Arthur Miller’s drama “Death of a Salesman” painted a pretty grim picture of the life of a salesman. Willy Loman, the salesman and main character, had dreams of success for himself and his sons, but they were all fantasies and in the end the result was disillusion, failure and ultimately, death. If all I knew about the life of a salesman was Miller’s play, it is not likely that I would ever have pursued selling as a career.

But unlike Willy, my own experience as a salesman has been very fulfilling in all respects. I have been able to manage my own time, set my own goals and achieve a certain amount of satisfaction from being useful to other people and to society. I say this because more than anything else, a salesperson is a problem solver. Even when I was the CEO of a trade association, I was still selling and engaged in problem solving. I helped sell the company policy to its employees and its members, was involved in helping to sell the organization’s point of view to Congress and, perhaps most important of all, selling the value of our membership to the well-being of the public.

Before I entered the life insurance business I worked for a large manufacturer of products used by auto, farm and industrial accounts. The product line was large and varied, but in one way or another each product was the solution to a problem. For example, I well recall the largest sale I ever made. It was to a copper mine (at the time the second largest in the world). One day I called on the mill superintendent who was in charge of massive machines grinding rock to extract the copper. I observed men walking hazardous ramps to lubricate these giant machines and asked the super, “How would you like to lubricate all these machines from one central point?” He replied, “That is exactly what I have been looking for for years.” To make a long story short, I made a very big sale and they solved a very big problem.

Another memorable sale was made to an aerospace company, also with a very big problem. They had a machine that ran at 300,000 RPMs; the bearings on the machine cost $30,000 each and they were being burned out regularly. I introduced them to a unit my company made and they agreed to test it. I made no guarantees, for this was uncharted territory. The test started and I knew that if my machine didn’t work it would take half an hour to stop the fast-turning machine and two $30,000 bearings would likely be ruined. Needless to say, tension ran high–but it worked. Another sale, another problem solved.

But then in 1956, with some degree of trepidation, I made the transition into the life insurance business. The first year was tough because I had a hard time getting used to the idea that prospects were not going to call me up and ask me to help solve their problems as in my former business. Then there was the issue that everyone seemed to dwell on–now you are selling an intangible whereas for the past 11 years you have sold only tangible items. I thought about that a lot and the more I thought about it, I soon realized it was a myth.

I remembered the old bromide, “There are millions of 1/4 -inch drills sold each year, but nobody wants a drill; what they really want is a 1/4 -inch hole.” And I remembered the wise salesman who once advised me, “Don’t sell things–sell what things will do.” As I absorbed this, I realized that the move to life insurance selling was really no different than my old business–I was still a problem solver. This I believe is an important point for company recruiters to understand. The people who recruited me emphasized the differences I was going to have to adjust to rather than illustrating the similarity to my previous selling experience. I believe I would have gotten off to a faster start had I realized that in the beginning.

But the life of a salesperson is not without its problems. There are of course the usual obstacles like call reluctance, rejection and lack of discipline. But beyond that, sometimes the product either doesn’t solve the problem or is not the best solution. The company I worked for in the 1940s and 1950s was the tops in its field–the “Tiffany” of that particular business. And yet, in its product line there were items that sometimes created more problems than they solved, or at least were not as good as the competitor’s. It was the salesperson who had to face the customer in such situations, and it was not always pleasant. One of the oil companies that I used to work with had a slogan–”Our service station operators are the last 8 feet of the pipeline bringing gas to the public.” And so it is with the salesperson–when a product does not measure up, the salesperson takes the heat.

I was reminded of this in a meeting I had about 20 years ago. I was having dinner with the chief actuary of a major life insurance company when the subject of product quality arose. The actuary opined that a top company should not have any product in its line that is not among the best on the market. He acknowledged that even in his own company this was not always the case–there were a few products that were an embarrassment, and he did not believe they should be selling them. I agreed with him but my feeling was he had not been able to convince top management.

Salespeople for the most part are very sensitive to this and tend to shy away from non-competitive products and they are not reluctant to let the home office know about such situations. A lot of established life producers stayed away from selling health insurance for fear that a poorly handled claim could cost them life insurance business. As I see the array of products being offered today, I can’t help but wonder how they all measure up against competition. Do they add value or take it away?