Fictions of Business: Insights on Management from Great Literatureby Robert A. Brawer
"If Willy Loman had had a better boss, his career might not have ended as badly. book examines the human problems encountered in business in works as diverse as The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer and Glengarry Glen Ross by David Mamet."
-Wall Street Journal
"Reading Brawer's book is like taking a stimulating crash course in literature and
"If Willy Loman had had a better boss, his career might not have ended as badly. book examines the human problems encountered in business in works as diverse as The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer and Glengarry Glen Ross by David Mamet."
-Wall Street Journal
"Reading Brawer's book is like taking a stimulating crash course in literature and management."
- USA Today
" wide-ranging interpretations make for stimulating and enjoyable reading."
-Harvard Business Review
"Brawer...weaves fascinating patterns of interpretation and illumination..."
-Boston Book Review
"Once in a blue moon, a CEO book comes forth that is written in sparkling fashion, goes far beyond the normal CEO thought patterns, and yet tells what it's like to be a CEO. One of these rare books is Fictions of Business....Read the book. You'll be glad you did."
"For those who prefer to take inspiration from the classics, Fictions of Business...will fit the bill."
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CHAPTER 1 SELLING AS THEATER: THE ART OF DAZZLING THE CUSTOMER
A guy comes up to you. . . . "There're these properties I'd like for you to see." What does it mean? What you want it to mean. David Mamet, Glengarry Glen Ross
If I were asked to identify a single characteristic that the best businesspeople have in common, I would say that it is a sense of theater. Like theatrical impresarios, they have mastered the art of illusion: creating the perception in the minds of their customers that the product or service they are selling has a unique value that transcends the usual "features and benefits," and does more than satisfy customer "wants or needs." Like great actors, these businesspeople are as adept at selling themselves as they are their products. Like great playwrights, they know their audience and understand how to make their customers feel good about doing business with them. Indeed, they may even change the way their customers look at themselves.
In today's consumer-driven culture, I maintain that this kind of salesmanship-or more accurately, showmanship-is more than an entrepreneurial virtue. It is a necessity. How many enterprises, after all, depend for their sustained profitability on "impulse purchases," on enticing people to spend money on things they may not want or need as much as on those they do? Without a sense of theater, an entrepreneur is hard put to survive in a global market where duplication of product offerings creates seemingly unlimited choice, where so many new products proliferate and so few survive, where shelf space is so scarce and shelf life so short, where established worldwide brands are threatened by cheaper private label imitations.
In fact, American merchants' recognition that great theater and great salesmanship are indissolubly linked spans the entire twentieth century. The department store retailers whose stores have survived the century were pioneers in theatrical display. From lavish window displays and opulent decor to counter fixtures and costumed mannequins, merchant-impresarios like Marshall Field, John Wanamaker, and R. H. Macy made the shopping experience a kind of fantasy fulfillment for a mass market. We find this sense of theater articulated even in so unlikely a place as the "Minutes of the Board of Operations" at Macy's in 1902: "The selling departments is [sic] the stage upon which the play is enacted."1 In his 1900 novel, Sister Carrie, Theodore Dreiser captures the blandishments of a consumer culture most vividly. At the beginning of the novel, Carrie Meeber, a poor farm girl from Wisconsin recently arrived in Chicago, is dazzled by the display of goods in a department store where she has gone to seek work as a clerk: [The department stores] were handsome, bustling, successful affairs, with a host of clerks and a swarm of patrons. Carrie passed along the busy aisles, much affected by the remarkable displays of trinkets, dress goods, stationery, and jewelry. Each separate counter was a show place of dazzling interest and attraction. She could not help feeling the claim of each trinket and valuable upon her personally, and yet she did not stop. There was nothing there which she could not have used-nothing which she did not long to own. The dainty slippers and stockings, the delicately frilled skirts and petticoats, the laces, ribbons, haircombs, purses, all touched her with individual desire, and she felt keenly the fact that not any of these things were in the range of her purchase.
