Depths of a salesman

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The Independent Online
Willy Loman, whose job consumed him in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, still lives today - perhaps selling photocopiers for Xerox Corporation. That's the conclusion of David Dorsey, whose new book The Force provides an inside view of the dog-eat-dog world of the giant organisation's sales force. The hustlers who chase sales targets in the pressure cooker of one of the world's hottest markets can either wind up winners basking in privilege or losers reduced to the ranks and the scorn of their peers. Like Loman, many snap. The motive for enduring all this is not cash, Dorsey tells Phil Reeves, but a desire to be liked . . .

THEY ARE the foot soldiers of the giant companies that power the world's industrialised countries. They live on the edge, hustling and fretting their way through life. They are addicted to the taste of success, yet terrified by the prospect of failure.

These are the salespeople who trudge round prospective customers to bring in the orders that keep the wheels moving. They have been immortalised in such plays and films as Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, Barry Levinson's The Tin Men and David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross. They take the kicks from their organisations just so they can live the often-forlorn dream of hitting the jackpot. So who on earth - what sort of person - wants to sell for a living?

It was in an attempt to answer this question that David Dorsey spent a year as a fly on the wall in a US district office of Xerox, the giant office equipment corporation, exploring the psychological make- up of that most enduring of caricatures: the corporate sales executive.

'To me there's so much drama inherent in the job - and so many compromises,' said the 40-year- old writer and former business journalist, 'that it just seemed to me that there was something very American about the hopefulness, the innocence, and the self-delusion that comes with selling.'

The Xerox Corporation took some cajoling before it allowed Dorsey uncensored access to its operations, but it eventually agreed to allocate him a desk in an office in the suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio, where its reps were notching up impressive results. Month after month Dorsey reported to work at around 7am and quietly observed them in action, as they wheedled and worried their way towards constantly rising sales targets.

He accompanied them on customer visits, attended staff meetings, listened in as managers admonished their underlings to sell more, and went to hard-drinking company bashes where they preened themselves on their past triumphs and worked themselves up into a lather of corporate excitement about future goals.

The result, a 315-page book called The Force, which has just been published in America, does not particularly delight Xerox, nor will it have endeared the corporation to its customers. But it provides an extraordinary insight into the methodology and mentality of selling in corporate America.

The salesman is not dead - not by any means. Arthur Miller's Willy Loman lives.

No one has fully defined the mysterious alchemy that makes people want to sell for a living, but Dorsey's observations come close. Sales reps at Xerox can earn up to dollars 200,000 ( pounds 133,000) a year, or as little as dollars 30,000. Yet he believes that cash is less a motivation than a deep, and rather pathetic, desire to be liked.

'I think it's recognition and achievement,' he said. 'They will tell you money, but it's not. It's the things that look really silly - the little plaque or the pictures in the newsletter, or the award at the end of the year. It's all of these people sitting there saying, 'Yes, you've transformed yourself, you've gone beyond your limit.' I think that's what they are looking for.

'I also think it is the feeling they get when it works . . . it's just intoxicating. They feel they have attained this other level of consciousness. They feel they become immune to failure. They feel they can go out and sell anything, at least for a brief period.'

Effective marketing is a technique that the Xerox Corporation had to learn the hard way. Thirty- four years ago, when it introduced the first photocopier for general office use, the company was a little-known outfit based in Rochester, New York (where Dorsey lives), whose existence was threatened by the ascendancy of the Eastman Kodak Company. Xerox used a process developed by a Seattle-born inventor called Chester Carlson, who worked in the patents office of a small electronics company in New York.

Carlson was a shy, retiring figure, the son of an itinerant barber, who for years was obsessed by his discovery, which he called 'electrophotography' - otherwise known as the electrostatic dry- copying process, or what is now known as xerography. For years his enthusiasm was not shared by the commercial world, or indeed by anyone, except his wife. He approached 21 leading corporations - including IBM and General Electric - but his idea was rejected by all as commercially impracticable.

With his money and patience running low, he finally agreed to swap 75 per cent of future royalties on his invention in return for a dollars 3,000 grant from a research foundation in Ohio. It was at this stage that a research executive in Haloid Xerox, as it was then known, spotted a mention of Carlson's machine in a technical magazine. In 1947, the company agreed to support the foundation's research in return for the right to market any resulting products.

