The Force. – book reviews

The Force. – book reviews

David Segal

My own sales career began and ended in London a few years ago, when I was making cold calls on the phone for a storm window manufacturer. My job was to dial numbers from a photo-copied page of the London phone directory and deliver a scripted earful when someone had the bad luck to answer the phone; a commission was mine if a person agreed to let a salesman come by for a home demonstration. This sounded like easy shillings to me. Sitting down in a room full of phone reps that first night, I could smell the money.

I lasted four days. Most folks would rather I mailed them a bag of rats than force them to entertain a couple of salesmen with windows. And then there were all these weird rules. If you sent a salesman to the home of an Indian family–the sub-continental variety, that is–not only did you lose your commission for that lead, but you were docked a percent of your next one. The company president swore this wasn’t racism but a cold business calculation. Indians, he told us, never buy, they just haggle ad nauseum. This stereotype, obviously an international one, surfaces in Glengarry Glen Ross, which David

Mamet confected out of his year-long stint in a Chicago sales office. In the play, Shelly Levene knows he’s despised by his supervisor when the only lead he gets is named “Patel,” a name as Indian as Shapiro is Jewish. “Patel?” says a sympathetic colleague. “They gave you Patel?”

Odder still, we phone reps were told to use the name of someone famous. The theory was that if you started your spiel with, for instance, “Hello, this is John Gielgud” there might be several nanoseconds of confusion, sufficient time to get into your pitch and pique the listener’s interest. Naturally, this didn’t work. People were doubly annoyed; mad that it wasn’t John Gielgud the actor, madder still that it was John Gielgud the salesman. The only fun of this was that a room of us sounded like a convention of psychotic celebrity wanna-bes, an endless cross-talking cacophony of “Hello, this is Diana Ross,” “Hello, this is Denis Thatcher,” and so on.

Unfortunately for the company, my performance was only a little worse than average. Job turnover was so high that the most senior phone rep had been there a grand total of three weeks, and the management used to pump our hands and say “Please come back” as we left each night.

But my sales career gave me an appreciation for just how ego-bruising this line of work can be. And, by spending some time around the salesmen who made home calls for the company, I learned this surprising fact: Salesmen are humans. These guys–they were all men–were neither foul-mouthed connivers nor pathetic buffoons. Their work was difficult, but they were friendly, not particularly cynical about their jobs, and seemed to make a reasonable living.

Salesmen like these are hard to find in literature or plays, which is why David Dorsey’s The Force is such an original contribution. The book follows a Xerox sales team in Cleveland through one year as it struggles to meet its company-mandated quota of selling $30 million worth of photocopying equipment. Most of the team is likeable and, measured against our preconceptions, unlikely. You expect hard-bitten types in bad suits; what you get are yuppies with unshattered personal lives and solidly middle class incomes. What they do is not brain surgery, but there is enough skill to the job that they can be said to do it well. They are not saints, but they’re not criminals either. This will surprise the many of us who presume that most salesmen are either rotten people selling good stuff or good people selling rotten stuff. And it will surprise intellectuals for whom salesmen have long served as a respectable target of scorn.

Where do our prejudices about this profession come from? In part, from weasly salesmen, the kind who radiate an arch-cheeriness that lasts as long as your interest in their wares. (And not just for big ticket items. In this country, the only attractive women who will approach a man and say “Hi, how are you?” are the sales ladies at The Gap.) But to the extent that our preconceptions are wide of the mark, the problem is this: The profession has been hopelessly mythologized. In the popular American imagination there are two archetypal salesmen, both wildly inaccurate, each one laughably at odds with the other.

