“The Death of a Salesman,” circa 2011

In 1949, Arthur Miller released his iconic play, “Death of a Salesman.”  The sales landscape of sixty years ago is eerily similar to that of today.  America, and world for that fact, isn’t creating sales jobs like before.  Of course you’ll see ads for them in newspapers and on job boards – but the position is not nearly as prevalent as it once was.

Willy Loman

Why is this and what are the ramifications?

Up to about ten years ago every product and service to be sold by somebody. You had to have either a “face to face” or at least “phone to phone” conversation to make a transaction, a sale.  This isn’t the case anymore.  With the internet you can buy virtually anything online.  You can even buy a house in another country by just going online and making an offer, let alone ordering a book or getting a picture developed and delivered to your house.  And all this happens with no salesman … just bits and bytes.

By cutting out the salesman, companies can hawk their wares cheaper.  In many industries, if you don’t compete online … you don’t compete.  Having a rock bottom price seems to be the basis to doing business these days.  But when your business competes on price, there’s little room for anything else – and that anything else is sales and service.

Anyone can tell you that customer service in 2010 is nothing like it used to be.  It’s not that companies are intentionally instructing their staff to treat their customers like trash. They just don’t have resources to hire the more and better people needed to perform better sales and customer service.  Try going to a big box store like Home Depot or Wal-Mart.  You have a better chance finding Bigfoot on the floor than a salesman.

This preoccupation on price has created a void of sales and customer service expertise.  The middle class used to be filled with salesmen and saleswomen of all types, all striving for the American dream.  Not so much anymore, these jobs just aren’t out there … or at least in the numbers they were.

What does all this mean?  Are we as consumers relegated to an existence of interaction with our computer screen for our fix of consumption?  Maybe not.

As a business person, you can take one of two paths.  You can follow the lemmings to the cliff, as most do.  All it takes is structuring your business around keeping costs low and selling low.  Hopefully enough people will see value in this strategy and you’ll make a “go of it.”

Or in the words of Robert Frost, you can take the road less traveled.  This road might very well revert back the business values of our parents – before the internet.  Now I’m not condoning getting in a time machine and going back to England in 1810 and joining the Luddites.  Technology is wonderful and it has it’s purpose.  But maybe the pendulum can swing back a bit.  Maybe there is a place for the salesman in today’s economy.  In fact, maybe this is actually what can set your firm apart … and make it remarkable in the eyes of your customers.

Ironically, the company most known for its customer service in today’s world is also at the forefront of technology, Apple.  If you go to an Apple Store, you’ll find no shortage of sales reps to help you (the blue shirts).  And no they’re not just customer service reps – they sell.  My daughter spent two years on the floor at an Apple store.  Their sales training is excellent and thorough.  And their service goes beyond just their retail stores.  You can actually talk to a person for tech support on the phone also.  How’s all this working for Apple.  At the penning of this post their stock price was $288, an all time high.

Again, what does all this mean.  In the case of Apple and its products, you pay a premium.  You pay for the service.  You pay for getting sold by a top-notch sales person.  You pay for better design.  You pay for being a member of the Apple tribe.  And all this costs Apple money.  But why can’t your firm do it this way. Is there anything saying you must have rock bottom prices – and with that the lack of the amenities … amenities like sales and service.  Don’t tell me you can do both – because with any consistency you can’t.

But undertaking a strategy of “taking the road less traveled” and providing a premium offering first means starting with a product or service that is worth paying a premium for.  Apple has, so they can build on it.  But building on it means creating an environment of  excellence throughout your firm where nothing else is accepted.  It also means hiring the best, paying them accordingly and making sure they stay.

I can’t tell you how to attack your market using the Apple methodology.  Only you know your market.  And it probably means only part of the market will actually be your market.  But considering the size of the “lemming pack,” your market should be big enough for you to not only survive, but thrive.

Just remember – you probably can’t do it without Willy Loman.  And if you look, he’s still out there looking to sell … and just maybe your customers want to see him.

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If you like this … please Tweet it and follow me on Twitter @clayforsberg

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