How did we get salesmen knocking on our doors? Birth of the mighty idea..

Harvard Business School’s Walter A. Friedman has written this interesting book – Birth of a Salesman. In business, nothing else matters. You may have the ‘t best product but till you can’t sell it, it is all nought. Most corp leaders of yesteryears who shaped iconic firms  were all sales people par excellence.

Here is an interview of the Prof. He says Salesman is a quintessential American contribution:

Laura Linard: In the introduction to Birth of a Salesman, you write: “The development of modern sales management is an uniquely American story.” Why do you think this is?

Walter Friedman: In the early nineteenth century, many nations, certainly all the European ones, had traveling peddlers and peddling networks. But no nation developed organized sales forces to the same degree as the United States by the early twentieth century.

There were many reasons for this: The emergence of salesmanship in the U.S. depended on a stable currency, the rule of law, the protection of private property, and the availability of credit. These were all aspects of the American economic system. But what made the U.S. unique was the scale of American firms that were founded in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These massive manufacturing concerns, which produced tremendous numbers of business machines, appliances, and cars, hired salesmen in the hundreds in some cases, and even thousands in others, to create demand for their products. These goods, all pushed by aggressive salesmanship, distinguished the American economy by their early appearance and widespread purchase. British industry, which produced on a smaller scale, and German manufacturers, which were rooted in craftwork traditions, seldom exhibited a similar interest in mass selling campaigns.

Salesmanship flourished in America for cultural reasons as well. In a country that, from the outset, held democratic elections and had no established church or hereditary aristocracy, salesmanship provided political and religious groups with a way to compete against their rivals for followers. Moreover, with more fluid class boundaries than in European countries, the skills of salesmanship, especially beginning in the late nineteenth century, offered a pathway to personal success. By the early twentieth century, Americans read how-to-sell books and turned Bruce Barton’s The Man Nobody Knows (1925), which portrayed Jesus Christ as a successful sales and advertising executive, into a bestseller. Books on salesmanship skills still sell well today. Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, published originally in 1937, remains one of the most popular and draws in part on lessons the author learned working as a salesman for Armour.

Q: You trace the world of selling in America and the salesman from the eighteenth century peddler to the present day. What do you consider the most significant time period in terms of transforming sales and American business?

A: The birth of modern salesmanship occurred in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries with the rise of large mass manufacturing firms. National Cash Register, Eastman Kodak, Coca-Cola, Westinghouse Electric, and Carnegie Steel were all founded in the 1880s; in the following decade came Wrigley’s Chewing Gum, General Electric, Burroughs, and Pepsico. These companies developed modern sales techniques, created procedures for management that paralleled those of the new science of mass production.

For the average salesman, used to traveling more or less on his own (and at that time, almost all were male), this meant a number of changes. Now his routes were planned, his customers evaluated before his departure, and he recorded his every move in sales reports and receipts. Sales managers at large corporations assigned salesmen specific territories and gave them monthly or weekly quotas to meet. They aimed to make salesmanship uniform and predictable, and capable of being taught to new recruits. They often even instructed salesmen how to stand while talking with a customer, or how to hand over the pen at “closing.”

The revolution in selling had consequences beyond individual firms. The growth of systematic methods of sales management gave rise to a number of products and services that supported sales managers, including trade journals and popular magazines about salesmen and sales management. The creation of methods of sales management also opened up new branches of academic inquiry, such as marketing, consumer behavior, and industrial psychology. (HBS was a leader in this: In 1913, Harvard’s Bureau of Business Research published its first bulletin, which concentrated on the selling of shoes.)

By the 1920s, sales management had “arrived.” American businesses recognized salesmanship as an essential component of modern strategy. Indicative of the rising importance of selling within corporations was the fact that something like one-quarter of the chief executives of the top 200 industrial firms in 1917 had spent part, or all, of their career in selling. Arthur Vining Davis, who had figured out a way to sell aluminum to consumers in the form of pots and pans and numerous other items, became chairman of Alcoa. Edward Prizer, who became president of Vacuum Oil in 1918, made his reputation by organizing the firm’s domestic and foreign sales operations. Clarence Mott Woolley, president of the American Radiator Company from 1902 to 1924, had similarly made his mark in sales.


In recent times, being a sales person is seen as a negative thing. Advertising/branding  is this cool thing but not sales. The author says sales people are the foot soldiers.

The entrepreneurs who built large mass manufacturing businesses usually relied on both selling and advertising. But the salesman’s role in promoting goods was different from that of advertising. To use a military analogy common in the early twentieth century, advertising was a weapon for waging an air war, while salesmen were deployed as foot soldiers in a ground campaign.

Sales workers performed a range of different tasks: explaining and servicing products, collecting information, and pressuring people to make purchases by overcoming resistance. Salesmen learned to answer specific questions about a product and its application, and to grant credit to buyers and make arrangements for delivery. The industries that traditionally invested heavily in salesmen—insurance, automobiles, office machines, branded foods, and pharmaceuticals—did so because they believed salesmen were effective and persuasive in creating demand.

Salesmen pushed customers to buy products or services that they might not have otherwise purchased. They were particularly good at introducing new products to customers. For instance, the cost of selling the first electric refrigerators in the early twentieth century was very high as salesmen worked to convince homeowners of the value of the new machine over the traditional delivery of ice. After the demand for refrigerators was established, manufacturers concentrated on advertising, on differentiating their product from other makes, and on price competition.

Salesmen also persuaded customers to buy their company’s product rather than a competitor’s, championing an Electrolux vacuum cleaner rather than a Hoover, for instance. Salesmen could be effective in this regard, pointing out marginal differences between one product and another. If two cars or two refrigerators were similar in performance and design, salesmen might be able to sway the customer toward one brand or another. This was not a trivial accomplishment. The consequence of this type of marginal ability to influence consumers could be great. Once “prospects” purchased one company’s product over another’s, they became customers of that company and were targeted for follow-up calls or for more promotional material. They also became familiar with the product and were likely, unless disappointed with it, to continue to purchase from the company again, as this was less risky than trying something new.

Fascinating reading. I mean we just take so many of these things for granted..


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