Last reviewed 12 July 2017

How to succeed in online sales — the next in our occasional series of blogs about Georgia Gainsborough — “a very successful businesswoman”, by Jude Tavanyar.

“There are 30 reasons why many small businesses fail at online selling” shouts Kevin, our under-performing Sales Director (sales expenditure this year: £30,000; sales income: £0), waving excitedly. “And I’m going to use our stunning new website to demonstrate what they are. First up, here’s the fantastic range of merchandise we’re wowing our fans with this year! You’re going to LOVE this lot, ladies!”

Georgia Wainwright here, secretly wishing I wasn’t. Our mysterious boss, elephant trainer and whisperer Selina Lightwater has called an AGM to celebrate our business Elephant Power’s first full year in operation (think: less annual general meeting, more anxiety-generated mayhem) but so far failed to turn up. In the meantime, my colleague Evie Wyman and myself are gathered around eccentric Kevin’s laptop cursing silently at what we see appearing on the wall opposite.

And, if the ghastly-looking photographs of elephant hats with ears, T-shirts with tails, scarves and other ill-considered merchandise are anything to go by, there is indeed little to love here, particularly as the clothing itself seems to be displayed on the site on the less-than-perfect anatomies of Kevin himself and a selection of his mates, who, like him, look as though they won’t see 60 again and have probably given up shaving. They are hardly Vogue model material, and are unlikely to set off our products to best effect, but the fact that Kevin has actually persuaded his friends to consider wearing the ghastly clothing for even one second is testimony to the fact that, they must be either severely short-sighted, dangerously deluded in fashion sense, or susceptible to bribery. Or perhaps all three.

And — 30 reasons for online sales failure! Most normal people would limit a presentation to two or three, but while Kevin might be described in many different phrases, “normal person” is not one of them. In his short three-month stay in our company he has allegedly managed to misappropriate £30,000 of investment funding, and set fire to a table and his own trousers while presenting a sales pitch on “warming up” your business brand image to an astonished audience of several hundred HR training commissioners. While this had certainly attracted column inches in the local newspaper, it is perhaps questionable whether the headline it generated: “Burning passion?: Deranged animal activist sets conference ablaze” was exactly the kind of message we’d been aiming for.

It’s not exactly the traditional “first 90 days” of an aspiring Sales Chief. However, so far Kevin has managed to hang on to his self-appointed role at Elephant Power, partly because (for some utterly unfathomable reason) MD Selina seems to tolerate him. And partly because his puppyish and ebulliently upbeat demeanour in the face of utterly embarrassing failure is — well, actually a bit endearing.

Evie, however, is watching Kevin with the intense clear-headed scrutiny of a circling, hungry hawk watching a small mouse scurrying heedlessly about on the ground below, and waiting for her moment. Mercifully oblivious, Kevin drones on. And on.

“Tip number one: make sure that the merchandise you are selling is unique, attractive and well-made. Too many small businesses think customers are somehow less discerning if they are happy to buy clothing and other products over the internet. But if it won’t sell in a shop, don’t try to sell it online, where the competition these days is even steeper! Above all, you need to love the products and want to wear them yourselves — if you don’t, why should your customer?”

To demonstrate this, Kevin moves blithely on to “Pakiderm products” — the atrociously-named merchandising website he has (so it would seem) constructed single-handedly overnight.

“Tip two: keep your promotional copy crisp and simple; let the visuals do the talking. Customer concentration lasts 20 seconds, so if you haven’t got them buying by then, you’ve failed.”

“Tip three: use video testimonials from your customers if you can, not just their written references — so much more persuasive!”

(At this point Kevin runs a short You Tube clip from the site, featuring a customer wearing several items of Elephant Power clothing, and raving about its fantastic quality and “lifestyle-enhancing” properties. It takes less than a second to ascertain that the man in the video is Kevin himself, in sunglasses and fake beard.)

“Tip four: make buying simple. Too many sites force their customers through multiple web pages before they can part with their money. Terrible mistake.”

Kevin then proceeds to demonstrate his new “one stop” buying page which relies on a “single click/10 second” app to buy anything on the site without the need to enter bank card details every time. However, after five minutes trying to buy a single pair of socks with elephant motif in which I have no possible interest it becomes apparent that I have actually purchased an assortment of hats with fake elephant ears hanging from them, and a pair of grey, wrinkled jeggings, apparently designed to look like elephant legs.

“Oh dear” says Kevin gloomily. “I’m afraid that comes to a couple of hundred quid. Must be a technical glitch. Sorry about that. Have you got the money to pay …?”

“No Kevin” says Evie suddenly, in a voice so charged with rage that I felt my heart skip a beat. She stands up and throws a packet of papers on the table. “Georgia has not got the money to pay for your mistakes. You have. £30,000 to be precise. You’re a fraud, a liar and a thief. Get that money — all of it — back to us within a week and leave our company or I’m going to the police.”

I look closely at the Google printouts, which have spilled out across the table, Kevin’s face appearing on every one of them. It seems Kevin has previous form — serious form — as a “creative” accountant, a tax fraud and a small-time crook selling dodgy investments to corporate bigwigs who didn’t know how to spend all their money. He’s been inside a few times, but always managed somehow to bounce back.

I look up at Evie, confused. “These cuttings are from 30 years ago.”

Selina’s voice. As ever, she has appeared from nowhere.

“Put the printouts away Evie. This is history.”

Evie’s response carries just the trace of a sneer. “I suppose he’s taken you in as well, has he?” And stares hard in my direction.

I feel my face turn deepest pink. While it is true that Kevin did propose marriage after I doused him in extinguishing foam after the conference fire escapade, I took that to be a poor taste joke because I’d stopped his suit from catching alight, and kept quiet about the matter in the interests of avoiding further humiliation. So how did Evie know …?

Selina’s reply is calm and measured. “Taken in? I hardly think so, Evie. I’ve known him far too long for that. Fifty-five years, actually. Ladies, I should have told you this some time ago, forgive me. Meet Kevin Lightwater, our honest, hardworking Sales Director, and — as it happens — my much-loved errant son.”

A second passes. Evie looks at Selina, looks at me, turns wordlessly and walks out. Kevin’s mouth is opening and shutting foolishly. Selina stares straight ahead.

“Cup of tea, anyone?”