This month I have had the misfortune of bumping into some unpleasant characters that I fear are a product of 'business' becoming a television sport. Back in the old days, being in business was sniffed at by both the working classes (which still existed) and the upper-middle echelons of society. There was a stigma attached to 'wheeler-dealing' depicted quite well by the Private Walker character in the BBC television series Dad's Army. Since then, the image of businesspeople has quietly become more accepted. We were never as respected as doctors or architects, and parents would probably still prefer their children to become lawyers than businesspeople, but towards the end of the pre-Apprentice age there was no animosity from society.
Alas, 2005 saw the introduction of The Apprentice and it has been downhill ever since. The early series paraded some genuine talent doing 'business activities' in the continual battle to woo a supposed rags-to-riches business deity called Alan. Poetic licence was taken to a whole new level for 'reality' TV. As anyone in the business community knows, you can't source a product on Monday and be sitting in front of some of the country's most powerful buying groups before lunch on Tuesday. Nevertheless, the show was a hit and to try and make future series more sensational the production team stopped recruiting candidates on the basis of their business talent and chose instead to hunt the unhinged — those more suited to Big Brother than big business.
Dragons' Den made it even worse, presenting the Dragons as ruthless and consequently successful. In actual fact, some of the Dragons haven't been all that successful and some are jolly nice people. This isn't to say that all successful people are soft and cuddly, far from it: Steve Jobs was notoriously cut-throat, even if
his onstage persona suggested otherwise.
To be fair, we must take some responsibility. When I say 'we', I mean sales reps. Particularly those who are three inches from your rear bumper on the M4 in an Audi. And if you don't use the M4, they can also be found swearing loudly down a mobile phone in a 'quiet zone' on the train.
But enough of the blame game. The moral is that we need to do something to improve our image. It is perfectly possible to be successful in business without bullying, lying and pushing your way around — though it can sometimes be a fine line between right and wrong, and it only works if everyone starts playing by the same rules.
Next time you give your word, try and keep it, rather than backtrack if something cheaper comes along, regardless of whether or not you have a legally binding contract in place. Next time a customer returns a faulty product three days out of warranty, give them a replacement. Next time you are asked what your service provides, be honest rather than creative. Next time a rotten little oik applies to you for a job, put their CV in the circular file and recruit someone nice instead.
Our entrepreneurial correspondent travels the world in search of business, soft beds and good breakfasts.
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