The Cyborg Willy Loman

The salesman is one of the most enduring stereotypes in business.  His dress, his personality, even his mindset, are seemingly eternal.  His strengths—superficial likability, power of persuasion, unrelenting energy—and his weaknesses—manipulative, mercenary, ultimately empty—are the stuff of legend.  He comes and goes, does things no one else wants to do, and puts himself out there for our derision and rejection in exchange for economic opportunity.  He’s celebrated or scapegoated, depending on how much money he’s making you, and likely won’t be around to long anyway.  You try not to think about the fact that he’s the face of your company to your customers.

His role seems impervious to this technological advances that have revolutionized almost all aspects of work.  Skype might be his new pay phone; Salesforce, his new rolodex, but he’s still flying the same 737’s that he did in the 70’s.  His price lists are PDF’s and his contracts can be signed virtually, but he still needs to run everything by legal and he still uses a calculator to figure out his commission.  He cuts a figure that is quintessentially human—larger than life when things are good, pathetic when bad.  He’s both cunning and poignant.  While more and more things are bought online, and while his colleagues—the door-to-door salesman, the late night pitchman, the used care dealer — seem like dinosaurs in today’s world, he persists: a fleshy, people-person, unscalable, un-automatable anachronism in our virtual age.  For all the robo-calls and cyber-Mondays, for all the web deals and user reviews, the salesman still populates airport bars and first class upgrades; he still sells what you make and claims that you owe your paycheck to him sticking his neck out, while you sit comfortably behind that desk.

Or so it might seem.  This blog will suggest a different story, one that even its protagonists might not be aware of.  Sometimes the last ones to recognize a change are those most affected by it. Certainly there’s some awareness: in his introduction to The Challenger Sale,  celebrated Spin selling pioneer Neil Rackham posits that technology is transforming sales by transforming the prospect.  The prospect used to be dependent on sales reps for all the information informing their purchasing decision.  Now they have a wealth of information at their fingertips, and sales reps have lost a major advantage they had over their customers.

“Interestingly, there has been a breakthrough development in the other side of the selling interaction.  Purchasing has gone through a major revolution.  From being a dead-end function in the 1980s where those who couldn’t cut it in HR went to die, it has emerged as a vibrant strategic force.  Armed with powerful purchasing methodologies such as supplier segmentation strategies and sophisticated supply chain management models, the rise of the new purchasing has demanded fundamental shifts in sales thinking.” (The Challenger Sale,” in Forward by Neil Rackham, XI)

This, in turn, changes sales.  Mark Roberge, the author of the The Sales Acceleration Formula, writes, “In this new buyer/seller paradigm, salespeople must prove their worth by adding more value to the process…It’s about being a genuine consultant and trusted advisor to potential customers.” But how can someone with so much self-interest in the outcome possibly provide objective advice?  And who ever heard of trusted sales rep?  If the role of sales is part psychologist and coach, part advisor and consultant, then it’s also part mercenary and seducer.

And this is the fundamental paradox: the humanity of the salesperson (their needs and their manipulations; their interpersonal styles and their closing techniques) meets the drive for optimization and rationality, standardization and predictability, of today’s corporate culture.  Fundamentally, sales is both at the heart and the outer edges of any corporation; sales drives both its hard, cold facts of its P & L sheet and the irrational heat it’s relentless drive for profit.  It’s the id of the Cyborg organization, and it’s not going anywhere.

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