Selling Power Blog

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July 15, 2010

John Henry Patterson: The Father of Professional Selling Part 3

Patterson’s “Polished Salesmanship”

The attendees of an NCR convention were startled one morning by the sudden entry of a shoeshine boy on roller skates who shot down the aisle of the auditorium with his shining implements in his hands.

A photo from inside the NCR convention

Coming to a stop in front of the podium, the boy removed his skates, walked up to the chair in which John Henry Patterson, the founder and president of NCR, was sitting, and proceeded to give the distinguished gentleman’s shoes a thorough polishing. The salesmen – at first amazed and then amused – settled back to wait for Patterson to appease their growing curiosity.

As soon as the shoeshine boy had finished the job and been paid with a silver dollar, Patterson took him by the hand and led him to the front of the platform.

“Sam,” he asked, “how many office buildings on this block did you used to tour looking for business?”

“All of them, Sir,” replied the boy.

“And how many do you serve now?” continued his interrogator.

“Why, I just stick to this one.”

“How come, Sam? How come?”

“You ought to know, Mr. Patterson, because it was you who advised me that if I’d spend all my time on a smaller group instead of scattering my efforts, I’d make more money.”

“That’s right, Sam. And how did that advice work out?”

“Well, I’ve been averaging 40 shines a day since I became the National Cash Register shoeshine boy three months ago. Before that, when I used to work the entire block, I was doing well to get 20 to 25 customers a day. When they see me regularly, my customers get into the habit of being shined up every day at a certain hour. Before, they sometimes would take a quick look at their shoes and say, “No, some other time, Sam.”

After dismissing Sam, who put his skates back on and rolled swiftly up the aisle to the exit, Mr. Patterson proceeded to make an object lesson of Sam for the benefit of the salespeople who had been complaining about the forced contraction of their territories by the home office.

“When you have too much ground to cover,” he said, “you fail to concentrate. A prospect who seems a little difficult at first, you leave to call on someone else. First thing you know, you have spread your butter so thin that you aren’t selling anybody and have nothing but a long list of half-convinced prospects. With smaller territories, you have time and opportunity to cultivate your prospects intensively. You can get to know them like brothers, meet their wives, understand their problems, and show them how to conduct their business at a greater profit. Thus you are greeted as a friend and respected advisor when you enter a store, not as just another salesman. And soon you should be able to load up that merchant with a good representation of all the products we have to sell.”

Later, Mr. Patterson referred to this dramatized testimonial as an example of an excellent method of presenting the features of a cash register to a prospect.

“Tell a story,” he advised the gathering of salesmen, “when you present a point. Look at the sales of books. People buy many times the number of novels than they do serious dissertations. Look at the magazines – ten stories to one serious article.

“Let that be your guide when talking to a prospect. You got the idea about restricted territories a lot quicker through hearing that shoeshine boy tell about his personal experience than you would have if I had simply outlined the principle to you and asked you to follow it.”

The Reward System

While Patterson demanded much of his salespeople, he gave much in return. Many of his creations, such as the sales conversation, protected territory, and quota system, were vehicles for rewarding salespeople, as well as for increasing productivity.

Patterson was among the first to recognize the value of brainstorming sessions among salespeople. As a result, he decided to conduct regular sales conventions, where agents could exchange ideas on selling. In an every-man-for-himself era, this was a revolutionary concept. In time, the conventions also provided the opportunity to recognize and reward top achievers.

Patterson developed the protected sales territory in order to attract and keep the best sales talent. In the days BP (Before Patterson), sales reps commonly milked an area and then moved on, often into a city or region occupied by other cash-register salesmen. Needless to say, this chaotic habit of raiding a colleague’s territory caused a lot of bickering, turnover, and reduced productivity.

Patterson’s solution of the protected sales territory is something salespeople take for granted today. In return for this guarantee, NCR agents had to live up to another of Patterson’s creations, the sales quota, the first effort to obtain measurable results in selling. And they had to try another then-unheard-of practice: returning, after a period of time, to customers who had already bought from NCR to try to sell to them again.

Returning to an old customer, a technique Patterson called “using the user,” upset many salespeople, who were convinced it was impossible to sell twice to the same prospect. As usual, Patterson was right and the objectors were wrong. Not only did past customers prove a fertile field for new sales, they were also a great source of testimonials for advertising and promotions.

Patterson’s Significance Today

It’s all fine and well to pay tribute to a man like Patterson. Certainly salespeople and sales managers owe him a debt of gratitude. But after this laudatory display, they would do well to go back and review Patterson’s contributions. Not only were his selling techniques the most sophisticated of his day, they are, in combination, more advanced than what is generally practiced today.

Billions are spent on advertising, direct mail, and publicity, but rarely are these tools used as effectively as the cohesive triad Patterson forged. Salespeople still balk at learning product knowledge cold and fail to communicate with customers. Though territories are parceled out and quotas maintained, day-to-day sales performance is not monitored as closely as it was at Patterson’s NCR.

It’s a pity, considering the rich heritage John Henry Patterson left. Perhaps more than any other American in history, he is responsible for raising the consciousness, self-image, and public image of the sales professional. He taught that good salespeople are made, not born. Patterson transformed an often-ridiculed job into an honored profession and gave salespeople the professional skills to earn a great living in exchange for creating customer success.