A Sales Literature Review

There’s no shortage of salesmen in literature.  Death of a Salesman and Glengarry, Glen Ross come to mind, as do dozens of movies about Wall Street, and my favorite: Mathilda.

But it’s not just popular fiction and media.  There’s an entire industry of books that tell you how to sell.  At last count, I heard there were 35,000 titles on Amazon (though that number itself has to be regarded as dubious, as it was given in the context of someone trying to sell me something).  So what are all these? And how does anyone think they’re a good idea? Is our endless addiction to self-help trends so reliable that offering another book is good for the bottom line?  Can salespeople really be convinced that the next book will be the one we’ve been waiting for?  That the next claim will be a breakthrough unlike any other?

Any airport bookstore display will show you that sales books are big business.  They might be shelved with other business books (e.g., books on Leadership, Innovation, Organizational Change, Human Resources, etc.), but unlike these other books, books on sales tend to be uniquely one-dimensional.  Almost all of them are written for individual sales reps and promise methods for improving their individual performance (a few of them are written for sales leadership and promise methods for improving team performance).  These books treat sales as an island, disconnected from the rest of the organization that they sell for.  Moreover, because they focus entirely on individual and team performance, they only see a few, limited points of intervention to drive this performance: things like psychology, technique, technology, compensation, territory allotment, or team structure.  Universally, these interventions are limited in their impact because they come out of work that’s limited in its scope.

In fact, while other popular topics of business books have serious analogues in the libraries of business schools, sales doesn’t.  For every airport book on leadership, and every Harvard Business Review monograph on Innovation, there are esteemed professors teaching over-enrolled courses on similar material and publishing the serious work—research, articles and textbooks that the popular titles draw from.  This isn’t true of sales.  There aren’t typically courses on sales in business school; there aren’t textbooks about sales; and the few professors and curricula about sales typically advertise that they learn by doing, not studying.  As one business professor wrote to me, “I don’t have [my students] read anything. I have them sell.”

Perhaps its that sales isn’t just degraded as a profession, but that it’s been degraded as something not worthy (too dirty, tainted, dumb) of sophisticated thought. Could it be that it seems too dirty or tainted?  Or  too manipulative, self-interested, wasteful, profligate, etc. to be reliably engaged with?  Instead, so-called experts deliver sales teams a steady stream of self-help books, based on individual charisma and messianic claims. These are mere band aids on the systemic desperation for real change.

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