Embarassed by This Sales Article in The Economist?


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On October 22, The Economist published an article called, The Art of Selling – The Death of the Salesman Has been Greatly Exaggerated. Is the Economist really that far out of touch? I wrote the last of my 5-part Death of Selling Has Been Exaggerated articles 5 years ago! And how long has it been since anyone referred to salespeople at “salesmen”?

I was embarassed by the article. And who did the author cite as experts? Among others, consultants from McKinsey, who despite not being sales experts, wrote a new book about Sales Growth. For additional credibility with mainstream businesses like yours and mine, the author also cites Avon, Mary Kay, auto car salespeople, Apple stores, Google, and Salesforce.com – all whose models are just like the one your business uses, right?

Wurth, the first company mentioned in the article, has credibiliy with me because they are not only a traditional, mainstream company, but have also used Objective Management Group to evaluate their worldwide sales force.

Looking forward, what are the most important things for you to know about what will happen with salespeople?

1) They will continue to play a major role in finding and growing your business as long as you have them focus on finding and growing your business!

2) They have more tools available to aid them in this quest then ever before. It’s your responsibility to bring the tools to them, train them and make sure they use them when and where appropriate.

3) They must learn to sell more consultatively if you wish to differentiate your company from your competition and gain more market share. The days of salespeople who present and quote aren’t over, but the days where that can translate into consistent business are over.

4) A Formal, structured, customized, optimized sales process must replace seat of the pants selling. They will fail without it.

5) More, not less sales managment coaching and accountability must be part of their daily routine.

Republished with author's permission from original post.


  1. Dave: thanks very much for posting this. I hadn’t read the Economist article before I read your post, but I found it one of the best, most insightful summaries of contemporary issues in selling. There are many good points in the article, but this one stood out: “The tragedy of the salesman in modern business is not that he is on the way out, but that he is disrespected.”

    Amen to that. I have been in sales for almost 30 years and have worked with and spoken to more C-Level executives than I can count. Only one has ever said to me “I admire what salespeople do.” That says everything.

  2. Thanks for beginning this discussion Andy!

    When salespeople are disrespected it is usually because they were not very effective, failing to add value, differentiate themselves, have a productive conversation, etc. Instead, they more than likely sounded just like everyone else. It’s their fault when they aren’t respected.

    Worse, the salespeople who worry about being respected tend to over compensate and in doing so, make matters worse, not better.

    Great salespeople don’t spend any time worrying about whether or not they are/were respected and in most cases, they are respected.

  3. Wow. So, if I understand, when salespeople are disrespected, it’s because they brought it on themselves? Does this extend to doctors, lawyers, car repair professionals and Redskins fans? What about women and minorities? The same? Or is the sales profession somehow unique?

    I don’t question thatpeople exhibit behaviors that I don’t like or agree with, but your assertion that for salespeople, “it’s their fault when they aren’t respected” doesn’t comport with my experience. By that logic, there’s no such thing as unfair judgment, bias, or prejudice.

  4. I read the article and thought it did a good job covering a complex topic. Sales professionals are still needed, but need to change their game for today’s world.

    And yes, there is a bit of Rodney Dangerfield (“I get no respect”) going on. Trying to assign blame seems fruitless. For all sorts of reasons, some unfair, the sales profession has an identity problem.

    But assuming that reps will change with the times (and they will or they’ll be doing some other job), sales is still a noble job. I spent over half of my career in quota-carrying B2B sales and am proud of the relationships I built with customers and the business I helped generate for the companies I worked for.

    The article ends on this note, which I certainly agree with:

    “… salespeople are the unsung heroes of business. They battle daily and bravely against rival firms and consumers who foolishly prefer to save their hard-earned cash. They gather vital intelligence about customers' preferences and competitors' moves. ”

    All that said, I’m not convinced that the current wave of “Sales 2.0” thinking, more technology, or sales process methodologies is all that is needed for the sales profession to become more needed AND respected in the years ahead.

  5. First, I do hope the Samuel Clemens aka Mark Twain estate gets a royalty for that phrase, it used so much, they deserve something.

