“In addition to a full knowledge of one’s trade, exemplary manners and complete professionalism were tools that could open doors to success.”
Though a great deal has changed since Gray Levett, founder of Grays of Westminster– the multi-award winning Nikon-only dealer based in London, started his first job in the industry, many of the lessons he learned then are, no less valid today.
My first job in the photographic retail world was at Hartle Photographic, a camera shop in Bournemouth on the south coast of England. The proprietor was not only knowledgeable about cameras and photography, but possessed an old-fashioned sensibility that pursued with absolute conviction the concept of a pre-Second World War approach to dealing with customers. He worked us like a drill sergeant and put his staff through a strict regime, involving us in daily cleaning, dusting, and presentation, as well as making sure the clientele were treated with respect and given good service. He also insisted that you knew your equipment and could answer any question without hesitation. Perhaps the hardest part of this apprenticeship for me were the daily lessons. He would say to you something like ‘Focal plane shutter – definition?’ If you showed the slightest lag in responding with the correct answer you had to look it up in a dictionary. Between serving customers. I spent my time studying so that I could answer his questions fully! Not only did you have to know the answer, you had to demonstrate it to him and show you understood what you were saying. He did not permit a rote manner of remembering things. You had to know. I cursed him (under my breath) each time I was kept late trying to answer some arcane photographic question, when I would rather have been outside shooting pictures!
Daylight begins to dawn…
Then about a year later, something unexpected happened. I had decided to move to London in order to broaden my career prospects. I selected what I considered to be the best camera shop to work at, which was based in central London. I was interviewed by the owner, another formidable figure. He questioned me intensively and at length. My responses were immediate, confident and without hesitation. Then it dawned on me, all the studying of photographic nomenclature, all the drilling on the key elements of dealing with people and all the months of training on how to provide a truly professional service had fallen in to place. All those facts, all that study and questioning had become mine to use. I suddenly realised that my old boss had given me something of great value. He had trained me to become competent and confident in my profession. It was a moment of revelation to me. I learnt that you have to be a professional in whatever you do in life if you are to succeed. If you know your subject and can think with the information and have manual dexterity with your equipment, any professional in that field will recognise you as a professional too. But far more importantly, your knowledgeable professionalism will communicate to the customers with whom you are dealing and you will be listened to.
A lost world…
There is another key element to all of this. My former boss had also taught me the importance of good manners whilst dealing with anyone. Good manners were originally developed by man to oil the machinery of human relationships. There are a number of terms used to describe this procedure: politeness, decorum, etiquette, courtesy and respect. Throughout the history of the world and throughout all races, “bad manners” are rejected. “Good manners” grant importance to the other person. Good manners are respected. As standards of courtesy have eroded in society, having good manners stands out and is remembered. In summation, I then learnt that in addition to a full knowledge of one’s trade, exemplary manners and complete professionalism were tools that could open doors to success. The one thing that I have noticed over the years is that the shops and companies that are successful have training programmes on these key elements as a matter of importance, and those that don’t are suffering or have even disappeared. For the record my old boss’s name was Mr. Hartle. He did have a first name but I would never have dreamed of using it (even behind his back) and even today I cannot bring myself to call him by his first name. Somehow it would not be right. It might just break the spell!