Tuesday, March 06, 2012

On selling

"I'm now convinced that the worst thing a man can do with a telephone, without breaking the law, is to call someone he doesn't know and try to sell that person something he doesn't want."
Michael Lewis, Liar's Poker 

What makes "hard work" hard? It may impinge on the spirit (the chip shop operative in urban Britain on a Saturday night), the intellect (the criminal barrister) or the body (the bricklayer).

Working as a salesman, especially if you're temperamentally unsuited to it, is, of course, hard on the spirit. Why? Because your job is bound, by ineluctable certainty, to contain more failure than success: you will only ever convince a minority of your prospects to subject themselves to meeting you. And, in turn, only a minority of those you meet will, "sign on the line which is dotted" (to quote Blake, played brilliantly by Alec Baldwin, in Glengarry Glen Ross).

Of course, underpinning the popular identity of the salesman is this: he is necessary. (To the business in question, if not humanity in its widest sense.) Without the pitch, nothing happens. Some things are sold, some are bought. This distinction was clarified by Seth Godin in January 2012...

Some things are bought -- like bottled water, airplane tickets and chewing gum. The vendor sets up shop and then waits, patiently, for someone to come along and decide to buy. Other things are sold -- like cars, placement of advertising in magazines and life insurance. If no salesperson is present, if no pitch is made, nothing happens. Both are important. Both require a budget and a schedule and a commitment. Confusion sets in when you're not sure if your product or service is bought or sold, or worse, if you are a salesperson just waiting for people to buy.

So, yes, given the nature of the services I was selling, it could be said fairly that were I not present, nothing would have been shipped, as my stuff would never have been merely bought. Was I any good? No, not really. Yes, I can string a solidly cliché-free sentence together, and I suppose this ability, and my sharp eye for grammatical detail in writing those enthralling proposals of mine, helped me hold my own. But I was never part of the 20 who made the 80, because I was poor at unrelentingly producing the level of activity required to excel.

And, frankly, I was too aware of the faint whiff of shame which had attached itself to me. That I was mildly ashamed of what I had to do to succeed at my job -- gently pester people to agree to meet me, then make them listen to a bit of friendly, low-pressure turd-polishing -- meant that I generally approached my clients in a bloodless, studiedly non-salesy and jargon-free manner: "I allowed myself to be talked into meeting this bloody salesman at eleven o'clock this morning," they probably thought to themselves, "but at least the fucker doesn't seem to be a total spiv."

Selling was for me largely about confounding the client's tendency to believe that I was stereotypically pushy and disreputable, much more than it was about my having some sort of carnivorous lust for smashing the month's targets. And there's vanity in that.

Pity my poor managers -- they really would have been much happier with Blake, from Glengarry Glen Ross, or his ilk, running my desk.

As utterly monstrous (yet compelling) a creation as Blake is, there are many truths in his anti-motivational rant, particularly regarding that oh-so-comfortable place where middling or second-rate salesmen love to wallow, where they'll bitch about anything other than their own laziness or timidity as a reason for their poor performance.

The short version: I used to be a salesman and I largely didn't like it; I do something different now, and I like it. This said, I believe that my present contentment is governed as much by the how (self-employment), as it is by the what (practical work).

Yes, I concede to my former managers that I was occasionally a bit sour about being deskbound. Since being released into the wild, I have become much happier.

I hope that they, too, soon cut their ties with salaried life and, as suggested by Matthew Crawford, "reason together to solve some practical problems among themselves." I agree with Crawford that starting a small business, "remains valid, especially if the enterprise provides a good or service with objective standards, as those may serve as the basis for social relations within the enterprise that are nonmanipulative in character ...Such work ties us to the local communities in which we live, and instils the pride that comes from doing work that is genuinely useful."

- - -

I apologise to all for using the non-gender neutral term "salesman" throughout; I simply felt the need to stick to it... I think it's that I was physically unable to use the term (of myself) when I was one, but I now can, now that I'm not one.


Tom Parnell said...

Yes. Presumably you still 'sell' — albeit in a far more organic manner — in your self-employed occupation. But it's entirely palatable to be selling that of which one feels complete ownership, in which one is entirely confident.

It's very acute, I'd say, to identify the vanity aspect. Totally true. Now, of course, the thing you're selling is representative of yourself, so there's not this disjunction, presumably…

Very interesting, as ever, in any case.

Graeme said...

Thanks for stopping by Tom.

Your comment comes at an uncanny juncture -- as I cycled in the sun to college this morning (I study electrics two days a week), I was thinking about this post, and connecting it to a very wise email I received some years ago from a good man who had interviewed me for a job. He liked me, but he couldn't shake the sense that if I came to work for him (in a sales job) I would feel the very disjunction you refer to.

Here was what I thought, this morning: being able to sell -- in the simplest and broadest sense of communicating clearly, engagingly and attractively, in humane and appealing language, and not in the narrow sense of benignly manipulating a client to sign on the line which is dotted -- is a fine ability to have. That I can speak and write well to the clients of my own business is a good thing.

So, yes, your insight is bang-on: the quietly organic, credibility-establishing selling I now do means that -- very happily -- I no longer feel the disjunction I once did...