    First, I thought the Economist article was well written and raised a number of important perceptions and issues.

    Second, I wasn’t embarassed by the article, I guess what I was embarassed by is the fact that these articles still NEED to be written. Somehow the sales profession isn’t getting it. Robbing another famous phrase from another famous person, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, yet expecting different results.

    Before his death, Mack Hanan, the “father” of Consultative Selling had a number of conversations about why true consultattive, solutions focused, customer oriented, value based, provocative selling is the normal practice in sales today, despite these concepts being introduced in the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s. Few organizations have moved through and past this. The four of us in this conversation, as well as many other consultants, authors, speakers, make untold millions every year with our rehashed and updated versions of these principles. (Not bad mouthing them, there are some great views and approaches on these areas).

    Yet, somehow, sales people and sales managers do the same thing over and over, pitching products, manipulating the customer, creating atmospheres of distrust rather than trust, and so on.

    Each of us has written blog posts about the latest terrible sales call made on us. Each of us rants and raves, hoping for the betterment of the profession. Each of us is genuinely committed to the betterment of the profession and sharper execution of what we do — which is why I like what each of you do so much.

    Yet we, as a group, really haven’t changed a whole lot in the last XX years. The scary thing, is the buyer has changed. Sales people are now waking up to that fact and the best are scrambling to align themselves with the new buyer.

    Bob raises the point that disturbs me the most. Somehow, we have found the answer, and the answer is in the clouds with all sorts of Sales 2.0 tools. If only we buy the right set of tools, we will immediately find ourselves aligned with the new buyer, we will immediately become “respected,” we will transform our relationships with customers.

    Or maybe the attraction to those tools is that when we fail, we can blame the tools rather than ourselves.

    Don’t get me wrong, I think the tools offer great potential and leverage them heavily. But the answer is not the tools, the answer is applying the tools on a base of inspired leaders and coaches, sound strategies, sound business processes, motivated/trained people who are focused on their customers success–knowing if they make their customers succesful, they will be successful.

    Great discussion–but to some degree, at least with each other, we are preaching to the choir–though we have slightly different takes and approaches. Would really love to see some other points of view!

  6. Dave, some other comments and opinions would be great – you’re right in that we are preaching to the choir.

    Andy, when I say salespeople are responsible, I have the data to back that up, so while it seems I am blaming salespeople, I am blaming only the salespeople that are either so weak, unskilled, or archaic that their behavior brings out distrust. I have the data on the sales assessment side where the sample size is more than 500,000, and I have the data from the survey you may have seen about trust and respect of salespeople. While the sample size isn’t anywhere close to 500,000 on that one, it empirically answers the question of the % of people who respect salespeople, which ones, and why and, just as important, those who aren’t respected, where they come from and why. I hope to release the results of this study before the end of the year.

    Bob, I agree with that closing statement too. Salespeople are the unsung heroes, but only when they stimulate the economy, help their companies grow, save the day, over-achieve and perform consistently, while doing so with high integrity.

  7. Great find on the article Dave!

    When I read the article I had so many emotions; as a salesperson for many years, a sales leader for 15 years and a sales management consultant for the past 14 years, this article went right to the point that many of us write about, speak about and attempt to impact the organizations we consult with on a daily basis.

    Quick example: recently I purchased an iPhone from AT&T; first call, I walked into a retail facility: Result: great service, friendly conversation, they helped me save money on my existing account, they responded to emails and even “walked” me to the door on my two visits. They had a well organized retail customer approach. Just yesterday I was in NYC, I walked into an AT&T store to purchase a carrying case for for my new iPhone,, still the same solid attitude, same sales process and training and follow through-they walked me to the door! They had a sales process & system and they were trained in the same mode that my Knoxville TN salesperson was trained. This approach showed me a strong sales focus. BTW: I drove to the store to purchase the phone-rather than buying it over the web.

    Sales are built on trust and confidence, in some minor products this can be accomplished by smart marketing, however, where the special B to B consumer or business person are involved someONE must impact them emotionally enough to cause them to take action. Where organizations are lead by the analytical’s they look at sales as Cost Centers, not Profit Centers. Salespeople do drive emotions if properly hired, trained and managed.

