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'Death Of A Salesman' Revival Sends Warning To Salespeople.

When he brought them business, when he was young, they were glad to see him. But now his old friends, the old buyers that loved him so and always found some order to hand him in a pinch -- they're all dead, retired. He used to be able to make six, seven calls a day in Boston. Now he takes his valises out of the car and puts them back and takes them out again and he's exhausted. Instead of walking he talks now. He drives seven hundred miles, and when he gets there no one knows him any more, no one welcomes him. And what goes through a man's mind, driving seven hundred miles home without having earned a cent? Why shouldn't he talk to himself? -- From Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller In February, 50 years from when it first opened, Miller's classic returned to Broadway to rave reviews. Ben Brantley of The New York Times wrote: "I will always be haunted by the image of Brian Dennehy as Willy Loman. He seems to kidnap you by force, trapping you inside Willy's psyche...I could hear people around me not just sniffling but sobbing." Today's audiences are drawn to the revival in no small part because its tragic lessons still apply to business and life. Humans remain adverse to change even as the world transforms around them. As they did a half a century ago, conditions are evolving quickly, and businesspeople who fail to keep up with them are left behind. Mergers and acquisitions, global competition, and the Internet are forces reshaping the workplace just as in Willy Loman's day, chain stores had dislodged the personal element -- the jokes, the back slapping, the relationships -- on which the 63-year-old salesman had built his career. Loman worked for one company for 36 years opening new markets in "unheard-of-territories" only to helplessly watch the son of his retired boss switch his salary to commission. Other problems troubled the salesman. Loman's two sons had adopted his formula for success, and that formula -- the popular, hale and hearty fellow would thrive -- failed to bring Loman's sons prosperity. Loman would have recognized today's sales environment where, more than anything else, an Internet revolution is displacing company loyalists who made names communicating to customers the benefits of a particular product. Increasingly companies are turning to Web pages to do much of the work once covered by these traditional salespeople. Neil Rackham, coauthor of Rethinking the Sales Force (1999, McGraw-Hill), takes an extreme view: "There's little doubt that the direct effect of e-commerce is to make more than half of sales jobs go away. Many existing salespeople are just talking brochures, and electronic brochures are much more informative, more accessible, and cheaper than brochures with feet." The technology-driven transformation that is now striking manufacturers emerged early in financial services. When customers used to call brokerage firm Charles Schwab & Co., they would speak to a salesperson who would buy or sell stocks on their behalf. Today customers can log onto and complete the same transaction without human help -- and at a cheaper price. To compete with Schwab and other online rivals, Merrill Lynch & Co. recently began offering online trading to a select group of customers. The giant brokerage house wants to become the top portal for financial information and services with its salespeople providing critical wisdom to help customers make the right choices. Achieving that goal involves new skills and behaviors, which some of its 15,000 brokers may fail to embrace. "How do you think Merrill Lynch brokers are feeling today?" questions Rackham. "They're nervous." They're nervous because just as it was in Willy Loman's time, change is difficult. Miller acknowledges this fact in his original preface to Death of a Salesman: "The quality in such plays that does shake us, however, derives from the underlying fear of being displaced, the disaster inherent in being torn away from our chosen image of what and who we are in this world. Among us today this fear is as strong, and perhaps stronger, than it ever was." Those who confront such a fear, and remake themselves to suit the new business environment are the ones who will survive and prosper. Already this is happening. Salespeople are going back to school to update their skills, and they are returning better listeners. Leading professionals are tailoring their company's products to fit customers' special needs often in combination with other companies' products. "It's not persuading, it's understanding," explains Rackham. At Microsoft, for example, salespeople who less than a decade ago were content to communicate to prospects the benefits of standard software now spend their time pulling together a package that includes Microsoft products as well as goods from outside firms, even the competition, including training sessions and systems integration services. In other cases, traditional salespeople are leaving sales for new careers or to start a new business. Such options mean few have to follow the suicidal road Willy Loman chose: As the car speeds off, the music crashes down in a frenzy of sound, which becomes the soft pulsation of a single cello string. -- Death of a Salesman Arthur Miller

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