Coming To Terms: 21st Century Demands

The popular stereotype of the career salesperson is still shaped by the image of Arthur Miller’s Willy Loman. You remember Willy, the doomed hero of the play Death of a Salesman, whose livelihood seemed to depend, for most of his career, on smiling relentlessly, slapping backs, keeping his shoes shined and striving endlessly to be “well-liked”. Interestingly, Willie Loman never once spoke in Miller’s play of how his customers actually used his product or even what his product was! Who needed information like that? In his prime, Willy could apparently charm customers into submission.

The media’s image of the professional salesperson, by and large, is still that of the fast-talking “company person” who takes over conversations, presents a relentlessly smooth image to prospects and customers, delivers a generally unvarying sales pitch and cheerfully takes down orders. Whether or not this model was appropriate during the 1940s and 1950s, it’s certainly not appropriate today.

There is every indication that today’s highly competitive, technologically driven economy will, in the years to come, leave less and less room for salespeople who have fallen behind the times. Those are salespeople who still follow Willy Loman’s lead by making recommendations before developing any meaningful understanding of what people actually do or what they need.

The successful professional salesperson of the 21st century will look and sound a lot more like a doctor, who diagnosis before he prescribes, than a carnival pitchman who has a good “pitch.” Those salespeople who fail to adopt a consultative, information-centered approach to their work are likely to find their career prospects very dim indeed.

The salespeople who prosper, or survive, in the economy of this new century will assume responsibility for in-depth account development with their prospects and customers. They will focus not on the shallow “numbers-game” of selling that requires little or no interviewing skill, but rather on asking questions and gathering more pertinent facts than the competition about the experience, objectives and history of their prospects and customers.

Regardless of the products or services you hope to sell, if you wish to succeed as a salesperson in the 21st century, you must be sure that your work is geared toward asking the truly thoughtful questions that set the stage for the most appropriate product/service offering. Although such a goal seems to reflect simple common sense, it is ignored by a huge number of salespeople and, indeed, by most of the traditional selling strategies used in formal and informal corporate sales training.