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5 Brief Business Lessons – #5 – the Price

Each lesson is a direct personal experience. My 45 year career was packed with memorable happenings, but the people – whether colleagues or customers – taught me there was a right way to do good business, whilst making friends and helping organisations grow and prosper along the way.

Maintaining a proper sale price for anything, will result in income generation which should enable a business to pay its way and prosper.  Selling things at a discount from list price – unless the list price has been deliberately hiked – is a road to nowhere, unless you are dealing in such large quantities that any bad effect on profits, is nullified.  But how often do you see 70% off etc – which may go to show how much profit margin was being made in the first place, or, more likely, reflects more or less the cost-to-make – so better to sell at a break even price if it clears the shelves for stocking more profitable items.

Products are one thing, but where you are selling products and services,  – i.e. you have to support the products with people who need paying – then anything other than a ‘proper price’ is unacceptable.

In my last posting before ‘retirement’, a young salesman asked if I would accompany him to a meeting, at which he hoped to clinch an order.  The proposal involved software licenses, maintenance services, plus training for the staff. 

We arrived at the customer’s premises, to be met by the owner and the sharp-eyed lady company secretary, whose role, I soon learned, was to drive down the price by a combination of charm and stealth.

Lady:  Right, we have your prices here, and we want to go ahead with it – but what can you do about the price?

Me:  So I presume that you want to pay less than we are asking for?

Lady:  Well, yes – I’m sure you can squeeze it a bit as I’m sure you’d like the order today.

Me:  Of course I can do a lower price.  Which bit don’t you want?

Lady:  What do you mean?

Me:  You can pay less, but which elements of the quotation don’t you want”

Lady:  We need it all, don’t we?

Me:  I would have thought so – and if you want it all, the price is the price we have on the quotation page.  And any reduction in the price won’t be accepted by the company, as each element goes through our ISO 9000 quality control system, and any attempt to deviate from this will result in a non-acceptance.  There is one exception, in that if you choose to pay in full with your order, it allows for a 2.5% reduction on the full price.  Would you like to do that?

Lady:  (slightly flustered , having been rumbled)  Oh, and that’s final?

Me:  I can’t do anything about it – but I’m sure you know that it represents fine value, and it is what you want – and you do get me at no charge if you want to discuss anything related to all of this in the futureAnd (smiling). I am great value too.

So the deal was done and everyone was happy with the outcome.

As soon as we got in the car to go back to the office, the young salesman said ‘that was brilliant – and you said it all with a straight face’.  I said it wasn’t a question of saying anything other than what I knew and believed.  ‘If you believe it, it’ll come over perfectly naturally, and you’ll say it every time.  Besides, if you knock money off, that comes off the company’s profit margin, your commission etc etc – and the customer will think that he can always ask for it.  It’s all about VALUE, not price.

The Moral

If the purchaser perceives (or is reminded of) the VALUE of what he is buying, price recedes into the background – which is why it’s vital to focus on this and the expected ROI (Return On Investment) he can receive.  And if you can demonstrate this from other customer experiences, you are a long way down the road to maintaining both your margins and the future success of your business.

5 Brief Business Lessons – #4 – the Poisoned Chalice

Each lesson is a direct personal experience. My 45 year career was packed with memorable happenings, but the people – whether colleagues or customers – taught me there was a right way to do good business, whilst making friends and helping organisations grow and prosper along the way.

The Poisoned Chalice

At the age of 21, when my career as a fledging accountant had foundered on the rocks of unsuitability, I changed paths into a career that could use what I had learned, but in a more practical way.

The company which I joined had a fine reputation for investing in their new employees by training them thoroughly in all aspects of the business. They didn’t let me down on that score, but, as they say, the proof of the pudding is in the eating.

My chosen path was to provide companies with accounting machines (as they were known back then, and before the electronics boom which began in the mid 1970s), mainly to do ‘debit/credit/plonk’ work, maintaining their sales and purchase ledgers, as well as an ability to work out payslip information – with the aid of good old Table A and Table B, for those who remember. Not forgetting that the basic ability of these machines extended not much further than addition and subtraction, it was still a whole leap forward for most organisations whose previous take-up of technology went as far as a stack of pens and an adding-machine.

