looking at the necklace. It was a gift I would treasure for a long time. I had not only been given a necklace, but a lesson in dignity and in sales.

He would not take alms – he was no beggar. He had assessed his customer, understood her weakness, persisted, changed tactics and negotiated his way to a successful sale.

Prabha Madhavan lives in Brampton, Ont.

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