A few days ago I came across an article about the first of the early typewriters to be patented way back in June 1868, by the printer and journalist Christopher Latham Sholes. It was quite an achievement as it led to the mass production of an innovative machine and its practical use by the general public.
Unfortunately for Sholes, though, after manufacturing a number of machines by 1873, he was apparently unsuccessful in selling them. He ended up transferring the rights of his invention to E. Remington and Sons, the gunmakers, that became the Remington Typewriter Company in 1902. Around the same period the Underwood Company had been supplying ribbons to Remington, but when competition for the same products arose between the two firms, Underwood reacted by setting up a division to produce their own typewriters. They did so by working in conjunction with the German-American inventor Franz X. Wagner, who had designed a far superior typewriter
It was an inspirational move for it led to Underwood becoming the largest manufacturer of typewriters in the world. They had created a design that would influence the look of every other typewriter for decades to come.
I mention all of this because as a very young man one of my early sales positions was with the Underwood Olivetti Company. By the 1960s, Olivetti, a world leader in office technology, had absorbed Underwood into their corporation. After a successful interview in their Belfast branch, I was selected to go to London on a sales and marketing course for two weeks.
The Underwood manual typewriter had been the dominant machine outselling all its competitors, but the new age of the electric typewriter was coming, and in London I was going to learn all about its superior performance. I couldn’t wait to get back to Belfast to see the sales pouring into the office.
I was assigned a town sector near Belfast City Hall where there were hundreds of business offices with typists tapping away on their old manual typewriters. I could only imagine what they would think when they saw the quality of printed material issuing from the very latest, superbly designed machines.
A strategy to market and promote the new typewriters had been devised by the manager of my branch. Start knocking on doors and arrange as many demonstrations as possible. The quality of the print would sell the machine. The theory seemed sound at first, but unfortunately the results didn’t stand up the effort involved. That meant physical as well as sales effort.
Every weekday morning I would collect one of the new electric typewriters, tuck it under my arm, its heavy weight resting on my hip, and march out onto the street to find my first potential client. However, it was so heavy and with my arm rapidly going numb, I was ready to set it down in almost any office, even if there was no typist there!
After a few unsuccessful calls and a stiff arm, I marched into an estate agent’s office and literally dumped the typewriter onto the receptionist’s desk. Whether in shock at my approach, or she felt the need to pass me quickly over to someone else, she showed me into the office manager’s office.
A well-dressed man in a navy three-piece suit, clutching a file of typewritten correspondence, patiently listened to my presentation and looked at my file of printed copies. They had been typed by the new electric typewriter and he had to agree they were much superior to anything typed in his office.
Yes, he was very interested and he expected all the offices in his group would probably purchase one. I arranged to leave the demonstration machine with him for 48 hours, so that the typists could have a closer look at it. I would return at the end of the week and collect the order.
I was over the moon. I had secured my first sale and it would be a major order!
Not really. When I called back he thanked me for my time, but they would not be placing an order just yet.
But why not, I asked incredulously, surely he could see the improvement the electric typewriter would make to his printed material?
Yes, he agreed, no doubt it would, but his typists had found that compared to the manual machines they had been using for years, they had little control over the speed and sensitivity of the electric keyboard. As a result they were frustrated by the mistakes they were making and the paper they wasted.
Perhaps, he suggested, if I dealt personally with the head of the typing pool, I might arrange some training, as a way of introducing the typists to the benefits of the new machine. He was sold, but it was his typists who needed to be convinced.
It was against this background, that I learned a very important lesson: If you’re selling something, make sure you are speaking to the right person who will make the buying decision.