    Growth focused companies look at how to capture market share, grow net new clients and increase client penetration levels, however the point the article misses is why have some companies failed or why have some organizations grown? Those organizatons that have focused on their front end-(sales focused)- have penetrated their existing customer base at higher levels and added net new clients at higher rates through a well crafted salesperson or sales process map.

    HOWEVER: It is my belief is the linch pin for organizations, like Wurth, is there Sales Leadership team nust be focused. They have built a belief in their mission within the sales team and their products and have created a sales training system that reinforces their sales strategies, sales process and prospect buying emotions.

    In my blog I have often written about the need for sales leadership to set the tone for the culture of the organization as well as the level of expection. In fact recently in my blog I wrote that sales and sales management are the Critical Success Factors to lead us out of the negative economic conditions that exist today.

    Bottom line: To make salespeople and their impact revelant, sales leadership must take a proactive approach not only with organization’s executives-to drive the need for salespeople, but in the day to day management of their teams ability to execute.
    Ken Thoreson

  8. First off, as a woman, I’m sad to hear that the death of the salesman has been greatly exaggerated. I wish that term would just go away.

    But on to the topic at hand. Frankly, I’m tired of the word “sales.” The negative connotations created over the years are impossible to overcome. Besides, the job has fundamentally shifted from the times when people when door-to-door or town-to-town pitching their products.

    When most people put on their “sales” hats, they become caricatures of the worst of our profession — and they hate it. Smart people become babbling idiots because they think that’s what is required of them.

    Today’s salesperson is really a business improvement specialist whose focus is on helping the customer achieve their specific objectives. Sales is simply an outcome of doing that work right.

    You’ll probably all blast me for not having pride in my profession, but nothing could be further from the truth. I just think we need a change.

    You can’t fight a negative perception all the time. It’s stupid to call it “sales” when it causes intelligent people to behave badly.

    If we were savvy marketers, we’d rebrand under a new umbrella that would elevate this profession — and start fresh with a new term that better defines what top sellers actually do.

  9. Jill, maybe it was for these reasons that decades ago IBM decided to call its sales reps “marketing reps” and sales managers “marketing managers.” The practice started at least by the 1940s.

    I started with IBM 30+ years ago and didn’t know any better. IBM’s approach was consultative — “added value” was the term used — and customer satisfaction was a core value. To me, “marketing reps” carried quotas and had overall responsibility for the customer relationship. And yes, they sold.

    So maybe you’re right. “Sales” is such a loaded term — people don’t want to be sold, they want to be served — that companies should invent new job titles that don’t carry the negative connotation.

    Sort of reminds me of the problem with “CRM” — it has taken such a tech slant over the years that it’s unlikely that anyone can change it to mean something else, like being customer-centric, social, or whatever.

    I’m curious what others think about the relabeling of the sales job. Is that a solution, or just dodging the issue?

  10. This issue is not new, and everytime someone brings it up we all take umbrage, but take no action.
    Respect is of course earned – not granted.

    However, the bigger issue is that sales at its deterministic core is not a profession. Anyone can call themselves a sales person / peddler / consultant, or any other moniker – and there is no generally accepted accredited barometer by which they can be measured.

    If we do not raise the bar by establishing an accreditation (or some such objective and quantifiable metric) we will always hear the ‘snake-oil salesperson’ story.

    I’ve reached to folks on this forum before on this matter – and I will do so again – and offer resources to this journey if I have fellow travelers.

    I wrote a blog post on this very matter just 2 days ago. Value of Benchmarking for Sales” http://ow.ly/7hswJ

  11. Dave,

    Thanks for sharing this. It’s interesting to read perceptions of sales people and the sales process that come from outside our own sheltered ecosystem. The article raises important points, and it’s down to the sales profession – but more importantly, the leadership of the organisations within which they work, to address these issues.

    Let’s not tarnish the whole profession with the same brush. There are stellar examples today of getting it right, not just at an individual level, but at an organisational level. To take an example quoted in the article, I think Apple has done a stellar job of managing the buying experience at every touch point – in store, on line and over the phone. I don’t begrudge paying a premium price for an outstanding experience that goes beyond the quality of the products themselves.