It had struck gold. When the 914 copier was introduced in 1960, it became a huge hit. In the ensuing 15 years, the company's sales revenues exploded from dollars 33m to dollars 3.6bn. Haloid shareholders - including Carlson - became multi- millionaires as the stock rose from dollars 2 to dollars 172.

The Xerox photocopier, frequently referred to as the most successful American product in history, became so well-known that it was incorporated into colloquial English as a verb, like Sellotape and Hoover. In the 1960s and early 1970s, selling photocopiers was about as difficult as spotting pigeons in Trafalgar Square. Life in the Xerox sales department, according to company mythology, was one long party.

As millions of photocopiers spewed out billions of copies in offices around the globe, it became increasingly difficult to conceive of a world without them. As Atlantic magazine has observed: 'We would have no Pentagon Papers, fewer lawyers, more secrets, larger forests, more bureaucrats, less espionage, better memories, fewer cartoons on our refrigerators, and a lot less information in general.'

But the feast at Xerox was followed by famine. During the 1970s and early 1980s the corporation, bloated by rapid success, found its market share was shrivelling alarmingly. The Japanese gained access to Xerox patents. Competitors - Canon, Sharp, Minolta, Panasonic and others - sprang up and began to make inroads. In 1976 Xerox had 80 per cent of the US copier market. By 1982, this had dropped to 13 per cent.

The company was blatantly losing its way. Research and development was lousy. There were inter- departmental wars and delays in spare parts. Japanese competitors were flooding the market with machines which were cheaper and more reliable. Unless Xerox fought back, it could collapse.

It was for this reason that, under the stewardship of its then chief executive, David Kearns, Xerox launched a 'total quality' programme, with heavy emphasis on customer satisfaction - and, of course, effective selling. Within a few years, the corporation's fortunes had recovered, although it never recaptured its early dominance: it has less than a quarter of the dollars 80bn document market.

In The Force, Dorsey describes how Xerox reps are by turns nurtured and harried into achieving results by a management which knows well how to exploit their feelings of vulnerability. During his year at the company, he watched a team working under a district manager, a hyperactive corporate hard man called Frank Pacetta.

Dorsey records how Pacetta once kicked off a meeting by showing slides of Pearl Harbour. He called his star performers 'assassins' and lavished gifts on them - Olympic-style gold medals, opportunities to be photographed alongside the company president, microwave ovens, toasters, televisions - at the regular company pep talks.

To spur his team further, Pacetta (who has just published a book of his own, Don't Fire Them, Fire Them Up) organised a variety of bizarre internal incentives. There was a large chart on the walls in which reps and managers were depicted as jockeys in a horse race, galloping towards a hoped- for sales figure. When an order was logged, the office was flooded with its adopted theme song, 'Happy Days Are Here Again'.

Dorsey noted: 'Everywhere you looked, you saw yourself exposed as a loser or a winner, a Nobody or Somebody.'

Once a year, Pacetta organised a grand ceremony in the style of the Hollywood Academy Awards, in which Xerox staff, clad in tuxedos and ballgowns, gathered to applaud one another's successes. As they quaffed champagne, enormous pictures of members of the sales team and their colleagues were flashed up on a screen.

Nobodies, however, had rather less fun. After a bad patch, according to Dorsey, Pacetta wanted to send letters of reprimand to all sales staff who had logged no orders that month. Although Xerox doesn't usually sack its poor performers outright, they appear to be left in no doubt where they stand in the corporation's affections.

'They demote them,' Dorsey explained in an interview. 'I saw people demoted from prestigious jobs to almost a beginning level. And I saw people come back from that kind of exile too. They play mind games, that's what they do. Pacetta had something called putting people on an island. He would just pretend they didn't exist.'

The most elaborate mind game of all was called 'making the trip', an aspiration which seems to have been regarded with the same pious awe as the Holy Grail itself. In The Force, Dorsey describes how each member of the Xerox sales force was issued with an annual sales quota, which increased every year.

