Business And Success Lessons From The Apprentice UK 2007 – To Hard Sell Or To Soft Sell

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‘The Apprentice’ TV reality show is described by boss, Sir Alan Sugar, as “a job interview from hell”. By the fifth episode, five out of sixteen candidates had been fired.

Sir Alan described his ideal apprentice as “someone who is drop dead shrewd.” The word ‘shrewd’ suggests practical, hard headed wisdom and common sense. In some ways, it is the opposite of ‘artistic’.

In episode five, Sir Alan wanted to see if the apprentices could sell in the soft sell world of the art market. He met them at Christie’s. Here, art works sell for hundreds of thousands of pounds.

For Sir Alan, selling art is just a business like any other but he admits that it demands a special kind of selling:

“You can’t talk someone into liking a piece of art but what you have to do is smell when someone is on the hook”.

Tre Azam was not impressed by modern art:

“Did you see some of the art at Christie’s? It made me sick. There was a white plain canvas with a cello on one side and a lamp on the other side and it was being sold for three hundred grand when you could buy all three separately for about sixty quid!”

The two teams of apprentices, Eclipse and Stealth, would have to mount an exhibition for one evening at their own gallery to sell the work of two photographers that they would chose themselves.

The photographers could decide which team they would work with if the same photographer was chosen by both teams.

Kristina was project manager for the Stealth team. She admitted to being clueless about photography but knew how to manage sales teams.

Natalie was project manager for Eclipse. She is a mum with a business degree but no experience in the arts. She was keen to delegate but delegated so much that her role as leader was weakened.

Her team approached fashion photographer, Elizabeth Hoff, who had produced a series of photographs featuring lips and teeth. In one photo, teeth bit onto a dice. In another a razor blade was placed between upper and lower teeth. Paul, from Stealth, described the photos as ‘eye candy’.

Katie was charged by Natalie with charming Elizabeth in case both teams wanted her photographs to sell. Katie was full of enthusiasm and respect:

“We are passionate about making this work. As a team we want to be there to completely support the artist that is happy to work with us. If you could just bring us into your world and let us understand how this happened; where have you come from; how you came about to this (pointing at the photos)…”

Elizabeth Hoff explained why lips were the focus of her photographs:

“For me the lips are the sort of centre of communication but they are also sensual and also sexual and they’re fascinating.”

Car salesman, Adam, wanted the numbers rather than the story:

“How many have you sold so far?”

“I haven’t sold any of these. This is the first time they have been offered for sale.”

“How much would you want for each?”

“Nine fifty for the smaller ones.”

“Nine pounds fifty?”

“Nine hundred and fifty!”

Every one laughed including Adam who said “Just checking!”

Katie was annoyed: “Adam was way off. We were learning about her; about her passion; about her integrity as an artist and really wanting to respect and value that. He was asking how much do you sell these for and how many can you sell. This is not a car lot!”

Adam asked the team: “Can we get people that can afford them in that space of time or not?”

Katie replied: “If you tell them a story and you make it passionate and its sexy and creative…You’ve got a great lady there who has got such a passionate story herself.”

“You’ve got to have the money in the bank to buy them though,” said Adam. “So, we’ve got to get the right people.”

Margaret, Sir Alan’ aide, saw Adam’s point:

“Adam is coming across as a rather dour commercial man but he is asking questions about price and has she sold any and so on. Someone has to ask that.”

Adam felt his team were talking too much about the art and the concepts and not enough about the following questions:

“Who is going to buy it? Why are they going to buy it? Where are we going to get them from? To me they would have been factors involved in any business proposition.”

At 10 a.m. Kristina Grimes had split her team, Stealth, in two. Her sales training helped her to home in on a possible source of buyers.

“When you see each of your appointments, can you ask them for a list of contacts.”

