Death of a Salesman: Could social selling have saved Willy Loman?

Did Death of a Salesman have to end with the death of the salesman? Could the most famous failed road warrior in literary history have been saved?

December 15, 2016

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Did Death of a Salesman have to end with the death of the salesman? Could the most famous failed road warrior in literary history have been saved? Willy Loman, the central figure in Arthur Miller’s famous play, is a tragic character who’s brought down by his delusions and broken personal relationships. However, he’s also a victim of the selling techniques of his time. A different approach to sales could have led to a very different outcome for Willy. Here’s how social selling would have addressed the issues driving him to destruction:

Willy Loman needs less time on the road

“I’m tired to the death… I suddenly couldn’t drive anymore”

Willy is the original road warrior – but an increasingly ineffective, inefficient and exhausted one. His sales trips are speculative swings through New England dragging his heavy suitcases of samples with him. They deliver diminishing returns and sap what little energy he has left in the process. The play opens with Willy metaphorically running on empty, cancelling a trip to Boston and returning home because he’s barely able to drive. His desperation to escape from life on the road is what precipitates the crisis in the play and leads to him being fired.

How could social selling help?

By enabling Willy to build and maintain relationships at scale, without relying on face-to-face contact. A social selling approach cuts out the need for speculative meetings and ensures that the meetings you do make are more focused, timely and productive.

Willy Loman needs something to sell besides charm

“Oh, I'll knock 'em dead next week. I'll go to Hartford. I'm very well liked in Hartford.”

It’s one of the great and deliberate ironies of Death of a Salesman that at no point do we learn what Willy Loman actually sells. There’s talk of ‘samples’, ‘merchandises’ and department stores but the actual product – and why anybody would want to buy it – remain anonymous. This is a profound commentary on Willy’s selling philosophy: ultimately the product itself is unimportant; it’s himself that he’s selling – and he’s paranoid about passing his best before date. Is he really liked? Does he talk too much? Are his jokes annoying? Doe he look ridiculous? Willy needs to spend more time focusing on his customers’ needs and how his solution could help – and less time attempting to boost his fragile ego.

How could social selling help?

By giving Willy an opportunity to demonstrate expertise rather than relying on charm. The most effective social sellers use their LinkedIn profile and the content they share to showcase their understanding of their products – and how they intersect with a particular customer’s pain points. They have a plan for being respected – not just liked.

Willy Loman needs a sales team that means something

“I get so lonely - especially when business is bad and there's nobody to talk to. I get the feeling that I'll never sell anything again”

Willy’s isolation from the rest of his sales team eats away at him. He operates alone and with no support network; he has nobody to consult, or turn to for advice. He’s desperate for a position in New York that would put him at the heart of the company; desperate for a more involved relationship with the business he works for. Instead he’s pushed to the outside and left to make as much commission as he can, alone.

How could social selling help?

By sharing expertise, contacts and warm introductions across the entire sales team. Social selling platforms like LinkedIn Sales Navigator pool insight and connections, helping reps to support one another and building an inclusive, collaborative organisation.

Willy Loman needs an intent-based sales model

“The trouble was that three of the stores were half-closed for inventory in Boston. Otherwise I woulda broke records.”

Willy puts shortfalls in his performance on a sales trip down to the stores he visited being full up with inventory and not needing any more stock. It’s symptomatic of his business’s lack of customer focus. He’s wearing down his energy and using up crucial goodwill selling to prospects who have absolutely no need for the things he’s supplying. Ultimately, Willy is a one-way sales channel driven by the product he has to shift rather than what the customer needs.

How could social selling help?

Signals of intent enables the best social sellers to focus their energies on those prospects who are actively looking to buy – and to approach them with the most relevant solution at the most relevant time.

Willy Loman needs to build new relationships

“I’m talking about your father! There were promises made across this desk!”

Willy tours the same department stores in the same cities, leveraging the same old relationships. His role with his business similarly relies on the past: in his showdown with his boss he repeatedly harks back to promises supposedly made to him over three decades ago. Willy has no way to reinvigorate these relationships, and no way to open up new areas of opportunity.

How could social selling help?

By keeping Willy in touch with developments at his key accounts – and enabling him to explore new markets. Rather than dropping in on the same buyers every few months, he can use social platforms to explore new areas of opportunity: new categories, new locations, new types of customers. At the same time, those old relationships can take on new dimensions if he’s able to keep tabs on what’s happening – and get in touch at the most relevant time.

Willy Loman needs a new way of doing things

“I gotta be at it ten, twelve hours a day. Other men – I don’t know – they do it easier.”

On the one hand, Willy knows that the way he sells isn’t working: he has to work twelve hours a day to deliver the results he does, while others seem to make their numbers far more easily. The problem and the solution are staring him in the face all along: Willy is imprisoned in the past, constantly talking about great salesmen he knew in his younger years who taught him everything he knew; bemoaning the fact that young people today have no calibre. It’s his refusal to consider new ways of doing things and his determination to keep reliving past glories that help to destroy him.

How could social selling help?

By providing a blueprint for changing Willy’s approach to selling. Social selling isn’t just a vague philosophy and set of values; it comes with definite sets of actions and benchmarks that can help to roll it out across organisations. LinkedIn’s Social Selling Index (SSI) quantifies how sales reps are doing at putting the foundations of a social selling strategy in place: creating a professional brand, finding the right people, engaging with insights and building strong relationships. If Willy Loman were willing to change his ways, it would provide the ideal support for helping him to do so.