Facing Down the Stigma of Sales and Selling

by | Nov 18, 2019 | Business Strategy, Sales Leadership, The 5 Principles of Sales Excellence | 0 comments

Facing Down the Stigma of Sales and Selling

Why is it that so many business owners, and in particular owners of small businesses, shy away from using the words sales and selling?

All businesses need to sell to survive but why do so many people positively recoil at the very idea of being a ‘salesperson’?

Could it be because there is a certain reputation ascribed to sales people, a certain stigma, that makes so many want to run a mile at the thought of actually being perceived as a salesperson?

Actually, YES and it’s such a shame. What’s more, it needn’t, and shouldn’t, be this way.

This month we’re going to examine the reasons sales, and by association salespeople, have such a bad reputation and how to avoid you and your teams falling into the stereotypical image of ‘the pushy salesperson’.

Back to the Beginning.

At the most basic level, selling involves one person exchanging goods or services for either money OR other goods/services. Strictly speaking the second scenario is ‘bartering’, however there is still the element of arriving at a suitable ‘exchange rate’ which sounds like selling to us.

This means that for as long as humanity has existed, which may be as long as 300,000 years, there has been some sort of selling going on. Yes, initially it would have been bartering as currency didn’t exist until around 5,000 or so years ago, but for as long as people have needed things that others could supply, selling has existed…

How’s that for a mind-blowing thought? There have always been salespeople

Here’s another nugget which may surprise you: in approx. 1750 BC in what was then known as Mesopotamia, a King by the name of Hammurabi, had a code of law written which included a section designed to protect sellers: Law #104: “If a merchant give an agent grain, wool, oil, or any other goods to transport, the agent shall give a receipt for the amount, and compensate the merchant therefore, he shall obtain a receipt from the merchant for the money that he gives the merchant.”

Given that selling, in some form or another, has been around for most of human history, why then does there seem to be such a stigma about selling and sales people these days?

Step up ‘the Snake Oil’ seller…

Back in the 1800’s the US was busy building the First Continental Rail Road and a lot of Chinese labourers were employed. These labourers brought a product with them from home which they used to reduce inflammation – it was made of oil from the Chinese Water snake. Allegedly they shared the oil with their American co-workers who were suitably impressed and wished to replicate it. Unfortunately Chinese Water snakes are not common in the US and so ‘alternatives’ were used!

…and thus began the story of ‘the Snake Oil’ seller.

Travelling salespeople moving town to town selling their wares to a gullible market by claiming miraculous benefits and cures. Of course, by the time the oil was found to be of absolutely no use, the sales people were long gone. 

Who ‘Invented’ Modern Selling?

This honour falls to a John Henry Patterson who was born 1844 in Ohio and founded the National Cash Register Company (NCR) in 1884.

Mr Patterson was the first (insofar as in known) to create a sales training manual, practice direct mail and advertising and provide his sales teams with a script which they were expected to follow to the letter. This manual was known as the ‘NCR Primer’ and any sales person who failed to demonstrate they had memorised the 450 word document was fired. A little later the ‘Book of Arguments’ was compiled – a compendium of how to overcome client objections.

Patterson was often quoted as saying that half of all lost sales could be attributed to the salesperson’s failure to communicate. Definitely a man ahead of his time!

He also created the system of targets and bonuses which, in one form or another continues to this day. Salespeople were encouraged to sell more because that meant they earned more.

Greedy and unscrupulous individuals thus continued in the tradition of the ‘Snake Oil’ seller – selling things which people maybe didn’t need, couldn’t afford, or weren’t appropriate for them.

Car Salesman

Hands up…how many of you have an image of a sharp suited used car salesperson pop into your head when you hear the word ‘salesman’.

Quite a few of you probably.

And how many of you have had a bad experience in a car salesroom?

Feeling pressured into buying, signing up for finance, added warranties etc.

Replace ‘used cars’ with any number of other products and it’s odds on you can think of occasions when an overly pushy sale person has provided a horrible sales experience.

Those negative stereotypes stick in the brain and lead to the inevitable (if incorrect) thought process that ‘all salespeople are bad’.

Unfortunately human nature being as it is, we do tend to dwell on the negative and thus the idea that all salespeople are pushy, untrustworthy, ‘out to con you’ etc, etc is firmly engrained in the collective psyche!

Facing the Truth

If you are in sales yourself, running a company, or heading up the sales process within a company, you need to face up to the unpalatable truth – many people see sales and sales people as having a bad reputation. 