It’s fair to say that I had an inauspicious start, with a combination of lack of confidence and unsupportive management, being my reasons. And then, in 1975/6, a change of management to a couple of guys who just had the best of attitudes, and their help combined with a new-found confidence, brought about a swift change in fortunes. In 1976, I was the second most successful salesman in the UK at my level, which was reflected in some decent remuneration and other prizes along the way. BUT with the plaudits, came the poisoned chalice!

The UK Divisional Director (to us the Big White Chief) contacted me directly to congratulate me on my success, and, being as I obviously had the golden touch (!), he asked if I would like to take 4 weeks out of my current job, and come to Head Office in London, and run some training courses – and my peers would be the ones I would be training. Aaarghhh ….I knew most of them and there was no chance I was going to get an easy ride.

I went to London (having negotiated a salary hike to cover loss of normal earnings) to be given the course material, and then I had to write it up. There would be three separate modules, taking 3 days x 3 groups of salespeople (all men, as lady salespeople was a step too far in the mid 1970s).

And so to the courses themselves:

Course 1 – truly dire, lacking in conviction with poor communication skills, and worst of all I came up short time-wise in every element. Could it get any worse? The saving grace was that the attendees gave me a decent critique, so it can’t have been as bad as I thought, or were they showing some fraternal support for one of their own who had drawn the short straw?

Course 2 – better – more confidence, more knowledge, more open discussion, more time used up, but not all of the allotted, but getting there – and I was beginning to enjoy it.

Course 3 – loved it – complete confidence and grasp of subject matter, and I felt that I could answer any question fired at me. Full interaction, and, believe it or not, I actually overran my time on all sections – which wasn’t a problem, as it meant everyone was getting full value. Great critiques too.

Of course, all this did wonders for my overall confidence, and opened up other channels of activity over the years. I ended up doing a lot of training, CPD sessions, I ran seminars, performed on stage etc – and I like to think that all these extra facets to my normal work only came about because I was handed the poisoned chalice, but didn’t choose to drink from the cup.

The Moral

You can learn a lot from doing the difficult things, how to do them better, because you never know where it might lead. It’s a bit like doing an Open University course in the evenings to gain a further qualification, or taking singing lessons even though you are a perfectly competent singer. It’s always worth going the extra mile because you find out so much more about yourself by doing it. I’m glad that I did!!

5 Brief Business Lessons – #3 – People who Love People

People Who Love People

Each lesson is a direct personal experience.. My 45 year career was packed with memorable happenings, but the people – whether colleagues or customers – taught me there was a right way to do good business, whilst making friends and helping organisations grow and prosper along the way..

I received a ‘phone call from a lady in London (300 miles south of my office), asking for a price for a new software system specific to her profession (she nominated the product for which we were Gold Star resellers), with support, training course, ongoing maintenance etc. I didn’t know her, and she didn’t know me, but I detected a slight note of exasperation in her voice. She knew exactly what she wanted in terms of licenses etc etc (always a brownie point for organisation!)

Me: Have you been given proposals from suppliers in your area?

She: (hesitating a little) Yes, I’ve had quotations from A and B (the two major London area suppliers)

Me: But have they discussed how best to implement it with you, and dare I say, made a business proposal on the back of that?

She: No – they’ve given me quotations

Me: But surely if you’re spending that amount of money, you expect a little more TLC?

She: Yes – well put. We know we need to do this, but I’m not convinced that I have found the supplier I want to work with

Me: (sensing the opportunity). OK, I understand, this is what I propose….

I said that I would prepare a document summarising what she said she needed, a draft plan of implementation (to be discussed) – and of course the financial implications of their purchase. I said that I would do this, on the premise that if she liked what she read, I would come down to London without obligation, and talk/walk her and her management team through the whole implementation process from A-Z – something I would expect to do for any company.

So, arrangements were made for me to go to London. When I talked this through with colleagues, there was many a dissenting word – ‘a waste of a day’, ‘A or B will always get the deal down there’, ‘haven’t you better things to do?’. I explained the scenario, and whilst I couldn’t guarantee an order, I felt sufficiently strongly about it that I would be prepared to fund the trip myself, in the event of no contract. They went along with my assessment – and maybe the thought of a £10000 margin for a day’s effort was an influencer. People, eh?

The day came – train into King’s Cross mid morning, a one mile walk to their offices, and a 3 hour meeting over an extended lunchtime. They seemed happy with my approach and how the implementation would be achieved over the following 12 months to achieve the payback they wanted (making sure that they understood their responsibilities). They said that would get together as soon as I left with a view to coming to a decision. They also knew that I was asking for a 30% prepayment with order.