The first is Theater Salesman, so named because he comes to us via playwrights like Arthur Miller (Death of a Salesman), David Mamet (Glengarry Glen Ross), and Tennessee Williams (The Last of My Solid Gold Watches). Theater Salesman isn’t making enough money, his family life is a shambles, he is either a ninny or a con artist, and he is usually overwhelmed by his circumstances. In most cases, Theater Salesman is one part a fully realized human being and one part polemical jab at capitalism. In Death of a Salesman, for instance, Willy Loman stands for the middle class company man who gets ground up by his own expectations and the system’s heartless gears, and Ben, Willy’s imagined brother, is the symbol of capitalist success at its most Darwinian and vulgar. In one scene, someone says “The jails are filled with fearless characters,” causing Ben to exult with a slap on Willy’s back, “So is the stock exchange, friend!” There’s no explicit push for socialism in the play–just lots of garden imagery and the clear message that Willy is doomed by the barren soil of capitalism–but when the curtain falls you can’t help feeling that the Loman family would have been better off in Sweden.

Salesmen are obvious dramatic fodder for critics of capitalism because they can easily be made to suffer the systme’s worst trials–an addiction to the rat race, the tyranny of an unfeeling boss, the pressures of sales goals. They don’t make anything, which tends to be offensive to those artists who think men are meant to build and create. At the end of Death of a Salesman, Willy’s son recalls how happy his father was putting in a new porch, finishing the cellar and adding that extra bathroom. (Willy’s wife adds, “He was so wonderful with his hands.”) And because salesmen just sell, they strut and fret as commerce’s heartiest champions and most obliging loyalists, making their traumas an all the more damning indictment of the system they serve. They are capitalism’s foot soldiers, vital but numerous enough to be expendable. Like all foot soldiers they are simple marks for tragedy and pathos.

On the other hand, there is Supersalesman, a stock character in the confidence-boosting literature for businessmen which peaked in popularity between the two world wars. The bards of this genre–Dale Carnegie, Wally Armbruster, Napoleon Hill and W. Clement Stone–tend to get embarrassingly carried away with the wonder of sales and salesmen. In Where Have all the Salesmen Gone?, for instance, Armbruster writes, “Supersalesmenship, I think, belongs up there with the arts. It’s surely a practical art. And maybe the very highest form of human endeavor.” Some of these writers thought selling so close to godliness that they believed several leading Biblical figures were in the trade. In Bruce Barton’s 1925 national best-seller The Man Nobody Knows, Jesus Christ is recast as a brilliant sales motivator: “He picked twelve men from the bottom ranks of business and forged them into an organization that conquered the world.” A pamphlet published by Metropolitan Casualty Insurance Company in the same era argued that Moses was “one of the greatest salesmen and real-estate promoters that ever lived.”

Fawning Supersalesman character profiles pepper these works. In Hill’s Succeed and Grow Rich Through Persuasion, there is the story of Delford Smith, who begins life, like all good rags-to-riches types, penniless in an orphange and then tugs on his bootstraps until he is a multi-millionaire. Not that money is everything to Delford Smith; he is renowned for his quiet generosity, love of family, and willingness to help others. In the book’s introduction we learn that he is “one of those rare individuals that few of us have an opportunity to know more than once in a lifetime.”

No doubt there are both Willy Lomans and Delford Smiths out there, but one suspects they are largely designed to, well, sell a particular message. By giving us a remarkably intimate window into the lives of salesmen, The Force convincingly confirms this suspicion. Dorsey explains in the introduction that he was allowed to shadow the sales team into meetings, lunches, sales calls, even into their homes. After he explains the set up, Dorsey vanishes the way makers of good documentaries vanish; he records the action but you never see him, giving The Force the feel of a non-fiction novel in the In Cold Blood vein. This gets awkward only when Dorsey hovers near the kind of intensely personal moments most of us wouldn’t want a writer around to record. In one scene, for instance, we get a table-side view of a salesman and his wife on vacation as they discuss their marriage travails over an anniversary dinner.

When we meet the team, it is halfway through the year and is lagging well behind its targeted sales goal, sparking a frenetic six-month finish-line push. A lot hangs in the balance. For the regional manager, Frank Pacetta, failure could quash his chances of rising to a management spot at headquarters in Stamford, Connecticut. For sales team manager, Fred Thomas–the book’s principal focus–failure means ending a 16-year streak in the hallowed President’s Club, losing out on a trip to Palm Springs, and infuriating Frank Pacetta, who might otherwise help land him a less stressful job. For the sales team working for Thomas, reaching the goal means making money and getting Thomas off their backs.

