James b. Crawford
The greatest salesman of all time was born nearly a century and a half ago on a farm in Ohio. His name was John Henry Patterson, and if he were alive today he'd fire most of the salespeople reading this article. Brilliant, innovative, dictatorial and mercurial, Patterson is best remembered today as the founder of the National Cash Register Company.
More significantly, but virtually forgotten, this mustachioed, bespectacled whirlwind of a man invented modern selling. The sales training manual, canned presentation, protected territory, and quota system were all products of Patterson's fertile mind. So were sales meetings, direct mail, testimonials, industrial advertising and publicity.
So numerous were his contributions and vast was his influence that Patterson may rightly be called the father of professional selling. And perhaps even the father of the modern American corporation, for many of those whom Patterson trained went on to found corporations such as IBM and Burroughs.
Single-handedly, and often opposed by business associates and the very salesmen who benefited from his genius, Patterson created the greatest selling machine this country has ever seen. It may even be said that no company today approaches the marketplace efficiency that Patterson's NCR achieved in its heyday. Too frequently the practices he pioneered are preached but not followed.
Rest assured that wouldn't be the case if Patterson still walked the earth. Many a head - even illustrious ones - would roll. But sales productivity would soar to peaks not seen in this country since the turn of the century.
Sales Professional First And Foremost
Few companies have had more inauspicious beginnings than NCR. When Patterson, at the age of 40, bought controlling interest in the failing Dayton, Ohio, firm in 1884, there was really no market demand for cash registers. Fewer than 400 had ever been sold. There were several reasons for this. Few retail businesses, the targeted market, appreciated the value of a device they viewed as a kind of Rube Goldberg machine. Clerks, who felt the cash register represented a mechanical intruder sent to spy on their integrity, were openly hostile to salesmen who came through the door lugging a demonstration cash register. Poor craftsmanship sometimes forced the return of thousands of dollars worth of machines.
Finally, there was the problem of the salesmen themselves. Slovenly, disorganized, ill-prepared and uncommitted to either the company or product, they almost seemed to stand in the way of sales.
These problems would have sunk most entrepreneurs with a fledgling business, but not Patterson. He was one of those rare human beings whose vision and resoluteness enabled him to divine solutions where others saw only a quagmire of frustration.
An anecdote from Patterson's life illustrates these qualities. Years after NCR was well-established, Patterson was told by legal advisors that his plans to incorporate NCR in Ohio would be thwarted by state law unless they reduced the number of people on NCR's board. The wiry Patterson thundered: "Don't change directors. Change the law." They did.
It was with the same single-mindedness that Patterson set out to transform NCR. A salesman first and foremost, he believed that improving salesmanship was the surest path to success, and that was where he concentrated his efforts. Just as he could command his attorneys to change a state law, so Patterson set out to change the art of selling.
Creating A Demand
Patterson was one of the first in the country sold - through personal experience - on the value of the cash register. A pair of registers he bought for his retail store cut his debt from $16,000 to $3,000 in six months and helped him show a profit of $5,000. It was that experience that led him to buy the company.
But Patterson was virtually alone as a true believer. So when he bought the company that would become NCR, his first task was to create awareness of and then demand for the product.
Patterson did this in a way that stunned the business community of the day: through the heavy (even relentless) use of advertising, direct mail and publicity. In so doing, he raised advertising and promotion to unprecedented levels of sophistication, and created models still in use today.
Often it was a process of trial and error. In his first direct mail effort, Patterson spent thousands of dollars developing a circular for 5,000 prospects. "It was a good piece, but it did not contain a picture of the cash register," said Patterson. Not one response came in to NCR.
Still convinced of the value of direct mail, Patterson continued his experiments, learning as he went and distributing circulars by the millions. Some were in letter form, some carried pictures, others (continued on page 2)