Leadership Blog

Why We Need to Rediscover the Lost Art of Selling

As a family business leader, I’ve been lucky enough to inherit decades’ worth of business knowledge from my father and grandfather. And if I had to pick which of those early lessons was the most formative, the first time I accompanied my dad on a sales call would be at the top of the list.


Back then, rather than an email or phone conversation, “sales call” usually meant a genuine, in-person visit. This one was pretty typical, including hours of travel, a lengthy lunch with our local representative, a candid and in-depth discussion about our retailer’s business, and a good, old-fashioned sales pitch about how Jelmar products could help the retailer meet his business goals.


My dad, I realized, was sort of a performer. He’d always had a tendency to mumble when he spoke, which I’d always believed was just a quirky habit. But now it seemed like a brilliant bit of added intrigue that encouraged buyers like this one to lean in, listen a little more closely, and let themselves be persuaded. Anyway, it was impossible to know for sure, and maybe that was the point.


In other words, my dad’s physical presence—his unrushed face time with our retailers—was an indispensible part of his work.


And, yes, there were numbers. Like any good salesperson, my dad had the data to back up his claims. But in his day, selling was so much more than that. It was about giving the data context and meaning, enhancing numbers with added color. A skilled salesperson, I learned, knew how to build relationships, becoming a trusted problem-solver whom retailers could rely on to help build their businesses.


Selling, then, was less of a science then an art. And nowadays, it’s rapidly becoming a lost art.


Too often, today’s “sales call” is more of a data dump than an opportunity to build relationships. Salespeople may have 15 minutes to review sales from the past year and sell new products. There’s little or no time to add context to the numbers, let alone build any sort of personal rapport with the buyers. And the final decision may not be made by the buyer we meet in person, but by a corporate team that makes choices based solely on data.


There’s a big problem with that: numbers can lie. For example, it’s far more common than you’d think for a severe snowstorm to decrease sales or for an in-store promotion to boost them significantly. Without a knowledgeable salesperson to provide explanations for these anomalies, it becomes far too easy for decisions to be made without understanding the context. Face-to-face, relationship-based sales, in other words, benefits both the salesperson and the retailer.


And yet, it seems that many business leaders and top salespeople don’t see any problem with a data-driven approach to sales. For example, I came across an article in Forbes that advises salespeople to “sell remotely,” celebrating the fact that technology has made “the traditional face-to-face sales process a thing of the past.” It certainly has, but the author seems to have very different feelings about it than I do.


Of course, technology provides businesses with new levels of efficiency and freedom that I’d never want to give up. But I also believe that if we let the pendulum swing too far in that direction, we can actually end up inhibiting communication. In a world in which email makes it all too easy to lose the complexity and nuance of real-time, face-to-face conversation, an in-person meeting can go a long way.


Another argument for reviving the lost art of selling? It isn’t just about business. It’s also about selling yourself. Due to the prevalence of technology, opportunities to make an impression—to develop a strong presence—are increasingly rare. And yet, as long as there are in-person job interviews, they’ll be no less important.


So when it comes to my two young kids, I’ll continue encouraging them to develop their skills in science and technology. But the same goes for art: the art of shaking someone’s hand, looking him or her in the eye, and telling a compelling, persuasive story.