I am a salesperson.
Those words never really “roll off” my tongue. As I’m saying them a morsel of guilt seeps into my conscious. I await the subtle judgment of whomever I reveal this fact. I can see the slight disappointment pepper their faces. My business card says ‘Enterprise Account Executive’. But the bottom line is that I’m a salesperson who sells technology to big companies. This truth creates much of my reality. First off, I’m not to be trusted by buyers. I am guilty until proven innocent. When I meet a buyer I am not just myself. I am every salesperson before me. I am every fast-talking, feature spinning, obfuscating salesperson that has come into their life before. I am the amalgamation of all the salespeople experiences they have had in the past, be it buying a used car, a house, corporate software, or furniture. While people do have good experiences with salespeople, they will always remember the bad ones and somehow all that BAD is my fault. It is quite disheartening for your character to be in question by virtue of the actions of others. But anyone who has lasted any significant amount of time in the sales business gets used to it.
Lest you think I overstate this point let’s look at the latest study in this area. DDI recently did a global sales perception report in 2007-2008. In this study corporate buyers were asked what their perception of salespeople was. The most common response was “a necessary evil”. In fact, “Sales: A Srategic Partnership or A Necessary Evil” is the title of the study. Other descriptions of sales people that corporate buyers revealed were descriptions such as cut-throat, sharks trolling the waters, lower than pond scum, and on and on.
Frankly, I understand this situation. In fact, as a consumer I have exactly the same perception. I will do everything I can to not have to deal with a salesperson when I’m in the market to purchase a product or a service. In my car buying example, I gather all the research I can from various websites including a visit to the manufacturer’s website. I go to my social network and ask for their opinions on the model and advice on price. I go to expert sites that compare. Once I’ve made my mind up, only then will I call the dealership. And for the most part, I control that conversation. If I don’t like how the phone is answered, or how I’m treated at the dealership, I go to the next dealership… or I don’t go to a dealership at all.
In my car buying scenario, sales people are seen as irrelevant. In addition, salespeople often compound this lack of relevance with words and actions that reinforce what I call the sales stereotype. Because of their irrelevance and the sales stereotype, buyers, like me are motivated by our desire to avoid any contact with a salesperson for as long as possible.
The Making of the Sales Stereotype
Webster defines Stereotype as “a standardized mental picture that is held in common by members of a group and that represents an oversimplified opinion, prejudiced attitude, or uncritical judgment”. Most professions have stereotypes associated with them. Engineers, Nurses, Doctors, Policeman, Fireman are all stereotyped in some way but these are not strong stereotypes and most are either positive or neutral. However, some professions have very strong negative stereotypes. Lawyers, politicians, and yes, salespeople are among those that have very elevated negative stereotypes. The sales stereotype plays a major role in how buyers react to salespeople.
Strong negative stereotypes do not just appear overnight. They are the result of history, culture and in some cases our evolutionary tendencies. I believe that this is true of the sales stereotype. All these factors combined have an impact on how salespeople are perceived today.
Sociobiology, a field of study most recently nurtured by Edward O. Wilson states that human behavior can be explained at least in part by natural selection. Sociobiology claims that the behavior of a species is selected as effective behavior in evolutionary terms as a way to promulgate genetics in the population. For example, as little as 10,000 years ago, a blink of an eye in cosmic time, our ancestors were living in tribes of 10-12 people, in caves and other temporary shelter. Back then, food and shelter were scarce and our ancestors, as a species, had to make sure that they protected these necessities at all costs so they could safely reproduce within their tribe. For all intents and purposes it was a zero sum game. Someone else’s gain, was their loss. As these tribes successfully reproduced, this protective behavior was selected and is still prominent today. For example, when someone attempts to convince us or influence us, especially someone who is not in our “tribe”, we automatically assume that they are trying to gain something. We initially become wary and begin to speculate on what their “angle” is. Our evolutionary tendency is to become suspicious and resistant to people outside of our tribe that want to influence us.
This suspicious and protective behavior is the evolutionary baseline on which buyers operate in relationship to being “sold to”. Essentially salespeople, from a buyer perceptions standpoint, start an engagement that is the result of behavioral genetic selection over millions of years, just by virtue of who they are.
Mass Production, Mass Population
In pre-industrial era a blacksmith that lived in a village would create various house wares like furniture, gates, sconces, pots, pans, and other tools. The “tribe” had become the town and all the townspeople knew him and went to him when they needed these types of products. He typically started as an apprentice, learning the trade from a very young age.
Over the years, he perfected his craft and sold his wares to the people all over the village. He had an enormous amount of pride and personal stake in his business. He was intimately involved, not only in his craft but also in the selling of his wares. The internal practice of his craft was intrinsically joined to the external selling of his goods. Hence, he could not afford to do a poor job because word of mouth was his only effective advertisement. If one of the townspeople was unhappy, he had to find a way to fix it lest his reputation be soiled.