I walked back to King’s Cross, and caught up with my messages on the concourse, waiting for my scheduled train. PING – a new email, and it was from the company I had been with that day. “Thank you for coming to see us today. We are happy to confirm our order for the new system as proposed, and if you would forward your company’s bank details, we will lodge a payment for the agreed 30% of the contract value”.

I raised my arm in the air was if celebrating a winning goal, and forwarded their email to the team back at the office, with a smiley face.

The Moral

Take each prospective sale situation on its merits, and make a judgement. Many, many times you might choose not to progress a situation, or at least make sure that your price covers the inevitable challenges which some customers present. Listen to what is being said to you, and how it’s being said, and see if the main ‘qualification’ boxes are ticked. I think I’ve always been good at doing this – there’s no value in coming a glorious second in the race – that just costs time, money and reputation. AND the bonus of this luxury of choice, is that you should ensure a good, long-term and profitable relationship, with people you enjoy working with. You will become a ‘trusty’, and your word should not be questioned – as long as you keep your promises and and don’t let anyone down along the way.

They will then be happy to sing your praises, which in turn helps the next sale, and so the carousel of business goes around.

5 Brief Business Lessons – #2: The CPD Presentation

Each lesson is a direct personal experience. My 45 year career was packed with memorable happenings, but the people – whether colleagues or customers – taught me there was a right way to do good business, whilst making friends and helping organisations grow and prosper along the way.

The CPD Presentation

CPD is the 3-letter abbreviation for Continuing Professional Development. It refers to the process of tracking and documenting the skills, knowledge and experience that a person gains both formally and informally in their job, beyond any initial training. It’s a record of what you experience, learn and then apply.

CPD may be a requirement of membership of a professional body. It can help to reflect, review and document learning and to develop and update professional knowledge and skills.

So where do I come into this?

The professions – accountancy, law, architecture etc – are particularly wedded to CPD as a measuring tool for personal development, and whilst it is down to the individual to progress and instigate a plan for him/herself, it is very often the professional practice which sets up meetings and presentations, nearly always at lunchtime. The deal was that the invited presenter (me) would provide lunch for those sitting in. This would be a large tray of sandwiches to be eaten whilst I was presenting, and if I was lucky there may be one left at the end for me. Strictly time-limited, they were not a sales exercise, but a learning and development tool for those attending. I performed scores of such presentations in the latter years of my career, to the architectural design profession, for whom my company was an accredited CPD provider.

Whilst being professionally managed by both parties, even to the extent of issuing a certificate to all those attending, it was an opportunity to expose both the partners and ‘workers’ in a practice, to (in my case) the latest trends in design technology. Case studies would explain why other practices had decided to follow the trends, with the unspoken sub-text being ‘if they’re doing it, why aren’t you, because if you don’t you’ll be left behind‘. This tack was often very much in the minds of the partner/director i/c within the practice, who wanted to promote the use of newer technology, but regarded the CPD as a way of ‘persuading’ others.

The younger members of the audience were nearly always vocally enthusiastic about the possibilities presented by the latest design tools – after all, if they didn’t have these skills, where was their career heading. The more senior people were more measured in their attitudes, but, whilst it would mean a considerable investment in new software and staff training, they would have been denying an opportunity to move their businesses forward. My saying ‘Of course, the partners/directors will have a medium to long-term plan for the future‘ usually resulted in muffled laughter, sometimes even from the company leaders. There was rarely any resentment in my saying this, even if each was being ‘hoist with his own petard’, and grudgingly knew that there was really no choice than to keep pace at a minimum with their competitors. Anyway, who would want to work for a business which didn’t have a plan for the future!

The Moral

Not everyone has the luxury of being accredited to give CPD presentations, but they fulfil many and different objectives, both for an individual and for their employer organisation. It helped both me and my company look professional, and they are a very powerful influencer in the overall process of helping to give individuals and clients a leading edge within their own profession.

5 Brief Business Lessons – #1: The Curve Ball

Each lesson is a direct personal experience. My 45 year career was packed with memorable happenings, but the people – whether colleagues or customers – taught me there was a right way to do good business, whilst making friends and helping organisations grow and prosper along the way.

