'Birth of a Salesman'

Examining the History of a Profession with an Image Problem

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Cover of 'Birth of a Salesman'

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The sales pitch has become a familiar part of American life — but its relationship to American capitalism has often been overlooked — and misunderstood. Many experts say salesmen not only fed American consumerism, they shaped it. So why does this occupation always seem to get a bad rap?

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Walter Friedman, a historian at Harvard Business School and author of the new book Birth of a Salesman.

Phil Reed, author of Strategies for Smart Car Buyers

An excerpt from Birth of a Salesman:

No longer the pursuer of farmers' daughters, as depicted in popular jokes, the modern salesman was, one business executive argued, "a man of stability, character and regular habits — he must be married." Salesmen now exhibited loyalty to the employing "house" and good relations with "the boss." Moreover, salesmen of the new era were expected to play a beneficial role in society. They would "overcome obstinacy, soften prejudice and let the light of reason into dark places," said a representative from the National Cash Register Company.

Salesmen learn the art of overcoming objections from General Motors' Selling Chevrolets: A Book of General Information for Chevrolet Retail Salesmen (1926)

Prospect: "My old car is worth at least $100 more than you offer me."

Salesman: Your old car, Mr. Prospect, has given you a lot of pleasure and service. You are thoroughly familiar with its condition and I can understand how it may appear to you to be worth more. But the price of a used car, just like anything else, is determined by the demand for it. It is impossible to offer you more for your old car, much as we like to do so, but we can offer you many quality features that cannot be duplicated in any other car at or near the price of a new Chevrolet." (Show him features and ask for the order — often.)

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