“In the early 1900s, sales was a trusted and admired profession,” explains Todd Caponi, author of The Transparent Sales Leader and The Transparency Sale, “so much so that President Woodrow Wilson took time to keynote a 1916 national sales conference during World War I.”

Todd believes “modern” selling started in the 1890s. During the Industrial Revolution, trained and dedicated sales representatives were given territories and variable compensation. Sales was being taught in every significant college, and even in many high schools. 

“Respect. Admiration. Education. And, then, poof. It all went away,” he explains with chagrin, “but it did not have to be that way…”

I had a chance to interview Todd recently. Here is what I learned about the origins of sales as a service profession, which was derailed largely due to reliance on various technological innovations, and the path back through refocusing on the buyer and their journey.

  1. Sales in Its Original Purpose 🤝

One of Todd’s favorite quotes on the topic of sales comes from Arthur Sheldon, who wrote a book in 1911 called The Art of Selling: “True salesmanship is the science of service.” 

“Grasp that thought firmly and never let go,” Todd says emphatically. “Sales was supposed to be a service profession where our role was to sell the right solutions to the right companies at the right time, at the right price. Because when we do right by our customers, all ships rise.” 

“That means honesty. That means truth,” he explains. “Sales is a service. We need to be honest.” 

Another of his favorite quotes, “if the truth won’t sell it, don’t sell it,” comes from Arthur Dunn who wrote Scientific Selling And Advertising in 1919. 

It’s all about buyer centrism. Sales had to be done face to face,” explains Todd. “We developed relationships and we actually cared about our customers.”

  1. SalesTech Kills Personalization ☎️

Todd argues that with the rise of technological innovations such as the telephone in the 1910s and more recently sales tech, you can chart the degradation of the sales profession as well as the associated admiration. 

“We became so enamored with tech and scale that we forgot there’s a human being who we’re supposed to be establishing a relationship with.”   

In a keynote presentation he gives, “Salespeople Ruin Everything,” Todd talks about just this:

  • Telephones should have been a gift to the sales profession. They offered the potential to reach more people and help them achieve better, faster outcomes. But we ruined it with spam calls… so much so that we have caller ID and the government intervened with the National Do Not Call Registry
  • Similarly with email. It provided a new way to connect with people. And again, the abuse of email outreach led government intervention

“We keep doing this over and over again. We get blinded by scale,” says Todd, “instead of realizing that our role is to be of service. Technology has caused us to let go of that thought.”

“But,” he says, “there’s an opportunity to get it back.”

  1. Getting Back to Buyer-Centricity 🥰

“From the classic movie Glengarry Glen Ross, everyone remembers Alec Baldwin’s berating speech on ‘A-B-C – Always Be Closing,’ Todd muses. “But they missed this little phrase AIDA (Attention, Interest, Desire, and Action). He actually got that part right!”

Every buyer goes through four stages on their path to making a purchase, Todd explains: 

  • Do we have their ATTENTION? 
  • Are they INTERESTED?
  • Have we created a DESIRE for this product? 
  • Are they ready to take ACTION?

It’s all about recognizing buyer behavior, not seller behavior – which is what the sales profession has incorrectly become so focused on.  

Todd sees rethinking your sales process to become buyer-centric as a “huge opportunity and differentiator” in any sales organization. 

Systematically integrating buyer centrism in the sales process helps sales teams forecast more accurately and close at a higher rate. “You are able to predict when a buyer is going to buy because you are actually focusing on what the buyer’s doing.”

Technology often seems like a path to a quicker victory in sales. Todd reminds us that is true only if we start from the posture of sales as service and putting our buyers first!