By Guy M. Tombs

I recently stayed at the Rex Hotel in central Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, attending the excellent CLC Projects Logistics Conference. It was a time to take stock, not only of the vast changes in the world since April 30 1975, when the U.S. Government pulled out of Saigon in dramatic fashion, but also of changes in my own life since that period. I lunched one day at the nearby Hotel Continental, vividly described in Graham Greene’s great 1955 novel The Quiet American.

The so-called Five O’Clock Follies, daily press briefings by the U.S. Military during the 60’s and early 70’s — often of questionable veracity — were held in a bar on the roof of the Rex Hotel. Richard Pyle, the AP Saigon bureau chief, lamented they were “the longest-playing tragicomedy in Southeast Asia’s theater of the absurd”.

The shipping market has recently been buffeted by a series of shocks and some sectors are still hard-hit. Business development, or marketing, must continue irrespective, though we play our hand differently.

Lessons must be passed on by me to colleagues – that is one mentoring side of business development. But also I must allow others to teach me, I must be open to learning, in the ‘BD’ trade – even prospects and clients can help me hone my craft!

I take myself back to one of my first overseas sales calls – on a mission to a shipping agency in Le Havre, our aim being to get into the ‘cod’ trade, a mission which came to naught. My much younger self that day was mortified at the thought that my older French counterpart would see that I knew nothing about shipping cod or the cod market. He elegantly entertained me at a swank Le Havre seafood restaurant – but I drove back to Paris chastened and with a case of indigestion. What had I learnt? Well, perhaps: be myself, enjoy the moment, ask a lot of questions, show an interest, care. It is not possible to be an instant expert on everything – putting up this pretense by making elliptical comments is easily seen through. It is best to use such encounters as an opportunity to ask a lot of questions and try to learn a vast amount. Sweat the details and build a bigger picture from them.

Another early ‘sales’ encounter involved a different kind of chastening. We had a steady and valuable client based in Southern Illinois who was a regular shipper through the port of Montreal, generally with CAST, a line later absorbed into what became a larger Hapag-Lloyd. The client announced to us by phone that they were dropping us and moving to a Chicago-based freight forwarder. Our servicing and pricing had been great – they simply preferred to work with a more local firm. My much younger self had recently designed and ordered some spiffy pen-sets emblazoned with the company logo. They seemed to me, then, the perfect response to this situation, which I ran by our company President. I would set up an appointment, fly out to Chicago, drive south, discuss our long, excellent performance with the client – and, at a strategic moment in our encounter, pull out the beautiful pen-set. It seemed perfectly conceived; after all it was the first time, I thought, that our company had had such a nice gift item. When I put the pen-set on his desk, I remember him pushing it back at me, saying he could not accept gifts for religious reasons. His company’s decision was irreversible anyway, and (oops) I had now offended him. From the many signs along the road to this town we seemed to be in ‘Bible Belt’ country; that is how I rationalized the experience on my lonely drive back to Chicago. Was this a lesson in cultural sensitivity? My mother was from Chicago. How could I have been so dim-witted!

These two and hundreds of other sales calls have helped me build up somewhat better insight into peoples from around the world – and at times a certain intuition.

In international business, which shipping inevitably is, languages matter, words matter. International events really do have an impact on our clients, prospects and partners – so it is helpful to follow them, from a business standpoint. Place names, people’s names – working hard to recall them, to record them, to retain them – are all important. Yes, it is massive detail, but command of detail wins business and our brain is up to it, with a bit of prodding and patience.

A great deal of business development is done by phone. I have found that emailing a prospect rarely leads anywhere – though there are exceptions. Leaving a voicemail with a prospect is for me even less productive, unless there is a provocative reason why the person should call back. I tend to simply call until I get through to the person I am trying to reach.

One woman I had known for a number of years, in the U.S. Midwest, whose firm had just restructured, and who probably received many calls from freight forwarders, stopped me cold a couple of years ago by saying, “Tell me something compelling about your organization.” That was a good line! I hope my immediate answer was effective; at any rate we soon began receiving good rate requests.

I have made so many initial and follow-up calls over the years that for me they can become something of an art-form. Of course, quite often one is rebuffed at the initial stage, but when one gets beyond it – the variances in this ‘art-form’ can be quite a delight for both parties – it is simply the art of (usually brief) conversation – and, worked right, one can rapidly get to know a person or key aspects of the person, and this ‘knowing each other’ can lead to fundamental trust, which is a prerequisite in a lot of our business dealings.

So, what of mentoring in business development?

Persons in business development have to know themselves well, to be honest about themselves, to be really effective. Real self-esteem is essential – people notice whether or not we are confident. While genuineness is essential in communicating and presenting as a marketer, business development is still a performance art. Gloom does not work; positivity does better as a mindset. Gear yourself up. Some folks are resistant to initiating sales calls by phone or in person, claiming to be more suited to operational roles. Operational expertise in my view is excellent preparation for sales – you know what you’re talking about! Business development does take practice, of course, and perseverance; I well remember my misadventures.

Some in business development may have a strong style – but have weak results. Why is this? Apart from pricing and servicing issues, there are a lot of soft qualities at work that are needed – such as: good timing, initiative, diligence, remembering details fundamental to the client, not being too pushy, but being forceful enough to have a real impact, picking up on a cue from the client – especially on pricing, not getting mixed up in front of a client, in other words, good preparation, responsiveness, and having a personality that makes people comfortable.

One can blame the market or cut-throat pricing or favoritism towards larger firms for lack of success – but won’t these factors always be here? I can’t see any way to address the resistance of some of our prospects except for further persistence on our part, and improving our offering in time for the next re-approach. It is important to rigorously gather facts and master technical details. Shippers want to work with highly competent and competitive service providers.

My counsel when I am mentoring is: don’t give up. In an unfamiliar subject-area, don’t dumb down to your comfort level – smarten up to your discomfort level and learn more.

If you are in business development, remember you and the organization you represent are unique. That is why you have chosen to do this important work. In working hard at it, you will discover important things about yourself – and you will surprise yourself.

I was at a shipping function recently and met the head of a large firm. It got me to ask myself, “does he see me as a factor in an algorithm”, a figure on a chart – or does he see me as a person? Then I thought: I want clients or prospects to feel that I have a more lyrical view of people – I want to see the whole person – and I want the person to know that. But here we are in business, and this goal can be elusive. Getting the balance right between the public or business side – and the private or family side is fundamental in each of our lives. That balance is also key with our respect for people that we develop business with.

Wandering through the halls of the Reunification Palace in Saigon with my guide recently, we went up to the roof and saw the helicopter deck, from which point President Nguyễn Văn Thiệu escaped what was then called the Presidential Palace. Turning around, we faced the Palace gates far below where on April 30, 1975 a North Vietnamese T-54 tank smashed through before noon. The U.S. Embassy, down the Boulevard beyond the gates, was being evacuated that day.

Today Vietnam is very much open for business – English signs abound and America is back, in a much different way.

Guy M. Tombs is President of Guy Tombs Limited, international freight forwarders and shipbrokers, established in 1921.