Where do we get our sales chutzpah from? From mentors we work with? From salesmen who have made millions and written books for us to emulate their success? How about old-timer training titans like Dale Carnegie and Tony Robbins? Perhaps sales gurus like Mary Kay Ash and Colleen Stanley?
How about Hollywood? Well, Michael Douglas has revealed in interviews that strangers have told him that his Gordon Gekko character was why they got a job on Wall Street. Alec Baldwin has likewise had strangers tell him that his seminal Glengarry Glen Ross scene was why they got into sales.
Movies give us some of our most overused sales clichés. They also highlight greedy salesmen that view customers as prey. But there are reasons we love to hate these slime bags of the silver screen. They’re witty, they’ve got swagger, and they’re effective.
Better than sales training videos, these movies inspire us to hunt elephants, crush quotas and see the upside of our industry. Here, we look at some of the best.
Glengarry Glen Ross
Sales professionals love to refer to one of the acronyms from this movie: ABC, which stands for always be closing. This scene that steals the movie. About getting your clients to sign on the dotted line, it’s the sales maxim to end all sales maxims. Spoken by an offensive, morally dubious sales professional played by Alec Baldwin, it appears during a scene in which he also introduces a sales contest. First prize, a Cadillac. Second prize, a set of steak knives. Other prizes? — there aren’t any because every losing salesman will be out of a job.
One of the main messages of this movie — that you have to be absolutely ruthless to close — is blatantly bogus. Yet it prompts us to consider if we’re perhaps being too benevolent, too softhearted, not with our clients, but with our sales goals and how we view of our competition.
Even though it’s nearly 30 years old, this movie has lines in it that never get old. For example: “Life all comes down to a few moments. This is one of them.” However, this movie mostly exemplifies what not to do in business. Without question, greed is not good and hypermaterialism is antithetical to true happiness. And yet that doesn’t stop sinister insider traders Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) and Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen) dispensing sales gems left, right, and center. For instance, in one scene, Gekko says that the most valuable commodity is information — and this couldn’t be more true for today’s sales reps cold calling and emailing prospects.
By having characters discuss salesmanship lessons from Glengarry Glen Ross and Wall Street, this movie goes sales meta. Indeed, it sometimes seems like a poor man’s mashup of these two movies. (Question: How long before there’s a movie that has traders recite lines from traders in Boiler Room who are reciting lines from traders in Wall Street?)
The title refers to so-called boiler room operations where brokers use high-pressure tactics to sell stocks. Most fans of this movie skew toward Jim Young, played by Ben Affleck. Though he’s a bit heavy handed on profanity and the effectiveness of ruthlessness, he still gets his points across about the virtue of work hard, how winners aren’t pikers, and how success begets success. Too bad that what he “sells” the energetic and naive trainee stockbrokers turns them into sales animals.
Memorable quote: “There’s no such thing as a no-sale call. A sale is made on every call you make. Either you sell the client some stock or he sells you a reason he can’t. Either way, a sale is made. The only question is, who is going to close? You or him?”
Sometimes a slapstick comedy puts everything — from being selective to defining sales stages — into perspective. Sure, the bumbling clip-on-tie wearing duo are selling brake pads for cars, but they personify the kind of ingenuity that can land huge sales (though, keep in mind that searching for silver bullets rarely works).
In the following clip, watch a washed-up salesman (Chris Farley) explain why he’s terrible at his job. Then watch the David Spade character flip everything around. You just have to approach sales like there’s nothing to lose. Also, use your confident-yet-relaxed demeanor to connect with prospects.
Memorable quote: “He could sell a ketchup Popsicle to a woman in white gloves.”
The Wolf of Wall Street
The “sell me this pen” scene in this Martin Scorsese movie is about creating a sense of urgency in your clients. It’s also curt and outlandish, but hey, this is Hollywood portraying the decadent 1980s.
Leonardo DiCaprio plays Jordan Belfort, a penny-stock swindler who rises, gets busted, then rebrands himself as a motivational speaker. Even though Belfort is a vulgar con artist, like some others on this list, he’s got pizzazz. And boy he was effective. For instance, he adjusted and perfected his strategy, formed a loyal team, trained his people, and provided incentives for hard work. Could you imagine being in the room and hearing him give the following sales pep talk?
Memorable quote: “The only thing standing between you and your goal is the @%!$& story you keep telling yourself as to why you can't achieve it.”
Death of a Salesman
Willy Loman is one of those fictional characters we don’t necessarily adore as much as other characters we’ve grown up with, such as superheroes, sitcom stars, and so on. However, Loman pops up so often in our conversations and in pop culture that we feel we know him. Less a stereotype, more an archetype, he embodies the downtrodden and defeated (note how his last name sounds like “low man”). Delusional and suicidal, he ultimately shows us a truth that is exactly the opposite of what he tells his sons. That is, through him we learn that being popular and having contacts might be help you succeed as a salesman, but these certainly aren’t the key to happiness.
There are at least four film adaptations of this 1949 play by Arthur Miller. Dustin Hoffman won a Golden Globe for his performance as Loman in the 1985 version. In a review of the 1951 adaptation, The New York Times wrote that Death of a Salesman is “dismally depressing” but “whips you about in a whirlpool somewhere close to the center of life.” Agreed.
This 1960 film about a salesman-cum-preacher foreshadows the real-life scandals of later televangelists. From selling shoeshine and vacuum cleaners to selling the word of the Lord, Brother Gantry has a gift for the gab and an answer for everything. Too bad that he can’t practice what he preaches. A drunk that warns against the evils of booze, a self-righteousness mess that urges humbleness, this protagonist gives us a front seat to hypocrisy. Whatever he’s selling, we’re not buying.
Break out the popcorn
Watching these great sales movies won’t make you into a superstar salesperson. Only learning the fundamentals — such as losing better at sales, using state-of-the-art productivity tools, focusing on the long term, and building your pipeline — will result in increasing your sales velocity, making you a true sales superstar. Mind you, being able to quote the likes of Gordon Gekko, Jordan Belfort, and Willy Loman surely won’t hurt.