The Curve Ball

A meeting was set up with an installer of security systems (CCTV/Intruder Alarms etc) in the south of England. My company was a specialist supplier of business management software to this market, so this was a typical situation where a sales inquiry had been made, and I would arrive with my laptop to show and discuss the system with the Directors, and in this case, the lady who was responsible for managing the company’s accounts and administration functions. I had also invited a prospective agent who might work on our behalf in the south of England, to help generate additional business and thereby ease my burden.

I sat next to the lady (so that she could see the system information on the computer screen), with the two directors opposite us, and my guest at the end of the table, listening and hopefully learning. All was progressing normally until about 5 minutes in, where the conversation took a strange turn:

Director 1: Robert, can I just stop you there?

Me: Of course, what can I help with?

Director 1: Could you stop staring at her breasts, please – it’s very rude. (sharp intake of breath and open mouth from my guest at the end of the table)

Me: (trying to assess the situation quickly) I didn’t realise that I was….. but they are particularly lovely. (Yes, I know that it could all have gone very wrong at this moment, but I made a judgement call based upon my existing perceptions of those around the table)

Lady: (laughing) Just ignore them, Robert – they’re always doing this – it’s their way of sussing you out

Director 1: (smiling) Carry on, Robert, you’re doing fine – as good an answer as I’ve ever had

At the end of the meeting, they agreed to purchase the proposed system, helped in no small measure by the ‘lady’ and her forthright attitude to wanting it. Friends all round at the end, and no further curve balls to dodge…..

The Moral

I’ve had many examples of people trying to trip me up – some on my industry knowledge, and some more malicious ones, and even the odd strange one like the above example. I learned that you have to be prepared for anything, and calmness and presence of mind only come with age and experience.

Also, you will never know as much about your customer’s business as they do, so never ever pretend that you do, as you’ll soon be found out and sent packing. Do make sure that they understand your areas of expertise, and how you can apply those to any given situation. It worked for me – I always said why it was important that they got ME as part of the deal. Of course, you always have the luxury of choice in the matter, and I have backed out of many prospective sales situations, after seeing that the two parties’ respective aims were incompatible with a long, friendly and profitable relationship. Telling people that is almost as rewarding as winning a contract.

My First TV Appearance

My first TV appearance was in 1961 – as was my last TV appearance, but still a story worth the telling.

1961 was early in the history of national TV in the UK. The BBC was covering most of the country by 1955, but still with limited broadcasting hours, and it was in that same year that a group of commercial stations under the title ITV – an abbreviation of Independent TeleVision – had come into being to bring some competition to the established channel. At this time, all programmes were shown in glorious black and white – there was no colour broadcasting as yet, whereas conversely, the paying customer had been used to seeing colour in the cinema since The Wizard of Oz in 1939.

I grew up in Wilmslow, Cheshire, and the local ITV franchise was the Manchester-based Granada Television. This was set up to cover the Lancashire/Cheshire/North Wales areas, and took not only national ITV programmes, but was also tasked with creating its own output. One such drama series of its own making, was called Family Solicitor.

This was composed of 18 episodes, all made and broadcast in 1961, and starring Geoffrey Palmer, Philip Grout and Robert Flemyng – all well-known British character actors.

One of the 18 episodes was titled First Eleven Plus and this is the one in which I featured. I can only imagine the plot surrounding the new ‘young star’ in the show, a 14 year old by the name of Peter Noone, but this was an open door for a budding actor wanting a career on stage and screen. In Peter Noone’s case, it didn’t give him an instant career break – he followed this up with a couple of appearances in the Granada soap Coronation Street (yes, that one!), before really hitting the big time after forming the pop group Herman’s Hermits in 1962.

Over the next 9 years, this group, with Peter Noone as ‘Herman’, sold many millions of records, with 14 gold singles and 7 gold albums of unremittingly clean, feel good music. Who, of a certain age can fail to remember such songs as No Milk Today, I’m Into Something Good, There’s A Kind of Hush, and Mrs Brown, You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter*. Peter still performs, living in Australia, and still looks enviably young and fit.

Back to me, and First Eleven Plus. This episode featured Peter as the schoolboy who was also a cricketer. My school was chosen to host the cricket match in which he featured as a batsman, with the school first XI filling in as the fielding team. I was the wicket-keeper in the team, so had the pleasure and privilege of standing directly behind Peter, as the camera, positioned at silly mid off, was filming him batting. It rings a bell with me, that Peter, as the batsman, hit a cover drive which succeeded in striking the cameraman on his shin, which must have brought much pain and laughter. I remember little else about the filming.

