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The Evolution of the Salesperson

The evolution of salespeople over the decades has been a fascinating journey, shaped by changing economic landscapes, evolving consumer behaviors, and the relentless march of technology. From the 1800s to the present day, salespeople have adapted their strategies to meet the demands of each era. This article explores this remarkable transformation by delving into the key characteristics, strategies, and consumer reactions that define each decade.

1800s – Early 1900s: The Age of Barter

In the 1800s and early 1900s, sales were conducted in what can be called the Age of Barter. During this era, financial incentives were at the core of selling. Salespeople, often traveling peddlers, journeyed from place to place, carrying goods to sell. Consumers had limited choices and heavily relied on the recommendations of these salespeople. The presence of a salesperson in a locality was a significant event, commanding attention. The mere presence of a salesperson was enough to ensure that someone would buy something.

1950s-1970s: The Age of Feature & Benefit

The 1950s to the 1970s marked the Age of Feature & Benefit. This period followed World War II, and Americans rode on a feel-good factor. The demand for goods was high, and supply was abundant. Salespeople in this era were often compensated on a commission basis, and consumer satisfaction and needs were sometimes overlooked as long as regular consignments were being produced and sold. Consumers relied on advertisements, primarily through print, radio, and television, to make buying decisions. The focus was on the features and benefits of products, and the prevailing customer reaction was, It’s party time!

1980s-1990s: The Age of Persuasive Selling

The 1980s and 1990s ushered in the Age of Persuasive Selling. During this period, there was a culture of status-seeking, binge-buying, and shopping extravagance. Salespeople became more than product deliverers; providing exceptional service became as crucial as delivering the product. Consumers were driven to impress others, often buying things they didn’t necessarily need. Building trust and relationships with customers became a central strategy, and the customer reaction shifted to “Let me see what you’ve got.”

2000s: The Age of Power Shift

The 2000s marked the Age of Power Shift in sales. The 9/11 attacks created a global culture of suspicion and reluctance, impacting consumer behavior. Additionally, the economic meltdown 2008 eroded trust in legislatures and corporate governance. This era saw the rise of the internet, with Google being born, putting the world at consumers’ fingertips. Salespeople were now expected to cater to the consumers’ needs, and customer service became a pivotal aspect of selling. With increased access to information, consumers took control of their purchasing decisions. The prevailing sentiment among consumers was, “When we are ready to start the process of buying, we will find you. Until then, don’t call me, I’ll call you.”

2010s and Beyond: The Age of Expert Positioning

In the 2010s and beyond, we entered the Age of Expert Positioning. Content marketing and consumer empowerment defined this era. Consumers had unprecedented access to information and research, with over 70% of their buying decisions made before engaging with a salesperson. Salespeople had to transform into niche experts and demonstrate their expertise without a hard sell. Consumers expect education and value before making a purchase decision. Strategies shifted towards joining online communities and creating valuable content. The customer’s reaction became, “When I’m ready to make a purchase, I will contact you. ‘Til then, keep us coming back!

What’s Next?

The evolution of salespeople over the decades reflects the ever-changing dynamics of the sales and marketing landscape. From the age of barter to the age of expert positioning, salespeople have adapted and evolved to meet the needs and expectations of consumers in each era. In today’s digital age, where consumers have access to a wealth of information, salespeople have transformed into educators and trusted advisors, emphasizing the importance of providing value and expertise. As we move forward, the salesperson’s role continues to evolve, shaped by emerging technologies and shifting consumer behaviors.

Sales coach Bill Caskey helped us detail the evolution, describing the economy, tactics, consumer attitude, strategy, and reaction.

Evolution of a Salesperson

Douglas Karr

Douglas Karr is CMO of OpenINSIGHTS and the founder of the Martech Zone. Douglas has helped dozens of successful MarTech startups, has assisted in the due diligence of over $5 bil in Martech acquisitions and investments, and continues to assist companies in implementing and automating their sales and marketing strategies. Douglas is an internationally recognized digital transformation and MarTech expert and speaker. Douglas is also a published author of a Dummie's guide and a business leadership book.

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