Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Death of a Salesman 2.0

I came across some interesting questions that are contained in a Teacher’s Guide to the Penguin Edition of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman - that timeless portrayal of the common man as a tragic figure. The questions that the teachers are encouraged to ask of their students before they begin studying the play are:
  • What is your definition of salesman?
  • How is a salesman different from someone in another occupation?
  • What attitudes do you think a salesman should have to be successful?
  • What attitudes would hinder him?

Interesting questions to which the answers would probably not have differed much were they asked in 1949 when the play debuted or in any subsequent decade up to quite recently. Of course the role has evolved during that time and different approaches and styles have drifted in and out of vogue but what has remained constant is the almost singular nature of the job. The salesperson (not the anachronistic “salesman” as referenced in the question) has always stood proudly on the frontier, eagerly pushing forward with a pioneering spirit, with a preference for working alone and a healthy disdain for bureaucracies or the latest fads that “get in the way” of closing the deal. (Willy Loman, the play’s central figure, would certainly have seen himself like this in the early part of his career).

 But now as I reflect on the questions I can’t help feeling that they very neatly and very obviously go straight to the core of the challenges that face sellers in a Sales 2.0, Web 2.0, who-knows-what-else 2.0 world that we find ourselves thrust into. For example in my post on sales and marketing integration I talked about the blurring of lines and how traditional roles were morphing and the implications for the salesperson of the future as a result. If a salesperson needs to develop some online research skills, multi-modal communication skills, targeted marketing skills, and service-oriented skills in order to be able to get to a prospect, close a deal and retain the business then their role is no longer so singular in nature.

 And while we have all likely lamented in similar fashion to the play’s central character Willy when he despairs "After all the highways, and the trains, and the appointments, and the years, you end up worth more dead than alive." (Probably when we have just lost a deal, our flight has been cancelled and we are stuck in the only corner of O’Hare that has nowhere to eat), this is in fact a very exciting time to be in sales and business in general as we begin to engineer probably the biggest paradigm shift of recent history.

But for now – let me turn those questions over to you – how would answer them?


  1. Hi John,
    Based on my frame of reference we all are salesmen at some point, we are selling our ideas, image, position, habilities, etc all the time. Most people do not realize it.

    What is your definition of salesman? from the business stand point, a salesman these days in the new normal is somebody that will resolve other people's problems.
    How is a salesman different from someone in another occupation? Based on my top comment, we all need to bring value to our relationships (employee, parent, friend, spouse, etc).
    What attitudes do you think a salesman should have to be successful? The sky is the limit, positive mind-frame, forward-thinking, building relationships, most importantly empathy to understand always from the other person's perspective and servanthood, a leader is servant of people.
    What attitudes would hinder him? Ego will break our relationships, not being aware that we ALL are salesmen(women), we all are selling outselves (our ideas, image, etc) all the time.

  2. Excellent points, Juan - indeed your comment about ego is particularly relevant. If we are too focused on ourselves as a salesperson it takes away from our ability to empathize and put ourselves in the shoes of the prospective buyer.