Do Salespeople Bug You? Here’s Why They Won’t Go Away


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Search the phrase death of a salesperson on Google, and it will return around 15,000 results. This corruption of the title of Arthur Miller’s iconic play Death of a Salesman has become embedded in blogs and articles worldwide. But as Mark Twain said, “the rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated.” Unless you live in Cuba, North Korea, Laos, Vietnam or China, sales professionals won’t vanish. Not now. Not soon. Not ever.

Why? In capitalist economies, organizations must acquire customers to survive, and that requires leading change—and leading change requires selling ideas. People malign the art of selling, people diminish its importance, people even wish it away. But whether you’re discussing weight-loss plans or economic reform, minds won’t change without one very human interaction: someone must sell an idea. And we work with idea sellers every day. They’re called Associates, Agents, Account Executives, Senior Solutions Marketing Managers, Directors of Product Management, VP Sales, Senior VP Global Sales and Business Development, Chief Marketing Officers, Customer Account Managers. Add your own title and the list goes on.

In 2006, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that out of 132,600,000 US workers, 10,464,000 were in “Sales and related” jobs—about 8% of the workforce. This number of jobs—sub-classified as retail salespersons, cashiers, sales representatives, and their first-line supervisors—reflects both the diversity and complexity of the selling process. Selling change isn’t easy. And there’s friction because salespeople and customers don’t always get along. Not all salespeople provide value. Not all customers are open-minded. Some products aren’t easy to buy. And when it comes to fair play, no party to a business transaction can claim exclusivity on the ethical high road.

There’s additional upheaval. Foundations of trust shift. Technology and other forces change once-stable commercial relationships. In some sectors, sales jobs are lost—in others, they’re gained. But it’s illogical to interpret recent trends as portents for the eventual demise of the sales professional. Automation and business process reengineering will no more eliminate the need for salespeople than changes in healthcare delivery models will eliminate the need for doctors and nurses.

I’ll take a contrarian position from many hyper-caffeinated emarketing and social media experts: we’re a long way from replacing salespeople with mouse clicks and drop-down menus. When it comes to Great Customer Experience, the automation we’ve created stinks. Proof? We can scale our selling models through information technology, but we still can’t wean ourselves off “human intervention” (oh, come on, Andy, just use the word salespeople!) “To speak to a representative, press zero.” “If you need help selecting a product, just ask one of our retail floor Associates.” “To initiate online chat, click here.” “If you’d like to meet with one of our Sales Representatives, enter your email address.”

Still, the critics complain that salespeople often inject themselves into the buying mix. “We don’t need them,” the critics say. “After all, they’re only thinking about their next commission.” I’ll accept the criticism. As my VP of sales fittingly said “any salesperson who doesn’t add value risks being replaced by a kiosk.” But over 10,000,000 “sales and related” US jobs suggests that buyers also need salespeople.

The critics won’t admit it. “Salespeople are unethical.” “Social media changes everything. We get better information through blogs and online product reviews.” “Let me tell you about my last encounter with a salesman . . .” I’ve held these sentiments myself—and I’m a salesman! But much of the enmity is misplaced. Salespeople are not inherently bad. It’s the culture under which salespeople work that needs overhaul. Customer relationship problems start with people at the top of the organization chart, whose faces aren’t often public. Those executives create business plans that contain financial forecasts that are divided into sales quotas that are measured in revenue that are credited against the salesperson’s “individual goal.” Ready to talk about improving the “customer experience?” You’ve heard it before: It’s the system, stupid!

Maybe what’s needed is a redefinition of sales itself. What does sales mean in the context of leading change? After all, isn’t leading change fundamental to every organization’s strategy? Interpretations will be the progenitor of new ways that sellers and buyers connect and relate, new processes, and new best practices.

Perhaps it’s gratuitous for a salesperson to espouse that nothing happens until somebody sells something. But in the non-communist world, I haven’t found a more accurate statement. The sales professional is far from dead.


