Selling is essentially as old as humanity itself. Though we can’t be sure, there’s a good chance that the first humans to walk upright on this planet quickly turned their eye to making a profit on the fast sale of a piece of flint or shiny metal. Throughout history, almost every industry has relied on the skills of quick-witted salespeople to secure profits. However, as you’ll be well aware, salespeople don’t often get the glory and while your commission package may go some way to compensate, there’s nothing like a bit of public recognition. So with this in mind, who are the greatest salespeople throughout history?
One man who probably doesn’t need an introduction is Steve Jobs. It may not be fair to label the creator of the iPod/Pad/Phone/Watch solely as a salesman - after all, he liked to have a say in almost all areas of Apple’s creative processes - however it can’t be argued that he was the one to push the brand to the market and contributed massively to its current position as the world’s largest company. Nobody really needs 10,000 songs in their pocket but Jobs made us believe that we did, and needed to do it with style. The secret to this was that he truly believed in the product he was selling which allowed consumers to buy into his vision. He also understood the importance of simplifying things. No one could argue that the iPod wasn’t a highly advanced piece of kit; however Jobs made it seem as straightforward as a scroll wheel and a single button.
The next salesperson is less well known but also played a critical part in shaping modern popular culture. Peter Grant was the manager of the rock band Led Zeppelin and not only managed to negotiate unprecedented deals with record companies and tour promoters, but he also secured the band an unbelievably lucrative contract with Atlantic Records, before it had even heard them play. How, you may ask? It all came down to one simple fact, like Jobs, Grant loved the band, and its music and this allowed him to sell their services so passionately and effectively. It should perhaps also be noted that Grant was a burly 6ft 5”and did have somewhat of a reputation for violence which may have affected the decision making of at least some of the people he was dealing with.
Like Jobs, it takes a highly revised view to label Thomas Edison exclusively as a salesman, however his work to promote the widespread use of his direct current (DC) power distribution method over his rival’s alternating current (AC) means he surely falls into this category. He understood the importance of carving out a niche for his invention in the market and his awareness of his competitors was perhaps what set him apart. Edison was so keen to disparage AC that he secretly paid the designer of the first ever Electric Chair to utilise this method in order to promote the idea that it was somehow deadlier than DC. While his methods were perhaps slightly immoral, it’s hard to deny that he knew how to get ahead from his competitors.
However, occasionally it’s not questionable tactics or a new invention that pushes someone to the top of the sales game, it’s hard work. Joe Girard is the world’s best car salesman, and this isn’t a self-appointed title – he was recognised by the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s number one after selling a staggering 13,001 cars in just 12 years. Aside from things like attaching a business card to his tip when paying a restaurant bill and encouraging waiters to visit him when they next need a new car, Girard’s secret was simple. He put the hours in and reaped the rewards. The average car salesperson hands out around 500 cards a year while he dealt out an average of 16,000 per month. Obviously, it’s not just the quantity of cards that made Girard into an exceptional salesperson, but it does highlight that a little graft can go a long way.
As my area of specialism is recruitment, it makes sense to also look at an exceptional salesperson in this industry and James Caan is perhaps the best example. He started off as a one man band but understood the power of a strong brand. He suffixed his company name with international and chose a prestigious office in Pall Mall as its first location in order to convey the image of much larger, global organisation. He even went one step further and changed his name from Nazim Khan to James Caan – after the American actor – in order to make himself more recognisable. And it seems to have paid off. As the stacks of cash he used to sit next to on Dragon’s Den attest, this approach hasn’t treated him too badly.
What factors do you think make a great salesperson?