From Don Draper to Jordan Belfort: Death of a salesman – as we know it

Ask most people to imagine a salesperson and they will often give you similar answers. It is frequently one rooted in stereotype; pushy with an aggressive telephone manner and slicked back hair.

From Don Draper to Jordan Belfort: Death of a salesman - as we know it

Ask most people to imagine a salesperson and they will often give you similar answers. It is frequently one rooted in stereotype; pushy with an aggressive telephone manner and slicked back hair. But where does this perception come from and how connected is it to the millions of professionals who work in the industry?

Undoubtedly many of us have had the odd experience with someone who conforms to this image but this is unlikely to be true of most that we have dealt with. Perhaps instead this image comes not from our own experiences but – like many stereotypes – from the media we watch instead. Salespeople are almost ubiquitous in film and television and perhaps none are more recognisable to modern audiences than Mad Men‘s cool, confident and fatally flawed Don Draper or The Wolf of Wall Street‘s charismatic and unapologetically greedy Jordan Belfort.

But for those of us who personally know salespeople or have frequent contact with them, we know that these characters are a far cry from the real world. Yet, they stick in our collective memory as great examples of the archetypal bad salesperson; characters such as these say a lot of what we as customers do not want from salespeople. Fortunately, we are seeing that many of these characteristics – where they do appear – are on the wane and will stay with Don Draper’s 1960s where they belong.

What makes a bad salesperson?

Though these characters may win you over with slick words and outfits to match, in the real world salespeople like these aren’t likely to be driving results – at least with today’s consumers. According to the Harvard Business Review, today’s consumers prioritise sincerity and empathy; they don’t want to feel like they’re being swindled by smooth talkers and they certainly don’t want to be talked at. Instead, salespeople who listen to their customers’ needs and see their relationship as those of partners problem-solving together will find success. The pushiness of characters like Jordan Belfort who won’t give up a sale, refusing to take no for an answer, is a strict turn off for most. 

The other lesson to be learnt from these fictional characters is that today’s consumers hold little favour for the transparently corporate image. Though Don Draper may impress his clients with floor to ceiling windows, rich mahogany tables and cut crystal glassware, this cultivated image doesn’t attract today’s consumers. Instead, treating customers like peers and engaging with them on a personal level is more likely to gain their trust and respect. Whether these conversations be taking place in person, on the phone or via email, including that personal touch goes a long way in showing you as an individual offering a solution rather than a faceless brand offering a product.

What makes a good salesperson

What separates today’s real salespeople from the fictional versions is primarily down to one characteristic: empathy. Perhaps the most damaging part of the negative salesperson stereotype is the lack of empathy or outright sociopathy that characters like Don Draper Jordan Belfort or even Harry Wormwood, Matilda‘s car salesman father in Roald Dahl’s film adaptation. Where these characters pursue results at any social or personal cost, real salespeople are finding that empathy can be their greatest ally. This extends in everything from generating and qualifying leads, to moving leads through the pipeline, closing deals, or even just managing existing customers. In any of these processes, a salesperson who is attentive to their customers’ situation will genuinely endear themselves to the customer, building a strong relationship and driving sales over the long term.

Empathy is strictly essential at the moment. Selling without any during (and likely after) the pandemic will truly lead to the death of a salesman as customers affected by the coronavirus – whether directly or indirectly – refuse to spare their time for insensitive salespeople. The bad behaviours we have seen historically – and epitomised by these characters – is no longer tenable. Customers will only respond to salespeople who develop relationships with potential clients and understand what they most need at present. Offering something blindly with no consideration to who you are prospecting is the exact kind of behaviour that is expected of the bad salesperson and gets no results, only a bad reputation.

July 17 marks thirteen years since Mad Men first aired and it’s now over seven years since The Wolf of Wall Street was first released. Yet the images they – and other media like them – have created in the public consciousness still remain. Fortunately a new era of salespeople are emerging who are demonstrating the exact qualities that oppose these stereotypes. While they may not have the flash and glamour of a Jordan Belfort or Don Draper, they make up for it with trustworthiness, warmth and customer success that will last far into the future.

Raul Perdigão Silva
Raul Perdigão Silva

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