Let’s keep sales stereotypes in the early 80s where they belong

Watching White Gold on Netflix should remind us why so many perceptions of sales are hopelessly outdated

September 16, 2019

Let’s keep sales stereotypes in the early 80s where they belong

My name is Becky Schnauffer. I work in sales. And I watch White Gold on Netflix.

If it sounds like I’m introducing myself to a support group for unhealthy addictions then that’s because, for anyone who’s passionate about modern selling, this show can feel like a very guilty pleasure indeed. It follows the fortunes of double-glazing salesmen in 1980s Essex. And it contains every sleazy, horrible, outdated sales stereotype that our profession needs to move beyond.

White Gold’s protagonists, in the first series at least, are all men. And even the women who join sales teams quickly conform to the same Alpha Male stereotypes. They lie pretty much every time their lips move. They are motivated purely by ego and one-upmanship, obsessed with the perks and status symbols they can accumulate, and they regard every single potential customer as a mark to be fleeced. They’re horrible. And hilarious.

But can it really be healthy for a sales professional to watch this stuff? Shouldn’t I be turning this show off and starting a campaign to have it removed from Netflix as fake news? Shouldn’t I be going around seeking out fellow White Gold fans and getting them to promise me, cross their heart and hope to die that they will never, ever, for one brief minute, believe that sales people actually behave like this?

I hope not, because for me at least, White Gold acts as a strangely cathartic experience. It positions these unhelpful sales stereotypes in the past where they belong. It reminds us why the stereotypes exist – but it also why they are hopelessly outdated.

From the very first frame of the first episode, when an ancient BBC Two ident appears on screen over the sound of 80s classic Gloria, White Gold is clearly a period piece. It feels about as relevant to life today as Downton Abbey. Everything from the style of the suits to the company car models its characters obsess over screams that this is ancient history, costume drama – some strange world that our parents told us about.

The period details are obvious to everyone – but they are particularly obvious if you work in sales. That’s because the circumstances in which these sales behaviours could fester were very specific. They aren’t circumstances that we would recognise today – and that’s why this type of selling is unrecognisable today. Any sales professional who kids themselves that they can get away with the same tactics is ignoring the massive differences between the early 1980s and 2019. The future of sales is very different to the past – and here’s why:

Information is no longer asymmetrical
One of the early episodes of White Gold sets out the very specific historical context in which its salespeople are operating – and the very specific market they are targeting. Double glazing is a new technology that’s cheap to produce but can be sold at a huge mark-up (the ‘White Gold’ of the title is the plastic fitting that holds each piece of cheap glazing in place). The chosen market for this product is people who have recently bought their council houses in Margaret Thatcher’s early 80s revolution, and are looking for affordable ways to upgrade them. This audience has absolutely no information about the origin or the value of the product they are being sold. They rely entirely on a door-to-door salesman to tell them the truth. Once we’ve heard a few sales pitches leading with how a particular type of double glazing was developed by NASA, we realise that’s never likely to happen. What we’re watching is a classic case of asymmetrical information: the seller knows everything about the product; the buyer knows nothing; therefore the seller can say almost anything that suits them to close a deal.

This asymmetry of information no longer exists; it’s been blown away by technology. Buyers today are better informed than ever. They can easily check any claim that a sales professional makes; they typically research a product and a business thoroughly themselves before they even agree to speak to someone about it. When sellers and buyers confirm that trust is the most important factor in closing deals, they are not talking about trust that a salesperson is telling the truth. That has to be a given. What they trust in that salesperson’s expertise, understanding of their business or personal circumstances, and ability to bring relevant insight to bear to create value. The sales stereotypes of White Gold would have no clue how to set about doing this. Watching them try would be even funnier than the show itself.

Closing a deal is no longer the end
The last thing that any of the salespeople in this show want to see is a returning customer. It’s a sign that their business model has gone horribly wrong, that someone has realised how poor their product actually is, and that they need to be fobbed off and ushered out of the showroom as quickly as possible. This approach to sales is based on getting as much money as possible from each new customer before moving onto the next one. The idea of an ongoing relationship and ongoing value has no place in this view.

B2B sales today couldn’t be more different. The customer journey that we’re seeking to align with doesn’t end with acquisition. Our businesses are interested in lifetime customer value, not just immediate revenue. Our best opportunities for beating quota often come from the strength of our relationships with existing customers – and our ability to spot fresh opportunities for both our business and theirs.

And the value of existing customers goes further. Customer testimonials and case studies are one of the first places that new buyers turn. Demand Gen Report’s survey into B2B buyer content preferences shows case studies to be one of the most valued formats in the later stages of the consideration journey. Satisfied customers who are happy to advocate for you on social media are a powerful marketing asset.

You have to earn attention, not hijack it
The White Gold approach to closing a deal goes something like this: you trick your way into somebody’s house and you then keep finding excuses not to leave until they agree to buy something from you. It works because these salesmen have a captive audience of homeowners with literally nowhere else to go, many of whom are too polite to turn them away.

Today, constantly bombarding a prospect is a disastrous way to attempt to close a deal. Any B2B buying decision typically involves many different types of influencer, not just one decision-maker that you can force into a corner and aggressively pester. You won’t even learn who these people are unless you first invest in earning the trust of people at a target account. And you can only do that by reaching out with relevant insights, helpful content and a commitment to adding value.

Listening is now more valuable than talking
Talking the talk is an established part of the sales stereotype – but in today’s sales environment, listening is a far more valuable skill. If you want to be a top sales performer, aim to be an informed listener: establishing an understanding of a business and its market, and using this to ask meaningful questions. That’s the best way to build rapport and trust, strengthen relationships within an account, and engage the influencers you need to close a deal. One of the reasons that the characters in White Gold could never prosper in a modern sales environment is that they never let any buyer get a word in edgeways.

You’re no longer selling yourself
The opening shot of White Gold is of the main protagonist, Vincent, preening and pouting in front of the mirror as he prepares for a day at work. It perfectly sums up another aspect of established sales stereotypes – that the product salespeople are really interested in is themselves.

I would never say that the charisma and character of salespeople doesn’t matter. It’s what enables them to earn trust and build relationships. But that charisma and character is never focused on selling themselves – it’s focused instead on taking on the role of an expert, trusted advisor. It works when it’s in the service of the buyer – when it’s the supporting role not the starring one.

Hearing the way that the White Gold protagonists talk about themselves reminds me of a list of what not to do when attempting to build your selling brand: “I can sell ice to the eskimos,” “I can sell double-glazing to people who I’ve only just sold double-glazing to.” It’s all about the skills of the salesperson, never about the benefits delivered to customers. When sellers build their LinkedIn profile around their own successes (how often they “smash” quota or exceed all of their targets), it’s often counter-productive. When buyers research you, they’re not interested in the results you’ve delivered for your business; they’re interested in the results you help deliver for businesses like theirs.

Why we can leave the sales stereotypes in the 1980s
So for anyone who still clings to clichés about sales being a profession of untrustworthy confidence tricksters, I urge you to watch White Gold and ask yourself a simple question: how far do you think these characters would really get in the sales environment that you see around you? How successfully would they sell into your business? Sometimes the best way to celebrate the future of sales is by reminding ourselves how far away the past is.

That’s why I love watching White Gold – well, at least, that’s my excuse.