Military commanders, athletes, and scientists are just a few of the professions where such achievement naturally attracts a place in the human record.
Sales reps…not so much.
But without question, the business of convincing others to willingly part with their money is one that takes incredible skill. And it certainly merits a trip through time to look at some of the businesses and individuals who did great things before or better than anyone else.
Our world is home to many businesses that have been operating for lifetimes; several in Japan and Europe have been doing business for more than a millennium. However, many of them served either a limited catchment area or a single royal client, or provided a necessary service that required no convincing.
The organized sales team—an intentional effort to increase revenue—is a relatively recent development. Our research indicates that the oldest one of its kind was that of the East India Company, famous for its less-than-ethical product procurement methods.
Founded in 1600, two years before their Dutch equivalent, the East India Company sold textiles, precious metals, gemstones, spices, tea, and medical and industrial products acquired through colonial expansion in Asia.
Their primary method of sale was a simple catalog—the names of products for sale printed on parchment—that wealthy member merchants used in procurement and while meeting customers such as aristocrats, monarchs, and foreign merchants.
In the United States—where the pursuit of happiness and the pursuit of wealth are often two sides of the same coin—one sales team has been around longer than any other. That distinction goes to the Philadelphia Contributionship, an insurance collective co-founded by Benjamin Franklin in 1752.
Using door-to-door pitches and community selling, these founding insurers were the first to provide fire insurance to American businesses before there even was a United States of America. They would place “the company’s symbol cast in lead, depicting four hands clasped at the wrist, fastened to a square pine board” to signify that a property was insured.
They weren’t just pioneers in sales, but in branding too.
The information age has changed how people sell. Developments like local SEO and chatbots have made it easier for customers to find and buy from your business with minimal active effort from you.
A profession that once relied heavily on efforts like door-to-door pitches and site visits has largely given way to inside sales—the act of making money from a fixed location, historically via telephone (known today as telemarketing).
The first inside sales team in the United States (and by all accounts, the world) dialed its first prospects in 1957 as employees of the Life Circulation Company, which would later become DialAmerica after the acquisition of Time Magazine’s phone subscription unit.
Interestingly, this team was made up entirely of women, but not for the right reasons. Rather than their personable demeanor or experience making people feel comfortable, women were preferred because they were paid 40% less than men.
Going back further, the concept of the lead list existed as early as 1903, when New York-based Multi-Mailing Co. stalked researched phone books in 13 states and found 600,000 viable prospects. All of them were pre-qualified by virtue of owning a phone, a luxury that put them among the “best classes in their communities”.
Those leads were used for catalog- and mail-based advertising, which denies them the right to be called the first ever inside sales team.
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Billion-dollar valuations are the gold standard in modern business, especially if your company is involved with any kind of technology. These businesses built their financial strength on the backs of great sales teams, and while not all of them have achieved unicorn status (yet), their approaches to sales make them well placed for continued growth.
Between people who lined up to buy the first iPods and iPhones, and those who watched Jobs a few too many times, the story of Apple’s revival in the 2000s and its ascent to a $3 trillion valuation is fairly well known.
Steve Jobs deserves much of the credit for aligning every facet of Apple’s business around two things: world-class products and a universal approach to selling.
In the iPhone era, Apple turned every part of its business and every non-engineering employee into varying degrees of sales rep.
Copywriters, creative designers, Apple Store employees, and even executives were collectively responsible for creating an Apple culture and ecosystem that practically sold itself.
When Xero achieved unicorn status in the late 2010s, much of the credit went to its ability to scale well at every part of the growth journey.
After opening for business in 2009, the New Zealand-based accounting software quickly reached 12,000 customers using a blend of direct sales and inbound marketing. Rather than sitting on incremental growth for several years, Xero turned to its customers.
Accounting professionals who used Xero were invited to a newly launched reselling program, which took the SaaS to 135,000 customers in three years. Most impressively, 60% of these new customers were attributed to the affiliate program.
While not a unicorn (they closed Series C in 2021 at a $400 million valuation), account-based marketing platform Terminus is an example of what happens when a great sales team walks their talk.
For Terminus, personalization wasn’t just the game they endorsed; it’s the strategy they implemented themselves. They combined different pieces of their tech stack and account-based methodology to create a seamless prospect research experience.
The two key shifts were integrating Sales Loft with Sales Navigator, and changing from a high-velocity model to an account-based one. This allowed their SDR team to layer in a heightened level of personalization by making sure each account contained:
In one specific instance, a cold opportunity was identified as potentially warm again when one of the account contacts shared an article about account-based marketing. The SDR lead was able to quickly send over a personalized, highly relevant email that took the deal from cold to late-stage in a matter of days.
Overall, the SDR team was able to save hours each week, added $600,000 in pipeline during the third quarter of 2020, and (most importantly) made every prospect account feel like they were being attended to personally.
Related: The Complete Guide to SaaS Sales
If companies chase billion-dollar valuations, sales reps aspire to million-dollar commission checks. Selling enough product to buy a house and a car from the same deposit is a dream for many, but a reality reserved for the very best of the best.
Businesses like to stay tight-lipped about revenue. Even those required to disclose their figures tend not to go into detail, like how much of their income is attributable to direct sales. But individual sellers love to talk about their prowess.
Here are five of the more astounding individual sales achievements of the last 100 years.
The world may never enshrine expert sales reps in the same hallowed halls as hall-of-fame athletes, rock stars, and inventors. Truth be told, it makes sense that selling products isn’t held in the same esteem as pushing the limits of the human body or developing life-saving medical procedures.
Nonetheless, great selling takes great skill.
The very best in the business spend years learning how to elevate it from a transaction to an art form. Empathy, psychology, and active listening all play a major role and aren’t easily developed; if they were, banks would be overrun with people cashing huge commission checks.
The bottom line: Selling is a talent worth celebrating. Society might not be able to appreciate its nuances, but those of us fortunate enough to see it in action every day certainly do.
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