  1. Andy,

    I too read some of the recent heated discussion about “death of a salesman.” I have a problem with the generalized reference to salespeople. As you mention they have different labels and I would add, function in very different ways. Is the clerk at WalMart the sames as the associate in an Apple Store or an associate at Oracle selling a complex system. Is the person who takes a renewal order the same as someone who consultant and analyzes the situation. I think not. Yet, when we are negative about the sales process, we tend to think of the sleeze used car guy.

    I think we need a taxonomy that defines roles and depth of knowledge. Next we need to articulate how current conditions in each definition are changing. Then we are in a position to talk about what changes are needed. Here’s an example. Many banks have changed the name of people doing sales, that is, having contact with customers with the aim of closing additional business or at least retaining current business. Many are now called “Relationship managers.” Why? Because the bank realize that many customers acquire via tradition sales methods churn when the realize things are not as the thought they would be. After the fact, relationship managers are suppose to “get closer to the customer.”

    As you point out, sales is a big part of the workforce. This topic requires some attention — objective, dispassionate and penetrating.


    John I. Todor, Ph.D.

  2. John,
    Your comments are on the mark.

    Much of the recent debate over the future role of sales people has been flawed and driven in no small part by people from other disciplines taking the opportunity to have a free kick at sales.

    Having been caught up in one of these recent “heated discussions” I made the point that the likes of Axel Schultze (who was pouring gas onto the flames at the time) seem happiest promoting this ideal that we’re all like BB Babowsky and Ernest Tilley from Tin Men. Which is akin to saying all accountants are like Andy Fastow from Enron and therefore all crooks…

    There is no death of a salesman. Period. Some will adapt, some won’t. Just like any other profession or industry.

    I agree with your suggestion that we need a taxonomy. Your next comment got me fired up though. I’ve worked with a number of financial institutions down here in Australia and this idea that everyone in sales should now be called relationship managers is galling and makes me really angry. The reason I’m angry is that I’ve seen it here in Australia and it’s stupid as they’re told to “get closer” to the customer, YET their remuneration system rewards them for pursuing new business. So we say to bank John #1 that his job is relationship manager – go get close to your customers, BUT his remuneration is based on new business – what do we think bank John #1 is going to do?

    Mark Parker
    Smart Selling

  3. Mark,

    I am glad my comment fired you up. What you point out as the disconnect between being told to get closer to customers and yet paid by new business may be true, but who is at fault here? Whoever advised the bank to get closer to their customers only did half of the job. The premise behind getting closer to customers is at least in part to gain greater lifetime value. The failure to align compensation suggest the executives at the top don’t understand this.

    Part of my concern is that consultants and executives are willing to jump on bandwagons without clear aligning all the related actions and reactions.


    John I. Todor, Ph.D.

  4. I while back I changed roles for a while from CRM consultant to Interim Head of CRM for a Bank. From poacher to gamekeeper if you will. It was an eye-opening experience. During my year’s tenure I was subjected to over 100 sales contacts of all kinds, from calls, to emails, to referrals, to you name it.

    I am not averse to listening to salesmen, just to listening to bad ones. Good salesmen know almost as much about my industry as I do, have original ideas to help me solve intractable problems and know how to get solutions up and running in less than 100 days. More than that, they are interested firstly in me, secondly in my problems and thirdly in helping solve them. Bad salesmen on the other hand arean’t interested in my industry, have products to sell and look for easy problems the products might fix and then disappear once the signature is dry on the contract. They are interested in themselves, their commission and that’s about it.

    Are these sales caricatures? Not if my experience as Head of CRM is anything to go by. A good 75% of salesmen I met were simply bad salesmen. I told them to “get lost” in no uncertain terms. I also started a ‘salesmen blacklist’ to warn others about these bad salesmen across the organisation. I heard from a colleague that one bad salesmen almost choked mid-sentence upon being told on the phone that he was blacklisted. We never heard from him again or his company. About 20% of salesmen verged on good, but failed in one way or another, usually in not having done their homework about my problems. Only 5% were good salesmen. I gave all of them a chance to show what they could do though a small trial project. A coupe of them really delivered and were kept on afterwards as part of the extended team. They deserved it.