The desire that Dreiser's Carrie feels here is not simply the longing of a lonely young woman in the big city for the first time. It is an enduring characteristic of American consumers in a land of plenty. So, too, is the ingenuity with which American retailers continue to fabricate ever more theatrical scenarios to feed the public's apparently insatiable appetite for shopping-or, as promoters say nowadays, for a shopping experience.
There is a clear trajectory from Marshall Field's first showcase window to the recently unveiled theme mall in Las Vegas, "unlike anything the retail world has ever seen," according to a recent Wall Street Journal report.3 A 50-foot Trojan horse "that rocks, snorts steam and shoots lasers"; an hourly recreation of the sinking of Atlantis "in a riot of steam, fire, and water"; a chariot race ^ la Ben Hur that takes place five times a day "as diners and shoppers look on"; and singing gondoliers poling shoppers along an indoor canal are some of the features driving retail sales in this mall-to-end-all-malls. Selling as theater has here reached its apogee-at least for the present. Sales are reported to be at an all-time high.
The business people with a sense of theater know that there is a basic psychology in play here. They know that most people are predisposed to buy, and they know how to tap into that predisposition through theatrical-style illusion. Illusion makes reality, or what we might call the everydayness of things, palatable. The fabricating of illusion, therefore, has always been intrinsic to the art of selling goods and services. In our time, selling as theater is no different in principle from what it was in 1900. It is simply being raised to a higher power.
I propose two relatively unfamiliar ways to collect some very specific and, I think, useful data about consumer purchasing behavior, and about how businesspeople conjure up unique perceptions of their products and themselves to drive sales in oversaturated markets. First, by defying conventional market-research wisdom and looking at your own mind-set and characteristics as a consumer, you can pretty much divine how others will react to the same stimuli. Though we like to think of ourselves as unique, we are not; our behavior as consumers is remarkably consistent in certain ways with that of millions of others in our consumer-driven culture-differences in background, spending power, and personalities notwithstanding. Second, I am convinced that a reading of some of the fictions of business, precisely because they are imaginative in nature, can give us a range of fresh perspectives on what the fine art of selling as theater has always been about.
To begin with, then, two simple examples from my own history as a consumer. T-Shirts and Other Fictions I recently bought three T-shirts from The J. Peterman Company Owner's Manual that I didn't need and don't wear. If I had seen them on display in a store, I would doubtless have passed them up. Their heavy cotton fabric is uncomfortable, and their dull grey and brown colors are unattractive. Yet I gladly bought them for more money than I normally spend on shirts that I do wear.
The truth is that I love reading the Peterman catalogues and look forward to each new one in the same way as I do the latest novel by John Le CarrZ. For the Peterman catalogue reads like great escapist fiction. A sketch of a very ordinary blue blazer appears under the rubric British Unflappability (The Niven Blazer), with this description:
Some men can emerge from a smoking bomb crater looking incredibly relaxed, even elegant.
Are they born that way?
Some actually are.
Others are just lucky enough to be wearing a navy blue blazer at the time. . . .
Blazers give you the gift of looking right . . . But you already knew that. In fact you probably already own one or two. Why, then, this Blazer?
Because this is the blazer of Niven and Grant. Of O'Toole and Howard and Bond. It is: classic, chic, cocky, comfortable, casual, cool, charismatic, clean-lined, and altogether unflappable. J. Peterman has done his homework. He knows very well that I already have a blue blazer, but not quite the kind that will put me in company with these suave gents, including Howard (Leslie, of course). A Niven blazer, on the other hand, will time-warp me in the romance of a bygone era and transform me into a living legend. Look, even the details-"slightly suppressed waist," "flapped patch pockets," "33U4 inch lapels"-proclaim it's me. Why, J. Peterman has said as much: "Is that you in the mirror? It is."
Even a simple T-shirt takes on magical properties under this format. Who could care about fit or comfort or contemporary styling when you are wearing the very shirt Persian princes wore for battle-training in the fifteenth century? The illuminated manuscript from 1472 that J. Peterman has unearthed in the British Museum actually shows a horseman wearing one of the six "seriously faded vintage colors" the T-shirt comes in. Holding back a little, I limit myself to three. Sure, I admit to sharing the irritation of friends hooked on J. Peterman when what arrives in the mail somehow doesn't match what we could have sworn the catalogue described. There it is, just a dumb T-shirt. But that's OK. I've had my fix.
