Death of a Sales Funnel? Marketing Lessons from Arthur Miller

Rewind for a moment, if you will, to your tenth-grade American Literature classroom. If you stayed awake long enough, you may remember your teacher discussing a rather sad tale about a traveling salesman named Willy Loman, and the misguided, delusional dreams that led to his demise.

In the 64 years since Arthur Miller wrote the renowned play, Death of a Salesman, the business world has evolved to a state that would be wholly unrecognizable to Willy and his peers. The internet and the endless resources it provides have completely revolutionized the marketing process, leading some to debate whether the sales funnel even still exists, or has been replaced by a continuous cycle of consumers educating themselves to the point of purchase, then constantly reevaluating their choices.

But whether you agree that the sales funnel is dead or simply evolving, there’s a lot that we, as modern-day marketers, can learn from the famous narrative of Willy Loman and his warped interpretation of “the American Dream.”

Leave the past in the past.

One thing you may remember from the play is the constant flashbacks to “better times.” These glorified visions of the past prevent Willy from seeing a clear view of reality, and leave him clinging to a stubborn notion of the lifestyle for which he thinks his sons should be striving.

In today’s marketing world, where advancing technology constantly affects the tools at marketers’ disposal, agility is everything. Don’t end up like Willy Loman, muttering bitterly to yourself, lost in an idyllic past. What worked for you yesterday may not work today, so regularly reevaluate your marketing success with the measurement tools available to today’s marketers, and be open to new tools and changing trends.

Being “well-liked” isn’t everything.

Willy constantly harps on the importance of being “well-liked” and “attractive,” and it is immediately apparent that he refers to these terms in the most superficial sense possible.

If closing a quick deal with a persuasive and likable salesman was an ineffective approach to doing business in Willy’s day, it’s even less so now. Even if a talented salesman is able to make a sale, the company needs to have the product and customer service to back it up. Countless alternatives to that product are just a Google search away, and it only takes one misstep on the company’s part for the customer to pack up and move on. A company must have a strong foundation in place when it comes to product development and customer support — charisma alone won’t lead to business success.

Know your strengths — and play to them.

If there’s one character in Death of a Salesman with a moderate grasp on reality, it’s Willy’s son, Biff Loman. Though he once idolized his father’s way of life, he eventually comes to recognize its lack of depth and fulfillment and begs his father to face the facts: he’s not cut out to be a salesman. Although Willy remains in denial, Biff sets out to embrace a lifestyle that plays to his strengths.

The same holds true today: the businesses that truly set themselves up for success are those that let employees play to their greatest strengths and passions. Knowing your strengths also means recognizing when something is outside your area of expertise, and not being afraid to admit it. In the age of inbound marketing, consumers are more educated than ever before and therefore more likely to call your bluff. Don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know the answer to that, but I can find out from someone who does.”

One thing is for certain: sales funnel or no, inbound marketing has given rise to a more educated and empowered consumer, and this shift calls for a more genuine and transparent approach to doing business. And though Willy Loman’s distorted perception of the American Dream may be long dead, one could easily argue that this shift actually brings the American Dream closer to its roots: passion, hard work, and an openness to change.

What’re your thoughts on this subject? Is the sales funnel dead or just evolving? We’d love to hear from you in our comments section.

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