Death (and rebirth) of a salesman

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death (and rebirth) of a salesman

The pushy double-glazing salesman is no more. The new sales men and women go on courses, call themselves consultants, and wouldn't dream of jamming a foot in the door, reports Hester Lacey

Once upon a time salesmen would pop in for a cup of tea, have a smoke and a joke and jot down the order on the back of a cigarette packet. In the Nineties the approach is different. Overt selling is out; subtle persuasion is definitely in

s ince the first bottles of patent medicine were sold to gullible villagers by the first travelling hucksters, selling has been the profession of the silver-tongued shyster, the liar, the rogue, the hustler. The pushy double-glazing man jamming his foot in the door has become a standing joke as has the oily "one careful lady owner" second- hand car salesman.

This salesperson-as-human-lizard image is reinforced by characters such as Linda Fiorentino in The Last Seduction, bitch in spike heels, stalking an office full of hapless, cringing telesales minions, armed with a stopwatch and a sharp line in acid insults for anyone who isn't cold-calling fast enough. Pathetic old Jack Lemmon in Glengarry Glen Ross, desperately trying to flog worthless development land, is told by Rolex-flaunting, swaggering Alex Baldwin that the prize for the company's top salesman will be a Cadillac, second prize is a set of cheap steak knives and all the rest of the team are to be sacked.

The classic, of course, is Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, who, worn out by a life on the road with a suitcase of samples, commits suicide when he realises how empty his life is. And then there are the Arfur Daleys and the Del Boys, the brokers of dodgy goods off the back of a lorry, no questions asked, anything to shift the stuff and turn a quick profit. Sales is seen a field anyone can drop into or out of, no questions asked, no skills required - apart from the gift of the gab. Until now. The sales rep of the Nineties is a changed creature; for a start, he (or she) doesn't care to be labelled a rep any more. "Representative" if you must; but "consultant" is the preferred term. The incompetent, clutching their boxes of samples, are increasingly falling by the wayside, while those prepared to work to keep their jobs have scurried off to rack up any of the several new breeds of certificate, diploma and NVQ that are helping lay the spiv with the suitcase to rest.

This has meant a rough ride for some. "Today's techniques are totally different," says Ron, aged 37, a veteran with 20 years sales experience. He sells motor components. "Before, you'd go in to a customer, have a smoke and a joke and a cuppa and they'd place their order, and that was it."

"You'd jot the order on the back of your fag packet," adds his colleague Idris, 29. "Just going in for the visit was enough to get you the order. Today there's a declining market for sales, a much smaller bit of cake to go round, and you need to be much more professional." And the opposition is getting cannier, too. "The buyers are getting specialist training these days," says Idris ruefully.

The two of them were delegates on a three day ''Selling Consumer Goods" course, run by the Chartered Institute of Marketing at their headquarters near Maidenhead. The Institute, housed in an elegant converted stately home, is the largest sales and marketing training centre in the world. The ten-strong group, from as far afield as Glasgow and Swansea, were an eclectic bunch. Among them were a posh young beauty products woman and a feisty foursome of motor-component lads. Almost all the companies they represented were household names who had forked out pounds 1,095 (plus VAT) to have their staff brought up to speed with skills such as ''Journey Planning Techniques and Presentation".

At 9am on the second day of the course the group all seemed chirpy, despite staying up late the night before, slogging through their "homework" presentations (the training day is officially 12 hours long). Tony Thorn, course leader, was running through a simple but telling exercise. "If you went out on to the streets right now and threw one word at people, and that word was 'salesperson', what sort of reaction would you expect?"

The answers came back in a tumult. "Pushy."

"Obnoxious." "Shark." "Flash car." "Double glazing." "Mobile phones." "Yuppy." "Del Boy." "People have a very negative attitude," said someone plaintively.

