In a Flap Over Mudguards and Salesmanship in Beijing

June 25, 2010

Salesmanship is at the heart of public relations. As public relations practitioners, we develop strategies and tactics to help companies establish their reputations so that people trust them, because only when people trust a company will they consider purchasing its products or services. We use creative branding programs to differentiate our clients’ products or services from competitors’ products or services because only when consumers believe our offerings best fit their needs, will they consider purchasing them. And we increasingly engage stakeholders in different facets of our clients’ businesses – such as product development – in order to understand what they really want. Our clients then take those insights and incorporate them into their own products or services in the hope of providing products and services that more people want to buy.  
 
The impact of good salesmanship was brought home to me recently through an experience I had trying to purchase mudguards for my bicycle in Beijing. I’m an avid cyclist and I cycle to work every day. I do this because it’s fast, it’s healthy – although some people might argue that cycling through Beijing’s dust-laden, smog-filled air can hardly be classified healthy, I believe that if you wear a face mask and cycle down roads with proper bike lanes that are separated from vehicular traffic by tree borders, as I do, then the air you’re breathing is no worse than if you were in a car or walking.

Finally, cycling is a really good way of separating home and work: the physical and mental distance between these two places becomes much more real when you have to exert real effort to travel between the two than when you drive or take a passive form of transport. So my bike is very important to me, and I keep it well maintained and look after it carefully.

I ride a Giant racing bike. It’s an excellent bike except for one thing: it didn’t have proper mudguards on it when I bought it. Now, as anyone who’s been to Beijing knows, the city is full of dust and grit, courtesy of the ever-expanding deserts up north and the endless construction going on around the city. As soon as it rains, the city turns into a mud bath. If you cycle through this without a decent set of mudguards, you need to be prepared to water-blast yourself afterwards to clean off all the gunk. Obviously, most offices don’t come equipped with water-blasting facilities for their staff, hence the need for a decent set of mudguards.   
 
I went to a store where, not long before, I had purchased two new bikes for my kids. I needed to tune my son’s bike, so I decided to take advantage of my visit to see if I could find some new mudguards. I asked the woman behind the counter, who was busy slurping her tea from an old jar and waving a filthy rag over some bike parts in a desultory manner, whether or not they sold detachable mud guards for racing bikes. She waved her rag at a dusty pile of plastic mudguards in a dingy corner and said, “Don’t know. Take a look yourself.” I started rummaging through the pile, but it quickly became apparent they weren’t the right sort.
 
I asked again, “I’m looking for clip-on mudguards that you can use on a racing bike.”
 
“If they’re not in that pile then we don’t have them,” she snapped back at me.
 
“That’s strange. Most of the bikes in your shop are racing bikes, so why don’t you have mudguards that fit on racing bikes?” I observed.
 
Big mistake. Then she really let rip. “Why should we have them? There’s lots of things we don’t have here. There’s no reason why we don’t have them, we don’t need a reason. Why do we need a reason to not stock something? There doesn’t have to be a reason for everything in life! Go somewhere else and try your luck. You won’t find what you need here.”
 
Exasperated, I asked, “Could you recommend another shop that might sell detachable mudguards?”
 
“Haven’t got a clue. You’ll have to look yourself,” she said dismissively, then went back to rearranging the dust on the shelves and slurping her tea.  
 
A few days later, I was cycling around doing some errands close to home. I passed a bike shop that I’d seen before many times, but had never been into. The shop sold the same brand of bikes as my bike, so I figured it was worth a try to see if they had clip-on mudguards for my bike.
 
As I pulled up in front of the shop, a young salesman was helping a Korean couple and their two kids try out different bikes. There were already several new bikes out the front, and the salesman disappeared inside every so often to bring out another model. Clearly the couple were taking their time making a selection. They were asking LOTS of questions – in very broken Chinese. The young salesman was patiently explaining, often several times, the difference between the models, and keeping the kids entertained at the same time. Another salesman bounded out of the shop to ask me what I wanted.
 
“Mudguards for a racing bike”.
 
“I’m not sure if we have the right sort for your bike,” he said, “but I’ll take a look.” After rummaging around the back of the shop for a few minutes he came back triumphantly holding a set of mudguards. “Just what you need!” he said.
 
As he fitted the new mudguards on my bike, we chatted. He asked me lots of questions, as people in China often do: Where was I from? Why did I cycle around Beijing? Why did foreigners like cycling more than Chinese people now? Didn’t we regard cycling as a lower form of transport than driving a car? Did people cycle a lot in my country? How long had I lived in China? How much could he earn being a bicycle salesman in New Zealand? How much did I earn in Beijing? When I asked him if he cycled a lot, he pointed sheepishly to a battered sedan in front of the shop. “But I do enjoy cycling a lot!” he said defensively.
 
As he worked, he pointed out that there was something wrong with my rear brakes. One of the brake assemblies was fractured. “You can replace the brake pad now, wait for the assembly to break, and then replace the whole lot. Or you can replace the brake assembly now. It’s up to you.” I chose the latter option, for obvious reasons. He showed me the different types of brake assemblies, and recommended I buy the best (which cost about $10) since I was “obviously a serious cyclist.” The cheapest one cost about $5. I purchased “the best” one.  
 
As I left, the other salesman was just closing his sale for two new bikes to the Korean couple. The kids were having a ball. More customers were pulling up – expats as well. Obviously this place was popular. I knew that the next time I needed something for my bike; I’d be coming back to this store. These guys were great salesmen, AND great technicians.

Now all they need is a good PR agency. . . .