Salesmen are rarely heroic figures in American culture. They're often shown as slick, unscrupulous charlatans like Ricky Roma in David Mamet's play Glengarry Glen Ross. And then there are sad, defeated characters like Willy Loman in Death Of A Salesman, who shortly before taking his life says, "After all the highways, and the trains, and the appointments, and the years, you end up worth more dead than alive."
Yet sales drive the economy. The cleverest invention or product will disappear — creating no income, no employment — unless someone can sell it.
Philip Delves Broughton was a world-roving reporter for The Daily Telegraph of London. But Broughton left journalism for Harvard Business School, where he observed that most M.B.A. programs teach nothing about sales.
Intrigued by the difficulty of selling, Broughton embarked on a journey to discover the methods used by sales gurus. He chronicles the encounters in his new book, The Art Of The Sale: Learning From The Masters About The Business Of Life.
Broughton explains that successful salespeople exude tenacity even in a challenging situation. "The idea is that in a flat, very democratic society, if you can sell, [and] you can persuade others of your ability, you can essentially rise up," he tells NPR's Scott Simon.
On the perceptions of salespeople
"You look at the entrepreneurial heroes — the Donald Trumps or the Steve Jobs — they're all great salesmen in their way and they are difficult and contradictory characters but what really marks them out is their ability to persuade us that whatever they have is worth buying so it's both heroic and oppressing. And again, that's what really drew me in — this story of capitalism — the Willy Loman, the defeated man who has become nothing but a tool of the economy. On the other hand, if you can sell you can really triumph in this essentially flat and democratic society."
On the similarities between baseball and sales
"It's a career where you're rejected many, many more times than you are accepted. And a lot of the really good salesmen thrive on that — knowing that at some point there will be a triumph and that triumph is going to be what validates everything they do.
"Like baseball players, hitting .300 would be tremendous in sales. Hitting 1 out of 100 is tremendous in many types of sales. So to really succeed at it, you have to understand the odds, you have to understand that you're going to be told 'no' more than 'yes' and that's very, very hard. That's psychologically hard. It's one of the things that drew me in. Business can often seem sterile about numbers, about spreadsheets, about strategic reports, but sales makes it really human. It cuts to the heart of who we are, what we're willing to do to make a buck, the masks we're willing to adopt and our ability to persuade. One salesman told me that sales is the greatest laboratory there is for studying human nature, and I completely agree. And that's the antithesis of much of what we think about business."
On the personalities Broughton met
"So I start in a Moroccan souk with a rug seller named Majid El Fenni, who started out selling sheepskin jackets to hippies in the '60s and is now one of the great purveyors of Moroccan carpets, rugs, tiles to hotels, movie stars and rock stars all over the world. I went to Japan, I met a life insurance saleswoman named Mrs. Shibata who's the top saleswoman at Dai-ichi Life, which is one of the great life insurance companies. I met a guy named Guillermo Ramirez — known as Memo — who's a Mexican contractor in Baltimore, who arrived in the United States when he was 19 and now runs a very thriving contracting business in Baltimore. A terrific reader of people, a great enthusiast and a great reader of people."
On playing the sales game
"I'm much more sympathetic to salespeople. A lot of salespeople I met said they are terrible buyers, and I think I may be falling into that trap. When you start to see salespeople coming out at you, you know what they are up to. They know what you are up to.
"You see very, very bad behavior in sales but I think the more you learn about it, the more you can see it as this advanced human game."