“The Limitation of Imitation”. By Henry Regehr

After it was established that we had been in the same class seventy years before in our prairie town, he began to tell me his story of the intervening decades after that long-ago grade six experience. His name was Neil and I remembered him playing soccer on one of our in-house teams. He now lived in Vancouver.

He had been a moderately successful heavy equipment sales rep, he said, but he had met a new colleague who far outpaced him in salesmanship. He began to observe his new friend and was fascinated by his uniquely unorthodox style. My old buddy began to tell the story while we were sitting in the liner’s bar cruising around the exotic ports of the Mediterranean. He appeared to me somewhat slovenly, had clearly been drinking a handful of beers, his eyes were already a shade of red and he showed no sign of slowing down. He did not present as a typical well-dressed cruiser on the Holland America ship and I was intrigued.

A keen observer, obviously, Neil noticed that this effective sales rep had a significant speech impediment. Not only that, he had a game leg that made for a serious limp while he scuffed his foot along with each step as though dragging it with him. He swore like a trooper, had a bottle of whisky in his jacket pocket and reached for it often. He was rather shabbily dressed and presented himself to his customers in a friendly but remarkably casual manner. This was the opposite of what the courses in salesmanship and the sales managers at his firm prescribed. Why was he so successful at selling equipment, Neil wondered?

Neil decided to embark on a program of imitation to see if he could discover the secret. He put aside his formal clothes and wore his old jeans and jacket outfit that he used for yard work. He started drinking on the job and had a handy bottle with him all the time. He mimicked his friend’s speech handicap and his awkward limp when he walked from his truck to the prospective customer’s office.

“What do you think happened?” he asked me. I did not venture a guess. “My sales doubled”, he said with a laugh. The company managers he reported to considered it very odd but refused to argue with success and now Neil, in retirement, was enjoying that results with the good life as guest of the Holland America Line. He had a stack of travel memorabilia at home to prove it.

I was, of course, fascinated by the story, but had some real concern for him. He still, on the cruise, presented himself in his unorthodox salesman’s style, without the limp and the lisp which he modeled for me, but he ordered another couple of drinks when I left to enjoy dinner with my wife.

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