What do I conclude from all this? Someone at J. Peterman has mastered the indispensable art of creating a demand precisely for what their customers do not want or need. Run-of-the-mill salespeople have always insisted that everything begins with product. Whenever I hear that tired axiom, I cringe. In a society awash in consumer products, one interchangeable with another, the product is secondary. It is the fiction that counts.
Most of us, if pressed, will own up to being vulnerable to J. Peterman-type appeals. The unworn T-shirts will not, I am certain, be my last purchase from this catalogue. Actually, the cost of reveling in illusions like this seems worth it, especially when we can suspend our better judgment with impunity.
Here is a related example of how to create the perception of added value in the mind of the consumer. Some years ago, my wife and I bought a piece of Chinese export porcelain to add to our modest collection. It was a small blue and white saucer very much like thousands of other examples that figured in the eighteenth-century trade between Europe and China. The dealer, an acquaintance of mine from whom we had bought several other pieces of Chinese export porcelain, explained that this saucer was special, because it had been retrieved from the Geldermalsen, a Dutch ship that sank in 1752 with a full cargo of wares en route from China to Holland. He showed us a glossy, lavishly illustrated book that gave the history of the ship, together with photographs of the pieces that had been dredged up, many identical to the saucer in his hand. Not only was the familiar blue glaze badly faded, but several barnacles still clung to the rim of the saucer. The price? Just double what we had paid the same dealer for a similar piece only a few months earlier. His explanation was simple-and, I must confess, persuasive: "You're buying a little piece of history."
The Geldermalsen special sits on our mantle, barnacles intact, a faded example of export porcelain, but an authentic reminder of the perils the old Dutch sea captains encountered in the China Sea. There are moments when I cannot help wondering how much more intrinsically valuable (and cheaper) our eighteenth-century piece of history would have been had it not lain on the bottom of the sea collecting ocean matter-and its signature barnacles-for over 200 years. But then I reflect, without a trace of irony, on the ability of imaginative entrepreneurs to sell T-shirts and antique porcelain by reorienting consumers as to what it is they are really buying or collecting. (Come to think of it, a Geldermalsen T-shirt would have gone nicely with my Geldermalsen book and saucer.)
Of course, these are both harmless examples in the sense that I willingly participated in being set up. In such cases, it is easy for us to laugh at ourselves. It costs us nothing. But what happens if we take this process a step further? Few of us would admit that we can be convinced to act against our own best interests and instincts, especially when it comes to spending real money. Few of us realize, on the other hand, how strong a hold a conjuror of illusion can exert on us under the right conditions. In his play Glengarry Glen Ross, the American dramatist David Mamet sets the full power of the salesman as illusionist vividly before us in words and action.
Selling as Theater: Glengarry Glen Ross
In 1984 David Mamet received the Pulitzer prize for a drama about what it takes to survive in the dog-eat-dog world of real estate transactions. Glengarry Glen Ross is the name a shady real estate firm invents to glorify a worthless piece of property in Florida that the firm's salesmen will try to sell to unwary buyers. To sell the Glengarry plots, the salesmen all depend on the availability of "leads," or potential customers, in the company's files. To stimulate business, the firm's owners, who never appear on stage, encourage a decidedly unfriendly competition among the Glengarry salesmen. They give the prime leads to those who bring in the most business and the worst leads to the least successful, who have to make their quotas under these onerous conditions or be fired.
The desperation that arises from this situation fuels the plot of the play. In the first scene we see one of the weaker salesmen struggling to survive by trying to bribe the company's office manager for the most promising leads; and then, in the second scene, two others plotting to rifle through the files of the head office and then sell the company's best leads to a competitor.
Richard Roma is the company's top dog (I use the word advisedly here) because for him everyone is a potential client, and he is relentless in giving chase. Mamet shows us his star salesman's stuff in a brief self-contained scene in the middle of the play. There we see Roma engaging a stranger in an adjoining booth of a Chinese restaurant in a casual, apparently aimless conversation. It would actually be more accurate to describe the scene as a monologue that is a tour de force of salesmanship. Ever the opportunist, Roma quickly sets up his man to do a deal without the other getting a word or even a thought in edgewise.
