Two Americans met by chance one day last summer at a little table in front of the Cafe de la Paix in Paris. One had arrived only a month before; the other was an old resident in France. After the fashion of their kind they became acquainted and began to talk. Before them passed a picturesque parade, brilliant with the uniforms of half a dozen nations, and streaked with the symbols of mourning that attested to the ravage of war.
“There is something wrong with these Frenchmen,” said the first American.
“How is that?” asked his companion.
“It’s like this,” was the reply. “I have sold goods from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and yet I can get nowhere over here. I give these fellows the swiftest line of selling talk in the world and it makes no impression.”
“How well do you speak French?” queried his new-found acquaintance.
“Not at all.”
“Have you studied the ways and needs of the Frenchman?”
“Of course not. I’ve got something they want and they ought to take it.”
The man who had long lived in France was silent for a moment. Then he said:
“The fault is not with the Frenchman, my friend. Think it over.” He did, and with reflection he changed his method. He put a curb on strenuosity; started to study the French temperament; he began to see why he had not succeeded.
This incident illumines one of the strangest and most inconsistent situations in our foreign trade. By a curious irony we have failed to realise our commercial destiny in the one Allied Nation where real respect and affection for us remain. France—a sister Republic—is bound to us by sentimental ties and the kinship of a common struggle for liberty. Her people are warm-hearted and generous and want to do business with us.
Yet, as long and costly experience shows, we have almost gone out of our way to clash with their customs and misunderstand their motives. In short, we have neglected a great opportunity to develop a permanent and worth-while export business with them. It was bad enough before the war. Events since the outbreak of the monster conflict have emphasised it more keenly.
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Why have Americans failed so signally in France? There are many reasons. First of all, their whole system of selling has been wrong.
For years many of our manufacturers were represented in Paris and elsewhere in France by German agents, who also represented producers in their own country. The energetic Teuton did not hesitate to install an American machine or a line of American goods. But what happened? When the machine part wore out or the stock of goods was exhausted, there was seldom any American product on hand to meet the swift and sometime impatient demand for replacement or renewal. By a strange “coincidence” there was always an abundant supply of German material available. The German salesman always saw to that. Necessity knows no nationality. The result invariably was that German output supplanted the American. The Frenchman did not want to be caught the second time.