Celebrating Sales Professionals this Fourth of July

Fourth of JulyI have a list of blog topics that I work from each week. If you’ve been following me, you know it includes topics like forecasting, sales process, sales management and coaching. So, as usual, I referred to this trusty document this morning for direction and inspiration. I see the words, “4th of July related content.” I stared at my monitor, then back at the topic, then back at my monitor.

The Fourth of July, 1776. Independence. Freedom.

I thought of writing a blog about sales giving you the “freedom and independence” to make more money. Then I thought of all the readers who may have commission caps. So I ditched that and moved on to the idea that selling allows you the freedom and independence to set your own schedule. Then I thought about how some readers may feel more shackled by meetings and administrative duties than ever before. Forget that.

I hit a dead-end with every analogy. If it had been the 1960s or 70s, there would have been a huge trashcan of balled up paper next to my typewriter. I thanked the heavens for a backspace key. Hmmm. Then it hit me. Had it been the 1960s or 70s…

I’ve been doing a ton of research on the evolution of selling for an upcoming white paper. What I’ve found is shocking, even for a 35-year veteran of the selling profession. As shocking to me as, when considered, just how young the USA is. In just 237 years, this country has transitioned from a group of disrespected rebels to a globally dominant powerhouse. How incredible!

And how similar to the modern-day sales profession.

You see, prior to the early 1800’s and the industrial revolution, small businesses were the driving force behind the economy. As well as most other business functions, selling was the responsibility of a business owner. Their over-riding concern was to meet the demand of the consumer. Business was order driven.

In the rare cases of over-production (order cancellation or proprietor speculation), goods were sold or bartered to traveling traders. These peddlers traveled by foot, horse, or wagon to sell goods in remote areas. Their sales approach was very straightforward. As they traveled, they simply called out what goods were available. Consumers would stop them and buy or trade if the peddler had something that met a need.

From the late 1700s to around 1840, the Industrial Revolution marked a major historical turning point for businesses and consumers. Driven by the availability of more efficient power, as well as the introduction of machine tools, meant a transition from hand-made goods at low-volume, to mass manufacturing at incredibly high volumes.

Many believe this also marked the beginning of modern day selling. Companies were now able to mass-produce millions of different products. Unlike the days of small local proprietors, local buyers could no longer consume what was being produced. Businesses were now faced with selling excess inventory, and a lot of it.

It was during this period organizations sought ways to increase the quantity of customers, and we saw the introduction of salespeople and sales divisions. Generally these early sellers were contracted peddlers paid on nothing more than commissions for what they sold. Viewed more as ‘sales agents’, they often sold products for multiple companies. Sellers had little loyalty to either the companies they sold for or their customers. Unbelievably, this practice began with the Industrial Revolution in the late 1700s and essentially carried through to the 1970s. Yes, you are reading that correctly. The 1970s!

When Sales Began to Change

The role of the modern-day salesperson didn’t dramatically change until W. Edwards Deming, the American statistician and quality control expert, transformed Japanese manufacturing with post World War II reconstruction dollars. It was there that he introduced “Total Quality Management” and “Just-in-time inventory.”

Until then, the US was dominant in most industries. Little competition meant high sales volume and margins. However by the early 1980s, in multiple industries Japan was surpassing US and European manufacturers. Western companies began to realize “Total Quality Control” and “Just-in-time inventory” meant feedback mechanisms had to be in place throughout their organization. It was during this period that the evolution of a modern day salesperson became a necessity.

In many cases, most organizations realized the primary contact companies had with their customers were through their sales people. The interaction between buyer and seller and the resulting feedback became an integral part of companies’ R&D, manufacturing, marketing, and sales efforts. As a result, salespeople and sales organizations were reined in and more tightly controlled by most companies. For many major organizations, sales techniques and methodologies were added to product training curriculum. Selling began to be viewed more as a skilled position.

And yes, one more time, you are reading that correctly. It wasn’t until the 1960s and 70s that selling as most of us know it even existed.

Just like the great USA, think about what has been accomplished in the last 40 to 50 years. Salespeople aren’t seen as a group of peddlers. We have salaries, benefits, sales organizations, and representation all the way through the most senior levels of management. Companies spend significant sums of money recruiting, training, and retaining us. The transition has been quite remarkable, and it continues to evolve.

So this 4th of July, as we consider what this country has accomplished in a brief 237 years, we consider and appreciate the same for how our profession has evolved in the last 50.


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