Wednesday, December 02, 2009

In Praise of Salesmanship

Salesmanship is one of the world's most universally derided profession, because most people can not sell. It could have easily be most envied. But everyone is a buyer by definition and in the zero-sum game of life, buyers must win. So, we hate the salesman. On the other side of the fence, salesmen love being hated, as long as rest of world keeps buying from them.

I must also add, saleswomen, increasingly. Because the trigger of this post comes from a friend, who just jubilantly informed me what a thrill it was getting her first big order through. She was hating every moment of her sales life. All that hitting the street and making cold calls, hanging around in office receptions, getting by with middle-aged purchase officers who show little sympathy or understanding were wearing her down. It was courageous on her part to take the job in the first place - normally girls would take a 'desk job', an 'administration' job whatever it means. But the realities of the sales life was way too much. And, then, she was indeed told, it was not a job for a 'decent girl'.

But, as it happens in every story, that first, meaty offer changes it. It was that waiting, being called, fighting with hope against despair, life on the balance feeling, and then that disbelief and sigh of relief together when the dotted line, both on the contract and the cheque, is signed - suddenly makes all that pain worth it. That kick, like winning the first lottery, even if for someone else, is the necessary initiation of a salesperson's life. She just crossed the threshold.

I say most universally derided profession because I see people cringe when I say I am a salesman. That punctures, almost immediately, any sense of respect I would have gathered, that far in the conversation, with any of my abilities. I see minds closing, quite literally, lest I steal something from them. But it actually makes me feel good. Makes me feel quite like Zoro, for some strange reason. And, yes, I consider Catherine Zeta Jones absolutely fascinating.

Jesus was a salesman. So was Martin Luther. So was Napoleon, Lincoln, Marx, Gandhi, Churchill and in a more recent time, JFK, Reagan, Clinton and Obama. They all sold ideas for a living. As does Joe on the corner shop and the CEO of the multinational company in downtown. Salesmanship is a necessary precondition of leadership, says Tom Peters, the Uberguru and Salesman extraordinaire.

But, then, indeed, when we talk about salesmen, one does not see these people. Usually, the representative figure chosen among the fraternity is that of an Used Car salesman. This is supposed to make the profession of salesmanship look bad. But, consider this: Satisfaction = Product Value + Value-added through Salesmanship. In my book, there is nothing called a naive buyer. We are not out to donate money when we go shopping for insurance. Or walk into a car showroom. We want to get a deal. We want to be satisfied. The salesman makes us feel that - satisfied. They do it not just through the product, but by making us feel special, by connecting the product in our life, by extending ourselves into that product. Even if the gearbox is cranky, as we drive out of the showroom and say 'here we go' - the salesman has transformed our life. He deserves some praise.

I know many people jump here and point to that cranky gearbox bit. They would say - that's the point, salesmanship is about lying and covering up. But, you know what. Remember when Mary Magdalen was accused of adultery and was to be stoned, and Jesus said that let he who among us has not sinned stone her first. When a husband cheats and tells the wife she is still the one, he does it to make her feel happy. When the politician does not tell you about the secret loans made to the banks, he does it to keep calm. When the newspaper does not tell the whole story, they do it to keep the public order. And the poor salesman gets to keep a paltry commission to buy a decent Christmas present for his kids and gets blamed for all the lying in the world. This is surely a bit unfair.

And, by the way, cranky gearbox is never the point, getting a deal is. Cranky gearbox will take £200 to mend, but the feeling that you get while driving out of the showroom, that you just got the best deal in the world and gave the smart-ass salesman a run for his money, is : priceless.

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