    I think sales attitudes and behaviours are at the heart of this, and technology by itself isn’t ever going to offer a miracle cure – not the latest Sales 2.0 toolsets, or CRM, or even sales training in either the traditional or on-line forms, although they can help to support an environment in which the right attitudes and behaviours are nurtured.

    At the end of the day, this is fundamentally an issue of leadership. Sales leaders – and those who direct them – must create an environment where the primary concern is that the customer is satisfied with the answers they receive and the solutions they implement. The nature of today’s internet-informed buying process demands it. If that cannot be achieved, then disengage politely and find an opportunity that is a better fit.

    One of the reasons I stress the importance of executive leadership is that this isn’t just an issue for the sales function. Adopting the above customer-centric mindset without the support of attractive marketing programmes that get vendors on the prospect’s radar at an early stage in the buying decision process just leaves sales people scrabbling to make quota from a thin pipeline – and that sort of pressure simply encourages the old-style behaviour we’re all trying to drive out of the system.

    Back to attitudes and behaviours. The whole organisation – and not just the sales people and their management – must be focused (and I suggest motivated, incentivised and rewarded) around how good a job they do in connecting, engaging and satisfying more of the right sort of customers and prospects.

    It requires that everyone understands what their ideal customers look like, is sensitive to their issues, concerns and motivations, understands how and why they search for solutions and choose to buy, is sensitive to the key stages in the buying decision process and is dedicated not just to selling but to satisfying.

    This is not a sprint, but a marathon (maybe even a heptathlon). And we’re all on the track together.

  12. 1. The Economist article is a poor re-hash of Tom Sant’s thesis in “The Giants of Sales”, 2006. Sant makes an excellent case for professional sales being the most important American development of 20th century. He may be right.More than a useful history, and Sant does an admirable job of reviewing the pros and cons of 4 sales methodologies. He also writes well.

    2. Like all those who practice influence, eg. attorneys, politicians, sales will come under scrutiny because the persuasion techniques are also used by telemarketers and con criminals. (For the Economist to state that Amway is a direct seller of products in China demonstrates shocking ignorance. Amway is a business opportunity seller, but for products that are unsalable.)

    3. “Sales” is a perfectly good term. Sales facilitates exchange. I wouldn’t change the word.

    4. Finally, it is worthwhile to reflect that while John Patterson’s solution selling, the foundation of NCR, which became the pattern for modern sales, Patterson’s NCR went to criminal lengths to eliminate the competition. He was sentenced to a year for anti-trust violations.

  13. Aren’t we all saying the same thing?

    That despite the preaching, teaching, writing, training, speaking and consulting that we all do, and despite how much we ARE attempting to change things for the better, that change has been VERY slow to occur.

    Have you noticed that even in the companies where the “buyers” want a different kind of seller calling on them, the sales organizations in those very same companies are still trying to sell the way they always have.

    People get it – but don’t do it. They understand it – but don’t execute. At the crux of it, sales leadership may be afraid of the change because it’s not the way they sold, they’re not so sure they could sell that way today and it feels so very different.

    I also think that there is so much misinformation out there, with people simply writing stuff out of their bottoms, that people really confuse customer-centric with yielding complete control over the sales process and having no input into their outcomes.

    Unfortunately, we have yet to hear from any of the sales leaders, sales managers and salespeople. I will direct the readership from my blog here to comment and attempt to get more than only expert opinion.

  14. I agree with Dave Kurlan about the poor quality of the article. When they marvel that Apple is so sophisticated down to the last psychological detail that it teaches its salespeople not to ‘t correct their customers when they mispronounce the name of the product, they clearly have not spent too much time on the subject.

    The discussion thread I’ve read here this morning is far more thoughtful than the article itself. But one aspect that has not been mentioned yet, is the topic of professionalism.

    I believe a profession is a practice that adds value, so that its practitioners are benefiting others as well as themselves. At the specific level, professional salespeople solve problems for companies, improve their processes, and make them more profitable. When sales leaders and salespeople embrace the spirit of professionalism, it makes them more successful, but the biggest winner is the customer.

