Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Always Be Closing: Sales Culture

The comedy film 100 Mile Rule (2002, Velocity, dir. Brent Huff) inundated the sales reps at their rah-rah gatherings with the mantra, “Always Be Closing.” There is something about aggressive sales culture that serves itself. The “rule” refers to how sales reps behave with respect to their wives when they are more than 100 miles from home, and that gets beyond the point of this post. I actually review this film (as a similar one, Diamond Men, here).

After spending the last twelve years of my career in life insurance and annuities in information technology, and then “retiring”, the question comes up: isn’t it a natural to want to sell this and make a living off of commissions (especially renewal commissions)? If the last twelve years of career meant something, wouldn’t this be the case?

This is no idle question. I did collect unemployment in Minnesota for a time, and the issue could have come up as a legitimate work-fit requirement. On at least two occasions, I was approached with this possibility. One of the presentations happened in Minnesota in 2003, with a company expanding offices and specifically trying to induce families to convert whole life policies to term, which the presenter claimed was a “$40 trillion” market. When I asked some gentle questions toward the end of the half hour (nothing really edgy) he became defensive. I was a little put off by his spiel, “We give you the words.” He even said that actresses were thankful to screenwriters for “giving them the words.” Now, I wonder, why am I the person to go out and manipulate others with someone else’s words, when I could write the words myself.

The second was a series of interviews in Virginia in 2005 to become an insurance agent/financial planner for another major life company. This company offered generous benefits and training programs, but had a strict rule of “no outside income” for the first three years while the training bonus was in effect. This was explained as a post-Enron legal requirement of Sarbannes-Oxley. (That would have shut down this blog, and a lot else; I think pensions from previous job were allowed). The company would have required a “fast start” and the quick development of a list of 200 potential contacts. I don’t do things that way. People can do much more for themselves today in the financial products purchase arena over the Internet. I do agree that in some communities, a general agent still performs an important community function, such as pulling it together in hard times (as on the Gulf Coast) but I don’t have the right protective temperament for that.

The same question could be posed regarding selling software. There might have been non-compete issues that could have cut off some of this. I take up a discussion by Bob Weinstein (“Can Techies Sell?”) at this blog entry.

Weinstein talks about the schmoozing and buttering up that goes on with this kind of life, which is obviously not for me.

So far, I have focused on a certain monolithic idea about sales. It has long been considered a career on its own, with people who say that sell anything to anyone. It has been perceived as an exercise in masculine polarity manipulation. Technical people look askance on this, as if it were a refuge for people not smart enough technically. Many people justify their sense of professionalism in sales for its own sake, as connected to their competitive ability to provide for their families. As far back as the early 70s, people would joint Amway or similar multi-level marketing companies as distributors, to provide extra "cushions" for their biological families. I cannot carry out that kind of a motive with integrity.

I did, however, venture into sales as interim jobs. From April 2002 to June 2003 I worked in a phone bank calling donors of a major symphony orchestra to support their educational programs. This was considered non-profit. The work was totally manual, without computers. Renewal gifts (even second-asks) were usually relatively easy to get if you could reach the people, and “blue money on credit” (new money) was a priority, especially in the fall, early in the orchestra season. This was not as difficult was it would sound, although other people who worked there said that 9/11 and the economic tailspin had made earning enough commission difficult. (I could make about $700 a month part-time, “not too shabby” for softening the landing of semi-forced retirement from corporate downsizing). There was negative talk, though; this was a phone bank, and working for a phone bank was seen as a job for people for whom “this was the only job they could get.” And we all know that telephone sales has come under fire with the crackdown on telemarketing, with the result that it does not sound like a reputable way to make a living to many people, since it seems predicated on annoying or disrupting people with unsolicited phone calls. But that again is a cultural change in a more individualistic society.

When I returned to the DC area, I worked for a while selling symphony subscriptions by phone. This was very difficult unless you reached a previous subscriber, because of the all-or-nothing aspect of the sale, and it was increasingly difficult to convince people to buy. (Hence, "Always Be Closing!") The talk was always about “overcoming objections.” This was run by an outside arts marketing company, which sent a young sales consultant to help the sellers. The consultant had been a music major, and I thought is was an odd outcome to see an artist with a career in sales.

Which brings me full circle in this conversation about salesmanship. All work is in a sense self-selling, as are all job interviews. But there is a difference between making a liking selling something you developed or have some legitimate relationship to, and sales for sales sake. Even in the insurance area, I can see sales in areas like long-term care or the proper use of credit reports and CLUE reports in property or auto insurance. When I was working for the orchestras, I thought there could develop some synergy with my youth background in piano. That seemed legitimate.

Of course, customer service is itself viewed as part of salesmanship. But that is simply a matter of doing a job for a customer one has already been paid to do. Yet companies build teamwork exercises around customer service as if it provided some kind of epiphany.

What could I sell now? Besides my books and movie scripts, I can see participation in selling other film or book properties that are similar in spirit to what I would create myself. I can see selling software products or techniques that address reconciliation of critical interests like free speech and protection of minors, or that protect speakers from other liability risks. Those examples make sense. What does not, however, is a culture of peddling and hucksterism.

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