Don Draper is coming to an end this year. Yup. AMC’s Mad Men gallops to its hard drinking, heavy smoking, sex addicted denouement at the close of this TV season. The last seven episodes started April 5th.
I’ve read several encomiums to the incipient death of this popular, highly-awarded series. One of these articles described Don Draper as numero uno of all time among “salesman, con artist, sweet-talkers, swindlers, and bullshitters.” Wow. That is quite a concatenation of villains and it says quite a lot about how salesmen are viewed in the contemporary culture.
The archetype of the salesman is the used-car salesman–winding back the speedometer and screaming, “Deals! Deals! Deals!” Or Don Draper, in the very first episode of Mad Men, proposing to save Lucky Strikes in the wake of the 1960s Readers Digest Report linking cancer to cigarettes. Draper, in his machiavellian brilliance, proposes differentiating Lucky Strikes with the phrase “It’s toasted.” When his client argues that all cigarettes are “toasted”, he states, “Everyone else’s tobacco is poisonous, Lucky Strikes are toasted.” A charming, brilliant con man indeed.
Yet isn’t every successful entrepreneur in large part a successful salesman? For that matter, aren’t all human beings, to one degree or another, salesmen. What makes a good salesman?
Believe it or not, I personally feel that what makes a good salesman is the same thing that makes a good minister, good teacher, or good social worker–someone who genuinely loves the world in which she lives and wants to improve it through offering a product or service to that end. That’s my view and I believe it is also the view of most really effective salesmen.
Unlike the cliches of popular culture, the juxtaposition and equivalency of salesmen, con artists, sweet-talkers, swindlers, and bullshitters is breathtaking. And yet it fully reflects the popular view of salesmen as somewhat lower than whale shit. The list includes such luminaries as Gordon Gekko (portrayed by Michael Douglas in Wall Street), Blake (portrayed by Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross), Freddy Benson and Lawrence Jamieson (portrayed by Steve Martin and Michael Caine, respectively, in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels), Roy Waller (portrayed by Nicholas Cage in Matchstick Men), etc. You get the idea. A veritable litany of the villainous and the predatory.
Certainly when I began my late-in-life adventure as a salesman and entrepreneur, my idealistic and somewhat bohemian family did not quite know what to say. They probably thought I had become apostate to all that was fine and good. A Faustian sellout to filthy lucre. A crazed lemming descending into the rat hole of venality.
But what makes a good salesman in reality is the opposite of the amoral knaves of popular myth. You simply don’t win in the long term by fooling people. You win through sincere care, concern, and communication. That is a naive but very real truth.
Unlike the popular cliches about salesmen, long-term sales success comes from focusing on service and candor in all aspects of the sales process. A liar and a villain is eventually known by his works. Gordon Gekko aside, you don’t successfully sell with deception and legerdemain.