    There are three hallmarks of a true profession:

    • A fundamental specialized body of knowledge
    • An ethical responsibility for client outcomes/benefits
    • An enforcement mechanism

    The first is provided by training, education and tools; the second by upbringing. The third can only be provided by the customer.

    I believe that we can further the cause by being more outspoken on the topic of professionalism to our readers and our clients, and I hope customers will actively demand it.

  15. Andrew, I completely agree with you. This coming from a woman AND a Redskins fan.

    On the other hand being in this profession I have also come across some sales people that fall under the image that has developed over the years as “used car salesmen”. They won’t leave until you get out your checkbook or Visa. Thankfully they are few and far between these days.

    Your post made me laugh, thanks!

  16. Is the trademarked tag line on salesgravy.com. The economist article seems to agree with this and frankly, I cannot see how an innovation based economy could function without sales people.

    Admittedly the article has though also its flaws. For example, I could not find the book written by the McKinsey consultants mentioned in the article. Yet this should not be a reason to dismiss the article completely. Whether we like it or not it coveys how salespeople are perceived. Take another source, the yearly Gallup survey on the honesty and ethics in professions. The sales profession is characterized by “car salespeople”. This already is telling a lot about the general perception. Car salespeople, for years are ranked always among the 3 professions that can be the least trusted. In the 2010 survey only lobbyists had a worse score. Did you know though that the National Automobile Dealer Association has a published code of ethics. One of the elements considered necessary to be recognized as a profession.

    Selling comes in many facets and the worst experiences with salespeople stay in the forefront of our minds. The “good” sales people have to be aware of this and take extra care that they don’t sound like the disliked species.
    The suggestion to use another word for those helping customers to buy a solution to solve a problem or to reach an aspiration has been hanging around a long time. In Germany for example, two different words are used “VerkÄufer” for the sales people on the shop floor mostly in B2C situations. ‘Vertriebsbeauftragter” is used primarily for salespeople in B2B in situations. Frankly this distinction does not help much to improve the image of the “profession”. Actually the examples of good experiences cited in this discussion come from B2C situations and not from B2B.

    This leaves the question of whether sales is a profession. I think despite all the books written about sales, we are lacking a fundamental specialized body of knowledge. The many facets of sales activities (transaction vs. complex etc. ) make the creation of such a body of knowledge difficult. But there are other hurdles. Too many of those books try to satisfy the search of the silver bullet. They are thus written like cook books, giving you the sure recipe for successful selling. To successfully sell those books and the methods they describe, authors must make sure that the approach is presented in a differentiated manner, even though most of it are based on the same fundamentals. To me this is a form of feature selling. Don’t we all preach tough that we should provide value to the customer. Most of it is also presented context free; opening the doors wide that the recipe is used in the wrong context, and causing endless useless debates about the applicability of a specific approach.

    So maybe we should look in the mirror and ask ourselves what we can contribute to make the situation better. Donal has made a step in this direction and I am willing to help.

  17. Hello Dave,

    Thank you for pointing out the article, I took no issue with it.

    Regarding the use of the word “sales”, I see no reason to avoid it or come up with a replacement.

    Regarding some people’s impression about salespeople “disrespected” as a group, I take it with a grain of salt. This is a people business after all.

    Regarding Sales as a “Profession”, in my opinion “Vocation” is closer to reality.

    Regarding lack of “Context”, I view this as primarily a communication skills issue. For example, failing to specify what type of selling environments are being discussed such as B2B/B2C, Complex/Transaction, etc. The same could be said about gross “Generalizations” (e.g., “…in order to survive salespeople need to [fill in the blank]”).

    Regarding “misinformation”, I view this as primarily an education issue. For example, false or inaccurate information about “Sales 2.0”, “The Future of Selling”, etc.

    Regarding “doing the same thing over and over, yet expecting different results”, I view this as primarily a training issue.

    Jeff Blackwell

    P.S. “Understanding” is to “Education” what “Behavior change” is to “Training”.


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