Forget the glad-handing stereotypes. What these folks do is

often more complicated than even they realize.

     Oh salesmen and women, can enough be said in praise of you?

You are an elite. To be sure, executives often get paid more, and

the munchkins who make the product deserve a certain respect. But

who sees to it that the foreplay of commerce is finally

consummated, with money changing hands? Salespeople. Who is it,

braver and freer than the typical company apparatchik, who goes

out alone to confront the dark forces of rejection? Salespeople.

Who is it that everyone else in the enterprise depends on

ultimately for the realization of the corporate hopes and dreams?

Yes, salespeople. To mangle a borrowed phrase, salespeople are

where the rubber meets the sky.   

     Unfortunately, the people at the top, immured in the

executive suite and far above the battle, too often forget this.

Ditto for underlings who occasionally rub up against the elite.

Indeed, even sales managers, themselves almost always former

sales representatives, sometimes lose their sense of the majesty

and mystery of it all. Herewith a little remedial instruction on

the nature of the wondrous sales beast and how to get the best

from him or her. 

     Controversy still attends the question of whether

salespeople are set apart by a distinctive psychology. For years

companies have tried to isolate personal characteristics

predictive of a knack for selling. But to no avail, maintains

Richard Berlet of Triad Consultants, a Chicago firm specializing

in sales force compensation: "Most of the evidence indicates

there's no way to screen people to determine who will be

successful." Says Derek A. Newton, a professor at the University

of Virginia's Darden School: "I have spent 700 or 800 days of my

life accompanying sales reps on calls, and about the only

generalization I can make about the good ones is that they have a

desire to sell and quick intelligence." 

     Other experts are less reticent about suggesting a few

traits common to the sales breed. Says Bernard Cullen of Charles

River Consulting, which helps companies with sales training: "In

managing salespeople, the key thing is understanding that they

really value their autonomy and independence." Enough in many

cases to take jobs that can keep them on the road, and away from

family and colleagues, for long periods. On the other hand,

Cullen observes, "they need goals set for them with a maximum of

clarity," goals to measure themselves against in their drive for


     Still other experts point to the considerable

ego strength, or reserves of self-esteem, that the job demands. 

Robert L. Berl, a marketing professor at Memphis State and a former salesman,

testifies: "As a sales rep you get one hell of a lot more noes than

yeses, and you can't take the noes personally." Put all the

traits of a successful salesman together, a wiseacre double-dome type

might argue, and you get a self-starting hard-charging paragon of

a go-getter, almost a mythic American figure, with one perhaps

characteristically American vulnerability: a willingness, indeed

eagerness, to be judged according to a dollar-and-cents standard.

Or maybe on that and his golf score. 

     And what of the salesman's fabled bonhomie, the Willy Lomanesque 

emphasis on the importance of being liked? Wildly overblown the experts 

say, part of a dated stereotype that may have contained some truth 50 

years ago but that bears little resemblance to today's man or woman selling, 

say, computer systems. Argues Cullen: "People who are out there on their 

own, not under the immediate scrutiny of management, have to exert a high 

level of control over themselves. Getting your paperwork done at night 

when you're on the road takes discipline."     

     Too much bonhomie can make for bad sales performance. Cullen

again: "The average salesperson falls down by getting too

involved in the relationship with the customer, so involved he may forget

to close the deal. Or he will end up championing the customer at the

expense of his own company." He might complain, say, that only he

really cares about the client, or make nasty cracks about the

Order Prevention Department.   

     What does work for a salesman is, apparently, extraordinary

adaptability. "The best salesmen are able to deal with lots of

different situations," concludes University of Florida professor

Barton A. Weitz, who has done extensive research on the subject.

Confront them with a hand-buzzer-and-whoopee-cushion purchasing

agent and they will yuk it up. Put them face to face with a dour

CPA type and they will talk the numbers soberly and expertly.

"They are chameleons," says Weitz. Does this make them manipulative, as

some critics charge, always ready to shift masks to gain

advantage? No, Weitz maintains: "They don't do it consciously." 

     To manage sales types, good and bad, you have to be able to

live with paradox. For starters you need to respect their independence, 

trusting them even though they are out of sight, as they

will be most of the time. "If you are a worrywart, you probably

won't find sales management a rewarding job," says professor

Newton. At the same time, you must realize that your reps do

require management, even the best of them. In fact, many hunger

after the right kind. 

     The right kind, in a word, is coaching, a notion that seems

to have been around in sales management for years but only recently

has caught on in the general literature on how bosses should

behave. This does not mean, of course, that sales managers have

actually practiced what was preached to them. No, their most

common mistake, the experts say, continues to be confusing "Let's do it

together" with "Watch my smoke": Sales manager and rep go on one

of the subordinate's calls together. Rep gets into a little trouble.

Instead of letting the tyro make mistakes and helping him learn

from them, the manager, himself probably an ace salesman, steps

in to save the day with his incomparable technique. Sadly, by then

the rep is probably too flustered and abashed to learn anything from

his boss's display. 

     Better for the manager to help plot a strategy for the call

beforehand. He can then go along in a capacity that, in

Anglo-Saxon judicial councils, went by the name oathhelper, that is, a

supporter of what the principal speaker has to say. Afterward the

manager can praise the subordinate for what he did right and

focus on one bit of behavior to be improved. Just one, the experts 

emphasize; the rep will remember little or nothing from a battery of


     Managers, and companies in their sales training programs,

also must be careful not to coach reps to do the wrong thing. Here

much error arises from confusing two richly different phenomena: the

simple sale, which may be completed in one encounter--say, at the

front door or just possibly in a used car lot--and the complex

sale, which entails more than one meeting. Maybe the foremost

expert on the difference between the two is Neil Rackham, an

Englishman who says his Huthwaite research firm in Purcellville,

Virginia, has spent 15 years sitting in on and analyzing 35,000

sales calls. 

     What proves effective in making a simple sale, including

some precepts enshrined in the abundant how-to literature, may spell

death to a complex sale. Take closing, says Rackham, who has done

some 20 separate studies of the art of asking for the order. "If

your people are doing small sales, then teaching them closing

techniques will improve their success rate," he says. "But if you

use the same closing techniques in large sales, it damages your

hit rate." Why? "There are good psychological reasons," says Rackham.

"If you pressure somebody for a small decision, they are likely

to give way. But if you pressure somebody for a large decision, it

creates counterpressure." 

     You will also want to give your reps straight dope on the

company's product strategies, which would seem a no-brainer if it

weren't for all the enterprises that fail to do it. Says Robert Bardagy, 

executive VP for marketing at Comdisco, the big computer-leasing outfit: 

"You have to keep them apprised of the corporate direction. They should 

feel that even though they're not at the central office, they're part of 

the process." It helps, too, if you give the troops some latitude to dicker 

on terms within boundaries set down by the strategy. Consultant Jerome 

Colletti of the Alexander Group maintains, "Salespeople have to be price

negotiators, not just price quoters." 

     And how do you reward them for their efforts? Yes, you can

pay them on a commission-only basis, particularly if you just want

them to ring as many doorbells as possible. But don't expect much

managerial leverage that way. The sales staff will simply sell

the products they have always had the most success with. What they

probably won't do: push new offerings that, while more important

to the company, are harder to sell; spend a lot of time providing

follow-up service to customers; take time to cultivate new prospects. 

If you hope to have some say in what your salespeople do,

you will have to treat them, in this one respect, like other

employees: You will have to pay them a salary, which you then can

supplement with commissions or a bonus. But you must also

continue to lavish attention, praise, and even love on these, the workaday

heroes of capitalism. It's only their due.