The central drama in The Force is the tension between the $30 million sales quota and Xerox’s company-wide push for “quality.” To fully appreciate this tragi-comic struggle, you need to know that in the year the book chronicles, Xerox was still recovering from a neardeath experience.

Gross Domestic Products

Back in the 1960s, Xerox was a Fortune 500 fairy tale come true. The company owned the rights to the newly developed photo-copier technology and set about mass manufacturing the world’s first photo-copying machine. The original model, the 914 (named for the 9″ by 14″ paper it handled) was unwieldy and could only make seven copies per minute, but a market rapidly emerged. In 1961, the first year Xerox began pitching the 914, sales were $32 million. By 1968, sales were $1.25 billion. If the numbers had continued on that trajectory a bit longer, Xerox’s business would have surpassed the United States’ gross domestic product. By many reckonings, the 914 was among the most successful commercial ventures ever. Anyone who got in on the ground floor–anyone in the building, really–became a millionaire.

By the seventies, Xerox was huge, rich, and monopolized an enormous and growing market. Thus, it was ripe to commit blunders of legendary proportions. The biggest mistake was to make lousy photo-copiers. In the early seventies, Japanese companies like Ricoh, Sharp, Minolta, and Canon leapt into the market and nearly buried Xerox. In 1970, Xerox had 95 percent of America’s business; by 1982 it had just 13 percent, a stunning decline. Like a lot of American industries in the seventies–auto and steel, for instance–Xerox made a product that was more expensive and less reliable, so much so that one Japanese manufacturer’s commercials jokingly alleged that Xerox’s products broke down so often you had to let the repair man live with you.

The other mistake occurred when its research wing invented the personal computer–and not some clunky prototype but the complete package including mouse, word-processing software, monitor, and laster printer–only to have management under-fund development of the product when bean counters complained about the cost of improving it. Xerox’s scientists flipped the switch on “Alto,” the first P.C., in 1973, years before IBM and Apple came out with their earliest models. In spite of its headstart, the company never made a dent in one of the largest consumer markets of the following years.

In the early eighties, when the company was poised for a heart attack, a former IBM mandarin named David T. Kearns ascended to the CEO’s spot and began invasive surgery. You can learn about this man and the group of reformers who rescued the company in Kearn’s relentlessly self-congratulatory Prophets in the Dark: How Xerox Reinvented Itself and Beat Back the Japanese, which is co-authored by fellow prophet David Nadler. For reasons the authors certainly don’t intend, the book is disconcerting reading.

Kearns’ remedy for Xerox is a push for “Total Quality Leadership.” TQL isn’t defined early in the book, but when you first read this nifty phrase, you imagine some esoteric management theory cooked up by men in lab coats wearing pocket protectors. You figure it has to be complex and controversial because there’s a mighty tussle to get TQL introduced to the company. There are week-long retreats to discuss it, a Quality Improvement Team created to oversee it, and a search for an American consultant who can help them adopt it. Top executives scoff at TQL as “that quality thing,” and only after a lot of arm-twisting and propagandizing does Kearns get a company-wide program of it going at Xerox, an ambitious, four-year plan in which some 100,000 people would be retrained.

You’re ready to make TQL your personal credo until Kearns ends the suspense and finally explains what it is on page 169. Damned if it doesn’t boil down to make good stuff and don’t rip off the customer. Here’s the heart of what Kearns called his “thirty second speech” for TQL: “Improving quality means understanding and working to satisfy the customer’s requirements. Quality is meeting the customer’s existing and latent requirements.” This is an innovation? Had Xerox grown so sclerotic and complacent that asking employees to satisfy customer requirements entailed a top-down company revolution?

