In the language of sales and marketing, "personal selling" singles out those situations in which a real human being is trying to sell something to another face-to-face. One might well ask what other type of genuine selling there is. The answer is that personal selling has a functional equivalent. The modern differentiation between "personal" and other selling arises from the fact that a very substantial volume of ordinary purchasing of food, textiles, household goods, entertainment, travel, subscriptions, fuel, books, etc., takes place without the presence of a live facilitator. The only human contact is usually the check-out clerk; and corporations are laboring hard to replace even this humble functionary by machines that read barcodes and recognize credit cards. In the vast majority of these situations whatever persuasion has been applied to the shopper has been delivered by disembodied images on television, radio, in print, by coupons, by signage, and by packaging. Thus "impersonal selling" is by advertising, sales promotion and public relations.


In personal life few people buy a house, a car, or a life insurance policy after reading an ad or looking at a flashy brochure left hanging on the door knob. Major work on the house is approved after personal selling has taken place—and so does the choice of a retirement village for a grandparent. These situations, first of all, are not routine occurrences; second, they are transactions of some magnitude; third, many choices are usually available; one might say that the situations have a high "information density." In these cases interacting with the seller's knowledgeable representative in a prolonged exploratory give-and-take is both necessary and reassuring. Indeed, arguably, personal selling is also helpful when making smaller purchases provided that the decision is difficult for the buyer, as in a bride-to-be selecting a wedding gown or a man purchasing jewelry for his wife's birthday. In certain categories of retail—luggage stores and furniture stores come to mind—sales people are usually provided by the business, and on busy days customers get fidgety when no one is there to help them.

In business-to-business buying and selling the same rules apply. A business will typically obtain its office supplies from catalogs, but most of its other purchases involve personal selling by the vendor even if buying the commodity or services later becomes routine; in the latter cases, periodic calls from the sales person will continue to maintain the relationship. Business purchases are very often "technical" in nature, not necessarily because the goods are mechanical or electronic but because they have specialized aspects.


Aspects The psychological aspects of the buying-selling situation are highlighted in the purchase of more expensive items. Buying something is a decision in which the buyer must decide between opposing tendencies. There is desire for the object and reasons lined up to support a Yes. There is a cost involved and reasons present why it should be avoided. The buyer must ultimately persuade him or herself to say Yes or No. The importance of personal selling lies in tilting the balance toward a Yes. Only an interactive situation gives the seller this opportunity. Its abuse leads to—

Negative Attitudes

In ancient times people feared that they would be cheated in sales transactions, hence the Latin proverb, caveat emptor, meaning let the buyer beware. From pre-industrial times comes the admonition not to buy a "pig in a poke." Again the emphasis is on deception because a "poke" is archaic for "bag." The hidden pig might have defects. We say: "Don't look a gift horse in the mouth," implying that in a buying situation looking at the horse's mouth (to determine its age from its teeth) was highly recommended. The modern attitude toward direct sales, however, emphasizes aggression or bullying with phrases like "high-pressure sales" or "the hard sell." In the old days people only bought what they genuinely wanted. The range of products competing for buyers was limited; supplies were never very abundant—hence people tried to move defective goods by deception. In our time great surplus reigns; there is too much of everything. A good deal of psychological force is routinely deployed to persuade people to buy, on credit if necessary. The savings rate, consequently, has virtually disappeared; people are in debt; and selling has acquired a negative reputation—whether it is indirect like advertising or direct. In direct selling telephone or door-to-door prospecting is particularly disliked by the public.


The hard sell is unlikely to disappear until its cause does too, but experts on salesmanship are virtually unanimous in viewing it as negatively as the public. The job of the salesperson is to discover what the buyer wants, to present the goods that match the desire as closely as possible, to answer questions about the product (or service, or contract, etc.), to deal effectively with objections, and finally to close the sale. When this job is done correctly, the buyer will be well served even if he or she does not buy.