Those who exceeded it by a given amount - say, 20 per cent - won membership of the 'President's Club'. During Dorsey's stint at Xerox, this honour amounted to an invitation to a company knees-up in the desert resort of Palm Springs, California, a consumer oasis where they spent three days drinking (often herculean quantities), dancing, swimming and playing golf.

Such rewards seem fairly paltry when they are set alongside the effort required to qualify for them. As the end of the year approached, Dorsey watched members of the Cleveland-based sales team get increasingly frantic. One started carrying three lucky pennies in his pockets during visits to clients. Six developed colitis, or inflammation of the colon. Several started popping pills to deaden their nerves on sales trips. One suffered nose- bleeds. Another snapped altogether and hurled a frozen Thanksgiving turkey downstairs at her husband. It brought to life Mamet's devastating portrait of real estate salesmen in Glengarry Glen Ross.

This, for instance, is Dorsey's description of Fred Thomas, a sales manager who plays a central role in the book, closing a sale: 'Slowly, Fred backs Bob across the lobby, edging him closer to the conference room behind them, the way one person pushes another person across a room at a cocktail party simply by shifting his foothold bit by bit, shrinking the comfort zone, forcing the conversational partner to keep retreating to restore his airspace . . . By the time they reach the conference room, Fred has closed Robinson 20 times already, each step bringing Robinson closer to a complete surrender.'

As the year-end approaches, the Xerox team's high-pressure selling techniques become increasingly desperate. According to Dorsey, they include a practice known as 'churning' - after the stockbroking trick in which brokers trade stock in and out of a portfolio solely to generate commissions on the transactions.

Dorsey describes how Xerox sales people 'churn' equipment by going to loyal customers and asking them to replace old Xerox equipment with new models before the initial lease is paid off. As an incentive, they offer lower monthly fees.

However, after a year or so the price shoots up - and the Xerox sales rep appears again, offering further replacements. Although customers often think they are being forgiven the unexpired portion of the old lease every time new gear is brought in, this is often not the case. The total debt is simply being built up over a longer period.

Sharp practice is not confined to sellers. They wage a daily battle against trained buyers, many of whom are well-acquainted with their ruses and are not averse to using a few of their own.

'You learn that working in sales is a struggle to survive in a guerrilla theatre, where it's hard to distinguish the friend from the enemy, the predator from the prey,' Dorsey writes. 'Even in major accounts, customers try to sucker you.'

Clients sometimes take a machine on a three-month free trial and then return it, or they play one company off against a rival, or wait until December when Xerox sales staff - anxious to meet their annual targets - are willing to lower the price at the expense of their personal commissions.

'They make passes at you over lunch, or tell you how certain other dealers will slip them a thousand or two under the table . . . what many buyers want is something for nothing - a meal, a machine, a little mind game of domination,' says Dorsey.

Since the book's publication, Xerox has been playing down Dorsey's findings. A company spokesman has described The Force as a 'highly dramatised account of a sales team' of two years ago, which 'blurs the line between fact and fiction'. He added that 'some situations in the book present behaviours we've been working to change and, for the most part, we have changed them.'

But whatever changes Xerox has made, it can do nothing to erase the accuracy of David Dorsey's summary of the world's second oldest profession: 'A salesman survives on feelings. If you stop and think about what you are doing, you're dead. The point is to keep feeling something, anything, if only to keep a constant turbulence flowing past your heart, the way a shark draws salt water through itself to stay alive'. Arthur Miller could not have put it better.

DUPLICATING ROUND THE WORLD

Xerox Corporation has 103,500 employees worldwide, of whom 55,000 are in the United States. The corporate headquarters is in Connecticut but the company's main manufacturing operations remain in Rochester, New York. In 1993, Xerox had a turnover of dollars 14.6bn from its document-processing activities - photocopiers, fax machines and electronic publishing systems - producing net income of dollars 620m. Its foreign operations include joint ventures in Britain, through Rank Xerox, with 26,000 employees and headquarters at Marlow, Bucks, and in Japan through Fuji Xerox, headquartered in Tokyo.

'The Force' by David Dorsey, Random House dollars 23. UK publication next February.

(Photograph omitted)

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