This was a world where tradition, expertise, and pride were permanently affixed to the selling of the good. Where the apprentice chose a life and that life was about carrying on the tradition of the proprietor. It was about the perfection of a craft, where the craft was what drove the craftsmen. Business dealings, with customers were intrinsically connected to the craft itself.
Meanwhile, the new world was being settled at a quick pace over very large land masses. Missionaries were sent all over the world seeking to convert the native people to Christianity. These evangelists were really the first travelling salespeople. The native people often exercised their genetic predisposition to strangers, which caused many an unpleasant outcome for those missionaries. However, some missionaries broke through and founded and built missions and churches where they evangelized their religion, converted the native people and kept the townspeople in line. These preachers sold and evangelized eternal salvation. Some remained stationary but others travelled through the country holding revivals. My late Grandfather was a Baptist preacher in Southeast Missouri and was firmly steeped in this tradition. He was “saved” by a travelling preacher who walked out and sold him while he was plowing a cotton field. These preachers leveraged eternal life (as opposed to eternal damnation) to sell their religion. The travelling evangelist was the original model that future salesperson would be built on.
Snake Oil and other Technology Advancements
My bet is that no one has ever sold you snake oil to cure an ailment. Yet, everyone knows what a snake oil salesman is because the stereotype is so strong. In the late 18th and 19th centuries commercial infrastructure was in its nascent stages. Peddlers would travel around on horses and in carriages selling things like house wares, lightning rods, and yes, snake oil. These peddlers would go from town to town and sell their wares, sometimes never to be seen again. When the product malfunctioned or the house burned down because lightning hit it, there was no one to answer for it. Needless to say the peddler was blamed. In the same vein there were actual snake oil peddlers who road into town and sold potions that raised the hope of cured ailments but never worked.
As industrial society emerged, the blacksmith’s tasks necessarily began to become fragmented. Specialization occurred and some blacksmith shops focused on only one product as opposed to many. No one person built the products that they had traditionally built. 20 people built one of those products in a manufacturing line process in a small iron plant. In order to optimize production, a separate group of people sold these goods.
And thus, the separation between what we make and what we sell began. More of these products could be made faster and for less cost. This allowed the separated salesperson to leverage increased availability of the product.
Of course there was very limited access to information in rural areas so publishing companies hired canvassers to sell books. In fact, Mark Twain developed a very sophisticated sales process in order to maximize revenues when selling his Biography of Ulysses S. Grant. It was one of the very first documented sales methodologies. These canvassers leveraged the lack of books (information) in rural areas.
As small towns grew, General Stores emerged. And the wares that peddlers sold were now available in the general store. A new type of salesperson emerged called Drummers. (This is where the term “drum up business” comes from) These salespeople travelled to general store locations multiple times. They leveraged their relationship and the scarcity of a mature distribution system. The drummer was the pre-cursor to the modern wholesaler.
With every macro-change in the economy that displaced sales leverage, salespeople migrated towards products and capabilities where they could leverage something in relationship to the buyer. For instance, once house wares were sold at a general store, salespeople migrated towards bulk sales to those general stores. They leveraged knowledge, pricing, and the logistics to get product from one place to another. This placement-displacement continued throughout the 20th century.
The benefits of industrialization were that many people could afford many products that in previous times were too expensive. In addition, there were people in the organization that just focused on innovating and improving products and processes. This capability and focus drove companies to innovate and create new technologies at a rapid pace. The telegraph, telephone, light bulb, radio, and television were all invented in a matter of 100 years – more innovation occurred during this time than in the previous 2000 years. At the same time, salespeople from many different corporations spanned out across the country. They leveraged logistics, distribution and specialized information about the products and services that they sold. But then something interesting occurred. The widespread adoption of technology like, radio and television gave corporations the means to drive demand directly with the consumer through mass advertising and sponsorship. And with the rise of the automobile, consumers had the power to go to places outside of their immediate neighborhood to purchase these goods. This connection between the maker of the product and the mass consumer was another important component in the cyclical displacement of salespeople.
The combination of our evolutionary biases, the buyer experience with the transient snake oil salesperson, the separation of salespeople from the creation of wares they sell, the increasing relationship between the maker of the product and the consumer, and the past behavior of salespeople, have all come together to create the modern sales stereotype.
I often imagine a group of 18th century house ware peddlers gathered around a bar or saloon comforting themselves by saying things like “there will always be somebody who has to go around door to door and sell house wares”. Little did they know the changes that would come in their lifetime. Bigger changes will be coming in ours.