In 1986, after two urban years stuffed uncomfortably into a suit, I returned to my parents’ farm – proven unemployable, and determined to start my own business. Whatever I made or grew, it would have to sell itself. My attempts to sell my employer’s management consultancy services in New York had convinced me that I was an acutely uncomfortable salesman, and, as a result, a poor one. I blame an old-fashioned belief, inherited from my mother, that it is unseemly to ‘blow your own trumpet’ or ‘push yourself forward’.
Back when patterns of trade were smaller, more local and more stable, a good product could sell itself; businesses thrived on earned reputations, rather than aggressive sales and self-conscious marketing.
But in our more transient times, competency in sales and marketing is a prerequisite of survival. Not surprisingly, given the sales incompetence of its founder, for years Riverford was not good at it. We ended up paying others to knock on doors for us – using, for a time, one of the most ethically bankrupt organisations I have ever had the misfortune to deal with.
Like many, including lots of respected charities, we had outsourced our dirty work to a company with questionable employment practices, who relied on discounts to persuade new customers – paid for, one way or another, by loyal ones.
In 2016, the end could no longer justify the means. We sacked the company, stopped discount marketing, and employed our own in-house sales teams on proper contracts. In the short term, new customer numbers halved, and the cost of attracting them doubled, but three sometimes painful years on from that brave (going on foolhardy) decision, we are recruiting more, and more loyal, customers than ever.
We have found a more honest and respectful way of selling; one that even my mother might have been comfortable with, and that I am very proud of.
Last month, Riverford won two awards: one from the Employee Ownership Association, for the engagement of our co-owners, the other from the British Excellence in Sales Management Awards (‘the Oscars for the sales industry,’ I am told by the team), for doing sales ‘our way’. I reckon the fact it's our business allows us to do things our way: making the most of varied talents, and bringing our humanity with us. Huge respect to our head of marketing Mark Moody and his extraordinary team, whose achievements owe nothing to the founder.