The master salesmen of Pakistan

Vaqar Ahmed believes they can teach the world's finest marketing experts a thing or two

The master salesmen of Pakistan
Much is made of the marketing gurus warming their chairs in the ivory towers of Harvard Business School. Their students and followers think of them as the gods of Selling Anything and their bland methods the epitome of marketing techniques. They are all wrong.

The art of selling has already seen its zenith in Pakistan and there is no need for any new theory of this subject. It is time to remind the world of the methods followed by the true masters of this trade…

Welcome the street and public bus salesmen of Pakistan. Red carpet and drum-roll please!

These geniuses did not sell their goods through television or the Internet. They did it the raw, direct and risky way. It was risky because there was always the chance of a disgruntled customer coming after them with a clenched fist or a stick.

These salesmen were divided into two main groups. The first group did their selling in a public space like a park or a sidewalk. A younger assistant usually assisted these sellers. The second group was the travelling type and plied their business in public buses and trains.

The second group was sub-divided into those who were experts in quick sales and got on and off the bus after a few stops. This second set was the long-haul one – who got on at the first stop and got off at the last.

Among the salesmen selling to crowds, one of the legendary figures was a gentleman who would appear in the historical Liaqat Bagh of Rawalpindi in the 1970s. I was a student at Gordon College, located very close to the Bagh. So mesmerising was the selling technique of this man that I made it a point to stop and watch him even if meant missing my class at the college.

He was a very somber looking man in his fifties. Swarthy in complexion, he was dressed in a gray suit even on the hottest day. The suit may well have been tailored at Saville Row but had obviously found its way to the man via a second-hand clothes store and had stayed on him since. It had clearly not seen a wash for ages and the colour was fading but it hung well on his frame, conferring upon him the gravitas of a senior professor.
"My friends, I do not sell snake oil, bull oil or donkey oil." He now has the attention of the audience. "I sell the real thing that will turn you into a real man: it is the secret egg oil!"

He would start off with a few stories of marriages that failed because of a lack of the requisite “strength” in the man. The most hair raising one was that of a beautiful princess who literally kicked out her husband after the first night of the marriage.

The stage is set and the audience is hanging on his every word. There are chuckles and embarrassed guffaws. Some look very concerned.

He starts off by differentiating himself from the commonplace and fraudulent sellers of male energisers. “My friends, I do not sell snake oil, bull oil or donkey oil.” He now has the attention of the audience as the aforementioned products are amongst the most popular. “I sell the real thing that will turn you into a real man: it is the secret egg oil!”

An elaborate demonstration of the preparation of the egg oil follows. A small lamp is lit. One egg and some secret ingredient is mixed in a small pot and heated gently. “The temperature has to be perfectly controlled and the duration of heating is very, very precise”, declares the man of science. Finally, the oil is declared to be ready. The little pot is passed around to the potential clientele and yes, there is indeed a small quantity of yellowish oil in the pot. “You can try it right now, but I would rather you try it tonight at home, if you understand what I mean”, he says with a suggestive smile.

Then comes the clincher: “I could have become a very rich man if I sold my product to a medical company. But my ancestor had learnt this formula from a great old Sufi Hakeem, who had made them promise to sell it only to the common people at cost price. I cannot violate that edict and so here I am, offering it to you for the small sum of Rs. 20 a bottle that barely covers the cost.” He pulls out a handful of tiny bottles from his bag and waves it around. “Just one drop, no more, to be taken with milk, twenty minutes before bed time” – the instructions are authoritative and precise. There is a flurry of movement in the crowd and the bottles are flying out to the would-be-satisfied customers.

Compared to the street salesman, the travelling salesman of the short haul category is a master in the art of speed selling. He gets on a public bus and stands at one end. The product is already in his hand, and his sales pitch is fast and furious. In a loud and clear voice he announces, “If you have a problem with cold, sore throat, deep raspy cough with yellow or green phlegm coming out, these sweet and sour medicinal tablets from Gujrat will tear these problems out right from the root and you will be Inshallah cured in no time! The price is Rs. 50 a bottle in the regular medical stores, but the company has authorised me to offer a special discount to promote this product. I am therefore offering it at an unheard of price of Rs. 10 only. This is a one-time offer and I have just 20 bottles left!”

He then walks along the length of the bus where eager hands clutching Rs. 10 bills grab the panacea for a dozen ailments. Within five minutes the seller is in and out of the bus. The same pitch is used with some variations for a dental powder that cures pyorrhea, bad breadth, toothache and all related dental and mouth diseases; a surmah (mascara) that is guaranteed to remove cataract, restore weak vision back to 20/20 and as a bonus beautify the eyes; a syrup that crushes kidney stones to smithereens and also tames an errant plumbing that causes frequent visits to the bathroom; or a hair oil that serves the dual purpose of relieving headaches, sharpening the brain, and promoting hair growth on a bald palette.

In contrast to the brisk selling tactics of the short haul salesmen, the long haul variety appear to be interested only in describing their product in great detail. In the Rawalpindi-Islamabad area these seasoned marketers work the buses that ply the hour long Saddar-to-Secretariat route.

They first describe the numerous benefits of the product, and then go into the step-by-step method of preparing the magic potion. They claim that they are only interested in the wellbeing of the human race and are thus giving away the recipe for free. The problem, however, is that the recipe is so complicated that no one can remember all the steps. As the bus approaches the final stop the altruistic salesman says, “I realise that the recipe is rather involved and the preparation is time-consuming, so to help you good people I am carrying some with me and selling at a throwaway price of Rs. 100/bottle”. Now the pressure is on the potential buyer. He is convinced of the efficacy of the potion and the sincerity of the seller. But by now the steps of the recipe are already fading from his memory. The bus is about to reach the Secretariat. Time is running out and there is a near-riot situation to avail the opportunity to go home with the product. It sells like hot cake.

These sales artists are sadly becoming extinct in the age of television and internet. While one could question the effectiveness of their products, the instructional and entertainment value of their spellbinding methods was worth the price of admission. So hats off to you maestros – you can teach a thing or two to these Harvard upstarts.