It is difficult to capture the flavor of Roma's pitch simply by paraphrasing it. Mamet wants us to see the salesman improvising in a chance encounter, so his speech seems wordy and disjointed. Its operative idea-that we should not let convention deter us from going after what we want-is cheap; but the way Roma serves up the idea to his mark, a man named Lingk, is unique. Before quoting directly from the play, I should point out that Mamet has Roma pitch his potential client in gutter language that may be shocking to the audience, but that has a special dramatic function in this scene as we shall see: . . . all train compartments smell vaguely of shit. It gets so you don't mind it. That's the worst thing I can confess. You know how long it took me to get there? A long time. When you die you're going to regret the things you don't do. You think you're queer . . . ? I'm going to tell you something: we're all queer. You think that you're a thief? So what? You get befuddled by a middle class morality . . . ? Get shut of it. Shut it out. You cheated on your wife . . . ? You did it, live with it . . . You fuck little girls, so be it. Bad people go to hell? I don't think so. (GGR, 47)
Outrageous? Certainly. Yet, as the playwright well knows, outrageous people often get away with more than anyone else. That is especially the case when the lines are delivered in a casual, throwaway manner (at least that is how Al Pacino does it in the film version). This particular opening serves Roma's purposes well. The obscenities divert his prospect's attention from the salesman's objective-to sell him a piece of Glengarry Glen Ross. At the same time, Roma is suggesting exotic possibilities to this apparently lonely man in the next booth that clearly lie outside his "middle class morality."
This is the strategy that Roma, warming to his subject, pursues in this chance encounter. Arousing the man's prurient instincts, Roma moves him toward what he calls "the moment": The great fucks that you may have had. What do you remember about them? . . . For me, I'm saying, what it is, it's probably not the orgasm. Some broads, forearms on your neck, something her eyes did . . . Eh? What I'm saying, what is our life? It's looking forward and it's looking back. And that's our life. That's it. Where is the moment? (GGR, 48)
Where, indeed? For most of his monologue, Roma violates some of the most sacred real-life canons of salesmanship. For one thing, he never stops talking; for another, he never stops talking about himself. But that is just the point. Roma must predispose his man to do a deal he would ordinarily run from by getting him to buy into the idea of seizing the day (the "moment"). He can do this only by releasing all the inhibitions, all the built-in restraints that might get in the way. In itself, Roma's philosophy is nickle-and-dime stuff. Life is full of contingencies, Roma says in a barrage of words, so that to be secure under the circumstances, "I do those things which seem correct to me today." A perfectly reasonable way to live, this. Who would deny that it is best to be the master of one's fate?
The devil, though, is in the details. This is how Roma's life-affirming philosophy figures in the context of his sales pitch: I do those things which seem correct to me today . . . According to the dictates of my mind . . . Stocks, bonds, objects of art, real estate. Now: what are they? . . . An opportunity. To what? To make money? Perhaps. To lose money? Perhaps. To indulge and to learn about ourselves? Perhaps. So fucking what? What isn't? They're an opportunity. (GGR, 49)
Roma knows that to predispose this individual to a deal that he neither wants nor needs, the salesman must create the illusion in Lingk's mind that he is indeed his own man. By dismissing the idea that nothing in this world can prevent him from doing what will make him secure and self-confident, Roma gives him title, in effect, to his own existence, with unlimited freedom to act on his impulses. In other words, the salesman knows that to pull off his improbable coup, he must change Lingk's own self-perception; he must give him a completely new and more attractive image of himself than this apparently lonely man is likely to have possessed before. Roma is subtly removing the grounds on which Lingk might reject the deal, so that closing the sale will be a foregone conclusion. Adroit salesman that he is, Roma is quick to stress the benefits of availing yourself of life's random offerings, whatever form these may take:
