Last few days of 2017 and first few days of 2018 gave me few memorable experiences; sweet and sour. Let’s get over with the sour thing first. I was booked on a Indigo flight on 31st Dec and I was looking forward to being with my family in Delhi, however owing to bad weather the flight was cancelled. A short and crisp message from the airline left me stranded there. But that was not the service failure (we understand bad weather), the failure was that in such situation the service provider did not care for its customers – a call to the customer would have helped. My ticket was booked through premiermiles, a Citibank outfit and they did not even bother to send me a SMS (as per their record, I did travel on the flight which never took off!) A classic and not so pleasant example of a service operations failure. With so much of technology at their command!
Let’s get to the sweet experience. On Jan 2, I walked into a store of Himalaya Opticals and met a very helpful salesperson. While helping me in selecting a good frame he quickly realized that I was closing in on my choice. However, he also sensed that I was not very happy with my selection. Looking at my decision dilemma, he suggested that I postpone my purchase for three days as they were expecting more stock in the store and I will surely get what I was looking for. He was a smart salesperson who could have easily sold something to me that day itself. He chose not to do so but invited me to a later date. That set me thinking; why do good salespeople bet on their customers? How do they offset their risks and tradeoff short-term gains for long-term relationships with customers? To understand these questions, we need to consider the evolution journey for this profession called ‘Sales’.
Powers et al.(1987) published an interesting article chronicling the profession of selling before 1900. This paper provides a detailed review of how the profession evolved through different ages in the history. Here are some of the key points:
1. The Ancient World: Selling as an economic activity started with the idea of shortages and surpluses in the agriculture produce. The ‘Peddler’ was the first salesperson which did primarily two jobs; selling and holding the inventory. The salesperson would go house to house to sell their wares driven by the entrepreneurial spirit.
2. The Classical World: After the Greeks developed coinage system and formed commercial regulations, the markets got a structure: clusters of sellers in one place competing for customer’s business. The era saw the emergence of ‘Merchant Salesman” and Women Salesperson (Pea Soup Woman!).
3. The Dark Ages: It was during this period that Islamic traders started developing the profession and selling became a primary source of economic growth. A salesperson/merchant was considered a contributing member of the society.
4. The Middle Ages: Selling evolved as a career choice and people took this option for quick success. However, it was also realized that a career of the travelling salesman was not a pious existence.
5. The Renaissance: The salesman assumed different roles; auctioneer, trader, lecturer and even entertainer. He was considered wise and powerful people invested in his wisdom to increase their own treasuries. During this period of commercial re-awakening, merchant markets and fairs provided a fertile ground for the selling profession to grow further.
6. The Modern Age: Beginning of 18th century, a retail system started forming and technological inventions were taking shape. To complement these developments, advancement on sales practices was an important driver. Josiah Wedgewood, a Potter, can be considered one of the leading businessman in that era who implemented the idea of market expansion and coverage and served his markets by getting his ‘salesmen out on the road’. His use of company salesmen to execute his marketing plan including creative promotion was remarkable. He first coined this idea that distribution would be best serviced by the captive agents of the firm. Also, development in transportation and communication technology helped in realizing the idea of a fully integrated sales force. These developments in transportation and communication made salespeople more efficient.
Therefore, the evolution of sales profession provided a solid foundation for the development of the marketing paradigms in the 20th century. It is important to understand the linkage of marketing thought development and further evolution of sales profession in 20th century and beyond. Let’s take a closer look.
1. The Transactional Paradigm: Selling continued to be dominated by the idea of a transaction; a seller and a buyer and hence the exchange. A large part of 20th century, a salesperson job continued to be a ‘peddler’; to sell and manage inventory. Yes, the sales organizations crafted the selling job in a way that required salespeople to manage customer demand through a distribution channel network. In industrial selling, salespeople mostly handled customer enquiries, gave a demonstration and collect the order. (Many organizations did not have a sales function; they called it commercial department)
2. The Relationship Paradigm: By the end of 20th century, marketing scholars started building the concept of relationship marketing and that had a major impact on the way companies would look at their salespeople. A big change that took place was in terms of the value of a salesperson. Since customer relationships became the key driver for sales growth, salespeople were on the front of relationship building efforts. Again, a technological advancement in term of computing software made the idea of CRM operationally efficient. Now, salespeople were much more informed about their customer and they could customize their selling strategy to be more effective. Salesforce effectiveness became the buzz word.
3. The Value Paradigm: As we entered the 21st century, marketers emphasized that the sustainable relationship with customers is possible only if we understand customer value and deliver it to them. This had huge positive implications for the profession of selling. (a) Salespeople started appreciating the idea of customer value creation and that made them customer oriented. They started following the customers’ benefit schema and designed their sales pitch accordingly. (b) A salesperson was no longer responding to customer requirements, she was actively participating in helping the customer understand and articulate the requirements. The salesperson started doing so with the help of relevant knowledge delivery. (c) The notion of a salesperson as a ‘Value Merchant’ started gathering more strength, as more and more companies treated their salespeople as ‘knowledge brokers’ to get more customer insights that would help them to design market offerings. (d) This brought more prestige, accountability and integrity in a salesperson’s job. (I wish to exclude exceptions to unethical practices by few companies. Salespeople did not fail, sales strategy did!)
With this understanding of the evolution of a salesperson’s profession, I go back to my experience with the salesperson I met at Himalaya opticals. As a salesperson, he was taking full responsibility for the value that I was looking for. With his experience, he could make out that I was looking for something that was comfortable to wear and he must have noted that I was not looking at the MRP. Therefore, he possibly and rightly so took me as someone who could pay a higher price for a better frame. Hence the advice: come back on Friday, we are getting fresh stock. And to ensure that I come back, he said with confidence: “You will get what you are looking for and I will work out the best deal for you”. Am I going back to the store? You bet!