The broadcast date was August 31 that year. This coincided with being on holiday in Trearddur Bay in Anglesey with my parents and brother. Those of you who know this part of the world, will know that you can’t really go any further west in North Wales, without falling in the sea. This geographical fact also means that it was just about at the full range of the Granada Television transmitter at Winter Hill, near Bolton. something over 100 miles as the crow flies.

We sat down to watch in the cafeteria of the caravan site where we were staying, and waited with bated breath as the titles rolled. This is where the 100 mile gap between transmitter and TV betrayed the technology. It was like watching a raging blizzard. Alas, there was no chance of making out much at all visually. There was sound, but I never did get to see my TV debut – nor was it repeated, and nor has the Granada Television archive been able to turn up a copy sitting on a shelf. What a shame – my TV debut and swansong consigned to the bin….it almost might never have happened. But I keep thinking that someone, somewhere, must have a copy.

We both went on to wildly different careers after that TV programme and are now both in our 70s, and, I hope, happy with our lot.

* Mrs Brown, You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter was written by the actor and songwriter, Trevor Peacock, best known to many TV viewers for playing Jim Trott in the BBC comedy series, The Vicar of Dibley.

A young Peter Noone , and

An older Trevor Peacock (as Jim Trott)

ADDENDUM – February 2021

I watched a programme on the late comedian Bob Monkhouse last week, and established that he was one of the first to import a recording machine from SONY around 1960, for the price of a small car. His intention was to record as many TV programmes as he could, at a time when nothing was recorded, and many broadcast shows were overwritten immediately after broadcast, to save on film usage.

When BM died, his entire collection was given to Kaleidoscope, otherwise known as TV Brain, an archive of British TV from 1936 onwards ( http://www.tvbrain.info ), specialising in lost footage. It’s well worth a trawl if you have time.

I enquired as to whether “my” TV programme was part of the archive – alas it isn’t, so another door closes on this one. I still firmly believe that there must be a copy somewhere…..

“We’re from England, and lost”

Back in late 1983, we, the Directors of our business, decided to run a company-wide competition which everyone could enter. We devised the rules so that everyone had targets, regardless of the level of responsibility and experience. No-one was disadvantaged and absolutely anyone could win. The prize would be ‘something you wouldn’t normally consider doing/booking’ – and that prize was a return day-trip from Heathrow to the Pyramids in Egypt on Concorde – Wow, with a capital W.

I managed to win the competition by a very short head, and the tickets for the trip were duly booked. But, alas, one week before departure, we were informed that the company running the trip had gone bust – so no trip on Concorde 😦 I was asked what I wanted to do, and suggested putting the value of the prize to a holiday trip to Florida for Sue, I and our then 3 children under the age of 7. And so it came to pass….

The stories I could tell about this two week break at Easter 1984 are legion, even though, as far as the US Immigration Department was concerned, we were never there. I’d omitted to fill in a form upon landing – probably something to do with lugging suitcases with no wheels, and manhandling 3 children, and with airport staff taking pity on us and ushering us through quickly. Anyway, upon leaving Miami to come home, I was asked for this form which I had omitted to fill in, and said that I’d never had one and couldn’t produce it. The man said (quite loudly) “As far as we are concerned, you have never been to the United States of America”, and ushered us off in the direction of our flight.

We visited Disney, EPCOT*, the Gulf Coast, a MacDonald’s restaurant for the first time, and generally had a memorable stay. During our second week there, we moved from Orlando to a condominium in Indian Shores overlooking the Gulf of Mexico, watching the prehistoric-looking pelicans flying past the windows. We took advantage of the proximity of Tampa, to visit the world-famous Busch Gardens. It was an easy hour’s drive in our rental Chevy Station Wagon, taking the long road bridge across Tampa Bay, listening to the local rock FM station playing good music – living the dream.

