The Apprentice 2011: Helen’s perfect pitch provides a French lesson for us all

What the latest episode of The Apprentice meant for entrepreneurs

Last week, Creditsafe released a report exploring the business histories of this year’s Apprentice contestants. Its findings, barely publicised, appear to show that none of the surviving candidates is cut out to run their own business; the researchers claim Tom Pellereau’s business is worth minus £15,000, while Melody Hossaini and Susan Ma have low credit ratings, and none of the other contestants has any previous entrepreneurial experience whatsoever.

Watching the surviving hopefuls blunder their way around Paris last night, it was easy to see what Creditsafe was getting at. Challenged by Lord Sugar to sell into the demanding French market, both teams wilted under the pressure, their efforts riddled with deceit, delusion and discord.

Helen, as usual, shone a lone ray of competence on the proceedings, her brilliant sales pitch to La Redoute ultimately proving the difference between the two teams. If she doesn’t win this year’s competition, it’ll be the biggest miscarriage of justice since Sonia lost out in the 1993 Eurovision Song Contest.

However, for all the ineptitude, there were at least some business lessons to be gleaned from last night’s episode. Here are five things we learned:

Never twist the research

Asked to do on-the-spot research in Paris before her team began selling, Melody effectively sealed her team’s fate by ignoring the feedback she received. Seeing her lying about the feedback to Tom over the phone, while Leon nodded and grinned vacantly by her side, it was as if Dick Dastardly and Mutley had been made flesh.

The lesson was clear: never twist the facts, even if they don’t suit your agenda. Be prepared to shape your sales strategy to suit the market research, not the other way around – or the findings will come back to bite you.

And crucially, don’t ask loaded questions in the first place. Reliable research hinges on posing relevant queries – anything else will invariably result in a distorted picture of the market.

Soft guys finish last

They say nice guys (and girls) finish last, but this isn’t always true. Helen has proved herself a perfectly likeable person in this year’s series, yet she finishes first time after time. What is undeniable, however, is that soft guys finish last; it’s nice to be nice, but only if your generosity of spirit is laced with ruthlessness.

Last night Tom, a serial inventor, allowed Melody to trample her stilettos all over him. Instead of putting his foot down on which products his team were going to sell, he was blown away by Melody’s aggression, even though product development is his field, not hers.

In the end, Lord Sugar actually endorsed Melody’s bullying tactics – because you need to have a mean streak to succeed in business. For all Tom’s sweetness, people like Melody will always outmuscle him in the hard-nosed corporate world.

Paint a picture

When Helen went in to pitch to La Redoute, she had a plan. She knew how she was going to pigeon-hole the product, and how she was going to package it for her audience. Instead of trotting out a general list of benefits, she told the assembled buyers why it would benefit them – and their customers – painting a clear picture showing how it would fill a gap in their catalogue. And when they objected over the price, she countered that the modern woman would pay anything for convenience, offering them a clear sales story.

In the end, she walked away with more than $200,000 for her efforts, and proved that a well-crafted pitch can convince even the most reluctant of recipients.

Don’t hide behind the language buyer

While Helen saw the challenge of pitching across the Channel as a chance to demonstrate her strategic and presentation skills, Leon saw it as an insurmountable obstacle. He kept on using his inability to speak French as an excuse to shirk challenges, like the kid in school who got out of PE because of asthma.

Melody’s ability to speak French (and conveniently lose the results of her conversations in translation) was an advantage, but it didn’t secure victory for her team, because most of the Parisian buyers spoke English anyway. Helen’s pitch was delivered entirely in English, and the buyers understood every word.

English is the mother tongue of international business, and is seen as a pre-requisite by many commercial schools; for example, the renowned Lille Management School in France now teaches 50% of its post-graduate programmes in English. If you wish to do business abroad, chances are you’ll find someone who can understand what you’re saying – so don’t think the language barrier is going to block your path to overseas expansion.

When you see a gap, rush into it

Ultimately, Helen’s monster sale was the sole factor in her team’s success; she could probably have left her three team-mates in a Parisien patisserie and done all the work herself. But still, one has to admire the opportunism Jim, her pitch partner, displayed towards the end of the show.

Hearing that Susan had made a big sale to a mobile phone retailer, he instantly changed his strategy to focus solely on phone shops. His thinking was clear – if something works, keep on doing it until you’ve eeked out every last penny.

Few would deny that Jim is manipulative and stubborn. In reality he’s really no different from Melody, apart from the fact that he wears slightly less make-up and sounds like the bloke off Catchphrase. But he’s clearly a born salesman, as that late snippet last night proved beyond doubt.  

 

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