Arthur Miller’s 1949 play, Death of a Salesman, features as its protagonist Willy Loman, a mediocre businessman and downtrodden soul. He’s also —spoiler alert!— the titular dead man, whose story is used to explore the social, political and moral facets of the American dream.
This leaves little space for a view into Willy’s work as a salesman (or even what he sells), yet despite the lack of a scene on key account planning or SWOT analysis, there are sales lessons to be learned from Death of a Salesman. Namely, that Willy’s death is not the tragic part of this story. Instead, it’s the fact that Willy’s misplaced energies are the same as those of salespeople today.
The first area where Willy and many other sellers go wrong is a focus on relationships. Throughout the play, Willy wants, beyond anything, not to be just liked, but to be well-liked and he obsesses over whether others — his neighbor, his brother, his employer, his sons and more, are liked too. “Be liked,” he says “and you will never want.”
The second issue is the viewpoint that sales is a “me vs. them” endeavor. At Willy’s funeral, his son Happy vows to ‘avenge’ his father’s death, using phrases like “he fought it out here,” “beat this racket” and “I’m gonna win it for him”.
Oddly enough, these two points of misguided energy are completely contradictory – how often do you say ‘Gee, I hope they like me’ followed quickly by ‘I’ll grind them down until they cave’?
Since Willy’s time, the real world of sales has made incredible advances in the way we do business—with leaps from telegraphs to texts, snail-mail to smartphones and filing cabinets to cloud computing. Yet most salespeople retain a focus on one, or more often, both of these misplaced energies.
Let’s take being well liked. It’s a human desire – natural and not uncommon, especially among sellers. In fact, when given a list of qualities important to being ‘good’ at sales, most people select relationships. Finding an ‘in’ with the customer makes us feel invincible and, with employers devoting entire budgets to entertainment, it’s hard to train our focus beyond the shiny object of ‘connection’. But if we put ourselves in our customers’ shoes, it’s easy to see that they don’t wake up every morning with the chief hope of meeting a friendly new vendor. They aren’t compensated or evaluated on making friends. Instead, they desperately want to encounter a vendor who can provide some real value. Concert tickets, sports talk and fancy dinners are nice but when a client finds themselves in a tough spot (or perhaps a performance review) the fun times don’t hold up to product quality, service dependability, market insight, or even creativity.
We must realize that relationships are simply a tool, not the end goal. This tool facilitates candid conversations, gives sellers grace when they slip up, and offers the opportunity for expanded business from other divisions or company budget holders.
Next, that adversarial lens: Beat. Fight. Win. Not on the battlefield or in a sports arena, but in business. Why aren’t these words more shocking in the context of sales? They suggest that the entire endeavor is about being aggressive, taking no prisoners and doing ‘whatever it takes’.
It’s true that Sales isn’t an easy profession. To raise optimism and spirits, salespeople are fed fiery, red-blooded advice like:
“Don’t take no for an answer.”
“A no is one step closer to a yes.”
“Our greatest weakness lies in giving up”
Are these hyper-aggressive tropes the best we can do? Are they even relevant to the buying process today?
Absolutely not! A customer doesn’t want to be worn-down and tackled into a buying decision and with this method you’re certainly not improving that ‘well liked’ quality Willy was going for either. For most of us, our customer interactions are not going to be one-time, all-or-nothing encounters, but a series of more nuanced and complex interactions that merit a very different approach.
So, if being ‘well liked’ is not the right tactic, and if ‘win at all costs’ isn’t either, what then? The answer might lie with Willy – our downtrodden salesman who, toward the end of his life started thinking about gardening.
“I’ve got to get some seeds, right away. Nothing’s planted. I don’t have a thing in the ground.”
Willy finally realized that you must sow in order to reap – it’s about action and reflection. In order to shift to a more successful mindset, in order to grow, we need to understand what our customers want, take that seed of knowledge and:
Sow deliberately: Dedicate time for prospecting and meeting preparation.
Water frequently: Keep a healthy cadence of communication touchpoints.
Fertilize: Deliver real value to the customer in a variety of forms (insight, dependability and more).
Watch the weather: Know the market conditions, your customer’s challenges and the right conditions for your customers to buy.
Keep an eye out for pests, weeds and new varieties: Be curious and interested. What’s changing in the customer’s business? What haven’t you seen before? How can you get creative? How can you learn something new?
Make the garden perennial: The work with your customer doesn’t end when they sign on the dotted line.
There’s always another growing season: A “no” can’t be badgered into a “yes,” but a fresh start in the future is always a possibility.