Originally published 02/05/09
Search the phrase death of a salesperson on Google, and it will return around 15,000 results. This corruption of the title of Arthur Miller’s iconic play Death of a Salesman has become embedded in blogs and articles worldwide. But as Mark Twain said, “the rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated.” Unless you live in Cuba, North Korea, Laos, Vietnam or China, sales professionals won’t vanish. Not now. Not soon. Not ever.
Why? In capitalist economies, organizations must acquire customers to survive, and that requires leading change—and leading change requires selling ideas. People malign the art of selling, people diminish its importance, people even wish it away. But whether you’re discussing weight-loss plans or economic reform, minds won’t change without one very human interaction: someone must sell an idea. And we work with idea sellers every day. They’re called Associates, Agents, Account Executives, Senior Solutions Marketing Managers, Directors of Product Management, VP Sales, Senior VP Global Sales and Business Development, Chief Marketing Officers, Customer Account Managers. Add your own title and the list goes on.
In 2006, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that out of 132,600,000 US workers, 10,464,000 were in “Sales and related” jobs—about 8% of the workforce. This number of jobs—sub-classified as retail salespersons, cashiers, sales representatives, and their first-line supervisors—reflects both the diversity and complexity of the selling process. Selling change isn’t easy. And there’s friction because salespeople and customers don’t always get along. Not all salespeople provide value. Not all customers are open-minded. Some products aren’t easy to buy. And when it comes to fair play, no party to a business transaction can claim exclusivity on the ethical high road.
There’s additional upheaval. Foundations of trust shift. Technology and other forces change once-stable commercial relationships. In some sectors, sales jobs are lost—in others, they’re gained. But it’s illogical to interpret recent trends as portents for the eventual demise of the sales professional. Automation and business process reengineering will no more eliminate the need for salespeople than changes in healthcare delivery models will eliminate the need for doctors and nurses.
I’ll take a contrarian position from many hyper-caffeinated emarketing and social media experts: we’re a long way from replacing salespeople with mouse clicks and drop-down menus. When it comes to Great Customer Experience, the automation we’ve created stinks. Proof? We can scale our selling models through information technology, but we still can’t wean ourselves off “human intervention” (oh, come on, Andy, just use the word salespeople!) “To speak to a representative, press zero.” “If you need help selecting a product, just ask one of our retail floor Associates.” “To initiate online chat, click here.” “If you’d like to meet with one of our Sales Representatives, enter your email address.”
Still, the critics complain that salespeople often inject themselves into the buying mix. “We don’t need them,” the critics say. “After all, they’re only thinking about their next commission.” I’ll accept the criticism. As my VP of sales fittingly said “any salesperson who doesn’t add value risks being replaced by a kiosk.” But over 10,000,000 “sales and related” US jobs suggests that buyers also need salespeople.
The critics won’t admit it. “Salespeople are unethical.” “Social media changes everything. We get better information through blogs and online product reviews.” “Let me tell you about my last encounter with a salesman . . .” I’ve held these sentiments myself—and I’m a salesman! But much of the enmity is misplaced. Salespeople are not inherently bad. It’s the culture under which salespeople work that needs overhaul. Customer relationship problems start with people at the top of the organization chart, whose faces aren’t often public. Those executives create business plans that contain financial forecasts that are divided into sales quotas that are measured in revenue that are credited against the salesperson’s “individual goal.” Ready to talk about improving the “customer experience?” You’ve heard it before: It’s the system, stupid!
Maybe what’s needed is a redefinition of sales itself. What does sales mean in the context of leading change? After all, isn’t leading change fundamental to every organization’s strategy? Interpretations will be the progenitor of new ways that sellers and buyers connect and relate, new processes, and new best practices.
Perhaps it’s gratuitous for a salesperson to espouse that nothing happens until somebody sells something. But in the non-communist world, I haven’t found a more accurate statement. The sales professional is far from dead.