One of the things that has always puzzled me is why so many people engaged in selling avoid using the label “salesperson” in describing their occupation or profession. Selling is now and always has been a noble endeavor and vital to a dynamic economy. I have always been proud of the fact that for most of my life I have been a salesman. My pride has resulted from watching the satisfaction and benefits that have flowed from the products I have sold.
Salespeople have always been essential to the growth and development of a strong economy and culture. Peddlers bringing products to the frontier also brought ideas about new tools and new ways of doing things, thereby enabling economic growth and a more relaxed culture, a byproduct of laboring-saving devices.
My first job, following military service in World War II, was with the Arizona distributor for Stewart Warner products. Stewart Warner was an early pioneer in the sale of home refrigerators and I can remember listening to old-time salesmen in 1946 telling about how they changed the way housewives kept the groceries fresh and unspoiled. The salesman followed the ice-wagon around on his delivery route, and when the iceman came out of the house after delivering a block of ice, the refrigerator salesman went in to talk about a new way to keep food cold. No one does that anymore in this country because after being sold a refrigerator, who would want to go back to an icebox? Progress was made by dedicated salespeople promoting a new concept–not by order-takers waiting for someone to come in and make a purchase.
For 11 years I did the same thing for other Stewart Warner products: calling on auto, farm and industrial accounts, I brought new ideas and new tools to improve efficiency and profitability. In doing so I made a living as a salesman, but more importantly, I helped improve the bottom line of my customers and solve a number of vexing problems for industrial companies such as copper mines and aeronautical companies. I have always looked back on that phase of my selling career with great pride.
On those few occasions that I visited the Stewart Warner home office in Chicago, I was impressed with the respect the people there had for the sales force. They understood clearly that, absent sales, there was no reason to manufacture their products. Everyone from accounting to the assembly line seemed to understand that without salespeople producing sales, not much of anything would happen back at home base. It was nice to be appreciated.
In 1956, looking for greater opportunity to use the selling skills I had learned, I entered the life insurance business. I had been forewarned that selling insurance (an intangible) was different than selling equipment (a tangible). However, I soon learned that this was a myth–people do not buy things, rather they buy what things can do. Just as the equipment I sold in my former life brought profit and security to my customers, the insurance policies were equally valuable in protecting families and businesses as well as enhancing policyholder assets. I was still selling products that enriched the lives and businesses that I served. It was great to be such a salesperson and to be of value to other people.
But in the insurance business I encountered something new. Salespeople did not want to be identified with selling. They preferred to be regarded as estate or business planners or a host of other titles that did not imply selling. I believe I know all the reasons for this, but I still found it a bit hard to accept, given my deeply held belief in the essentiality of salespeople.
As insurers broadened their product lines to include other types of financial products, the pressure mounted to use more sophisticated titles for salespeople in our business: Planners became advisors, which implies a degree of impartiality as to choices that may be recommended. This, of course, can be a problem for a salesperson who may hold a strong belief in one particular product while the customer feels strongly about another product. Giving advice may or may not complement the sales process and therein lies a concern that regulators and lawmakers are beginning to look into.
Inasmuch as the broadened product lines of most insurance companies now require more regulation than just state insurance regulations, new eyes are taking a close look at market practices. Numerous proposals are under consideration and undoubtedly some will eventually pass with perhaps a profound effect on the way we do business.
Most of the proposals, in one way or another, would impose restrictions on selling practices that either resemble investment advice or are in fact investment advice. Additionally, there is a move afoot to repeal the McCarran-Ferguson Act, which provides antitrust exemption to insurance companies. This act is also the basis for state laws prohibiting rebates and restricting unwise policy replacement. “Selling” insurance may never be the same again.
On the subject of what it is we do, I am always reminded of the words of Eleanor Nathan, wife of New York Life’s great Frank Nathan. The Nathans lived in Beverly Hills and had among Frank’s clients well-known movie stars and publishers. Eleanor was a former radio sitcom personality and because they led an elegant lifestyle Frank was often thought to be an insurance company executive. But Eleanor, when she was asked what Frank’s profession was, always replied, “My husband sells life insurance.” No confusion, no pretense, just a lot of pride in what he did.