Once off the I-275 and into Tampa itself, we managed to lose the signs for Busch Gardens, drove round for a bit and ended up in the ‘wrong’ part of town – the part where there were big guys in baseballs caps on every street corner, seemingly without much to do. I was lost – I had to ask someone for directions. There was nothing for it – play the lost Brit card. So, I was out of the car, walking up to the first burly guy with “We’re from England, and lost. We’re trying to get to Busch Gardens.” It seemed at first to be a bit of a stand-off – no immediate reply. Perhaps he was deciding whether I was worth eating. I tried to let no sign of emotion show on my face, although the heart was beating rather quickly. Soon enough, a drawled response with instructions (which happened to be correct), and I smiled a thank you. He didn’t smile back, so I was back in the car and we were away without too much indecent haste.

I remember telling someone that we’d had to ask for instructions in this not-so-salubrious part of Tampa, and the first comment was ‘And I hope you didn’t get out of the car…’ There was a look of disbelief when I recounted what had taken place – a look that said ‘Are you truly deranged or what?’

We had a great time in Florida, even though we’d never officially been there. We managed to lose one child in Disney World – we were beside ourselves until we located him. He wasn’t bothered at all. We dressed all 3 children in identical Mothercare track suits (see under), making them easy to spot. This was fine until a fourth child in the same tracksuit ended up in close proximity. A confusing moment.

1984 was less than 10 years after the end of the Vietnam War. We were reminded of this when the pilot of the shuttle ‘plane between Miami and Orlando announced that our destination was now off the port wing, and that ‘we’re goin’ in‘, as he banked the craft steeply and down to the airport. I imagined he said the same thing on a bombing mission in Vietnam. I never did get to fly on Concorde….

*EPCOT = Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow

(Adam, Sally and Chris in their matching Mothercare tracksuits)

Don’t Look Behind You Now, but…..

We can remember those halcyon days of February 2020 in all their ‘old normal’ glory, but with a rather nasty COVID-shaped cloud bubbling up on the horizon and heading our way irresistibly.

That February was also the month of my 70th birthday, with a trip planned to Paris for day itself, even though there were an increasing number of worried looks cast towards the horizon throughout the month, as that nasty bubbling cloud grew larger.

A couple of weeks before Paris, we had booked an overnight stay in London, due to a natural desire to see my brother (shortly to be 75) and his wife for lunch. We live 300 miles apart, and get-togethers are infrequent. The lunch was excellent, partaken in an eatery adjacent to Covent Garden.

As brothers, we seemed to miss each other for large chunks of our younger lives. When I was 8 he went away to school. When I was 12 he came back and started work, and I went away to school. At 18, I came back, and brother by then had left home to work over the Pennines in Stoke-on-Trent, then Manchester. Many years missed, but as the years went by, and my job took me around the UK, I enjoyed regular overnight stays with him in Berkshire, as well as shared but intermittent family get-togethers. Do we know each other well? Well enough, I suppose, but whilst we share views on many things, for some reason which I could never understand, he voted for Brexit, whereas I (being the sensible one), didn’t. Anyway, we both had our reasons and it hasn’t interrupted normal service between us, and we speak most weeks, which, as I understand from other friends with brothers, is exceptionally frequent. Some don’t speak from one year to the next.

Anyway, back to the title. Tickets had been booked for Sue and I to see the stage play of Upstart Crow at the Gielgud Theatre, being fans of the TV programme and of Ben Elton’s writing. The play had opened only a few days before, and was still going through its settling-in process, but was getting rave reviews already.

I managed to secure seats only a few rows back from the front, and quite near the side aisle. Curtain up time was fast approaching, and I looked across to Sue on my left, and my attention was shifted by a slight hubbub in the row behind. I whispered to Sue “Don’t look behind you now, but Lord and Lady Lloyd Webber have just taken their seats”. Of course, she turned quickly under some pretext, and nodded her agreement with a knowing smile.

Come the interval, the Lloyd Webbers beat a hasty retreat to privacy, before the motley could make fawning comments, and came back just before curtain up for the second half….only this time, accompanied by Ben Elton. I whispered to Sue “Don’t look behind you now, but Ben Elton is sitting next to Lord and Lady Lloyd Webber”. Sue agreed that he was indeed. At the end of the fine production, after the standing ovation for the actors, led by David Mitchell, and just before their eminences in the row behind beat a hasty retreat, Sue said something nice to Ben Elton, who was kind enough to thank her for her comment.

‘Live’ theatre seems a lifetime ago as I write this in January 2021 – even the always-brilliant pantomime at the Customs House in South Shields fell victim – but at least memory retains the joys and laughter of that night in the West End, and the lunch with my brother and his wife, just before that bubbling cloud enveloped us all and the world as we knew it was put on hold.

