Mea Culpa, Pavlov's Dog and the Paper of Verbal Contracts

While I've certainly heard the old adage that a verbal contract is not worth the paper it's written on, I'm crystal clear that having a clear and basic agreement in place before I start doing any work of any kind has made my life infinitely easier and more productive. Here's why.

Most people think that the working life of a genial suburban coin dealer doesn't warrant any real consideration for truly commercial constructs such as written contracts, terms and conditions, or even simple spoken agreements. 

They envision that a dealer contentedly sorts out coins all day, and would welcome the interruption of a person knocking at at the door with an inquiry about their treasured family memento - one that the dealer is sure to find incredibly interesting! Once his knowledge has been dispersed, they envision the dealer happily returning to his task of sorting exotic coins, while the customer walks away with fresh knowledge and an enhanced balance sheet courtesy of their newfound rare (and very valuable) coin.

The reality of this suburban coin dealer's life is quite different to that rosy picture.

The Reality of the Life of a Suburban Coin Dealer

My day will indeed begin by unlocking the door and safes, making a coffee, turning on some music and firing up the essential oil diffuser. I then take a deep breath and brace myself for the onslaught...

Our business is based in Perth yet has national scope, which means my phone can ring any time after 6am - not everyone East of the Nullabor appreciates we're 3 hours behind the Eastern seaboard. In addition to inbound early-bird phone calls, every day there is a backlog of live chat messages and emails to respond to. Then we have the old-school letters and parcels, plus knocks on the door from walk-in customers who can arrive unannounced. All of this is in addition to the scheduled calls and appointments that we regularly set up. 

So while it might seem there is a genial pace to a coin dealer's day, the pace is closer to that of a bookie on Melbourne Cup day than that of a librarian or archeologist. I only have a finite number of hours in the office each week, and even a finite number of years left on this earth - I don't have a minute to waste.

Not Enough Hours Left Over

Some years ago, I realised that if I wanted to support each and every single person that approached me for help with their coins and notes, I simply wouldn't have enough hours left over to do that and make enough money to warrant being in business, much less live a balanced life. To think naively and act otherwise has been to invite enraged Google reviews and leave me broke, in poor health and continually cranky. 

The key to ensuring my time is productive and meeting the needs of those that reach out to me has been having a clear and basic agreement in place before I start doing any work of any kind.

Allow me to paint a picture of what life was like before this simple step became a habit.

One of Our More Colourful Google Reviews

One of our more colourful google reviews was left by a gentleman who banged on our door at around 11am on a Saturday morning. Surprised at the volume of his knock, I opened the door and as he marched past with his wife and 3 young children. I said "G'Day, how can I help you mate?" My new friend paused briefly in the middle of our foyer with his feet wide apart and eyes ablaze, and declared "I dont even know what this place is!"

I've been dealing with the public pretty much for my entire working life, and this was a completely fresh way of starting a conversation for me. I then asked "What can we do for you?" He chose to get straight to the point and said "I've got these old coins and I want you to tell me what they're worth." By this time he was leaning on our counter with his shoulders bunched forward, and was laser-focused on unpacking a small bag of coins. He pushed one across the counter at me, and this is where I made an error of epic proportions.

If you're reading this and thinking "Andrew, don't you dare tell me you cursed him out in front of his young family", rest assured, my answer is an unequivocal no. 

In fact, I did something far, far worse.

I foolishly ignored the twitch in my eye, I reached under the counter for my magnifying glass, and I picked up the coin that had been pushed closest to me. 

You might be thinking "How in the hell can that have been a mistake? A man has come into your store seeking advice about his coins, your job is to do that and instead of indulging your apparently monstrous and fragile ego you're actually doing what he asked."

The reason that simple move was a major blunder was becase by doing so, I had committed to serving him on his terms, and I hadn't given voice to any of my own, such as they are. 

The World of Unintended Consequences

I'm clear now that even the most simple, innocuous or humble request can lead to a world of unintended consequences. If that assertion doesn't seem real to you, consider these two requests: "Can I borrow some money from you? I'll pay it back, I promise." or "Can I stay on your couch for a bit, just until I get my feet?" 