A guy comes up to you . . . "There're these properties I'd like for you to see." What does it mean? What you want it to mean. (Pause.) Money? (Pause.) If that's what it signifies to you. Security? (Pause.) Comfort? (Pause.) All it is is THINGS THAT HAPPEN TO YOU. (Pause.) That's all it is. (GGR, 50) It is not property Roma is selling here so much as himself. It is up to the actor playing Roma to make sure we see the salesman himself as a great actor. (Knowing how to freight a pause with meaning is perhaps more of a test of a good actor and good salesperson than finding the right way to deliver the words.) The last part of Roma's pitch fuels the illusions he is creating here. Once Lingk buys into what Roma is saying-not that he has any choice in the matter-he will have attained a remarkable sense of his own uniqueness: "What's special . . . what draws us? . . . We're all different . . . We're not the same . . . We are not the same." Roma is a master of the obvious. With his new sense of self, Lingk will clearly make the big decision for himself. As the scene ends, Mamet shows his star salesman at his canniest, for Roma appears as uncertain as we might expect his prospect to be: I want to show you something. (Pause.) It might mean nothing to you . . . and it might not. I don't know. I don't know anymore. (GGR, 50)
The playwright is careful to have Roma violate the canons of good salesmanship by not having him carry on about the features and benefits of what it is he is actually selling. To have done so would have been to blur Mamet's real point-that Roma, a conjurer of illusion, has sold his client-in every sense-a new lease on life.
Playing by the Rules: The "Highly Effective" Real Estate Salesman in Real Life Of course, playwrights often use dramatic license to compress time, so that what is accomplished on stage takes a much shorter time than it does in real life. In the real world, no salesperson could be expected to pull off what Roma does in the scene's overall playing time of six or seven minutes. I was reminded of the difference between what a playwright can manage in that time and the time such transactions actually take while reading Stephen R. Covey's best-selling book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.5 There the author, a much sought after management consultant, describes a real estate deal that took six months to consummate.
Covey's book, first published in 1989, has proven one of the most popular books among business leaders and executives in our time. It is still high up on the Times paperback list of management best-sellers and has been read, endorsed by prominent chief executives of Fortune 500 companies, and ordered in bulk for distribution down the managerial ranks. It is easy to see why. Covey's prescribed habits promise great things. Put into practice, they bespeak self-mastery and leadership capability. How can any can-do executive go wrong by being "proactive" (Habit 1), by putting "first things first" (Habit 3), by thinking "win-win" (Habit 4), and by "synergizing" (Habit 6)? Thanks to Covey, these terms have become ingrained in the language of business.
But there is more to The Seven Habits than a handy working vocabulary. As executives become more effective at what they do by applying these habits in business transactions, they promise to become better people as well. The same holds for nonbusiness types, too. Everyone who has learned to be proactive and to think positively stands to benefit from an "upward spiral of growth" leading ineluctably "to new levels of understanding" and perfection of character. It is this self-actualizing aspect of Covey's book, I think, that has endeared it to such a wide range of people, not just the high-profile executive.
Covey's timing, too, could not have been better. The subtitle of his work, Restoring the Character Ethic, showed his understanding that people at the end of the eighties were fed up with the profligacy and chicanery of that high-flying decade. His book was (and remains) a clarion call to those hungry for ways to be highly effective and ethical at the same time.
Integral to Covey's system of self- and professional renewal is his Habit 5: Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood. Remarking that "few people have had any training in listening," the author finds that "our conversations become collective monologues, and [that] we never really understand what's going on inside another human being." For Covey, the important thing on a professional as well as personal plane is "empathic listening"-getting "inside another person's frame of reference," so that "you see the world the way they see the world . . . you understand how they feel." Empathic listening is built "on a base of character that inspires openness and trust." To use a favorite Covey metaphor, seeking first to understand helps build the "Emotional Bank Accounts that create a commerce between hearts."
Covey's prime example of this principle from the world of business comes from a real estate agent who, after taking Covey's seminar in empathic listening, closed an important deal. As this individual relates his experience to Covey, he had been working on the deal for over six months. ". . . all my eggs were in this one basket. All of them." As he went to close the deal at long last, the principals in the transaction, accompanied by their attorneys, brought another real estate agent in "with an alternative proposal" to the very one they had come to sign.
