Woody Martin – A South African Hero

I was recently reminded about one of my favourite South African success stories. I have heard it a few times now, from a number of different people, and it is so inspirational that I have to share it with you. It is actually a sales story, but it applies equally well to customer care, for it is a story about perceptions of value.

In the 1960’s, South Africa was still an important global player in the world of business, and our contribution to world GDP was about 5% of the total. (Of course, it is barely one-tenth of that now, but that is not important to our story.)

One year, in the annual Best Salesman in South Africa Awards, a cigarette salesman by the name of Woody Martin who worked for one of our big cigarette companies, took the trophy. Part of his prize was that he would go to New York to the annual Best Salesman of the World competition. This he duly did, and he actually won, much to the delight of all of his colleagues and countrymen. Much honour was bestowed upon him, and he spent the rest of the year travelling the world and telling his story.

At one point, he landed in Sydney, Australia, after a long flight, rather weary, and looking forward to some rest in his hotel room. But at the airport, he was suddenly besieged by a whole group of reporters who had been sent to interview him and take some photographs. A few minutes into the conversation, one press man asked him if he really thought he was the best salesman in the world.

“That’s what they tell me,” replied Woody.

“So do you think that you can sell anything to anybody?” retorted the journalist.

“I guess so,” said Woody, not dreaming that in the next few seconds he was going to be put to the test.

With a note of triumph in his voice, the reporter then said, “I bet you couldn’t sell this box of matches for a dollar!”

Not one to take the challenge lying down, especially a challenge from an Australian, Woody replied, “Not only will I sell this box of matches for a dollar, but I’ll even sell it to anyone here that you tell me to.”

Coming down the stairs was a stranger, who appeared to be oblivious to what was happening near him, and the reporter pointed him out. Without hesitation, Woody walked up to him and struck up a conversation. Within one minute, the stranger took out one dollar, handed it over, and took the matches.

The reporters clamoured around him, disbelieving what they had just seen. But it all became clear when someone asked what Woody had said to him.

Somewhat bemused and rather overwhelmed, he replied that this stranger had walked up to him and asked, “How would you like to be on the front page of every newspaper in Sydney tomorrow?”

I love this story because it teaches us that even a stupid little box of matches can be perceived to have worth and value when we go beyond the obvious. So many people that I deal with in companies are only interested in telling the most obvious features of what they have to sell. They don’t sell dreams and fantasies.

(Oh, and by the way, the other lesson that this story teaches us is that we can beat the Aussies any time that we choose to!)