The New Yorker has called the current revival of Death of a Salesman "luminous." That's like a screaming "rad sick awesome ridic" from your average teenager. I was reminded of a luminously rad VP of Ops for the Western District of the mainframe computer firm I worked for in the '80s. I was their organization consultant, and had organized a meeting of the sales force in L.A. one fine warm weekend.
Tom, the VP, was as brilliant and hard-nosed a marketer as you would find in a cutthroat business then gaining extraordinary momentum on the West Coast. The sales reps sold the biggest and baddest computers made to the biggest and wealthiest corporations on the planet. "Whatcha oughta do," Tom recommended to his troops in his smooth imported Dallas drawl, "is read Death of a Salesman."
What? I thought. The Arthur Miller play?
Tom went on. "Yeah, that Arthur Miller was a commie, but don't pay that no mind. He knows what it means to sell. Read it."
I had read it in college, but Tom drove me back to the work. It still seemed that the commie was trashing a sour world of indifferent capitalism where a few might prosper but most lived desperately and died with dreams scattered about a dumpy house to be trod on by sons no longer able to dream at all.
That's not how I saw the computer salespeople. Or all the salespeople I've met and trained over these many years. They were very different from one another. Bob, for one, built relationships based on trust and caring; his customers loved him and almost never double-crossed him because he stayed loyal to them. I loved Bob, too; he fathered a couple of kids and adopted a number of others.
"I love selling these big machines," he'd say. "They're not the best product out there, just the most expensive. I enjoy the challenge."
Ned roamed Nevada hawking mainframes. One of the most successful sales reps in the company's history, he had a ferocious stutter. You've heard of fast-talking salesmen? That wasn't Ned. His biggest customer told me why Ned became a sales legend. "He doesn't talk, maybe because he can't. What he does is, he hears me when I talk."
Marti opened the Pacific Northwest to her company. One of the few women selling big computers at the time, she relished her success in this testosterone-choked field. "One thing about selling," she told me. "Once you close the deal, no one can take it away from you. No one can say you didn't do it." Then she'd smile. "They might accuse me of using my feminine wiles to make a sale. But they can't say I didn't make the sale."
I admired Marti for her grit, selling genius, and perseverance in a lonely world infested by men not always happy that she was competing so effectively. I called her a saleswoman once, and she glared at me. "It's salesman," she corrected. "Salesman."
Over the years, I have consulted with salesmen who sell the highest of high-tech gadgets and the edgiest of cutting-edge drugs. Pharmaceutical sales reps are the best-looking, on average, probably because they have to make it into doctors' offices without being arrested. And the things they do to get into those offices would definitely get you or me arrested. These emissaries of the latest drug on the market are universally unwelcome in the places where they practically break and enter to get to make their pitch. Of course, if they never got in, you wouldn't get all those lovely sample drugs you are always asking your doc for.
I've also traveled the sales road at the low-tech end: folks who sell salt, for instance. Lowly salt, so cheap you pay more to transport it than to buy it. Kikkoman buys it at food grade for their soy sauce. Wal-Mart buys big bags to sell as water-softener salt, and cities purchase actual salt mountains that are used to melt ice on winter highways. I once traveled to Canada and the Edmonton Mall, which, amazingly, houses an enormous aquarium whose dolphins require, you guessed it, salt.
The salt reps are terrific people, but they are definitely the least attractive; I don't know why. I guess if your dolphin tank needs salt you don't much care if the rep looks like one of the dolphins. The point is, salesmen are very different from each other.
Yet they share a number of qualities. They learn to influence people over whom they have no authority at all, so they study people, what makes them tick, what makes them buy. Salesmen are far better listeners than you would guess because they are always on the prowl for some need that they can fill (remember Ned?). They believe people buy from people, even in the Internet age, and they forge relationships based on returning value for value in a world where no one is coerced into anything.
They are the unprotected members of their organization, the ones who venture out of the corporate cocoon to discover, contact, and persuade the people — prospects, they call them — to part with their money and in return accept the goods and services the corporation exists to sell.
Unprotected means they cannot compel, only persuade. They are subject to unrelenting rejection, even disdain in a culture that lauds the free-market system yet finds its purest practitioners a nuisance at best, morally suspect at worst. Marti once told me that she is an atheist. I told her not to worry about that. She has put up with so much rejection in her life that a just God would never pile it on in the afterlife; she's heaven-bound no matter what she believes. She squinted at me, but I think she was comforted.
Yes, salesmen are the "low men" in some ways, sure (just ask anyone else in the company). But they are the engine of enterprise, makers of the fair deal, true believers in freedom to buy or not to buy. That, perhaps, is why Tom the VP wanted us to read the commie's Death of a Salesman. For what is a salesman? "He's a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine." Unprotected, unable to coerce, judged solely on how much product is moved.
"A salesman is got to dream, boy." Is it any wonder?