As Covey's real estate agent remembers it, the deal seemed about to fall through until, resolving to "practice what [he] learned" in the Covey seminar he had just attended, he sought to understand the principals' "needs and concerns." In the middle of this phase of the discussion, one of the principals suddenly got up, phoned his wife, put his hand over the mouthpiece, and said to Covey's real estate agent, "You've got the deal." The agent confessed to being "totally dumbfounded" at having managed to conclude the transaction.
According to Covey, his real estate agent "had made a huge deposit in the Emotional Bank Account" by giving the individuals with whom he was trying to close the deal "psychological air." Perhaps so. We would like to think that all such crises can be resolved by recourse to the principle of "empathic communication."
Just suppose, however, that we had come across this story apart from its context in The Seven Habits. What then? Would we see it as an example of how we will meet with unexpected success if only we seek "to understand"? I don't think so. Without altering the external facts of the story as Covey retells it, I see the real estate agent and his newly won deal-making prowess in a less flattering light than Covey, his seminar leader, does. Here is my unfiltered version of the incident:
The last-minute ploy of bringing an alternative real estate agent in at the eleventh hour was clearly meant to intimidate Covey's agent and put the squeeze on him for more advantageous terms. The other side's timing was exquisite: Because the agent, as they doubtless knew, had all his "eggs in one basket," he might readily give in on some crucial points. Besides, he would hardly want to abandon the deal after working on it for half a year. They succeeded in convincing Covey's beleaguered agent that he was about to lose the deal. By his own account, he "panicked."
The client's negotiating tactic was a familiar one. First, raise the agent's expectations of doing the deal. Then, at the last minute, undercut his confidence by appearing to entertain an attractive competitive proposal. Our hero, so desperate that he could hardly think, failed to grasp that these people were testing him to find out how many more concessions he could be pushed to make. In short, the client invented his own highly effective scenario for the occasion.
The prospective client, seeing that Covey's agent was simply reiterating the terms he had already negotiated over a long period, albeit with an eye toward the other's concerns, relaxed his tough stance, "stood up in the middle of [the] conversation," and casually accepted the deal in the middle of phoning his wife, to the agent's understandable bewilderment ("I was totally dumbfounded").
You need not be a cynic to see that in the agent's cutthroat world of high-stakes transactions, nothing happens neatly or predictably. Least of all do things go our way because we commit ourselves to acting out predigested, feel-good management formulas. Covey's interpretation of his "seek first to understand" example is disingenuous because he reduces the ploys and stratagems, the thrust-and-parry, the deviousness and sheer theatrics of deal-making to a simplistic paradigm. Not to be too dogmatic about it myself, I would agree that there are situations that call for listening before talking, but decidedly not this one.
Even without having direct access to the participants in the deal described, I would defend my made-up version of events as being more probable than Covey's, if only because I have no theory of behavior to vindicate and no rules to verify. But even if I embraced the notion of "empathic listening," I would bet that this client did not want to be understood; his only concern at the time was getting some last minute concessions. Put another way, the agent only imagined he was handling the client ^ la Covey. When push came to shove, this client was handling him.
Again, to be fair, I readily concede that Habit 5, Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood, makes good common sense: In general, everyone wants to be understood, so it is to our advantage to listen. Yet it is clear to me that businesspeople prove themselves highly effective precisely because they turn this principle on its head when the occasion requires it. Friends of mine who regularly do real estate deals on behalf of their firms cite occasions where, knowing exactly what they want, they will settle for nothing less and, therefore, make no effort to understand, let alone accommodate, the other side's needs. To do so would be to weaken their position. The idea is to deal from strength, or at least to create the impression that you are dealing from strength.
