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The Greatest Salesmen of All Time

The Greatest Salesmen of All Time

By Geoffrey James
Sales Machine Blogger

No behavior on earth is more human than selling. While animals sometimes trade favors (like mutual grooming), the exchange of ideas, goods, and services for money is utterly unique to the human species. With that in mind, I've identified a few individuals who, in my view, embody the best sales techniques in the world.

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READERS: Suggestions for additions to this list are welcome!

Note: I'm using the term "salesmen" in a gender inspecific way; the list includes saleswomen, too.

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The Greatest Salesmen of All Time

Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs

When it comes to selling, you gotta love Steve Jobs (1955-). Put the guy on a stage and he can make virtually any Apple product seem like it's the most amazing invention ever to appear on the face of the earth. Sure, some of that salesmanship is his personality, and Jobs does seem to have a "reality distortion field" that makes people believe the improbable. But the primary reason we believe Steve when he says a product will be hot is that he's got a phenomenal track record of releasing products that everyone wants.

Lesson: Selling is easier when the product makes people want to buy.

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The Greatest Salesmen of All Time

Ron Popeil

Ron Popeil

Ron Popeil

There is simply no living person who can sell more product, more quickly, than Ron Popeil (1935-).  Ron once went live on a home shopping network and sold a million dollar's worth of kitchen appliances -- in a single hour.  Think about that.  Making a million dollars, in an hour, just by using your face, voice and hands.  The secret? Popeil shows a childlike excitement about everything he sells. He loves what he does and what he's selling so much that it's positively infectious. He makes you WANT to buy, just to feel the same way.

Lesson: Nothing sells faster than honest enthusiasm for your offering.

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The Greatest Salesmen of All Time

Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin

Ben Franklin (1706-1790) was many things: author, printer, political theorist, politician, postmaster, scientist, inventor, satirist, civic activist, statesman, diplomat, and (yes!) salesman extraordinaire. Practically single-handedly, Franklin sold the idea of the United States not just to his countrymen, but also to the rest of the world.  It wasn't an easy sell, because there hadn't been a functioning republic in the world for nearly 2000 years, making the Constitution seem (to most educated people) to be just so much crazy talk. However, Franklin's erudition and accomplishment turned him into such an effective spokesman that the radical new government seemed not just reasonable, but a foregone conclusion.

Lesson: An investment in knowledge always pays the best interest.

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The Greatest Salesmen of All Time

P. T. Barnum

P. T. Barnum

P. T. Barnum

Phineas Taylor Barnum (1810-1891) thought of himself primarily as a "showman."  And what a show he put on...founding what later became the largest circus in the world.  Barnum could use his showmanship to promote virtually anything into something that people wanted to see. For example, he took the torso and head of a baby monkey, sewed it to the back half of a fish, and got people to pay big money to view a "mummified mermaid."  Similarly, he promoted  the singer Jenny Lind into the Katy Perry of her day, by creating a show that presaged the Broadway productions of later decades.

Lesson: It's not enough to sell; you've got to entertain the customer.

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The Greatest Salesmen of All Time

Joseph Smith

Joseph Smith

Joseph Smith

Joseph Smith (1805-1844) convinced thousands (and after his death, millions) of people that he discovered a set of golden tablets that could only be read using a pair of magic spectacles.  Then Smith convinced his followers to risk death and disgrace on the basis of what he read therein, even after the golden tablets inconveniently disappeared.  Now that's salesmanship with a vengeance -- and even more so if the story is true. (Few things are harder to sell than an inconvenient truth.)  Smith's legendary charisma eventually got him into trouble with the ladies, but there's no question that he was one of the great visionaries of all time.

Lesson: Don't sell the product; sell the vision.

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The Greatest Salesmen of All Time

Empress Theodora

Empress Theodora

Empress Theodora

Theodora (c, 500 - 548) was the world's most successful prostitute. According to her contemporary biographer Procopius, she came from a very poor background, but rose to prominence as a prostitute by being particularly acrobatic. Theodora eventually became the obsession of a young soldier named Justinian, who married her, and then (partly under her guidance) rose to be the Roman Emperor. Theodora thus became (essentially) the co-ruler of the entire civilized world. 

Lesson: Sell to the right customer and you can live off the repeat business.

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The Greatest Salesmen of All Time

Jack LaLanne

Jack LaLanne

Jack LaLanne

Jack LaLanne (1914-2011) sold the world on the advantages of being buff.  For years, he preached the gospel of a healthy diet and regular exercise, turning himself in the process into a walking advertisement for his own ideas.  In the process, he created and sold televisions shows, a chain of health clubs, and a multitude of health-related products.  Today, you've got to burrow deep into the third world to find a place where LaLanne's concept of health isn't a huge influence on how men and women want to look and feel.

Lesson: Don't just sell something; be your own best customer.

