Observing the soul of a salesman


We have a deep ambivalence about selling and the people who earn their living doing it. Selling is the ultimate capitalist act, the grease that keeps spinning the wheel of supply and demand. Yet we attach so many unwholesome images to the craft: the used-car salesman with his shifty eye, the insurance man who won't let up until our untimely demise means untold riches for our loved ones.

David Dorsey will make you more sympathetic toward salespeople, although after reading this compelling account of a year in the life of a Xerox sales team, you probably won't be any more eager for your next encounter in the auto showroom. Even though Mr. Dorsey's band of sellers is achingly human and largely ethical, the book shows that a lot of our concerns about sales techniques are well-founded. Essentially, no one is going to hand you the lowest price he is willing to take for something; you have to fight for it.

It's a long, long way from the seven-person Cleveland-based team selling quality Xerox office machines to the shady doings of the fictional sales gang in David Mamet's play (and film) "Glengarry Glen Ross." But when judging the pressures they operate under (much of it self-imposed), the difference between the honorable Xerox people and Mr. Mamet's fictional scoundrels becomes a matter of degree, not of kind.

In the film, the men peddling bad real estate to the unsuspecting are after the bonuses awaiting top producers. What happens to those who finish out of the money? They get fired. Talk about a market economy.

At Xerox in Cleveland, sales contests, goals, presents and incentives are a way of life. Salespeople's progress in one contest were posted on the wall. He writes: "The very look and feel of the office became a constant pinprick, an endless emotional

goad, pushing everyone toward greater results. You couldn't walk into the office without seeing your face or your name posted beside a number -- and everyone could mock your failure or envy your success."

Unemployment is not the harsh reward for Xerox troops who don't meet one sales target, but the pressures of trying to make the grade, of earned income so acutely tied to bottom-line performance, takes more subtle tolls.

Mr. Dorsey takes the approach of a novelist rather than a business writer. It generally works because he is a good writer, able to depict tellingly through the sales staff's actions and words its contradictory thrill and trepidation about the sales world. Mr. Dorsey is the veritable fly on the wall, given amazing access not just to the business, but to the personal lives of his subjects. A bit repetitive and short on the sort of facts you expect in nonfiction (for instance, what year is this?), the book nevertheless succeeds in its greater aim of a timeless rendering of the costs paid by those who strive and sacrifice for business success while unsure of the worthiness of their goals.

At the center of the book is Fred Thomas, who at fortysomething is a 20-year veteran of Xerox sales and head of the major accounts team in Cleveland. He is simply a great salesman, and Mr. Dorsey excels at describing the almost sensual feelings Fred experiences in his quest for sales. He writes of "the feelings of weightlessness after the signature happened, the balloon ride, the brief certainty of one's own omnipotence, the inflated sense of painlessness. Selling was narcotic."

But such moments of selling ecstasy are always short-lived. More common is the self-doubt, rejection and always yawning gap between the team's sales totals and their goals. For Fred, making his sales target isn't enough. He's got to get the team far enough above target to make President's Club, the rarefied sales heights that mean a company-paid resort vacation (the salespeople call it "making trip").

Fred Thomas is driven, conflicted and emotional. He does not leave his work at the office. His wife, Kathy, has to put up with his mood swings, discontent and frequent absences. Some of the best parts of the book capture the couple's strained relationship, evidenced in patterned conversations that lead to misunderstandings and annoyance, speeding right by real communication.

With her kids growing up, Kathy wants to find her own place back in the work world. Fred is not sure about this, although he says he would appreciate the extra income and it would take some pressure off him. But Kathy wants more meaning to their lives, not just extra income. For much of the book, Fred's not quite sure what he wants.

When everyday people expose themselves to a warts-and-all profile by a writer, you wonder what they think of the end result. Maybe books such as this should allow their subjects a couple of pages at the end for comment or rebuttal. No such feedback appears here, although the Thomases and the other Xerox salespeople have in Mr. Dorsey a caring and empathetic chronicler.

As the book ends, some of the people are moving on and the Thomases seem to be attaining a better relationship and more stable life. But you know the selling never stops. It's just different faces at the office door and different voices on the phone.

Mr. Lipschutz is a writer who lives in New York.

Title: "The Force"

Author: David Dorsey

Publisher: Random House

Length, price: 315 pages, $23

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