A History of Sales

October 1, 2015
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I’m giving a presentation at WordCamp next weekend on establishing a sales process. The WordCamps that I’ve been to are heavily focused on developers and freelancers. So, I asked myself, where does a presentation about sales fit in to this event? My talk is geared towards several different types of people, either for a 100-person agency that has a dedicated sales team, a 10-person company that has one salesperson, but I really want to focus on freelancers who don’t have an established sales process to their business. So, I’ve been reading a lot about the history of sales and I’ve found some pretty interesting things. I’ll share it with you.

Before I begin I would like to say that I believe sales to be a noble profession. There is such a stigma associated with sales and I’m pretty sure being a car salesman classifies you as the least trusted professional out there, Congressmen rank a close second! But sales is the 2nd oldest profession in the world, next to the oldest profession in the world as the adage goes. Go ahead – google “the oldest profession”, but I would argue that there is an element of sales to “the oldest profession”, so sales is technically the oldest profession!

As time has progressed, the industry that changes the most is sales. Sales needs to adapt not only to the market, but the buyer as well. It’s a delicate feat to sell things. I don’t care what it is – cars, commodities, services, solutions, warranties, carbon fiber, umbrellas, whatever – it takes skill to continually do it well. There are so many moving parts to sales. There’s the market, this fluctuates quite regularly depending on what industry you’re in. There are the buyers, consumers, prospects – and they all have different personalities, different thresholds, different emotional triggers. Then there’s the company you work for – this fluctuates – new people come aboard, new features get added to your product or service. And then there’s you – the salesperson – who holds all that together, and still manages to close business month after month. Kudos!

So let’s look at the history of sales:

Big Bang Burst

The Beginning of Time

At the beginning of time, there was the bartering system. You give me three cows and I’ll let you harvest an acre of my corn field – fair deal? Maybe. Maybe not. There has been some form of selling since the birth of mankind because the human instincts of wanting and needing have always been around. I doubt whoever made that first transaction of the acre of corn and those three cows knew they were making the first sales deal, but it created a system for improvement.

Before the Common Era:

Roman CoinWe fast forward all these years later to right around BC(E) and money was born. Now money was really born well before this, I think somewhere around Mesopotamia and coinage had been introduced by the Greeks. But the Roman Empire and Roman currency, which consisted of gold, silver, bronze, and copper had their own system and it was quite sophisticated. They started minting coins and used it as a way to keep track of debts and sell items worth value. I don’t want to take any credit away from the Aztecs, the Egyptians, the Celts, the Chinese, and so on. The point that I want to make is that the invention and implementation of money developed the bartering system into markets and helped initialize sales.

The Industrial Revolution

Centuries later we move into the 1700’s and 1800’s, the Industrial Revolution is in full swing. This ushered in what we know today as the “modern day salesman” – the traveling salesmen (a.k.a. the snake-oil salesmen). Now for those of you who do not know what snake oil is, well, it’s the cure-all potion that turned you into a new person. Snake-oil started being used by the railroad workers who would lay track all across the country. Their bodies would hurt, their muscles were sore, and their bones would ache – so, they
Snake-Oilneeded something to cure that pain. In comes snake-oil and the traveling or exaggerated salesmen. They were showmen, they made big, exaggerated claims, sold the snake-oil elixir, then would high-tail it outta town and move on to the next one.

To give you a little background on snake-oil, originally it had rattlesnake venom in it that would numb a worker’s body when he rubbed it on himself and claim to calm their pain. At that time, snake-oil soon became synonymous with miraculous healing powers, even though, often times the ingredients weren’t made public. Due to rival salesmen in the medicine profession there was a huge push to uncover the ingredients and a century later snake-oil became synonymous with hoaxes. And the snake-oil salesman was the equivalent to a charlatan, a hack, a fraud, etc.

But there were other salesman of this time period and they sold everything. The Industrial Revolution was a time of growth. Products were mass produced and manufactured – textiles, clothing, etc., and all these things didn’t sell themselves.

Time for tactics and techniques

How to Win Friends and Influence People – this book written in 1936 by Dale Carnegie was the first of its kind. It’s a self help book but naturally, salespeople gravitated towards it. It really started the techniques of selling – how to connect with people, how to persuade people, how to influence people. It talked about how to get people excited about things and have a winning attitude towards life and your job. And… it was all in lists – 12 ways for this, or 6 ways to do that. A great, easy read and most of what Carnegie writes is still quite relevant today.

But this sparked a movement in sales, you could actively use and improve your techniques to get people to buy your products or services. You, as a salesperson, could control the outcome of a consumer transaction by implementing psychological tactics. It wasn’t rocket science, but it was still pretty genius!

The Fast-Talking Salesman:

(hello, Kirby vacuum cleaners)
KirbyVacuumAlso known as the Kirby Vacuum cleaner salesman, they were introduced in the 1940’s and 1950’s. These were the gentleman salesmen who would go door-to-door and invite themselves into the homes of housewives and put on a presentation of the benefits of their product. This really is the dawn of the retail age. And at this point in the sales industry, the seller held all the information. The consumer was only told what the seller wanted them to know. So, the seller could say whatever they wanted. If a consumer asked a question, the salesmen could lie or not tell the entire truth. It made for a one way street where salespeople held power over their customers and if a consumer was remotely interested in a product (such as a Kirby vacuum) the only information they could get on it was right from the salesman’s mouth.