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The Greatest Salesmen of All Time

Thomas Edison

Thomas Edison

Thomas Edison

Most people know of Thomas Edison (1847-1931) as the inventor of the phonograph, the motion picture camera, and the electric light bulb.  However, a huge part of Edison's life effort involved selling his ideas and inventions to an unready world.  Edison constantly promoted, positioned and publicized, and in the process convinced the world to embrace technology that, at the time, was almost miraculous.  His effectiveness as a salesman can be gauged by the fact that today Edison remains a household name, while arch-rival Nicola Tesla (whose inventions were equally important) remains relatively obscure.

Sales Lesson: Even if you're brilliant, you still need to sell.

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The Greatest Salesmen of All Time

Meg Whitman

Meg Whitman

Meg Whitman

Margaret Whitman (1956-) is most famous for her tenure at eBay, where it rose from a $4 million a year company with 30 employees to an $8 billion a year firm employing more than 15,000.  The eBay business model, of course, is that it's a vehicle for millions of people to sell millions of products, with eBay taking a commission on each sale.  As a result, Meg Whitman, is responsible for more sales taking place than possibly any human living or dead.  Even so, when Whitman tried to sell herself as a political candidate, she failed, despite spending $178.5 million.

LESSON: If your real strength is channel selling, don't try to sell direct.

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The Greatest Salesmen of All Time

George Clifford

George Clifford

George Clifford

George Clifford, the 3rd Earl of Cumberland (1558–1605), founded the English East India Company, one of the first joint-stock corporations in the entire world.  The company imported and sold cotton, silk, indigo dye, saltpetre, tea, and opium, and generated so much income that it eventually came to to rule large areas of India. Clifford convinced Queen Elizabeth I to back his scheme primarily because he had become famous as a jouster, making him the "Tiger Woods" of his day (complete with the multiple mistresses.)  The aging Queen, agog at his total studliness, could refuse him nothing. 

Lesson: Sometimes just looking good is enough to close the deal.

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The Greatest Salesmen of All Time

Joe Girard

Joe Girard

Joe Girard (1928-) sold 13,001 cars at a Chevrolet dealership between 1963 and 1978, a feat that eventually got him inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame.  His big innovation was having people get an appointment in order to have him sell to them, so that he could have an assistant research, pre-screen and qualify each customer.  Previously, all car sales were done based upon catch-as-catch-can walk-ins.  Joe took a hit-or-miss business and turned it into an assembly line.

Lesson: Research your customers before you sell to them.

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The Greatest Salesmen of All Time

Aimee Semple McPherson

Aimee Semple McPherson

Aimee Semple McPherson

Aimee Semple McPherson (1890-1944) changed the way evangelical Christianity was sold to the public.  Previously, the sales process was conducted one-on-one and in relatively small groups.  Aimee took it to the "big time", with radio broadcasts and huge stadium-sized events.  In the process, she became arguably the modern world's first religious celebrity, so famous that millions followed the details of her life.

Lesson: It never hurts to have a really huge megaphone.

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The Greatest Salesmen of All Time

W. Clement Stone

W. Clement Stone

W. Clement Stone

W. Clement Stone (1902-2002) was possibly world's greatest insurance salesman. His success was due to his realization, at an early age, that you needed to sell in places where there were people who wanted to buy.  As a newsboy, he sold newspapers in restaurants, rather than in the street, because that's where people read them. His insurance sales similarly focused on downtown offices, where there were people with money and families whom they wanted to protect.  

Lesson: Do your selling in places where there are customers who want to buy.

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The Greatest Salesmen of All Time

Donald Trump

Donald Trump

Donald Trump

Like him or loath him, there's no question that Donald Trump (1946-) knows how to sell.  I'm not just talking about his real estate deals, or his media deals, or his forays into other businesses.  I'm talking about his dogged persistence in the face of disaster. Back in the early 1990s, Trump was facing bankruptcy and his reputation as a shrewd businessman was in the toilet.  But the Donald kept plugging along, making deals, selling what he had to sell, and managed not just to save his empire, but to raise himself to the point where today some people believe he could be the next President of the United States.

Lesson: You've got to keep selling, even when times get difficult.

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The Greatest Salesmen of All Time

Ronald Reagan

Ronald Reagan

Ronald Reagan

Ronald Reagan (1911-2004) was the first politician who really understood that you need to SELL your ideas. Previous politicians mostly about finding a parade and getting out in front of it.  Regardless of your view of his politics, Reagan explained what he believed and where he wanted to go, and then convinced people to line up behind him.  Reagan's genial demeanor, crisp communication style, consistency of message, and committment to deliver the goods are a true model of how to build a long term customer relationship.

Lesson: Selling isn't peddling; it's leading the way.

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The Greatest Salesmen of All Time

Madonna

Madonna

Madonna

With a thimble-full of singing talent and the ability (when acting) to express every emotion from A to B, it's amazing that Madonna Louise Ciccone (1958-) remains one of the most popular singers and entertainers on the planet.  Madonna has sold more than 300 million records worldwide and is recognized as the world's top-selling female recording artist of all time by the Guinness World Records. She's also been able to propel herself into the upper eschelon of deal-makers in Hollywood and the music business.

Lesson: If you're good enough at selling, product quality isn't an issue.

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