Death (and Rebirth) of a Salesman

Arthur Miller’s 1949 play, “Death of a Salesman” deals with the demise of Willy Loman, an American salesman, who finds his professional and personal life simultaneously degenerating. The play could almost be symbolic for the treatment of the subject as an academic discipline over the past last half century. Business schools hate the word “sales”. We love “marketing” and “finance” and “strategy”, but the word “sales” with its second-hand car salesman connotation, is distinctly unwelcome in the classroom.

There are approximately 12,000-15,000 business schools in the world today and they are surprisingly quiet on the subject. Sales courses are conspicuous through its absence in modern business schools. When they are offered, it is seen as something that is done because the student is unable to compose intellectual strategic development plans or marketing campaigns.

Europe, with its aristocratic past, has always had a problem with business transaction. Clean money was inherited from one generation to another. Dirty money came from commercial transactions. The cotton mill barons of 19th Century England were openly despised by the landed gentry. However, this would even seem to have spread to the USA. Not one of the top 10 US business schools today offer a sales course on their standard MBA.

Last week I was talking to a student about his future career. He was thinking about going into sales within the insurance and banking industry, but what seemed to bother him most was the idea that he wouldn’t be doing a job that would be deemed beneath him. To others he would be (and forgive the pun) “selling out”.

I have often joked with students that business is about buying on the one side, selling on the other and a bit of negotiation between the two. Once they have understood that they can go home, because they have learned just about all they need to know. Perhaps, this is an oversimplification, but there is a certain element of truth in it.  In fact, there are a lot of good leaders who have managed to successfully run a business on this basic knowledge alone. Bill Gates never finished his degree at Harvard though he seems to have done fairly well since leaving.  Richard Branson is dyslexic and was a very poor student. They were not good at the theory, but they were good at providing service to customers and selling them the benefits.

Good sales strategies can make for a remarkably successful company. When Louis Gerstner arrived at IBM in 1993 he discovered a system based on 20% of the team involved in sales and 80% doing back office work. The company had just recorded losses. By the time he left in 1993 these proportions have been reversed and IBM was showing a healthy profit. The model continues today. Last year IBM made nearly $100 billion in revenue. Ray Kroc was the architectural salesmen. Despite all the misgivings that some may have, the McDonald’s Empire that he built is still a model to be copied. It has also been one of the Fortune 500 most admired companies for many years.

In a forthcoming book, “The Art of the Sale”, Philip Delves Broughton finds that companies such as Apple and Google also rely heavily on good sales people. A recent article in The Economist also highlights the fact that salespeople can bring in vital information to the company which may help it innovate.

And why should we be afraid of a good salesman?  Good sales people sit and LISTEN to their customers. They inquire into their personal needs and try to bring solutions that are designed to their own personal needs. This is good business for everyone.

By excluding such basic courses from the business school curricula, we are in risk of training a generation of young graduates that all want to be Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg. They all want to invent an iPod or Facebook thinking that they can then just sit back and watch the profits fall into their lap. Unfortunately, the probability of this happening is very small indeed. By definition there can only be one market leader in any field. Other companies are just going to go out and do the hard work in selling to people to gain their market share. They should put sales back in the classroom!

Mark Thomas

Grenoble EM

ESC Grenoble




Global Ed

International Affairs in Higher Education

Business School


Filed under Business Schools, Higher Education, MBA

5 responses to “Death (and Rebirth) of a Salesman

  1. Patrick

    Mark, always great to read you.

    Having spent 50% of my career in a sales position I could not resist to post my comments.

    Today every corporation faces two main responsibilities:
    -the first is to manage and deliver superior customer value, and provide insight on the market with their marketing division.
    -the second is to manage customers to capture firm value. The sales function is there to develop defend and leverage the customer asset. The sales function gives customers trust and loyalty. As customers adopt the product, the firm modifies both the offering and the processes associated with making and selling it. The more a company learns about the sales process, the more efficient it becomes at selling, and the higher the sales yield. I do not know the recipe to become the best sales person, but I believe it is a mix of knowledge between marketing, finance, cost management, leadership, engineering and a touch of negotiation. But, probably the most interesting is to see a cycle. You start by being a sales specialist in one area. Then later as a leader you become fewer specialists, less knowledgeable about specific issues. You have to realize that your contribution becomes more symbolic, in the sense that you are trying to set a general direction. People want to see you as representing the general mission, with a long term view. So, we may see more courses on life-cycle management.

    Mark, keep writing.

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