    Oh and one last thing. I don’t expect salemen to come to me with strategic ideas or to lead change. That is almost laughable. It elevates salesmen to a position they neither deserve nor can fulfill. I have other people to do these things. Salesmen should simply stick to helping me solve intractable problems with their products and services.

    Salesmen will have a bright future if they stick to their knitting and do it exceedingly well.

    Graham Hill
    Customer-driven Innovator
    Follow me on Twitter

  5. Graham,

    I too have seen the world from both perspective. I would not quibble with your ranking of sales people’s acumen. I would add that there is a qualitative difference between the 75% bad and the 5% good. The problem is that most companies have not figure out what the good do, or they have not figured out how to reward it.

    If they 95% stick to the knitting, sales does not have a rosy future. I believe more and more companies and people within them are creating their own forms of black list. This does not bode well for sales people or the companies they represent. Neither does it serve the customers who could potentially benefit from their offerings. Something needs to change.


    John I. Todor, Ph.D.

  6. Hi Andrew

    I do like salesmen. But only the good ones. I am willing to give most salesmen a chance, but I am busy and they have to impress me quickly. Enough for me to give them more time to explain what they do and how it will help me.

    I have worked with some organisations for years on the back of the products, services and experiences orchestrated by great salesmen. And yes, they have helped me solve intractable problems and without having an advanced degree (to be honest I have no idea what qualifications they have, it doesn’t really matter). But, and it is a big one. These type of salesmen are rare in my experience. Most salesmen, the bad ones, are just eager to make the sale and then get on to the next one. I don’t want to deal with these types of salesmen. And I am the customer, so I don’t have to.

    As you rightly point out with respect to President Obama, much of life is about selling. The big difference comes when you have it as a title on your business card. Then I expect you to be a good salesman. Otherwise kindly close the door on the way out, there is a draught blowing.

    Graham Hill
    Customer-driven Innovator
    Follow me on Twitter

  7. Graham: If salespeople and customers had one day a year to walk in each other’s shoes, I think the effort would facilitate a much-needed mutual respect. For salespeople, it would provide an often-missing view of how the world looks from their customer’s eyes. For customers, it would help provide empathy for what a salesperson does every day, when he calls and says “I have an idea that might help you.” If you don’t like salespeople, try imagining a world without them–but be careful what you wish for!

    Your ideal salesperson seems more servile than humble. On the other hand, you need him or her to help to “solve intractable problems.” What skills and education level would this person need to pull that off? Sad to think that for salespeople you believe that strategic thinking and leading change aren’t requisite intellectual skills. I’m not sure why.

    While not all salespeople sell products that change the world, some do. For example, not one day goes by that I don’t read a headline that combines the word sales with promoting legislation for economic stimulus. More than once, my local paper, The Washington Post has given president Barack Obama the title of salesperson in that context.

    The title isn’t pejorative. It’s recognition that leading change requires the noble art of selling.

  8. Andy,

    Great conversation.

    I agree that sales people won’t go away. I do, however, think their role is changing and that’s in large part due to how social media and user-generated content have empowered the buyer.

    Especially when it comes to complex B2B sales, buyers now have so much information at their fingertips they can delay when they engage with sales. They can get the basics online without having to contact sales (either through your company or from others).

    When they do engage with sales, they’re more educated buyers. They know more about your products and your competitors than ever before.

    In many ways sales now has to be more strategic. They’re no longer introducing buyers to products, but instead having to spend more time quantifying benefits and why their product/service is better.

    They have to be more adept at handling objections, because buyers come to the table armed with more info (some of which may be incorrect).

    You mention that maybe what’s in order is a redefinition of sales itself. That, I think, is the key point.

    Sales has to adapt, not go away. Social media won’t replace personal relationships. It may jump start them and extend them, but buyers still want to put a face to the company before they buy.