Kristina, Naomi and Jadine visited Tim Flack, an award winning horse photographer. Kristina, in an aside, explained her approach:

“Initial thoughts are that this is very creative and you have to put your mind into a certain mind set to interpret things and I’m not kind of wishy washy like that.”

True to her philosophy, Kristina’s approach to Tim was businesslike:

“Can I ask about your prices and what they go for?”

She found out that he had a client list of 100 and asked for a commitment to her team. Tim felt this was unfair but was charmed by their interest in his work.

Later he did choose her team and gave his reason to Sir Alan’s aide. He was impressed with the team leader. Kristina looked like the cat who had got the cream.

The other half of her team Paul, Tre, and Ghazal Asif visited Nigel Grimmer in Brixton who showed them his road kill family album portfolio. The photo of Nigel’s masked mother lying by the roadside did not impress Tre! Nor was Nigel impressed by his visitors: “I really felt a bit squashed by the whole thing.”

At midday, Natalie seemed more concerned about what food should be served at their exhibition than which photographer they should select.

Her entire team visited Linda Liebermann whose photos featured fish, shell fish and human flesh. Katie was her usual charming self:

“What drove you to this? What was the inspiration really? Who are you?”

“The work is really the story of the ocean and the life within.”

Simon, as tactfully as possible, asked if she would mind if fish restaurants bought her work.

“No. I wouldn’t want it in a street café, perhaps. I just feel that it would be lost.”

Lohit was shocked by one picture where lobster claws were pinching nipples. Natalie showed her sense of humour:

“You know how people have a coffee fix in the morning; well, I have a lobster pinch my nipples! It wakes me up!”

At 3p.m. the teams had to decide which photographers would make most money at the galleries tomorrow and which photographer would go with their first choice.

Both teams wanted Elizabeth Hoff’s lips and Tim’s Flack horses. Tim liked the leadership of Stealth but Elizabeth preferred Eclipse.

The teams now had to choose a second artist.

Kristina chose Linda Lieberman’s fish and flesh photographs but Paul and Tre were not impressed. Tre was not sure that he agreed with Darwin that we came from fish: “She might have. I certainly haven’t!”

Natalie called a meeting at the house to tell her team to avoid hard sell. Adam warned that people might just come, have a look and go without buying and that the other team would be selling like crazy.

Katie felt that Adam would be too heavy footed. “We need to have ballet shoes on and we need to dance with them.”

Natalie agreed: “I’m with Katie on this that art is something you cannot go in for hard sell.” Adam protested that they were all taking things the wrong way.

Katie fumed: “Adam, as ever, is a complete catastrophe. He needs to be on a car sales lot and not anywhere near the art arena….Frankly, if Adam could just go back to the car sales lot and get run over, my day would be absolutely perfect!”

On the day of the sale, Kristina instructed Paul to call the names on their photographers’ client lists. The teams had until 6 p.m. to hang their pictures and get clients in through the doors.

But Elizabeth Hoff had not supplied a list of customers to Eclipse. With no leads, Natalie sent Simon and Katie off to the city to offer tickets to any one who looked as if they had money to spend.

Back at the gallery, Natalie had given Adam a list of art societies to call from the yellow pages while she and Lohit did the more ‘artistic’ work of hanging the photographs. To be fair, we learned later that she did make some calls herself.

Natalie felt that Adam was their weakest link at the moment but he seemed to be the one doing the work that might bring in some money.

Vanessa Warren, with photos of Colombia and Mexico, was Natalie’s second choice and her less expensive work was given to Adam to sell.

Kristina relegated Tre to the basement to sell Linda Lieberman’s fish and flesh pictures. This was like handing the two princes over to Richard of York to be ‘looked after’ in the tower of London.

Tre had a moral issue with the fact that naked bodies were used as backgrounds to the fish and lobsters etc. He turned some of the more sensual pictures to face the wall!

Elizabeth Hoff arrived and did not like the labels on her work or the holes in the wall or the fact that the wine was already poured out. Katie and some of the team rushed about doing whatever she and, later, her husband said.

