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I’ve been thinking about my previous careers – waiter, writer, agent, associate producer – and how they’ve informed my business practice. There are a few paths that I pursued before arriving in property.
On leaving university I went to work in Los Angeles and attempted to climb my way up the greasy poll of the film industry. This involved night shoots, becoming an able carrier of non-fat decaf soya lattes, witnessing colossal sycophancy to A-list actors and my very own starring turn as an English butler. I went out to LA with an actress friend who paid the rent by setting up a catering company. I was paraded as the major-domo, though I was an inept one, usually forgetting which was the “right” side to serve. It was a job that taught me the axiom of service: the customer is always right. I’ve been swallowing that saying this past week.
The film sets I worked on were coded with more social hierarchy than a Victorian drama. There were “above-the-line” and “below-the-line” members of the cast and crew, the former being the creative talents (stars, director, writer, producers), the latter being everyone else, who was expected to behave accordingly. Within the cast itself there was a pecking order demonstrated by trailer size, catering budget and other microscopic but carefully observed details.
My flatmate explained to me how these differences expressed themselves between cast members. “Do you understand the difference between a leading lady and a character actress?”
“Yes,” I said, but she marched on regardless, determined to finish her point, which was to inform me that she was leading-lady material, while pointing out that a mutual friend fell firmly into the character-actress category. “Do you see?” she asked.
“I see that you are tall, beautiful and skinny and X is not so.” I couldn’t help recall this conversation when I went to the opening night of her stage debut in London – she played the part of a deaf mute. Life can teach us lessons at times.
As a literary agent, a career I briefly flirted with on returning from LA, it’s all about handling “the talent”. It taught me, again, about service. So it was not a big leap to move into property. And the super-prime London market in which we operate is a world where excellence of service is required, along with managing demanding temperaments – Hollywood-on-Thames. There’s no room for a lack of professionalism or manners, though it’s not always reciprocated by clients.
I am, perhaps, too much of a stickler for form. A friend commented the other day, channelling Mahatma Gandhi, that the mark of a civilised society is one that carries and looks after its weakest members. I thought that well put. I think, too, that a civilised society depends on certain niceties, not in a superficial way, but as a mark of respect and decorum to those around us. Small gestures make for greater lives.
Holding such views means that, when subjected to the opposite behaviour – abrupt phone calls, ludicrous demands – I can become irritated, particularly when it’s wildly unjustified. (We recently looked at a nice South Kensington bolt-hole worth maybe £2m. The client claimed he wouldn’t sell for less than £4m.) If I give advice it’s because I know what I’m talking about and am acting in a client’s best interests.
I remember Big Daddy rebuking a client uproariously for an ill-advised art purchase. I was rather surprised at his tone. “Utter balls,” Big D said when I reminded him that the customer’s always right, which to him is a nonsensical theory. “They made a terrible mistake and someone needed to tell them.”
“But what happens if you lose them as a client for your candour? They may not take kindly to being referred to as an a**hole.” “Too bad,” Big D said. “It’s the truth.” He then explained to me the comfort of what I shall describe more prudishly than he did as “ciao money”. This, he explained, is having the financial resources not to do business with people if they push you too far. “There’s great security in knowing that you can afford to walk away from a deal and it allows you to be very direct with the truth.”
And so I mull how much unsolicited advice I should offer to clients or whether I stick by the service industry mantra – the customer is always right – and hold my tongue. The problem is, in some cases, the client is simply wrong.
Some details have been changed.
More columns at www.ft.com/secretagent