Which brings us full circle to David Mamet's most effective salesman, Richard Roma. Like many such people, Roma operates by instinct and street smarts. He is expert at sizing up his dupe and going in quickly for the kill. A woebegone individual drinking alone in a booth in a local Chinese restaurant tells him all he needs to know to bring the man into his confidence. An artist at improvisation, Roma launches into a monologue that defies Covey's mandate to listen first and talk afterward. And yet, in his inimitable way Roma "hears" his man perfectly. His gutter gossip, his insistence on breaching life's constraints, and his apparent mastery of life's contingencies add up to a big deposit in this individual's Emotional Bank Account. Roma has "listened" empathically.
In fact, he goes Covey one better. Roma shows Lingk he understands him, but really wins him over by liberating the man from himself. In one of Glengarry's most telling moments toward the end of the play, the office manager inadvertently ruins the deal Roma has made with Lingk, whereupon the latter, now off the hook, confesses to the salesman, "I know I've let you down. I'm sorry . . . Forgive me." How potent Roma's approach has been! He has made his dupe beholden to him! And the beauty of all this showmanship is that Roma (as opposed to the actor playing Roma) has done it without a script, without knowing how things will play out (in every sense of that term). The whole scene in the Chinese restaurant, while carefully contrived by the playwright, has an impromptu quality about it. It is designed to convey as vividly as possible the ingenuity with which a salesman turns a sense of the occasion, of the "moment," to advantage. We are left with the impression that a great salesman like Richard Roma never plays the same role twice; he is supremely flexible in that he can adjust his style to the most varied scenarios. Still, we might argue that what happens on the stage in the playing time of about seven minutes or so is exaggerated or improbable, however accurate Mamet's ear for colloquial language may be. I am inclined to agree. For sheer outrageousness, this scene from Glengarry has no parallel in the fictions of business. Only, I believe, in real life.
Breaking the Rules: Highly Effective Salesmen in Real Life Roma's monologue has a special resonance for me since it conjures up characters from my own business experience whose methods of making a sale I would otherwise think unorthodox, if not eccentric. One of them, a salesman whom I shall call Martin, worked for a prominent textile firm for many years before retiring with the best sales record in the company's history. As an individual, he was not likable. An intellectual with an overbearing, abrupt manner, Martin did not suffer fools gladly. With his customers he was incorrigible, browbeating them in his impatience to get an order and then to have it written on his terms. And if he wasn't bullying them, he was patronizing or overfamiliar in his attitude, often calling his contemporaries "kid." In a perverse kind of way, his manner endeared him to customers.
For Martin, listening to his customers and trying first to understand their needs was irrelevant and a waste of time. Instead, he would tell them what he wanted from them. Invariably they agreed because Martin left them no other choice. (Of course, it helped to have a thorough knowledge of his customers' businesses.) As a salesman he was as obnoxious in his way as Richard Roma-and equally effective. The point here is that he made no effort to leaven his approach and contain his nastiness. Instead, he used his more notorious traits to advantage. Most good salespeople trade on their strengths. Martin traded on his shortcomings as an individual. As a result, he was the best example of the art of selling by intimidation I have ever seen in action.
For me, though, the closest approximation to Roma's extemporaneous style was a former Maidenform salesman in charge of the company's sleepwear division, introduced as an extension to Maidenform's intimate apparel business in the 1970s. John's success was grounded in his contempt for the traditional rules of his craft. The company has always fine-tuned the selling skills of its sales force, one of the most respected in the industry, by adapting some of the classic techniques for its purposes: Listen first and talk later; attune your pitch to your customer's special needs and problems; anticipate objections if possible; develop general benefit statements; and-the b_te noire of mediocre salespeople-never forget to close the sale.
John would have none of that. Like Roma, he was a master of improvisation. His cardinal principle of salesmanship was: Never stop talking. And the natural corollary to that was: Never talk about what it is you are actually selling. In fact, John, again like Mamet's Roma, proved that closing a sale depends on how well you practice the arts of distraction and irrelevance. With buyers from all over the country present in our New York showroom to see the new Spring or Fall line, John, instead of dutifully cataloguing the features and benefits of the sleepwear line, would draw on his wealth of personal stories, anecdotes, quips, and jokes, blending them together to give the impression of an improvised scenario.