"Don't be a salesperson!" exhorts Tony. "At any rate, don't be an overt salesperson. If you behave like an Arthur Daley that's how you'll be treated. Be a professional, subtle salesperson; be a consultant. Think of a Harley Street doctor. When he tells someone they need a triple bypass, does that person think: 'He's a great salesman?' Of course not, they think he's doing them a favour, helping them." He runs through a few techniques for disguising yourself as a consultant; everyone eagerly takes notes. Tony's own sales career started with a stint selling encyclopedias door-to-door. He sees the new face of sales as a reaction to a new marketplace. "Sales has changed dramatically - the main difference is the concentration of frighteningly large players on the buying side for consumer goods. With more and more business in fewer and fewer hands, you simply can't get away with lack of professionalism."

This nationwide domination of massive multiple outlets is one of the reasons that fewer and better sales staff are needed - teams in all fields have been rationalised, streamlined, downsized. Those who have kept their jobs have had to branch out into marketing, computing, and account management. At the same time, conditions for these super-sellers have improved. Many companies now pay a basic salary, supplemented by commission, instead of making them rely on generating their own wage as a percentage of what they sell - of the million-and-a-half British sales staff, a third now works on this basis. Some have no commission element in their jobs at all; they may even have dropped the sales tag altogether and are known as account managers.

As companies invest more money in sales training and support, they become pickier about whom they recruit. "Many companies use personality testing to recruit their sales force," says Steve Cuthbert, director general of the CIM. "They are no longer recruiting people just because the sales manager thinks they might be the right kind of person; that flashy-suit, extrovert image has all changed. Sales staff still need to be in the upper half of the extrovert scale, but they are less likely to score ten out of ten, today it is more likely to be eight out of ten. Selection is more rigorous as there are now a lot of graduates with professional qualifications such as engineers or biochemists for specialist selling fields. More money is being spent on training and the cost of putting someone out in the field can be as much as pounds 50,000."

This does not mean that any old shrinking violet will do. "It's a roller- coaster career," says Steve Cuthbert. "You can be elated one minute when you've got the order against the odds, and down the next when the customer tells you he doesn't want your goods. Sales people have to come to terms with exhilaration and frustration, be able to handle the lifestyle."

In the middle of all this new professionalism, the cold-calling double glazing salesman still has his place. "There's nothing wrong with cold- calling, as long as ethical methods are used," according to Steve Cuthbert. "If salesmen try and trick people into, say, signing an order when they think it's just an estimate, then that is quite wrong. But there wouldn't be double-glazing salesmen if people didn't want double-glazing. It's a hard life; you can make money at it, but you have to be very skilled."

Back in the classroom, surrounded by flipcharts and marker pens, the class are swapping notes on ''Journey Planning'' - getting from client to client with the minimum of time-wasting. Tony recommends buying a large-scale map and sticking pins in it, with different colours for different clients. "It may sound a bit Heath Robinson, but it works," he says. One unfortunate student's territory is the whole of Poland. "Well, you'll need a whole wall for your map," says Tony genially.

"We do between two and six calls a day," says a polished blonde lady who works in communications. "We're doing profitability studies on our account base," she adds. "The results are frightening."

Everyone looks suitably alarmed but impressed. "When I joined we had to do 12 calls a day," says Idris plantively. "It used to be 25 or 30 calls a day," says Tony Thorn. "You'd be waving dozens of little order slips of paper; now it's quality, not quantity."

By lunchtime, Tony is getting the group to do a sales pitch for a product they've never seen before: a rather elegant new telephone. The motor components crew eye it with suspicion and growl among themselves; but by the end of the session they are fluting happily away about innovative design and sophisticated features. "You've made it so simple, even I can understand it," says Idris wonderingly. The idea is to show that sales really is a discipline in its own right: whether you're selling spark plugs or spaghetti, the technique is the same. According to Steve Cuthbert, the super-salesperson will continue to rise and rise. "I used to go to the States a lot, and chief executives there would proudly tell me that they had six salesmen who earned more than they did," he says. "They saw it as an advantage - their staff were doing well for the company, and for its clients, and for themselves as well. You don't find that in the UK. At least, not yet."

8 Chartered Institute of Marketing 01628 852300