Apparently. Kearns’ program works. Within a few years, machine reliability goes up, customer satisfaction ratings soar, the company gets back a few bites of its market share, and the Commerce Department gives Xerox the Malcolm Baldrige Quality Award.

The Cleveland group is profoundly ambivalent about Kearns’ quality kick. Most of the sales team is from the “old school” where customer satisfaction was irrelevant and moving the merchandise meant everything. In a chapter called “Quality,” we see the more seasoned veterans grapple with TQL: “Fred sold for many years when the only guiding principle was to write as much business as possible as early as possible, by any means possible. They stopped at nothing; they did whatever it took to make their goal.” The old school’s rules had an elegant simplicity. When customers couldn’t decide if they needed a photo-copier, they certainly goddamn did. When customers couldn’t decide between one model and another, whichever cost more was pushed.

Under TQL, the sales team is supposed to be more like management consultants than hawkers, studying a customer’s business, poring over its numbers, and learning about its floor plan and personnel. Effort is made to match the product to the needs of the customer. Before a contract is signed, the sales team offers to send executives of the larger companies to Xerox’s headquarters for a few seminars on the quality gospel, all free of charge.

To some extent, this is good for sales. In several of the pitches we overhear, customers who initially held grudges against Xerox for its shabby past performance are won over by the sales team’s knowledge and concern for their well being. And other customers are swayed and impressed by what they learn at seminars in the Stamford headquarters. But the Cleveland team cannot meet its goal by sticking to TQL. As the year goes by and pressure to close deals increases, Thomas rides his team harder, the team rides its customers harder, and pretty soon the quality talk is a charade.

When Xerox approved Dorsey’s request for total access to one of its sales teams–an offer several other companies had declined–the grey suits in Stamford must have thought that he would generate some terrific company P.R. Not so. There is obviously some core sincerity to it, but by demanding ever larger sales figures each year, Xerox’s national office, intentionally or not, turned TQL into a savvy update of the old school. “Everyone in Cleveland,” writes Dorsey, “understood quality–at least everyone was going through the motions of serving the customer’s requirements.” The unpalatable truth is that caring about customers and maximum sales are two values that only occasionally coincide, and much of the book captures the team putting to use sleight-of-hand selling techniques to close deals. At one point, Thomas throws in a year’s worth of free support supplies–like paper and ink cartridges–without telling the buyer that the cost of these supplies is already included in the out-years of the sales contract. (In the team’s parlance, the cost of the supplies had been “baked” into the deal.)

Not that all of the Cleveland team is so mercenary. There is a striking visit late in the book with a customer named John O’Neill. He is too rattled and preoccupied to focus on the details of purchasing a photo-copier because his mother is in a nearby hospital dying of cancer. O’Neill, who runs a very small business out of his home, is in such a rush to tend to his mother that he will buy whatever salesman Larry Tyler recommends. Tyler must choose between making some money by selling a mid-price copier (which has far more features than O’Neil needs), or pushing the lowest-price copier and collecting next to no commission. O’Neill is writing a check for the more expensive machine when Tyler realizes he cannot lie to this man:

“Listen, do people do reduction and enlargement a lot in my kind of business?” O’Neill asked.

All Larry had to was say yes. He could lead John O’Neill anywhere.

“No. You don’t really need that feature,” Larry said, halting the paperwork… It was going to be the smallest machine, the machine that really suited O’Neill’s needs. He was going to make almost no money on this deal.

There are similar moments in the book, but usually the fight between the sales goal and moral reasoning is a one-sided drubbing. The goal suffuses the office with such nail-biting, kinetic energy and looms so portentously that it seems, at times, alive. To vanquish the goal is to live and prosper; to be vanquished by it, a form of ignominy and death. As a result, war metaphors abound. In Pacetta’s lexicon, for instance, salesmen he likes are “assassins,” deals they close are “hits,” and when he fires someone he is “pulling the trigger.”

What’s most unnerving about the goal, however, is Fred Thomas’ sense that simply beating it is insufficient:

A hundred percent wasn’t good enough, according to the terms defined by the corporation and his own past performance. He needed twenty percent more than his annual budget to find himself flying to Palm Springs–and that was the only measure of success he was trained to accept.

