Trust Lessons from a Turkish Rug Dealer

Turkish RugIn November 2000 we traveled with another couple to Turkey.

We stayed at the Pera Palace in Istanbul and cruised the Bosphorous River. We visited the seaside town of Bodrum where we learned NOT to try and party like a British sailor. But no trip to Turkey would be complete without a shopping spree at the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul. We set out to find the perfect stall.

Wendy and I ventured behind the curtain into a cozy shop owned by Mehmet. He welcomed us with a warmth and carpet dealer smile …Wendy and I were both suspicious and told Mehmet we were “just looking.” Anyone who has been to a carpet shop in Istanbul knows you don’t just look. It is nearly impossible. The carpets are piled, one on top of the other, several feet high. Hence the young, muscle-bound assistants lingering around, ready to “flip” carpets for would-be shoppers to assess.

Mehmet invited us to accept help in looking through the carpets. He said, “just pretend – like Monopoly.” We accepted his invitation and the next thing we knew we were hooked, enticed by his charm, fluency in many languages, and the offer of mint tea. “But our husbands…we don’t know where they are,” we protested. “Oh, it is no problem…we will find them and bring them here.” And his assistant did just that.

After several hours of looking through carpets two piles emerged: the “no” pile and the “maybe” pile. Our “yes” pile hadn’t yet emerged. This was “no problem” for Mehmet, the Turkish carpet dealer. He says, “we are just pretending, like Monopoly.” In the evening, after several glasses of tea and many rounds of negotiating, we exited Mehmet’s shop with our carpets. We were beyond satisfied with our perfect day of rug buying; and the rugs, while beautiful, were not as memorable as our experience with Mehmet.

Ten months later—9/11. We were on the email Mehmet sent to his American customers expressing his sympathy. Mehmet’s carpet business came to a screeching halt–80% of it had been from American buyers. Without his American customers he couldn’t provide for his special needs son.

So he brought his lovely carpets to the US. We hosted a show for him, and put him in touch with interior designers and people we knew would appreciate his carpets. He was and to this day is grateful for this.

A few years ago, Mehmet and his assistant, stopped at our home for a visit. I said, “Mehmet, can we pretend, play Monopoly?” And so we began the ritual of looking at the spot in our home where we wanted a carpet and then venturing to his truck to search through the piles of neatly folded rugs. After many hours of collaborating to haul rugs in, move furniture, look at the carpet in different light and from different angles we settled on one. Then the negotiating began.

He says, “Sarah, you are my sister.” And I say, “yes, Mehmet, you are my brother, and now we negotiate.” The business of negotiating wasn’t easy; there were tense moments when I thought we’d not reach agreement. But all business is easier from a foundation of trust – which there was and is with Mehmet. We reached agreement. We got another beautiful carpet; Mehmet made another sale. We then sat down to a lovely meal which Mehmet prepared for us in our home.

To this day, after a dozen trips to the US, Mehmet still calls us. The days of helping him find customers have long passed but the relationship endures. Mehmet drives across the US. He seeks no guarantee of a sale, only the possibility that someone might love one of his carpets as much he does.

He goes to his customers. He spends whatever time is needed with them. Sometimes they buy; sometimes they don’t. He knows that one day they might buy; that they might know someone who might want one of his rugs. He establishes friendships along the way, building relationships one home and one rug at a time.

He begins with the customer’s perspective by going to their home, looking at where they want a rug, and collaborating with the customer, to search through his piles of rugs. He then moves furniture and places the rug, just so, in his customer’s home. When they cannot decide he says “live with it for a while, I will come back before I fly home – then you decide.”

Without a deposit, without signing a contract about what happens if the rug is damaged, and without any assurance that leaving the rug with the customer for a few days will result in a sale, he continues on to his next customer. Mehmet takes the risk to trust by leaving his rugs–in return, his customers trust him.

He knows many will never buy. He also knows that by focusing on the long-term he will build a network of people who will first think of him when they need, or know someone who needs, a rug.

A carpet dealer may not be the profession we think of first when it comes to trust. Yet in many ways Mehmet embodies what it means to start from the customer’s perspective and to focus on the long-term. And, who doesn’t love to play a round of Monopoly every now and then?