Snake Oil to Critical Friend: How the History of Sales Can Improve Your Future

By Bob Morrell on February 24, 2023

How do people sell things? What is the history of modern sales? What can we learn from 200 years of selling and sales structures?

Since the early 1800s humanity has been trying to sell things. We have been putting together verbal constructions and anticipating conversations in the hope that we can persuade, or manipulate, people to part with their money. There have been many different approaches developed over that time, but they all fundamentally have similar principles which remain relevant even now.

In our first book, The Death of Late Space, we quoted 4 different types of sales pitch or approach: 1) ‘Music Man’, an entertainment-based pitch, appealing through music and comedy to people’s aspirations; 2) ‘Animated Catalogue’, where the focus is on the features of the product more than anything else; 3) ‘Magic Formula’, where the salesperson taps into the imagination of the prospect, and they foresee something transformational that the product or service will do for them; and finally, 4) ‘Problem Solver’, where a problem is defined, explained, and then solved by the product.

‘Account Management’ also has different levels, the very best being ‘Critical Friend’, where you don’t just sell the customer your products, but also you can advise them on other things and the relationship is so strong, they will accept it.

The first, manipulative type of sell often quoted, is the ‘Snake Oil Salesman’ where a strange and useless ‘liniment’ was created and sold to unsuspecting individuals in pubs and marketplaces. A story would be constructed that was compelling, and the product and con was so well described, and the product so reasonably priced that it was a very tempting purchase. This is an early and erroneous use of ‘Magic Formula’. However, it demonstrates (such was the success of this type of sale) that if you appeal to the right part of someone’s brain, at the right time, with the right language, then you can persuade them to part with their money.

It's not until the 20th century that we then started to develop different structures to help salespeople increase sales. In the 1950s we had AIDA – Attention, Interest, Desire, Action. This structure has stood the test of time – it’s a direct sales model, can I get your attention? Can I generate some interest? Can I make you want this? And can I get you to spend some money on it? It is still the structure that double glazing salespeople use, and other door to door salespeople. There are certain door-to-door jobs that have very low conversion, maybe one in a 1000, but if you have the right attitude, you just keep knocking, knowing that one will be interested eventually. There’s also Jeffrey Gitomer’s book on the Patterson Principles, developed to sell early cash registers. Later, there are structures like SPIN, and ADAPT and more business-based structures. In the end they all try and ascertain a need, and then be the solution to that need. All of them, in some way, call upon the earlier sales approaches.

What is fundamental is understanding the customer and the buying cycle and building your structure around those things.

The biggest thing that contributes to the success of failure of a sales model is how it is implemented into the organisation so it is delivered with consistency and integrity. Ultimately the salesperson is the physical manifestation of the brand, the reputation and integrity of the company. When that falls down, with scandals like PPI and others, means we come back to the snake oil salesman.

Zig Ziglar said ‘You can’t sell anything unless you’re convinced it’s worth more to the customer than the money they’re paying for it’ – and if you have salespeople who would not be the potential clients for your products then you have an immediate disconnect.

We have always maintained that professional salespeople possess skills that will make them a living for their whole lives. The history of selling, all of it, feeds those skills today and will continue to.

Readers interested in the models and techniques that sit within the world of salespeople should listen to our other ‘Bob and Jeremy’s Conflab’ podcasts on this subject, especially ‘Sales Maxims’, ‘Sales Managers Ride Along’, ‘The Best Sales Films’, ‘In Praise of Glengarry Glen Ross’, and ‘Surprise Surprise, You’re in Sales Now’.