When Thomas exceeds last year’s mark by a certain percent, he then has to exceed the new and higher mark by a larger percent, thereby putting himself on the hook for an even better performance next year. It’s a perverse, self-suffocating system because it pits employees against their own best lap times and makes last year’s gold medal sprint barely good enough for honorable mention.

By the end of the book, Fred Thomas is burning out and begins wondering to what position, after over 20 years with the company, he might feasibly be promoted. He thinks his dream job–a position with no sales or quotas called “national account manager”–is a long shot, so, in one of the book’s most poignant scenes, Thomas calls a former acquaintance who is a stock broker and asks what’s required to get into the business. The idea is abandoned when he realizes that the math in the entrance exam may be beyond him.

Raw Deal

You find yourself pitying the sales team at moments like that, wishing their lives were easier. What’s regrettable is that none of the folks we meet fit the mold of what could be called the Natural Salesman, another archetype of the profession, though one you are far more likely to actually meet in real life. Natural Salesmen are warm and real and they have the kind of magnetic personalities people love to be around. They sell a good product–one they don’t need to lie about–and they aren’t so hounded by the home office that they need to move more units than anyone is ready to buy. They make you realize that under the right circumstances the system can work. Their customer likes them, their goods are both high quality and needed.

Fred Thomas comes close to being a Natural Salesman, but Xerox’s system forces him to hustle and deceive too much to be considered the genuine article. Like all the men and women on the team, he is a decent man placed under indecent pressure. Which ultimately is why The Force, in its quiet way, is also a critique of capitalism. The sales teams’ lives would be reasonably appealing if they weren’t constantly menaced by that $30 million albatross, a burden which forces them into shenanigans like “baking” the price of office supplies into deals. Publicly owned companies provoke Wall Street’s disdain when profits aren’t rising, so maximum returns are more important than fulfilled employees. And Xerox, one senses, is hardly the most heartless company out there, and its product–these days anyway–isn’t so lousy that salesmen have to lie about it. We’re left to guess what pinched and wearying lives are led by those toiling for less enlightened outfits and those that make inferior merchandise.

Then again, sales goals help Xerox stay afloat, beating back the Japanese, writing ever larger checks to its teams. And anyway, the Cleveland team signed up for the annual race and sticks around to run in it each year. At one point, Thomas contemplates taking a cut in pay to work elsewhere and then decides against it when he realizes that he loves his split-level house and his tony Cleveland suburb.

Of course, if you can do without the tony suburb and the house, there is another way. I knew a salesman who worked for the sort of low pressure outfits that didn’t bother with tough quotas, and though he made a lot less money than the Xerox team, he had a pretty good time of it. For some 30 years my grandfather sold linoleum door-to-door, and later worked on the raod for a company that made checkwriters. Because he had only modest sales goals, these were perfect jobs for him. He could earn as much money as he needed for his family and then use the rest of the time to do what he liked–read, watch a ball game at Fenway Park, meet his friends. If he made enough money by Wednesday, he had the other days off and that was a good week. If it took him until Friday, he had less time off. He liked his work because he liked people, but mostly because it suited the way he liked to live. He was sort of a free-lance capitalist.

Growing up, it seemed to me that the stereotypical scheming, materialistic salesman and Arthur Miller’s loved but beaten Willy Loman, were about as far from my grandfather as men get. When he died, his estate was small enough to fit in the inside pocket of one of his sport jackets. And whereas Loman’s funeral is a wretched, under-attended affair, proof positive that Willy had a thankless career and lived a joyless life, my grandfather’s passing was a celebration of a man richly engaged with family and friends. Which suggests that if the job is done right–if one isn’t consumed by never-enoughness, if one is not ruled by the sales goals that keep people like Fred Thomas on the treadmill–the death of a salesman isn’t necessarily the stuff of tragedy.

COPYRIGHT 1994 Washington Monthly Company

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