Requests like that might seem to be pretty straightforward, but only if both parties happen to somehow be on exactly the same page. The likelihood of that happening without some kind of agreement is remote.

Back to the story now - when I take a decent look at the first coin I'm proffered, I can see it is an English hammered coin. It is around 600 years old, and is not in the greatest condition. A coin like this that has already been fully attributed (a fancy term for identified) can be appraised pretty quickly. One that hasn't takes far longer.

We need to know who the monarch is, what denomination it is, where it was minted and the year in which it was struck. We can establish a reference number for it and look up an approximate retail figure, as well as recent comparable sales via auction.

Although I have a reasonable amount of experience in this area, it can take several reference books, detailed written notes and a good amount of time for me to reach an attribution of a hammered English coin that I'm prepared to back with real money. 

Gothic lettering needs to be understood and pictorial symbols need to be interpreted, this is a task made all the more difficult when the coin has detail missing because it is worn or has been "clipped".

The Trigger Point - Questions and Conditions After Work Has Begun

To really increase the stakes in my somewhat tense conversation, this fellow had about a dozen or so such coins, and clearly wanted a concise answer on the spot. So I then did what I should have done before lifting a finger. I provide him with some context and let him know that when I provide written appraisals, I charge $200 per hour. I then let him know that because of the number and type of coins he had, there could be up to an hour's work needed to let him know what he wanted.

To make matters worse, I said this in a tone that was, in turn, defensive, apologetic and hostile, so now it was his turn to get a twitch in his eye. He said increduously "So? Isn't this what you do? I thought this was supposed to be a coin shop?" I then asked another question I should have asked before indulging myself with a glance at his coins, "Are you looking to sell any of them today?"

I swear, if at that moment the man across the counter from me had ready access to two slices of bread, he would have slammed them into my ears and shouted just like Gordon Ramsay "WHAT HAVE I GOT? AN IDIOT SANDWICH!"

He instead eyeballed me and coldly said "No. You need to tell me what they're worth." In exasperation I looked around for some support, and his wife gently suggested "I think he just wants a rough idea." I ventured that I'd be happy to do that, but it'd take me at least an hour before I could work that out. 

It's occurred to me since that his request was a bit like sitting down with a doctor and saying "Doc, I've had a really bad headache for 2 days now, do you think it's a brain tumour? Just roughly, I'm not going to hold you to anything." 

The Perils of Starting to Help Before Getting An Agreement

The worst part of my vexed state was, I had caused it entirely myself by starting to "help" before getting an agreement first.

I'd set an expectation I wasn't prepared to fulfil,  and caused anger where it was completely unnecessary.

It was at this point that my visitor decided enough was enough - he grabbed his coins, said "Well, if you dont want people to come in and ask about coins, you shouldn't even be in business mate!"

Once he and his family left, I went and sat down in the relative solitude of my office, and wondered just how the hell this had gone sideways so quickly.

I've since learned that when someone tells me they want an appraisal or authentication, no matter how it's requested or simple it may seem, if I take the time to ask them if they'd like to hear how I'm prepared to give them the exact information they're after, it starts a sequential conversation that ends more regularly with satisfied customers, more business and a satisfying life.

It still amazes me that rather than leaping into action like Pavlov's dog when someone asks me for help, if I stick with my habit of: letting them know that I don't work for free; letting them know my (hardly onerous) terms and conditions; and gaining their agreement, not only does it very-nearly completely reduce the risk of conflict, it sets a positive tone when we get to the fun part of doing the work.
Since I've implemented the habit of getting a clear and basic agreement in place before I start doing any work of any kind, our "close" rate has increased markedly. As of the date I write this, we've had 3 5-star Google within the past 7 days alone. Who would have thought that immediately helping people was a terrible habit to break!

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Comments (1)

Writing a novel .

By: on 9 June 2023
Hello Andrew , I have read several articles by you. You're a naturally funny person. Your novel ; could be a fictitious story writing about the history of coins . When you have the time of course . I have read about Sir Issac Newton , during his time working in the Tower of London . You have a gift of the gab , on paper. You could intertwine all of the characters , from Issac, to the counterfeiters in Australia . Just a thought . Kind regards , Cherie Gibbs

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