You might well hear about his last trip to Cincinnati or Minneapolis, where-can you believe it-he ran into Julie Christie in the elevator. Or about how Hurricane Hortense nearly swept away his waterfront house in Westport; or about the time he found himself unattended at a popular LA restaurant because the staff were all hovering around Sean Connery at the next booth; or about how his daughter's ballet lessons paid off in her selection as a member of the corps de ballet in the local Nutcracker; or about all of the above, in no particular order. Most of it was folderol, but the buyers were invariably enraptured because this was selling as theater, a tour de force of irrelevance and distraction by an actor who had unerring instincts for his audience. What is more, even with a roomful of people, John had the ability to focus on each buyer in turn, in such a way as to make her feel like the most important person in the room.
What John knew, of course, was that the buyers came to market week wanting to be entertained, to be wooed. There was always a tremendous air of excitement in his pitch. Part of it was body language, part of it was his dapper appearance, part of it was unswerving eye contact with the most important people there. But the real trick, John's stock-in-trade, was to keep the words flowing at all costs and somehow impart the same charged significance to everything he said, no matter how trivial. It was nonsense, but it was calculated, inspired nonsense.
I should add that the customers who over the years had had enough exposure to John to know very well what he was about were, not surprisingly, among his greatest fans-and best customers. John's ability to sustain his emcee role never flagged. Part of his ability to endure at such a high-powered level was a merging of vocation and avocation. John's corporate persona was indistinguishable from his real self. Whatever the occasion, social or business, he was always selling himself.
There was never a question about the sheer fun John had as a kind of performance artist-in life as in business. When the occasion, the "moment," calls for it, good salespeople, like first-rate artists, flout the rules and make up their own. Like great artists, too, they create a special aura, an atmosphere about themselves that is hard to define but that draws an audience in. The atmosphere that John created in the showroom nourished the perception that the current season's offerings were the most compelling creations in the world. The incoming orders after market week bore that perception out. His performances always had the quality of good theater.
In an age where computer technology has enabled more efficient business practices, John's highly personal, free-form approach to selling may seem to be a throwback to a bygone era. Today's salespeople are armed with computers to expedite seasonal planning, monitor sales, and apprise store managers at a moment's notice about the status of deliveries. What a boon for customer service!
Yet the use of the computer can sometimes obstruct building relationships with customers. A sales manager who reported directly to me grew so enamored of his desktop computer and the wonders it could perform that when customers came into his office, they found themselves talking to an executive sitting at a 45° angle to them, his eyes glued to the account information on the screen and his hands poised on the keyboard. There was no information or piece of data relevant to the account that he could not summon up in a flash. He had all the answers, this product of the information revolution.
Did the computer, then, enable him to handle his accounts more efficiently? Absolutely. Did our high-tech executive make stores want to do business with the firm? No way. Why should they when there was no spontaneity, no human pulse, no extravagant word or gesture that might prompt a buyer (I once saw it happen) to toss her order form at John after one of his improvised scenarios and let him fill in the numbers. If I were charged with making salespeople highly effective, I would order Glengarry Glen Ross in bulk, hold a seminar on selling as theater, and show them how to seize "the moment" before turning them loose.
Now it is certainly true that as legitimate businesspeople we cannot condone the kind of sleazy dealmaking that Richard Roma pulls off. My point is simply that, as a primer on salesmanship as well as on survival in an ultracompetitive environment, Glengarry Glen Ross is tough to beat. Without cheating our customers the way Mamet's real estate salesmen do, we can appreciate the tactical value of generating images and illusions that tap into people's needs as potential consumers. On a grander scale, we shall see how merchant-bankers, movie stars, advertising executives, and empire builders succeed in promoting themselves, their services, their brands, and their great schemes in a culture where image is everything.
Meet the Author
ROBERT A. BRAWER, PhD, served as CEO and President of Maidenform Worldwide, Inc., until 1995. During his 20 years at Maidenform, he held a variety of international marketing positions. Dr. Brawer holds a doctorate in English literature from the University of Chicago, and, prior to joining Maidenform, he taught English literature at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he specialized in medieval studies. A well-known advocate of finding applications for the humanities in business management, he teaches a cross-disciplinary course on "Fictions of Business" at New York University.
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