This didn’t last very long because consumers got wise to the information exchange and their reactions to “The Fast-Talking Salesmen” changed (yet again) the face of the selling world.

The 1960’s

This was a time of cultural divide, opposition was growing for the war in Vietnam, racial tensions were stirring, class issues were
Peace Symbolstarting to get noticed, and great music was born! But, selling was also taking a drastic turn. Instead of the salesman having all the information, we started to see this shift from “ask me a question and I’ll give you the answer” to “here’s some information, let’s figure out what you need” – and in comes Strategy Selling in the 1970’s – a salesman was trained to do an effective analysis of their consumers’ business or company and would make the consumer more a part of the process of selling, so the consumer would feel like they were making a sound decision with the help of their salesperson who knew about their business.

We see SPIN Selling – Situation, Problem, Implication, Need, then payoff! Or Consultative Selling in the 1980’s which was really about asking as many questions as you could (being a salesman), this would build rapport and uncover the true meaning of the consumer’s inquiry into your business (be it product or service). SPIN selling is an interesting methodology. Situation – understand the facts about the customer’s situation. Problem – focus the buyer on his actual, current problem. What is it now that we need to solve? Implication – discuss the implications of a). what happens if the customer stays with their current service or product, and b). what happens when they switch to your product or service. Then finally, Need – you want the customer to tell you about their needs, having them articulate their need is better than you articulating it for them! Remember that – people buy when you ask questions that get them to uncover their own needs, people resist when you tell them what they need. The 1980’s was when Glengarry Glen Ross (the play) came out and Always Be Closing started gaining popularity moving into the 1990’s. This is when we see a shift from uncovering the problems of the customer to being a well-liked salesman by building trust through connection, relationships, and your willingness to provide the right solution.

The 1990’s

In comes Solution Selling – the salesperson focuses on the consumer’s pain and addresses that particular pain point. But there is a huge element of connection with salespeople. They want to know about their consumers’ lives, they ask about their kids’ little league games, they ask about the extended family. Solution selling was about the solution, but it was also about the relationship. People do business with people they like – bottom line – still holds true to this very day! But the 1990’s brought with it the confident salesman, the detail-oriented salesman, the salesman that would build strong relationships with the buyers to encourage them to commit to buying, but also working with them side by side to understand all facets of the solutions and which one would be the most appropriate fit. The economy grew in the 90’s and it was a good decade for salesmen!!

GordonGekko

Gordon Gekko – the ultimate solution seller (not really!)

The information age totally rocked the selling world:

And then the internet came and took with it the old school salesmen of the last 3 decades and a new breed of seller was born. This new breed of salesmen had their own way of doing things, it was all about acknowledgement and understanding that the buyer already had the information. Salesmen had to adapt literally overnight. I mean, if you think about, you can walk into a dealership tomorrow and say “Hey, that Hyundai Accent on the lot, well, I want for $12,000 because it says right here (holding up your smartphone) that I can get it for this price.” – Rock the boat a little more why don’t you. This is when I got into sales, we were right on that cusp of “old way” tactics to developing pitches and strategies that would let our customers see we were all about diagnosing the problem and working with them before any contracts were signed. Salesmen had to give up more of their commission because they spent more time in the life cycle of the sale.

Now, a great deal of effort goes into selling complex, big-dollar, high-stakes sales. That’s just the way it goes. In order for companies to compete in this landscape, they have to forfeit more time in the beginning to nurturing the relationship, diagnosing the problem (and essentially bringing more employees to the table) with their buyers, and having some type of deliverable before any contracts are signed.

But that’s how people win these days. They give something for nothing. Salesmen are generous and authentic. There’s a stigma because we still see cold calling, knocking on people’s doors, email blasts, Linkedin inmail messages piling up, solution after solution coming out, cloud-based SaaS products that people need (or don’t). But the bottom line is, in order to be a salesman in this game, you actually have to want to help people. The sales guys who are super slick are laughed out of the room these days. No one buys anymore from a pushy car salesmen, I wouldn’t. But I would buy from someone like me. I’m invested in getting people the right solution, even if that means it’s not from my company.

The face of the selling world has taken on many different looks over the years, and I guarantee that it will continue to evolve and change. I see the sales industry going in one of two directions. 1). Sales people will become more commoditized, and they’ll be ranked by number. The great sales people will be getting offered large salaries to come to work for the buyers of the industries to help vet other salesmen trying to sell them something. Or 2). The effort salespeople put in will continue to increase, the demands of the buyers will increase, and the information out there will increase, therefore turning the decision-making process into a lengthier lifecycle. Because either way, the market and the buyers now own the selling world. Information is there, people just need to take the time to sift through it. But great salesmen are like chameleons, they improvise and overcome, and trust me when I say – the last man standing on this earth will be a salesman!!

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