Saturday, May 16, 2009

Stupid Corporate Tricks - #3

In the early 1980s, I worked in outside sales for Southwestern Bell Telephone Company, then an operating company of the original AT&T. I mention the company here because it is pertinent to the story I am about to relate.

My job at the time was selling commercial accounts on leasing large, corporate telephone systems, called Private Branch Exchanges, or PBXs. I also sold local exchange services, long distance, and what were called WATS lines. WATS stood for Wide Area Telephone Service, and was basically dedicated lines with prepaid blocks of discounted long distance.

There was one company that was located along the Houston Ship Channel that still had an old "cord board" PBX. These are the type where an operator used cords to patch through calls coming in to the appropriate person's telephone (see photo). These were rare at the time, as most companies had moved to more modern systems.

This was early in the era of interconnect equipment, or non-Bell System equipment being available for connection to the phone company's lines. We were proposing a Bell Dimension 400 electronic PBX to replace the old system. There was a competing bid in from a company selling a popular system of the time, the Rolm CBX. This particular business had a huge campus with buildings located over a large area, and trucks coming in and out from all over the facility.

My boss had worked for Southwestern Bell for his entire career, and would be best described by the term "Bell Head", a phrase used to describe someone who had been working at the phone company for so long that they couldn't see any perspective other than that of Ma Bell. During the course of the visit to attempt to finalize the deal, the customer asked us if we had any references he could call. My boss stood up, walked over to the customer's credenza, picked up his Houston telephone directory, opened the rather large book to a random page, tossed in on the customers desk in front of him, and said, "Here is a book with our customers listed. Pick some out and call them."

Surprisingly, we did not get tossed out at that point, but when the customer stated that the Rolm CBX quote was quite a bit less than ours, the boss told the customer, "I hope their quote includes tearing up your entire facility to lay new conduit and cables. You know all the underground cables here are telephone company property, and we will not allow them to use our cables for their system. If you go that way, we will come out and stretch the cables very tight, cut them off short, and then fill the conduit with concrete. So you need to go back to them and get a quote for that. Would that disrupt your business any?"

Wow! Talk about a heavy handed close! If I had not witnessed it myself, I would not have believed it. But to some degree it worked. We did not get the customer to lease the Dimension system, but the customer did not take the Rolm bid either. He ended up keeping the old switchboard system in place. He also got to continue paying Southwestern Bell for the privilege. No wonder Ma Bell had her reputation!

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