In 1949, Arthur Miller wrote a play titled “Death of a Salesman” which chronicles the life (and death) of Willy Loman, a traveling salesman living in Brooklyn. This Pulitzer Prize winning play portrays the psyche of Willy in his quest for financial stability, recognition and status through his sales position. His pursuit of the American Dream in sales is grounded in his understanding that a “well-liked” and “personally attractive” individual in sales is destined for material reward. As the play unfolds we see that Willy, like so many sales associates, struggled throughout his less than glorious career and never achieved the success that he felt that he deserved. The play ends with Willy’s funeral (after suicide), only attended by his immediate family and two friends. So why this morbid reminder of a play written over 60 years ago that portrays the sales life in such a dark and disturbed way?
Over the years, I have often heard the phrase “Hire for Attitude and Train for Success” repeated in sales interviews in more than one Company. Being a teacher and trainer at heart, I like the idea of hiring excited “well-liked” and “personally attractive” individuals who want to pursue the American Dream earning better than average income. I have sat through innumerable interviews where the potential hire gives their very best pitch, as I am drawn in by their “can do” attitude. These new recruits, excited and committed, are slotted for the next new hire class and sent off to learn the trade. Oftentimes, they return fired up and they hit the ground running. This is the honeymoon period. They love the guests, the guests love them and the Company loves the whole lot. For a new associate, they haven’t really developed any habits yet….good or bad and for the most part they are simply trying to apply a small percentage that they retained from their class.
Fast forward to Month 3. Our new, excited fireball of positive energy sales associate doesn’t seem to be the same gal that we hired just a few months ago. She has had her moments of glory, but she also has endured some headwinds from “training” by the rest of the sales floor and no real reinforcement of what she was taught initially. She is a little disenchanted as her income isn’t where she thought, and her manager is so busy she doesn’t see the opportunity to speak with him either. She doesn’t recognize it, but she has taken on several weak sales behaviors and very little of what she was taught initially is even being applied. Her sales training book remains stashed in her locker since the day she came back from class. Like Willy Loman, this new salesperson kept up her end of the bargain and, at least for the first couple of months brought her winning attitude. The failure, for Willy and many sales associates today, is that as leaders we don’t train for success. At Willy’s funeral in the play, one of the two friends offered as a eulogy “…he’s a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine”. It is somewhat embarrassing to admit that we STILL have way too many associates in our midst that are “out there” working as they will on a smile and a shoeshine. We conduct an initial training “event”, hope that something sticks and then evaluate the sales performance at the end of the month. All too often, we aren’t skilled or even have an understanding of the specific behaviors that drive sales performance, and we don’t provide the framework to provide effective and immediate feedback to a sales associate in real time. Just like in 1949, we like to sit down periodically and review the obvious with our sales consultants by covering their outcomes for the month. This does nothing in the realm of performance improvement except reinforce was wasn’t working in the past with no concrete solutions or root causes.
Over 30 years, I have seen more sales consultants leave this industry than make a career of it. They brought their “A” game in many cases, and we brought a boring new hire class with a label of “trained for success”. Our industry must rethink how we engage with younger associates, how they want to learn and how we create an on demand development program to move them forward. The Millennial Generation will soon be making up over half of our employees (and our customers). They demand that technology is integral to their learning, and they want to learn when they are ready to learn. They are not going to fly “out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine” because they already know that they will quickly move to a more progressive workplace. In addition, our consumer today demands more from our associates and if we are not adding value to her experience while she is in the store…she will buy online or elsewhere. It isn’t 1949, and we have the opportunity to travel decades forward in our Instructional Design in the Home Furnishings business. Gone are the days of smiles and shoeshines, and we need to move with it or become extinct.