The Death of the Salesman

In the late 1970s IBM was in full flight as the world’s most profitable company with a sales force envied by all its competitors. As a product of IBM sales training I was in New York in 1984 guiding my customer BHP on an investigation into best practice in steel information systems which gave me the chance to witness an unbelievably great performance by Dustin Hoffman in Arthur Miller’s iconic play Death of a Salesman. Miller saw his play as setting forth what happens when a man does not have a grip on the forces of life.

Today buyers are globally connected and are engaging with other similar buyers as well as with experienced users on case studies about the products or services they are buying. This is causing sales people to lose their pre-eminent role in controlling the information that was critical in any sales cycle. Salesman have lost their grip on the forces in buying decisions and so in the early part of the twenty-first century we are witnessing the death of the salesman.

When I joined IBM in the late seventies working, learning and living was very different to what we enjoy today. The receptionist welcomed visitors but also answered all office phone calls, physically connecting each incoming phone call using a phone cord to everyone’s dedicated phone socket on her ‘board’. Letters were typed with typewriters, albeit some having magnetic memory and the term word processing was only just coming into use. The only learning technology in the classroom was the videotape player and the only technology in the home was to play music, wash clothes or mix ingredients.

Now nearly forty years later things have changed. In a world where billions of people are connected through trillions of devices, ideas and innovations are implemented at ever increasing speeds around the world often simultaneously. In just the last few years most people have learnt to check online before they make a booking, buy a product or say anything they know is going to be important. Playing trivial pursuit with smartphones is not much fun because all answers are quickly and easily at everyone’s fingertips. This connectedness has forced us to redesign how we operate and much better ways of working, learning and living have resulted.  These changes have in turn altered the power balance between buyers and sellers totally changing how products and services are purchased with dramatic consequences for every business.

Why is this important?

America led the twentieth century and certainly dominated the second half of it and if anything defined America during this time it is was the American salesman. Salesmanship was what drove the American dream, which along with innovation and a supportive legal system drove their economy. Yet today we are contemplating the demise even the death of the salesman. Why? To answer that question we need to explore the role of sales and salesmanship.

Pioneer communities were the focus of every snake oil salesman[1] because he (and it usually was a he) had all the power as the pioneering community was starved of information, opportunities to validate and ultimately no comeback after the snake oil salesman had left town. The imbalance of the situation meant that the performance of the salesman determined the outcome not the need of the buyer.  Selling is the skill in being able to persuade another to exchange things of value ie what I have for what you have. So the ability to be able coax, cajole and ultimately convince the other party to give up what they have (money) for what is being sold (snake oil).  Whilst the snake oil salesman set out to trick the buyer the best sales were those that truly created value for the buyer as well and good salesmen always aimed to find these.

In an earlier period when avarice and injustice frequently dominated transactions Adam Smith warned this was short sighted[2] for he proffered that all trades, when freely conducted, are mutually beneficial by definition but we see that the mutuality was often lopsided because the salesman used skill and positioning to maximise their result. Modern political economy has clumsily attempted to correct the disparity through legislation to support the idea of ‘freely conducted’ trades by restrictions on the seller that have clearly failed. But just as innovation and economic development removed IBM’s monopoly through Microsoft’s success and they in turn have had their monopoly removed by Google we realise the futility of addressing those imbalances by regulation realising a far better solution has been to sponsor open access and real transparency to conduct truly freely transactions. That allows innovation to drive productivity.

It is the rebalancing of the transaction to ensure that both sides have equal access to information and to enter freely into the transaction that leads to the optimal outcome for all the participants. In this optimal situation light is shone on monopoly rents and they can be examined which leads to their removal. As this happens the value of the traditional salesman is diminished and perhaps is now being eliminated.

Is there still a role for Salespeople in Business today?

In traditional business organisations the sales and marketing function is accountable for profitable revenue growth. The sales team prospects for new customers as well as farming the existing customers. The salesman was king because nothing happened until someone ‘sold’ something. To sell something the salesman had to be creative and work with their prospects to imagine a better future and convince their prospects that this imagined future could only be obtained by purchasing their products or services.

Charley, Willy Loman’s neighbour in Death of a Salesman said after Willy’s suicide, “And for a salesman there is no rock bottom to the life. He don’t put a bolt to a nut, he don’t tell you the law or give you medicine. He’s a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine. And when they start not smiling back – that’s an earthquake. And then you get yourself a couple of spots on your hat, and you’re finished. Nobody dast blame this man. A salesman is got to dream, boy. It come with the territory.”

All businesses need to identify better ways of doing things, building the business case for their products and services, persuading their customers that there is a better way of doing things and gaining their customer’s agreement to a contract. The question is what is the role of selling in achieving this in a globally and ubiquitously connected economy? What is the role for a person to coax, cajol and ultimately convince the prospect to enter into a contract? Limited at best because the job has gotten extremely difficult because the buyer is not for turning through coaxing, cajoling or convincing with words. The buyer is on their own journey investigating and determining what is best for them based on globally, immediately available evidence.

Words from a salesman will not do it, stories and evidence from authoritative, authentic and relevant sources will. The challenge for every business in this new world is to identify likely customers and then provide them with authoritative, authentic and relevant sources of evidence so that those customers determine for themselves that they are best served by selecting the particular products or services.

