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The soft sell goes even softer

THOSE of us who happen to be the sons of salesmen - otherwise known as the S.O.S. Club - always thought we knew what a salesman was, even though a lot of us also knew we could never cut it as salesmen ourselves. A salesman was a force, even beyond most fathers. He exuded energy. He exuded enthusiasm. He knew jokes, and he told them. Life was a stage, and somehow he had to hold it or he was lost. His step was confident, his handshake firm. He made eye contact. Charm, a deep voice, the proverbial shoeshine, and a smile - he used whatever assets he could summon to pull off that mysterious coup: the sale.

What a culture shock the S.O.S. Club has experienced lately! An effective salesman, it turns out, is not like that at all, according to the prevailing wisdom.

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We don't quite know how to say this, Dad, but the schools that train salesmen how to sell - Xerox Learning, Forum, Sandler Sales, Institute - appear to agree on one thing: ``If you want to be very successful in sales, do the opposite of what the old timers teach - the exact opposite.

Don't be ``hearty.''

Don't be ``happy.''

Don't even think ``positive.''

The best salesmen, these heretical institutions teach, are not the good talkers but the good listeners.

They do not have all the answers. In fact, their ``chief tools'' are questions.

They make a virtue of saying, ``I don't know.''

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One imagines them sidling into the room, unnoticed, characterized only by their ``low pressure,'' their ``low visibility.''

``Who's the wimp in the corner?'' somebody finally says.

``That's no wimp, that's a salesman,'' somebody else says. ``Or rather, a specialist in `consultative selling.'''

Can we sons of salesmen believe in this shrinking violet - this genius of the tentative?

Do we want to believe in him?

As small boys, the shy sons of salesmen did not always appreciate their father's glad hand, his instant affability with complete strangers, his marginal letdown when he came off stage. But over the years most S.O.S. clubmen come to see a style and even a gallantry to the performance.

We're certainly not prepared to regard as an improvement this wobbler who says, ``I don't know,'' and asks us what we need instead of convincing us that we can't live another hour without his product, even if, as the saying goes, he's selling a refrigerator to an Eskimo.

We sons of salesmen realize that revisionism is all the fashion.

The best teachers are supposed to be those who say, ``I'm just a learner, too.''

The best ministers are supposed to be those who stand in the pulpit and announce, ``I'm here to share my doubts.''

All right. The world is upside down. Fish fly. Birds swim. Nuclear missiles are the best strategies for peace. We're supposed to be confounded.

But rest easy, Willy Loman. We who call ourselves S.O.S. will never admit that the best salesmen are those who don't, well, sell - and sell and sell.

A Wednesday and Friday column

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