ONE OF THE NECESSARY QUALIFICATIONS of an efficient business man in these days of industrial literature seems to be the ability to write, in clear and idiomatic English, a 1,000-word story on how efficient he is and how he got that way. A glance through any one of our more racy commercial magazines will serve nicely to illustrate my point, for it was after glancing through one of them only five minutes ago that the point suggested itself to me.
But the trouble with these writers is that they are all successful. There is too much sameness to their stuff. They have their little troubles at first, it is true, such as lack of coördination in the central typing department, or congestion of office boys in the room where the water cooler is situated; but sooner or later you may be perfectly sure that Right will triumph and that the young salesman will bring in the order that puts the firm back on its feet again. They seem to have no imagination, these writers of business confessions. What the art needs is some Strindberg of Commerce to put down on paper the sordid facts of Life as they really are, and to show, in bitter words of cynical realism, that ink erasers are not always segregated or vouchers always all that they should be, and that, behind the happy exterior of many a mahogany railing, all is not so gosh-darned right with the world after all.
Now, without setting myself up as a Strindberg, I would like to start the ball rolling toward a more realistic school of business literature by setting down in my rough, impulsive way a few of the items in the account of “How We Make Our Business Lose $100,000 a Year.”
All that I ask in the way of equipment is an illustration showing a square-jawed, clean-cut American business man sitting at a desk and shaking his finger at another man, very obviously the head of the sales department because it says so under the picture, who is standing with his thumbs in the arm-holes of his waistcoat, gnawing at a big, black cigar, and looking out through the window at the smoke-stacks of the works. With this picture as a starter, and a chart or two, I can build up a very decent business story around them.
In the first place let me say that what we have done in our business any firm can do in theirs. It is not that we have any extraordinary talents along organization lines. We simply have taken the lessons learned in everyday trading, have tabulated and filed them in triplicate. Then we have forgotten them.
I can best give an idea of the secret of our mediocrity as a business organization by outlining a typical day in our offices. I do this in no spirit of boasting, but simply to show these thousands of systematized business men who are devoting themselves to literature that somewhere in all this miasma of success there shines a ray of inefficiency, giving promise of the day that is to come.
Personally I am not what is known as a “snappy” dictator. It makes me nervous to have a stenographer sitting there waiting for me to say something so that she can pounce on it and tear it into hieroglyphics. I feel that, mentally, she is checking me up with other men who have dictated to her, and that I am being placed in Class 5a, along with the licensed pilots and mental defectives, and the more I think of it the more incoherent I become. If exact and detailed notes were to be preserved of one of my dictated letters, mental processes, and all, they might read something like this:
“Good morning, Miss Kettle.... Take a letter, please ... to the Nipco Drop Forge and Tool Company, Schenectady ... S-c-h-e-c—er—well, Schenectady; you know how to spell that, I guess, Miss Kettle, ha! ha!... Nipco Drop Forge and Tool Company, Schenectady, New York.... Gentlemen—er (business of touching finger tips and looking at the ceiling meditatively)—Your favor of the 17th inst. at hand, and in reply would state that—er (I should have thought this letter out before beginning to dictate and decided just what it is that we desire to state in reply)—and in reply would state that—er ... our Mr. Mellish reports that—er ... where is that letter from Mr. Mellish, Miss Kettle?... The one about the castings.... Oh, never mind, I guess I can remember what he said.... Let’s see, where were we?... Oh, yes, that our Mr. Mellish reports that he shaw the sipment—I mean saw the shipment—what’s the matter with me? (this girl must think that I’m a perfect fool) ... that he shaw the sipment in question on the platform of the station at Miller’s Falls, and that it—er ... ah ... ooom ... (I’ll have this girl asleep in her chair in a minute. I’ll bet that she goes and tells the other girls that she has just taken a letter from a man with the mind of an eight-year-old boy).... We could, therefore, comma,... what’s the matter?... Oh, I didn’t finish that other sentence, I guess.... Let’s see, how did it go?... Oh, yes ... and that I, or rather it, was in good shape ... er, cross that out, please (this girl is simply wasting her time here. I could spell this out with alphabet blocks quicker and let her copy it) ... and that it was in excellent shape at that shape—er ... or rather, at that time ... er ... period. New paragraph.
“We are, comma, therefore, comma, unable to ... hello, Mr. Watterly, be right with you in half a second.... I’ll finish this later, Miss Kettle ... thank you.”
When the mail is disposed of we have what is known as Memorandum Hour. During this period every one sends memoranda to every one else. If you happen to have nothing in particular about which to dictate a memorandum, you dictate a memorandum to some one, saying that you have nothing to suggest or report. This gives a stimulating exchange of ideas, and also helps to use up the blue memorandum blanks which have been printed at some expense for just that purpose.
As an example of how this system works, I will give a typical instance of its procedure. My partner, let us say, comes in and sits down at the desk opposite me. I observe that his scarfpin is working its way out from his tie. I call a stenographer and say: “Take a memo to Mr. MacFurdle, please. In re Loosened Scarfpin. You are losing your scarfpin.”
“A memo to Mr. Benchley, please. In re Tightened Scarfpin. Thank you. I have given the matter my attention.”
As soon as I have received a copy of this typewritten reply to my memorandum we nod pleasantly to each other and go on with our work. In all, not more than half an hour has been consumed, and we have a complete record of the negotiations in our files in case any question should ever arise concerning them. In case no question should ever arise, we still have the complete record. So we can’t lose—unless you want to call that half hour a loss.
