Amex, Harrods and the lesson of a dodgy signature - 14th March 2018

I moved to London at the age of twenty-two, and one of my first jobs was working at the department store, Harrods, in Knightsbridge. I worked in the Ski and Surf Department on the fourth floor. One fine day, a customer had managed to load his arms with thousands of pounds worth of skiwear and made his way towards me. He was around fifty years of age, wearing an immaculate charcoal-grey suit and a long camel-coloured winter coat. With greying hair and a clean-shaven face, he looked like a successful businessman or senior diplomat.

Once I’d de-tagged all the clothes and totted up the bill, I asked him to pay the total of somewhere north of £10,000. He handed me his Platinum American Express card, something reserved for serious spenders. As this was way back in the dark ages before chip and pin never mind contactless, I asked him to sign a receipt so that I could compare his signature to the one on the back of the Amex card.

The two signatures were completely different. Not a single letter on one copy looked the same as the other. A dilemma. Surely this man was not the same person who owned the credit card. This looked like a fraud. What should I do?

What did I do?

“Thank you very much, sir,” I said as I handed back his ‘I’m a big spender’ Amex card, followed by the bags of skiwear.

Why did I not question his signature? Because he was a man of such bearing, such confidence, such gravitas, I didn’t feel I could challenge him. He oozed authority and so I didn’t question him.

The lesson I learnt that day was that authority is persuasive. Fear not, the story above did not result in any trouble for me or for Harrods. The customer wasn’t a fraudster, just a guy with an inconsistent signature. But I saw first hand the influence we give to people who act in an authoritative way.

When selling well, we’re advising our clients about a buying decision and, if we want to be believed, we should advise them with authority. There are various components to a voice of authority, not least knowing your subject! However, there are rhetorical structures, practices and techniques that can either underline your authority or completely undermine it. First: know your subject. Second, learn how to communicate your expertise whilst sounding like an expert.