Friday, July 6, 2012

Nothing But a Bill of Goods

Uhh, that's a rhetorical question, right?
Though the course of my 'professional' career, I have made my living in sales.  It is often said, and not without a thorny core of truth, that sales is what you do when you have nothing in the way of truly marketable skills.  Historically, if you couldn't fix trucks you could drive them, and if you didn't know how to actually DO something, you could try to get people to buy it from those that did.  And that is how I became a salesman.

When I first sought gainful employment, it was understood that, as a young man, I had no skills but muscle, sinew and bone, and that was something that was always in demand.  I ended up taking a job driving a truck for a lumber company in San Rafael, and while I was an essentially unreliable employee due to my irresistible attraction to girls and mind altering substances, I was strong and healthy and by pure genetic accident blessed with a functioning brain.  So I learned how the lumber business worked, thence on to custom millwork and interior finish, and could do blueprint takeoffs, board footage calculations and cumulative pricing figures faster than anybody else in the building.  So soon enough I was elevated to shop foreman, and while this didn't relieve me of my primary purpose - carrying heavy shit from here to there - it gave me regular access to the front office, particularly the sales staff.

And I couldn't help but notice:  They dressed better, drove better cars, ended the day without being filthy or injured and often had long, drunken lunches with another, similar class of mysterious market participants called 'vendors'.  So finally, one day, sitting with the lumber company's owners son - a man who, it must be said, squandered an incredible natural ability to grow amazing marijuana for a stupid 9 to 5 job running the family business - I suggested that I'd like to transfer into a sales position.  Fortunately, he recognized that I had a robust set of natural skills to suit that position, and my ability to carry heavy shit from point A to point B was quite easily replaced, and so I moved up.  This led to an offer from one of our vendors, and from then on I had found my profession in what would eventually come to be called B to B sales.

A few years later I sort of accidentally migrated into the technology realm, particularly into removable data storage products, but the sales process was generally identical to building materials, or just about anything else, for that matter.  In the days before the Internet, it was very difficult for businesses to find vendors outside of those listed in their local yellow pages, so companies paid large numbers of people to call potential customers on the phone and attempt to discern if they would be interested in buying whatever you happened to make or sell.  And, even more interestingly from today's context, people at these companies would TAKE that call, because it was often the only way they could find better, cheaper products and services that they routinely bought as part of their day-to-day job.

From my experience selling removable storage in the eighties, I discovered a nascent opportunity to duplicate that storage media in large volumes for a commercial software industry still in its infancy.  All around the country, a very small number of people recognized this opportunity at about the same time, and a few hundred software duplication companies were born.  I became a thought leader in that community, well known, heavily recruited and often quoted in industry journals (yes, there were software manufacturing trade journals, from the narrowly focused Software Manufacturing News to the broadly available CDROM Professional).  My life was about as good as I could have ever imagined it.  I drove expensive foreign sports cars, drank the best single malt scotch, and still went to work in jeans and a tee shirt.  Of course, in hindsight we can see how this boy-makes-good story ends - high speed Internet becomes the primary way bits are delivered, duplicated media as a concept is relegated to the dustbin of pre-broadband history and, in the matter of a few years of steep decline and desperation, no longer represents a viable business model.

Since that time I have been able to find employment only sporadically, and even at that only due to an obsessive fascination with the nuts and bolts of computers, storage and networking. But the evolution of our society at large, driven by ubiquitous digital communications has had a larger, albeit more subtle, effect on how we sell products and services, in a manner that has permanently altered the landscape for the professional salesman.

There are several facets to this evolution, but perhaps the primary shift underlying the larger evolutionary changes is the reversal of roles.  No longer do people feel the need to have any contact a with a salesman. When they want to buy a particular product or service, they use search engines, social media and online databases to find ALL the vendors, evaluate at the product options, read reviews and white papers and request budgetary pricing.  Quite often they can create a 'short list' without any actual interaction with the vendors at all, and only if the product is complex enough or the expenditure large enough might they at that point call the vendors to request presentations, demos and proposals.  Often, those who deliver such materials are pre-sales and sales engineering, with product marketing and product development people on hand to answer integration and road map question.

But well beyond that, think about how we buy stuff today, and how companies mediate that activity.  At the retail level, we have clerks, and companies have call centers, but only rarely do those roles rise to the level a sales type of interaction.  There are local retailers, and there are websites, and much of our routine requirements can be met by one or the other.  For so-called "Channel Sales", companies have ceased hiring sales pros altogether, and rather started using bean counters to do accurate forecasting and scheduling - there is no "persuasion" in that role, only "management", and while it is a legitimate profession, at this point it is sales in name only.  There are sales executives, enterprise-level people to mediate the interaction between a company and its key customers, but they are almost exclusively lawyers or MBAs, clean shaven, well dressed and intended only to fit smoothly and comfortably in paneled boardrooms and executive suites, providing a negotiating partner, a point of contact and nothing else, again, perhaps a lot of things, but none of them can truly be called sales anymore.

The point is that what we do, and the way we do it have changed, and the overall demand for people to fill the classic role of the sales professional is much, much lower.  We've seen a lot of more obvious carnage to specific industry segments and professions, from paste-up at a Commercial Printer to assembly line welders, but when you think about how many people used to be employed as salesmen and women, the damage in this case is immense, even if it is spread across a broad spectrum of industries and businesses. And of course, it brings us back around to the old saw that people work in sales because they have no real skills.  To the extent that is true it was an incredibly valuable profession for the community, because it allowed those of us in that position to support ourselves despite our dearth of measurable capabilities.  When we look at the state of the American economy today and wonder what the future of "full employment" might look like, how high an unemployment rate will constitute the "new normal", we have to think that, in today's market, there are an awfully lot of people who are simply no longer employable - computers and robots are cheaper and more efficient.  What our government, and our society, will do about that in the next ten or twenty years will tell us a great deal about our genuine levels of compassion and commitment to community - and I am not optimistic.

1 comment:

  1. Made me think of one of the early Michael Moore TV Nation things where he pointed out that most Chief Execs are sales weasels whose real purpose is to pimp the Corporation's stock to analysts rather than run the Corp. somewhere other than the ground.

    Having already phased myself out of the workforce, I know I'll be screwed if the compassion level gets much lower.