Why does sales exist the way it does?

Nov 1, 2023 | Blog

Why does sales exist the way it does?

Despite knowing I could ask Todd Caponi for a sales history lesson, I keep asking myself this question. Why?

This morning, Justin Clifford posted this question above on LinkedIn and I love it.

My answer?

Well, I started writing an answer in the comments and LinkedIn slapped me for making it too long. So, thus a blog post about it. While I could get MUCH more specific and granular, here are some general concepts:

1. Selling during the Roman Empire

At its core – as far back as the Roman Empire, sales was commission only – you sold because you had no other choice. If you had something others wanted, you weren’t running Facebook ads and selling on Amazon. You sold what you had and kept the difference to survive. (see image 1)

It was that way, for the most part, for thousands of years. Individuals and “companies” that made things to sell either did it themselves at regular market day events, or they hired independent salespeople who traveled the country repping multiple products – known as “drummers” or “bagmen”. These bagmen were known for hard drinking, telling jokes, and selling without a care for the accuracy of their pitch or the outcomes the customer would receive.

2. Drummers yucking it up in this 1890s picture – on a train, appalling all the other patrons.

They sold and moved on. In one 1924 article, the Managing Director of the National Council of Traveling Salesmen’s Associations spoke of that era with disdain, adding that “a girl was disgraced if she was seen with a traveling salesman.” (see image 2)

As the Progressive era of the Industrial Revolution took shape in the late 1800s, that level of grossness had to go away. Companies that manufactured things sprang up everywhere – and couldn’t have drummers & bagmen repping their products along with others, creating bad impressions, competing against others in territory selling the same product, and not caring.

So, they started to hire their own salespeople. They gave them full paid training. They gave them dedicated territories. Customer success began to matter. They paid salary + variable.

The approach we’re now frowning upon was what established it as a “profession” 125 years ago. (see image 3)

3. From 1906 – proclaiming Sales a profession in the likes of doctors and lawyers

Customer success only mattered so much. As the market tightened in the early 1920s, high-pressure tactics sprang up. It was debated in all the sales magazines…that “low-pressure sales” was merely order taking, and that you had to convince buyers to buy…for their own good, as they were too stupid to realize it otherwise when dollars were tight.

Keep in mind, there was no social security, no 401K plans, and your odds of dying young were a lot higher in the first half of the century. You had to earn…and earn a lot to ensure you and your family would be taken care of for the rest of their lives. So, money WAS the primary motivator for selling. 

Given that buyers had no true means to spread the news of their dissatisfaction, not being able to leave a review, post about it on the socials, or even tell more than a few friends when they got together face-to-face, the cost of an unsatisfied customer was low. So, by the 1950s sales was gross again.

While the sales profession was once taught in every major university in the country in the early 1900s, by the 1950s and 60s, not a single one taught the skill of selling – mainly because nobody would sign up for it. As companies visited universities to recruit salespeople from upcoming graduates, no candidates would show up for interviews.  

The profession has been making a comeback – due largely in part to what I believe to be two primary elements:

  1. The blowhorn by which dissatisfaction now travels: Bad news travels faster than good news, and today, it travels at all-time record speeds. The truth always prevails!
  2. The “as a service” or subscription economy: The deal is no longer the peak of the sales engagement…it’s merely an early milestone on the path to having customers who stay, buy more, and advocate on your behalf. Given that job changing is the norm, playing the long game is more of a requirement now than ever before!

I believe the sales world is ripe for an adjustment to how success is measured and paid for. The long game has always helped companies win the long game, but today, it helps you win the short game, too! Incentives centered around that idea have never been more important to the sustainability of organizations, and the attraction of talent to the sales profession.

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I speak and teach revenue organizations on how to leverage transparency and decision science to maximize their revenue capacity. It’s what I do…teach sellers, their leaders, and really entire revenue organizations the how we as human beings make decisions, then how to use that knowledge for good (not evil) in their messaging (informal and formal), negotiations and revenue leadership. I wrote a 3x award-winning book (𝘛𝘩𝘦 𝘛𝘳𝘢𝘯𝘴𝘱𝘢𝘳𝘦𝘯𝘤𝘺 𝘚𝘢𝘭𝘦), and have a newish book out (𝘛𝘩𝘦 𝘛𝘳𝘢𝘯𝘴𝘱𝘢𝘳𝘦𝘯𝘵 𝘚𝘢𝘭𝘦𝘴 𝘓𝘦𝘢𝘥𝘦𝘳) now that just won its first award!

Reach out if you want to discuss The Transparency Sale sales methodology, or really…anything else (sales kickoffs, workshopskeynotes, the economy, history, etc.)! Email info@toddcaponi.com or call 847-999-0420.

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Header Photo: A sales training class for the Frigidaire Corporation, 1927


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