Don Rogers: The soul of sales
By now, every sales person must know the clip from the 1992 classic “Glengarry Glen Ross.”
“Put. That. Coffee. Down,” barks a suit sent from downtown, played by a young and lean Alec Baldwin, amid old salts in a dreary office. A haggard sales guy, played by Jack Lemmon, had been pouring himself a cup. He stops with the pot in hand, looks over. What?
“Coffee’s for closers,” the suit declares. And so we roll into a tale about the dark side of sales. The alpha dog swagger. The craven hunger. The greed and desperation, the smiley kowtowing, the alertness to every word and gesture, a tell?
The fear. Especially the fear. At its worst, at your worst, it’ll rip your soul in two. Wet tissue. All you hold dear gone at the sniff of a deal.
For a certain set — baring big-faced watches, driving sleek cars with lethal names, mixing only with others deemed “interesting” — all this has the smell of napalm in the morning. God they love it.
“Always be closing.” There’s another classic line from the same film. I’ve said it myself. In jest, mostly.
The livelier sales staffs with clever managers sometimes are treated to this clip, usually for a training session on … closing.
Newsrooms have their own mythic vibe, generally rumplier, grumpier, more sardonic, gallows even, senses keen for something else entirely. They wouldn’t know much about closing.
This was more my world before being mistaken for a grownup and agreeing maybe a little rashly during the Great Recession to keep on eye on things — just till the overlords could find a new publisher, ideally one really good at closing. Lord we needed that.
Before then, though, as editor of the Vail Daily in Colorado, I was trying to save a daily, then weekly competitor we beat and then bought. Things were not going well under us for the same reasons they hadn’t gone well before. I’m sure my big mouth landed me one of those “OK, you think you’re so smart …” deals.
I was explaining my ideas at a chamber mixer with a Realtor friend. My son, on break from college, had come along. The core problem was the weekly had a highbrow advertising base but had let itself get pushed into decidedly lowbrow content. We’d shift to highbrow and more in-depth to create separation from the daily, and match the advertising base. In theory this little local Economist would grow as the advertisers reached more readers interested in what they had to sell, namely higher-end real estate.
Something must have clicked, because my friend declared “I’m in.” He even asked who he should call to take his order.
Wow. How did that happen? I was stoked.
And then kept talking. We had challenges. Training issues. Getting the staff we’d assigned to this project to understand the concept, to reach deeper, to understand their audience wasn’t lifties and bartenders and ski shop lifers, but second-home owners, ski vacationers, locals with million dollar investments in the Vail Valley, which wasn’t all that much considering the cost of homes there.
“You know,” my friend said after awhile. “On second thought. …”
“So,” my son said on the way to the parking lot. “Great job selling him into the pub.” And then, forehead slap: “Then you sold him right out of it. Just like that. Did you even notice?”
Honestly? He didn’t have to ask.
But sales — closing — done well is more like our conversation than the movie. Grains of truth in a stereotype don’t add up to the whole truth. The real art is more prosaic, probably why it seldom shows up in the movies. Not enough drama.
When I feel I’m being “closed,” a bell sounds, red lights flash, the shields up. A clumsy sales person has me twitchy at hello. I’m prey and know it. The lion and the deer.
I think the real pros know this, or sense it. They don’t sell. Their work has less to do with hunting than learning and helping me solve problems. Listening far more than talking. They know if they do it well, they won’t need to “close.” They’ll just need to shut up when the time comes for me to close myself because the decision to invest is the right thing to do.
Sales as a discipline actually is a high calling, among the highest. It’s this way with all power, I believe. The more you have, the more you can take advantage of people with it, the more responsibility you have and the greater the consequences for your soul.
Yes, I know, this is the stuff of other movies, more heroic myth. But I believe in souls and higher purpose and all that foolishness. Through sales, with its potential for great good as well as those evil temptations, great souls may be polished. It’s really about the heart.
Now finish your coffee.
Don Rogers is the publisher of the Sierra Sun and The Union, based in Grass Valley. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-477-4299.