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Death of all salesmen: Waiting for the final curtain to fall?

In February 1949 Arthur Miller’s most famous and now much celebrated play, Death of a Salesman first opened at the Morosco Theatre on Broadway. The story focuses on the last 24 hours of salesman Willy Loman’s life, tackling major themes including loss of identity, superficial ideals and a man’s appetite for accepting change within himself and society.

In some respects, those of us engaged in sales roles of one kind or another may find ourselves grappling with the same issues faced by Willy in his tumultuous final hours. 

‘Sales’ is a vocation under assault.

What is the role of the modern sales professional? Are the practitioners of the craft viewed with respect and admiration, revered for their integrity and value-adding contribution? Or are they reviled as unnecessary evils charged with misdirection and blinded by the lure of attractive commissions? Have we, the purveyors of product and service, overstayed our welcome on stage? Have our customers finally grown weary of our tired monologues and perceived sleight of hand?

Are we simply waiting for the final curtain fall?

The onset of the digital age has radically reshaped business, exponentially exploding information, choice and product availability and ushering in a fourth industrial revolution. This has brought with its unprecedented automation, rampant adoption of artificial intelligences (AIs) and has birthed an alternate world exemplified by virtual and augmented realities.

What will be the impact on the sales profession and what, if any, is the future role of the salesman or woman in this dramatically changed setting? Are we facing our sunset, the twilight of the profession, or is there opportunity to re-imagine and recast our role to better suit a newly designed stage?

In exploring these questions, I will revisit themes from Miller’s play.

Loss of identity

In a bygone small-town era, the salesman was a familiar, trusted and uncontested go-to authority relied upon to facilitate purchases. An individual or organisation had a specific need, engaged the expertise of the salesman, who likely had a relatively limited basket of available solutions and readily helped fulfil the requirement based on his knowledge and experience. Customers and salesmen may often have known each other personally and fostered enduring relationships cemented by ongoing interactions and a deep understanding of one another’s respective businesses and expertise.

Fast forward to today and the role of the salesman appears far less simple. No longer a familiar or known individual, often questionable in terms of being an uncontested authority and consequentially, not entirely or immediately trusted, today’s sales professional first has to establish and nurture a relationship with his prospective client before any real attempt to sell can be made. Establishing rapport, insight into a client’s needs and establishing trust – the basis for any healthy relationship takes time, tenacity and patience. Three things that are the antithesis of typical sales success metrics which reward, and are typically based on, conversion rates, quarterly or more frequent performance cycles and perpetually increasing revenue targets. In an age of global supply, unprecedented choice and a raft of strangers claiming to be experts offering tailored solutions, it stands to reason that buyers lack a clearly defined view of sales people, often demonstrating a healthy degree of scepticism towards their suitors.

 Superficial ideals

The hedonistic ‘80s, characterised by the rise of mass media, domination of global brands and runaway consumerism, led to sales people to being increasingly perceived as the harbingers and instigators of frivolous spending, demonstrating questionable motives and misaligned loyalty by serving both their own and their companies needs ahead of those of the consumer. Mediums such as television and radio created the desire through clever marketing and the role of the salesman was exclusively to close the deal by whatever means necessary.

Further casting a long shadow over the profession and perpetuating the negative perception was Hollywood’s portrayal of the ruthless, calculating and unscrupulous stereotypical salesman in films like Glengarry Glen Ross, Wall Street, and Boiler Room. These movies misguidedly depict selling purely as an effort to convince people to do things they do not want to do.

Consequently, sales people often get a bad rap, accused of being nothing more than glorified order takers, or commission junkies. While there are those that may warrant these labels there are far more of us who genuinely try to understand the customers’ needs and legitimately demonstrate how our offering can deliver value and the requisite solution.

 Appetite for change

Given the lack of clear identity, the persistently negative perception that sometimes accompanies the sales person’s role, and most recently the substantial and growing impact of technology in the digital age, the ultimate question must be: Will the role of the sales person, and the sales profession at large, survive? The simple answer is ‘yes’, but there is need for a tectonic shift in the way sales teams position themselves, execute their functions and undertake their role in creating value for the consumer.

Sales is frequently described as part art, part science. The art of sales typically refers to the soft skills required to engage with, understand and deliver on customer needs. Communication, empathy, emotional intelligence, self-discipline and motivation are all key skills necessary to succeed in sales.

But perhaps the greater shift is in the application of ‘science’ in the sales function. Most people regard sales as a numbers game and various formulae exist to articulate the activity volumes necessary to successfully move prospects through the sales funnel to becoming customers. Simply put, the higher the number of prospects identified filling the top of the funnel, the higher the yield of realised customers emerging at the bottom of the funnel.

The real shift, however, comes in the leveraging and analysis of available data. In the digital age, the proliferation of customer information, historic sales data and the maturing of AI means the prospecting process is ripe for disruption and radical change. Couple this increased abundance of data with the ability to study prospects’ social profiles and online activity and the result is detailed customer dossiers. The information gathering, as well as client analysis phase of the sale process, can be undertaken with a far higher degree of sophistication and yield extraordinarily detailed profiles.

Social and commercial platforms also afford sales individuals and teams an opportunity to position themselves as thought leaders and segment or product experts through blogging, personal web pages, LinkedIn profiles, YouTube review videos and the like. The creation of these types of publicly accessible online portfolios allow prospective customers to asynchronously meet and get to know and understand the knowledge, experience and character of the sales people they might engage with downstream. These profiles help lay the groundwork for relationships, establishing familiarity and trust before the first conversation ever takes place.

As such, it is incumbent on sales professionals to familiarise themselves with the opportunities digital platforms present and to up-skill themselves in the relevant areas to allow them to capitalise on these opportunities. Blogging, vlogging, podcasts, social posts and the like are all ways in which the contemporary sales person can enhance their digital footprint, reputation and credibility.

Always Be Connecting

The fundamental A, B, Cs of sales is shifting from the notion of Always Be Closing to Always Be Connecting. In our globally connected marketplace, the irony is the greatest opportunity for the modern salesman to recapture the identity of familiar trusted and uncontested authority through a digital presence that positions them as such. Through this digital presence, the smart sales person can present their offering in a compelling, non-threatening and objective manner conveying experience, thought leadership and a depth of expertise in a chosen domain.

To paraphrase a Samuel Johnson, ‘The two most engaging powers of the salesman are to make new things familiar and familiar things new!’  When all is said and done, it is the salesman who must present a solution that is both compelling and that resonates with the prospective customer.