At least we managed to fly to an eerily empty Paris for three days, just days before lockdown in France. Never in my lifetime could I have imagined sharing the Hall of Mirrors in the Palace of Versailles, with only a handful of other people. Here’s Sue proving the point….

Sue’s New Car

I have been married to Sue for over 46 years, and she is not given to spending money carelessly – an admirable trait in a person. All expenditure is carefully weighed up and justified.

Over our many years together, her venture into car ownership began in 1974 with a Hillman Minx bought for £50, and which dripped more petrol than it ever used, and which, when finally disposed of, was used by Rotherham Council Trading Standards department as an example of a car “which you should never buy” due to its multiple faults.

Over the years, the needs of ferrying four children at various stages in their growing-up, were met by Sue with a number of cost-effective solutions, including four second hand Citroen 2CVs. Sue was then the recipient in 2004, of a piece of husbandly forward-planning, being presented with a brand-new SEAT Arosa in metallic black.

For the next 13 years and 80000 miles, this car provided trusty and economical transport for both her and a variety of children. Regular servicing, a few new tyres and other consumables, and one new battery, and a purchase price of only £6500, was as good an investment as any new car is likely to be.

But many things in life start to sag after 13 years of hard use, and, to coincide with Sue’s retirement from her post at Newcastle University in 2016, she promised herself a well-deserved replacement, and one which would no doubt see her through the next 13 years.

So, what to buy. I have always prided myself as being something of a car buff, and offered my willingness to assist in the selection process. When suggesting that she point out anything she considered a ‘possible’ when we were out and about, and not much being forthcoming, I then asked her base criteria. “Small and red” was the answer. Not perhaps a technical argument for choosing a particular model, but at least straightforward and actionable.

I pulled up pictures of the best-selling and most highly regarded ‘city cars’, as first impressions count for something – it has to look decent, after all, and preferably red. There were some instant ‘No!” and “Really?” comments, which suddenly reduced the list of the motor industry’s pride and joy, to three cars – a Smart, a Suzuki Swift, and a Citroen C1.

We set aside a few hours to go and see them.

Firstly to Mercedes Newcastle (the Smart car dealer). After 10 minutes of walking around the ones in the showroom (all locked), someone finally deigned to speak to us. It then took them 15 minutes to find a ‘salesperson’ who knew something about the Smart. Then they couldn’t find keys to unlock the ones in the showroom – so more waiting. After a half hour, Sue and I looked at each other, shook our heads, and walked out. I daresay if we had come in to spend £50000 on a Merc, one of the smart-suited and -coiffeured young men might have sycophantically welcomed us to the garage – but alas, the Smart is very much the brand’s bastard brother on this showing. Suffice to say, there will be no return to that particular garage in my lifetime. I couldn’t even be bothered to let them know what I thought about the ‘customer experience’, and they probably wouldn’t have cared if I had have done.

Chastened by this, we hoped for better from Springfield (now Sherwood) in Gateshead, who sell Suzuki and Citroen from adjoining showrooms. We had a welcome (!), with Sue taking a look at the Swift before announcing within 5 seconds that it was “too big”. Muttered apologies to the salesperson, before walking across the carpark into the Citroen showroom. Once again, a real welcome and a helpful approach from the senior salesman. There was a C1 sitting there – and yes, it was the right size, easy to get in-and-out of, comfortable, but alas they didn’t have a red one in stock. At least this one had red wing mirrors to offset its white paintwork.

As we were in the market now, didn’t need finance, and could sign an order there and then, a fine deal was offered with a small trade in allowance for the Arosa. Sue signed the order form – and it was a very good deal!

19000 miles and four years on, Sue is delighted with her C1 Furio, with the 1.2 litre engine. It is a fast little car, suited equally to town and motorway, never short of power when needed – the engine size is greater than the car needs, but it’s always good to have something in reserve. 50 miles per gallon, town or country, a compliant ride, and genuine fun to drive. No problems to report – and I grab the keys whenever I can!! Good choice, Sue.

P.S. Exactly 4 years on from the purchase of the C1, it’s possible to buy a brand-new C1 to essentially the same spec, for even less than the deal we struck at the time. That’s great value, to my mind. Fine little cars.

Arosa

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Citroen C1

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