Several years ago smart businesses began recognising that as the buyers diversified their sources of information and advice on products and services that all their employees needed to engage with prospects and customers, connecting them to their company’s products and services to build an authentic relationship. Everyone is now ‘selling’. With everybody ‘selling’ the sales force of old must transform into a sales and marketing machine that marshals all the efforts and utilises all the ‘channels’ to target buyers in order to build trust in those buyers so that they do trust the product or service will be delivered and that they make that leap of faith and place the order to buy.

What is the role of a ‘rainmaker’?

Over the past decade the rainmaker has slowly replaced the role of the salesman but this emerging role is much more than prospecting, proposing and closing deals. This new role has little to do with coaxing, cajoling and convincing and other acts previously attributed to salesmen. This new role of rainmaker is all about seeding the clouds and catching as much of the rain as possible when it falls. It is about efficiently identifying those prospects whose needs are best met by the products and services the company offers and ensuring that authentic, authoritative evidence is made easily available to them so as to maximise profitable revenue opportunities with them. The successful businesses in this new world are building extensive systems to seed the market and are establishing multiple channels to connect. Each ‘channel’ to customers is tweaked and optimised to achieve the best results.

The rainmaker doesn’t just sell products or services they help their customers grow and prosper. They build consultative, trust-based relationships as a partner of their customer. They focus on helping them achieve extraordinary results. Their role in identifying better ways of working and building trust cannot be underestimated. A rainmaker focuses on the objectives of their customers not their own sales targets because if the customer achieves their objectives a good rainmaker knows so will they. They use their drive and imagination to develop initiatives with their customers that make the best use of their company’s products and services and in doing this they build trust.

The role of rainmaker is so different from that of a traditional sales person that Gartner predicts that only 13% of current ICT salespeople will successfully make this transition. Why is this a difficult chasm to cross? Firstly it is because the new role demands a radically different attitude. Secondly it demands a much deeper understanding of the customers business and how the supplier can work with their customer to maximise the achievement of their objectives. And finally it requires the development of trust between the customer and the supplier to reduce the need and cost of checking every detail of the transaction and conduct of the business.

The attitude of the rainmaker is very different to that of a salesman. Where a salesman is usually open, gregarious and optimistic (“a salesman is got to dream”) a rainmaker is more focused on building trust through real authenticity and personal authority.  A rainmaker does their research; they use their understanding of people, process and technology to construct more effective solutions. They see what other people can’t but they know how to get results. They come up against an obstacle and they know how to get around it, knock it over or get under it but they stay focused on getting the outcome. The rainmaker knows how to drive their team to achieve their goals. And the team is not just internal a good rainmaker builds a trusted network that extends far and wide where mutual benefit is the name of the game.

One of the world’s leading companies said to me a few years ago that they had a difficult problem. Their customers were demanding lower prices. They needed to increase profit margins they couldn’t survive on the existing profitability of customer contracts. How does a rainmaker solve such an intractable problem? They research carefully how business has been done. They explore with the best technical experts how you can remove costs, extend functionality, improve quality, increase reliability and speed up delivery. This required them knowing much more about their customer’s business even taking on the responsibility for key decisions for the customer and in turn this required their customer to build much greater levels of trust. I understand as this problem was addressed several customers said, “This requires both of us to not only talk about being partners we actually have to build a real partnership.”

The Way Forward

In a connected world we are all living in a fish bowl and if we want to be known as the best so that we can charge a premium then we can’t fake it any more we need to show through authentic and authoritative channels that we are indeed the best and justify that premium price. Whilst Groucho Marx made us laugh (because it was true) when he said “To succeed in life all you need is sincerity and when you can fake that you’ve got it made.” Today faking it is becoming very difficult if not impossible so it is time to deliver on our promises to build reputations that will be relied upon because they can easily be authenticated.

The connected world is redesigning how we work, learn and live and to maximise profitable revenue growth companies now need to:

  1. Redesign their workplace and how teams work. Sales and marketing were once grouped together with one designed to rationally understand the marketplace and plan how it should be exploited whilst the other was targeted to emotionally engage with customers to sign orders quickly. New combinations of skill and experience are required in this new paradigm. Marketing is embracing technology with coders to create teams that include data scientists and engineers and terms like Growth Hackers are entering our business vocabulary.
  2. Prepare to automate access to massive numbers of customers. The super platforms are providing access to 100’s of millions of customers. Companies like Pinterest, Dropbox and Evernote have grown from zero to 10’s or 100’s millions for customers in just a few years. Those who do not utilise technology to automatically access these gold mines will find it hard to survive.
  3. Require new solutions to be truly scalable and always repeatable. How can digital assets be designed in consistent ways that enable them to be recompiled in different configurations for very different purposes? How can digital assets be shared to drive effective collaboration across the company and with suppliers and customers?
  4. Drive up the productivity of all their employees. Much of what we do everyday, much of what makes us so busy at work everyday adds no value to our company or to us as individuals. The fastest way to do something is not to do it. The emerging massive collaboration tools and platforms are providing us all with tools to utilise the work of others, copy patterns of effective ways to do things so that we focus on the most valuable activities and stop doing the things that crowd our day but add no value.
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[[1]](#_ftnref1)**Snake oil** is an expression that originally referred to fraudulent health products or unproven [medicine]( "Medicine") but has come to refer to any product with questionable or unverifiable quality or benefit. By extension, a **snake oil salesman** is someone who knowingly sells fraudulent goods or who is himself or herself a fraud, [quack]( "Quack"), charlatan, and the like.  
[[2]](#_ftnref2) with reference to Adam Smith Wealth of Nations Book 3