  9. Like you, I’ve seen my share of really bad salespeople. Of course, I’ve seen some great ones too (you can read about them on CustomerThink!) But bad and good practitioners are common to any profession–sales is no different. When salespeople are consistently bad (or allowed to be consistently bad), I direct my angst more toward the organizations that recruit, hire, train, manage, direct, and compensate them. To me, obnoxious, abrasive, and overbearing salespeople are emblematic of organizations that have equally callous management.

    Why don’t people get incensed at the senior and middle managers in the sales food chain? I don’t have a good answer, but I think it’s because to prospects, salespeople are the most visible perpetrators of toxic organizational cultures.

    Consider the automotive industry and the cliche car salesman, who everyone–myself included–loathes. When auto manufacturers perfected mass production they needed a way to distribute and sell all the cars they were making. So they saturated territories with dealers who had to compete with each other. That wasn’t enough. They also created quotas so that dealers had to accept a specific number of slower-selling vehicles so that they could get a specific number of better-selling vehicles. The result: gross supply chain imbalances, over-competition, predtatory sales tactics–the “perfect storm” for Bad Customer Experience.

    But whose brainchild was all of that stupidity? (Hint: it wasn’t a salesperson.) It was upper management. And middle management. And sales management. And salespeople were–and are–on the front lines, acting as the lightening rods for customer anger for selling in a customer relationship cesspool they didn’t directly create. “Shame on them, too,” you might say. And you’re right. But if we’re going to make progress in redesigning the ways buyers and sellers relate, we must look at the very definition of ‘sales,’ and fix the culture and the ecosystem that supports it. Only then will any of us see the buyer experience improve in a meaningful way.

  10. Lee

    As today is Darwin’s 200th birthday, we are reminded of his saying, “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but those most adaptive to change. How appropriate.

    As you say, the salesman’s job is changing. Not before time. This is partly triggered by the huge amount of information freely available on the Internet. Information really is power in sales negotiations. But I think it is also changing as salesmen recognise belatedly that they have to deliver value to customers and that value delivery generally only STARTS at the sale from the customer’s perspective.

    Customers have a variety of jobs that they want to achieve. They hire products and services to help them get those jobs done. From the salesman’s perspective, some of those jobs take place before the sale and many more afterwards. The salesmen’s job is to get to understand all the customer’s jobs and to work out how he can help the customer deliver them more effectively and get paid for doing so. Selling a product is just one part of a potentially much bigger, much more profitable picture.

    Do you know what jobs your customers needs help with?

    Graham Hill
    Customer-driven Innovator
    Follow me on Twitter

  11. Do Salespeople Bug You? Here’s Why They Won’t Go Away
    I doubt if you have had the experience of some sales representatives who are very sticky. Add to this they will not go away as they have are taught to sell then report home or office. Andrew, it is in the human nature to come out and sell, as this is the livelihoods of the salespersons. They depend on selling.
    I endorse to this. They’re called Associates, Agents, Account Executives, Senior Solutions Marketing Managers, Directors of Product Management, VP Sales, Senior VP Global Sales and Business Development, Chief Marketing Officers, Customer Account Managers. Hence, the problem .After giving them the title you do not expect to usurp this, do you? They want to cling on to this and want to gain the bonus points in each of the corporations they work.
    The critics won’t admit it. “Salespeople are unethical.” Well they are not. Andrew, they have to live too, so why give them the name they do not want to live with. They are the best men I have come across. Tell me. How did Microsoft and others become big? Advertisements and the sales forces. Men. Is that not right?
    I thank you
    Firozali A Mulla MBA PhD
    P.O.Box 6044
    East Africa

  12. In order to make a substantial change regarding the pre conceived notions of a sales person’s integrity / moral fiber; we need to properly evaluate the relationship between the sales person and the role they play within in our society. Cleary every one has there own opinion and they are entitled to that but what deters us from solving this problem is we all have biased perceptions and through our perceptions we make biased judgments. So if you are really serious about solving the issue look at it from other angles or just end capitalism.


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