Much of this bad reputation may be based on past selling techniques but there are still plenty of examples of poor sales approaches and there are still pushy and frankly unscrupulous sales people out there.

Poor behaviour in the overall sales industry reflects badly on all of us.

Here at Steve Knapp Sales we are trying to change this negative reputation, by working with sales teams to demonstrate that ethics and integrity DO have a valid role to play within sales.

Changing the Face of Sales

Consumers today, whether we’re talking about individuals or businesses, are much savvier than in times past.

The internet has made experts out of everyone and it’s much easier to ‘shop around’ for both products and services.

According to research by media agency UK, a staggering 76% of UK buyers do online research before making a purchase; that may be referring to the individual consumer, but it would be a fair assumption that B2B purchasers also research intensively online.

The take away from this message is that you need to ensure a) you have an online presence and b) that it is kept up to date and is designed in such a way as to draw your customer base to you. Look back at one of our previous blogs ‘Why Every Business Needs a Sales Strategy’ where we talk about the importance of your sales and marketing teams working together.

Get the information correct, send out the right messages – in other words COMMUNICATE with your potential market place using language they understand – and you are already easing the way to a sale.

Your sales team (however large or small that may be) need to be representatives and ambassadors of your company – they must be conversant with the product(s) that’s a given BUT they must also be fully ‘bought in’ to the company’s ethos and brand values. Have another read of Put Sales at the Heart of your Business Processes where we cover this in detail.

Your company can adopt hiring plans which ensure that the right people are recruited to your sales positions, ones who won’t turn into ‘Snake Oil’ sellers! Rewards packages which don’t encourage making sales simply to achieve bonus levels can be designed and you can run continuous learning and development programs for your teams.

Customer service is not just a buzzword – treat your customer base well and not only will they keep coming back to you, they will refer others. This applies equally in the B2B sector as B2C. Provide your customers with what they need, when they want it and at a price they like and your Customer Lifetime Value (CLV) is going to be great.

Sales Behaviours

If sales, as a profession is going to move permanently away from the used car or snake oil salesman image, what needs to change?

The ‘in your face, pushy, over confident approach’ needs to go and be replaced with more measured behaviours. Remember that the customer has probably already researched your product and could be simply looking for validation that they are making the right choice. A pushy salesperson could actually lose the sale, not close it.

Sales people should learn to listen as much, if not more, than talk. They should ask strategic questions and draw out information to work out exactly what the customer wants…not what the sales person thinks they want.

The phrase ‘he (or she!) could sell snow to an Eskimo’ is often used in a derogatory way towards a salesperson. Let’s turn this on its head…how can this ability be recognised as actually being a very valuable trait in a salesperson, instead of being seen as an underlining of a negative stereotype? How about highlighting the communication skills, empathy and customer service aspects necessary to be such an innate salesperson? Take the emphasis away from the end result, closing the sale, to the process itself…the customer journey. 

If your salespeople are perceived as offering a great customer service all the way through the buying journey; if your customers feel listened to, understood and appreciated and they TRUST you, they will keep coming back. 

Customer experience is the key to successful sales, in fact according to this report by Walker, by 2020 (i.e. next year!) ‘customers will dictate the buying experience’.

Ethics and Integrity in Selling

The so-called millennial generation have a different way of thinking about business, who they work for and who they buy from. They are far more focussed on values and ethics – both their own and the businesses they work for and deal with. They will resonate with those organisations that align with their own beliefs.

This generation (generally thought of as being born between 1980 and 1996) are now moving into positions of power – they are increasingly influencing company behaviours and they are looking for ethical and integrity based sales approaches. If you don’t tick those boxes, if you can’t earn their trust, then ultimately you will not make your sale.

Aflac, a large American insurance provider, commissioned a 2018 survey of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR)and a staggering 92% of the millennials questioned stated that they are more likely to purchase from an ethical company! Can your company afford to miss out on this potential marketplace?


  • Selling is not new – humans have always sold to each other in one way or another
  • Recognise the negative reputation of sales 
  • Ensure your team understands (and uses) the softer, customer centric sales approaches
  • Build your CSR
  • Create an excellent customer experience
  • Ensure your entire business is structured towards customer experience.

It’s time to start treating sales as a profession that people working in can be proud of. Everyone can sell if they are given the right tools and information to do so.

(and finally, back to Snake Oil, in case you were wondering what was actually in the oil…in 1917 federal investors seized a shipment of ‘Stanley’s Snake Oil’ and upon investigation discovered  it contained mineral oil, a fatty oil believed to be beef fat, red pepper and turpentine…not a trace of anything snake related!)

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