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Titans of Sales History: John Henry Patterson

We’re introducing a new concept today – Titans of Sales History. In this series, we’ll be examining historical figures who were key in shaping today’s sales world and what we can still learn from their influence. Things kick off with the godfather of sales training himself – John Henry Patterson.

Born in Dayton, Ohio in 1844, Patterson’s early childhood involved working on the family farm and in the sawmills owned and operated by his father. An alumnus of both Miami University (OH) and Dartmouth college, he graduated from the latter at 23. His first three years post-graduation were spent as a toll collector, before moving on at the age of 26 to manage the Southern Ohio Coal and Iron Company. When he was 38, he invested in the National Manufacturing Company, purchasing the business outright two years later in 1884 with his brother.

As a signal of the acquisition, the company was renamed the National Cash Register Company – an adoption that better reflected the mechanical cash registers the company had been known for since James Ritty’s 1879 invention of the product. (The business still exists today as NCR Corporation, a subsidiary of AT&T, which purchased the firm in 1991 for $7.4 billion).

Three years later saw the introduction of the first NCR Primer – a manual that instructed – with exacting detail down to hand movements – how the sales process and interaction was to proceed. We’ll discuss that in greater detail later on, but only briefly mention that the primer’s concept of scripting was not new – indeed, at least as early as 1859 the Equitable Life Assurance Society had a handbook with specific arguments.

Other notable accomplishments by Patterson included the building of the first daylight factory – which utilized floor-to-ceiling windows allowing for light and fresh air – and featured a carefully sculpted grounds designed by the celebrity landscape architect John Charles Olmsted. This was in stark contrast to the still dominant sweatshops of the day. Patterson also gave massive aid following the Great Dayton Flood and spent most of his money on social programs for NCR’s employees – so much so that upon his death in 1922, he left comparatively little inheritance to his heirs.

But most significantly from our point of view, he was the first to develop a sales training program for his staff. It was constructed around the Primer and the world’s first sales training school, established on the NCR campus.

Plenty of lessons for sales professionals today abound in Patterson’s life and legacy:

You need to be constantly learning and improving as a sales rep. Patterson was the first to recognize the importance of sales training and dedicate company resources to it, as noted above. But that improvement wasn’t limited to sales reps. The Primer itself saw frequent updates and changes throughout the years, including a supplemental FAQ called the Book of Arguments, and eventually morphed into a Sales Manual in 1894 that combined the Primer and the Book (the manual itself expanded and contracted throughout its usage – from almost 200 pages a decade after its introduction to 56 pages by 1910).

These constant revisions were made as a result of feedback from sales reps and the changing customer needs, much as the best-in-class sales organizations today tweak and revise their processes in response to changing market conditions.

Sell to the customer’s needs, not solely on benefits and features. We tend to think of the shift away from features and benefits as a relatively new development, yet even in the late 19th century, the Primer’s advice was to show “sympathy (toward) the business and interests of the P.P.” (Probable Purchaser – what we now commonly call a prospect).

Be honest, confident, and sincere in your negotiations. While there was a thread of hard-sale pressure tactics running through Patterson’s Primer, the emphasis was on sincerity, confidence, and honesty in conversations. The importance of relationship building was highlighted as well – from gaining the prospect’s confidence (after studying them – a note of research and preparation!) to avoiding “giving the impression… you are trying to force him to buy… No man likes to feel he is being sold.” (excerpt from the Primer)

As this summary reveals, even in 2019, when we think we have evolved entirely from the sales tactics of yesteryear, the initial innovations of centuries past still inform and shape our sales strategies today. While the precise content and methods of delivery have naturally changed under societal shifts and the introduction of new technologies, the core, essential truths of best sales practices held then and now.