It is then almost lunch time. A quick glance at a pile of carbons of mill reports which have but little significance to me owing to the fact that the figures are illegible (it being a fifth-string carbon); a rapid survey of the matter submitted for my O.K., most of which I dislike to take the responsibility for and therefore pass on to Mr. Houghtelling for his O.K.; a short tussle in the washroom with the liquid-soap container which contains no liquid soap and a thorough drying of the hands on my handkerchief, the paper towels having given out early in the morning, and I am ready to go to lunch with a man from the Eureka Novelty Company who wants to sell us a central paste-supply system (whereby all the office paste is kept in one large vat in the storeroom, individual brushfuls being taken out only on requisitions O.K.’d by the head of the department).
Both being practical business men, we spend only two hours at lunch. And, both being practical business men, we know all the subtleties of selling. It is a well-known fact that personality plays a big rôle in the so-called “selling game” (one of a series of American games, among which are “the newspaper game,” “the advertising game,” “the cloak-and-suit game,” “the ladies’ mackintosh and over-shoe game,” “the seedless-raisin and dried-fruit game,” etc.), and so Mr. Ganz of the Eureka Novelty Company spends the first hour and three-quarters developing his “personality appeal.” All through the tomato bisque aux croutons and the roast prime ribs of beef, dish gravy, he puts into practice the principles enunciated in books on Selling, by means of which the subject at hand is deferred in a subtle manner until the salesman has had a chance to impress his prospect with his geniality and his smile (an attractive smile has been known to sell a carload of 1897 style derbies, according to authorities on The Smile in Selling), his knowledge of baseball, his rich fund of stories, and his general aversion to getting down to the disagreeable reason for his call.
The only trouble with this system is that I have done the same thing myself so many times that I know just what his next line is going to be, and can figure out pretty accurately at each stage of his conversation just when he is going to shift to one position nearer the thing he has to sell. I know that he has not the slightest interest in my entertainment other than the sale of a Eureka Central Paste Supply System, and he knows that I know it, and so we spend an hour and three-quarters fooling the waiter into thinking that we are engaged in disinterested camaraderie.
For fifteen minutes we talk business, and I agree to take the matter up with the directors at the next meeting, holding the mental reservation that a central paste supply system will be installed in our plant only over my dead body.
This takes us until two-thirty, and I have to hurry back to a conference. We have two kinds of “conference.” One is that to which the office boy refers when he tells the applicant for a job that Mr. Blevitch is “in conference.” This means that Mr. Blevitch is in good health and reading the paper, but otherwise unoccupied. The other kind of “conference” is bona fide in so far as it implies that three or four men are talking together in one room, and don’t want to be disturbed.
This conference is on, let us say, the subject of Window Cards for display advertising: shall they be triangular or diamond-shaped?
There are four of us present, and we all begin by biting off the ends of four cigars. Watterly has a pile of samples of window cards of various shapes, which he hangs, with a great deal of trouble, on the wall, and which are not referred to again. He also has a few ideas on Window Card Psychology.
“It seems to me,” he leads off, “that we have here a very important question. On it may depend the success of our Middle Western sales. The problem as I see it is this: what will be the reaction on the retina of the eye of a prospective customer made by the sight of a diamond-shaped card hanging in a window? It is a well-known fact in applied psychology that when you take the average man into a darkened room, loosen his collar, and shout “Diamonds!” at him suddenly, his mental reaction is one in which the ideas of Wealth, Value, Richness, etc., predominate. Now, it stands to reason that the visual reaction from seeing a diamond-shaped card in the window will....”
“Excuse me a moment, George,” says MacFurdle, who has absorbed some pointers on Distribution from a book entitled “The World Salesman,” “I don’t think that it is so important to get after the psychology of the thing first as it is to outline thoroughly the Theory of Zone Apportionment on which we are going to work. If we could make up a chart, showing in red ink the types of retail-stores and in green ink the types of jobber establishments, in this district, then we could get at the window display from that angle and tackle the psychology later, if at all. Now, on such a chart I would try to show the zones of Purchasing Power, and from these could be deduced....”
“Just a minute, Harry,” Inglesby interrupts, “let me butt in for half a second. That chart system is all very well when you are selling goods with which the public is already familiar through association with other brands, but with ours it is different. We have got to estimate the Consumer Demand first in terms of dollar-and-a-quarter units, and build our selling organization up around that. Now, if I know anything about human nature at all—and I think I do, after being in the malleable-iron game for fifteen years—the people in this section of the country represent an entirely different trade current than....”
At this point I offer a few remarks on one of my pet hobbies, the influence of the Gulf Stream on Regional Commerce, and then we all say again the same things that we said before, after which we say them again, the pitch of the conversation growing higher at each repetition of views and the room becoming more and more filled with cigar smoke, Our final decision is to have a conference to-morrow afternoon, before which each one is to “think the matter over and report his reactions.”
This brings the day to a close. There has been nothing remarkable in it, as the reader will be the first one to admit. And yet it shows the secret of whatever we have not accomplished in the past year in our business.
And it also shows why we practical business men have so little sympathy with a visionary, impractical arrangement like this League of Nations. President Wilson was all right in his way, but he was too academic. What we practical men in America want is deeds, not words.
– Robert Benchley, from Of All Things, Henry Holt and Company, NY, 1921.