Mr and Mrs Hoff advised the team to give the buyers space and to soft sell. Natalie and Katie were already in tune with this approach.

The exhibitions were opened at 6 p.m.

Downstairs at the Stealth gallery, Tre had censored some of Linda’s photos and was putting his own spin on the their meaning. Some laughed but others lapped it up. In the end, he sold several photos.

Katie sold nothing. Later she admitted that she may have been too soft:

“I just don’t know how to make it harder and I am concerned that if you make it too hard you will turn people off; so it is still a learning process.”

Paul and Kristina pulled in buyers by selling more aggressively. Her team walked around, with calculators in their hands, encouraging people to buy.

Adam, the much maligned car salesman, got the first sale for his team, Eclipse.

Margaret commented: “Some of them are talking too long to certain individuals who don’t plan to buy. In some ways selling art is like selling a car. If someone isn’t going to buy you have to move on.”

Simon eventually sold an Elizabeth Hoff photo by getting pushy.

Eclipse sold four photographs and made a profit of £1599.

Stealth, led by Kristina, sold fourteen photographs and made £4702 profit. Hard Sell had won!

Stealth were rewarded with an evening of being pampered at a health retreat.

Back in the boardroom, it was not so pleasant for Eclipse.

Sir Alan had Katie in his sights not to mention Elizabeth Hoff, the photographer:

“Katie, I’m being told that you went into ‘I’m an artist mode’. You wanted to get in with the art mob. You forgot about the killer point of selling stuff. This Elizabeth of yours. I hear you were in awe of her.”

“I was not in awe of her.”

“You were dominated by her,” said Margaret.

“I don’t believe we were dominated by her.”

Sir Alan asked: “Did she give you a list of people to phone?”

Natalie answered: “No she didn’t want us to have it.”

“Why not?”

“Personal reasons”

Margaret: “She was completely in control.”

Sir Alan: “I don’t know why you are all raving about Elizabeth’s work. Her prices with all due respect to the lady and her husband – 950 quid ranging to 1950 pounds – didn’t that ring *** bells with you?

“Presented with six artists a good business person says: ‘I haven’t got a *** clue about photography. We know as much about photography as we do flying to the *** moon. So what we are going to do is to hedge our bets. I ain’t going to pick one artist who has one show – she’s got one *** show – LIPS!’

“I would have liked to have walked into a gallery and seen a whole array of products and a whole array of prices and then you’ve placed a good bet. You didn’t place a good bet here.

“You’re betting that you found some nutter that came in and said “I LOVE THE LIPS! I’m going to have them! I’m going to have a whole wall of lips! I’m buying the lot!. Half your potential went straightaway the minute you selected that woman never mind letting her take over and run the *** show.”

Natalie selected Adam and Lohit to face the firing line with her. She accused Adam of being too negative and Lohit of failing to create presentable labels.

In the end Sir Alan made his decision:

“Natalie, I get the feeling that you are out of your depth. With regret, you’re fired. “

Natalie took the firing well: “I’ve come out of the Apprentice with my head held high. If you do go on there, you cannot take it personally. You have to take it as feedback and not as criticism.”

She will use her MBA business degree to help her open a bistro wine bar in her local high street. She will not put any art on the walls – just mirrors!

What business and success lessons can we learn from this episode?

Hard sell is the way to go if you only have one evening to sell in.

Don’t be so ‘seduced by the world of art that you forget the art of selling.’

Don’t be dominated by any one else. Choose your own selling style.

Tell your customers clearly if the sale is for one evening only.

If one customer is not buying, move on to another.

Provide customers with a range of different products at different prices.

A list of potential customers is worth its weight in gold

Don’t try to sell a product you disapprove of.

Nothing counts in business like results. You have either sold or you haven’t. Almost is not good enough.

Treat criticism as feedback and get on with your life.

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