In a legendary scene from the 1992 film Glengarry Glen Ross, Alec Baldwin’s character delivers a browbeating sales sermon to a downtrodden group of real estate hucksters. When one of the salesmen, played brilliantly by Jack Lemon, gets up and pours himself a cup of coffee, Baldwin famously exclaims, “Put that coffee down! Coffee’s for closers.” The film captures the struggle to survive in the Darwinian business of real estate sales, depicting the desperate (and deceitful) measures taken by salespeople to close a deal. Al Pacino plays smooth-talking agent Ricky Roma, who downs cocktails with his prospective clients and waxes philosophical about meaning and morality, all the while setting the stage for his property pitch. Lemon’s character, Shelley “The Machine” Levine, is truly desperate; his daughter is sick in the hospital while he doggedly peddles his parcels of land. In one scene, he pleads—begs, practically—with a potential buyer before the door is slammed in his face and he is sent off into the pouring rain. In so ruthless a business, these salesmen aren’t thinking of the needs of their potential customers. They’re just trying to survive.
A popular concept in sales theory is known as customer orientation (CO). It is an approach to selling based on the needs of the customer, not the needs of the salesperson. While it is true that the two are not necessarily mutually exclusive, recent research suggests that those salespeople who think about what their customers need and listen to customer feedback perform better. In contrast, selling orientation (SO) refers to salespeople who put the need to make the sale above the customer’s needs. This style is associated with aggressive and impulsive selling techniques, short-term success, and long-term customer dissatisfaction. The feeling of buyer’s remorse is more likely to follow a transaction with such a salesperson.
It was once believed that extravert personalities made the best salespeople. A study published in the journal Psychological Science, however, indicates that “ambiverts,” those who fall between introversion and extroversion, outperform those on either extreme. The ability to alternate between talking and listening is thought to be the reason for the ambivert advantage, as customers respond more favorably to individuals who are assertive without being overconfident, who understand the needs of the customer while still pursuing the sale.
A team of researchers found that “salespeople who care about their customers are more likely to listen to customer feedback, spend the necessary time and effort in evaluating customer problems and are more willing to respond to customer demands.” In short, these sales people are doing right by their customers.
Consider another 90s film: In Jerry Maguire, the eponymous main character played by Tom Cruise is a successful sports agent who has it all. But when he is fired by his agency after having an epiphany of ethics, all but one of Jerry’s client’s jump ship. The one who stays, wide receiver Rod Tidwell (played by Cuba Gooding Jr. in an Oscar-winning turn), stays loyal to his embattled agent. In return, Jerry focuses all of his attention on his sole client. Over the course of the story, (spoiler alert) Jerry begins to care about Rod, not as a commodity but as a friend. He becomes an even better agent because, for the first time, he truly cares about others.
Tine Petersen, a commercial lines producer with A and H Insurance, emphasizes the importance of trust in the sales relationship.
“I’m looking out for the best interest of the client and what their coverage needs to be,” she said. “That means educating your client on what they need and don’t need.”
In many ways, our society has shifted its view of ethics in recent decades. The heightened focus on fair wages, more equitable working conditions, and ethical manufacturing practices reflects this trend. In sales, its just as important. Whether the product is real estate, health care, internet, automobiles, insurance, or the services of a sports agent, we want to buy from someone we know is looking out for our best interest.
Perhaps the lesson that a film like Jerry Maguire can teach us is to treat every one of our customers and clients as if they are our only one; that if we do right by them, it can only benefit us in the long run. Hopefully it doesn’t take losing all but one of our clients to come to such a realization, but it makes for a good movie.