The sales work is a complex activity in which many characteristics must be simultaneously present, hence it is misleading to single out or rank particular traits. The starting assumption, however, is that the salesperson has integrity and will not sell something he or she knows to be defective or inferior, will have character, honesty, and be emotionally stable. Beyond that, the salesperson must have deep product knowledge and good communications skills, must internalize the customer's point of view, and must remain both unobtrusive and yet accessible. He or she must have a good sense for all kinds of people and a good sense of timing; thus he or she will know when to attend and when to leave the customer alone, when to press and when to withdraw. Salesmanship thus calls for a balanced, well rounded, outgoing, and knowledgeable person. Some experts also emphasize physical strength and energy—because sales work often requires many hours of standing about, travel, and exertions of one sort or another. Other emphasize a straightforward and candid attitude. Problems with products or contract contingencies should be discussed frankly. Pricing discussions should not be hedged. Maintenance issues should be discussed with candor.

Selling and entrepreneurship have a good deal in common—indeed are the same fundamental activity at the core. Both require active engagement with the market environment. But while an entrepreneur is often a person whose motivation springs from some type of interest, body of knowledge, or cluster of skills, salesmanship often manifests as a more generalized interest in interaction with the customer, so that skilled sales people readily adapt to selling anything at all while some entrepreneurs are only comfortable in narrow areas.

The very qualities that make sales people effective—enthusiasm for working with people one-on-one—make some of them less effective in activities that require patience, working alone, meticulous attention to detail, and certain types of concentration. For this reason personal selling staffs frequently require backup to ensure good order, organization, and follow-through.


Sales positions or their equivalents range between the sales clerk with minimal selling skills up to the chief executive officer in public and in private enterprises. At the bottom of the sales-pyramid the primary skill is taking an order and guiding customers to the product; at the top great ability to present complex, often controversial and abstract cases persuasively, usually as just a part of other functions, is required. Most personal selling takes place in the middle.

Sales positions are classified as "inside" and "outside." Inside sales above the clerk level involve telephone sales, mainstream retail sales in stores where product knowledge and presentation skills are required, and auto sales and similar equipment sales where customers visit the dealership. Inside sales may be combined with other functions such as scheduling and early information gathering for an outside agent.

Outside sales take place either at the prospective client's residence or place of business or in a third-party location: real estate sales have this form. Outside sales may be combined with estimating tasks as in the case of bidding on construction work; it may also be combined with product delivery. The driver-salesperson has a stocking function sometimes combined with sales responsibilities. A special category is the sales engineer highly skilled in some aspect of industrial operations and thus able both to understand requirements and to provide technical support.

In many types of financial, consulting, market research, engineering, construction, and equipment sales categories personal selling may be both inside and out. In the consulting industry the manager likely to oversee a contract is likely to be the leading salesperson for the job. In such situations buyers may call on the seller and vice-versa depending on the circumstances.

The Reps

An important category of personal selling is provided by manufacturers' representatives, usually called rep organizations or selling agents. These individuals, sometimes working in groups, are independent sellers representing a manufacturer, usually in exclusive territories, compensated by commissions only. Hiring a rep firm allows a small business to avoid the cost of an in-house sales force. In addition, an established rep may provide the business instant access to an established sales territory. Agents are particularly helpful for businesses with seasonal sales; the rep is only paid when sales are made. The chief disadvantage of selling agents is that they usually work for several different firms and do not devote all of their time to one client.


A broad movement is discernible in modern commerce to replace personal selling in all areas except those in which the service is indispensable or pricing permits its continuance: because personal selling is expensive. Packaging, promotion, and lower-cost and lower-skill clerks are replacing the sales person even in technical fields. An example of this is the distribution of computers and software. More and more such products are sold in standard packaged forms, even in retail outlets; the sales function is reduced to clerking aimed to help customers find—not to understand—products. Servicing products (including their installation) is being transferred overseas to lower labor-cost markets; the service is provided by telephone. Private selling remains central in selling financial products, real estate, and major consumer durables (autos, appliances, boats, furniture, carpeting, etc.). It is also used in service categories like construction and maintenance. And personal selling continues to be present in up-scale retail where high prices not only justify but require attention to customer needs. It also survives in analogous distribution systems attempting to reach more modest income levels with high margin but hard-to-sell (because expensive) products. In business-to-business or business-to-institution sales personal selling remains the principal mode of selling capital goods, raw materials, and parts, as well as services.

Personal selling is thus used either where it cannot be avoided or where it is paid for as a service but as part of the product. The absence of attentive sales assistance itself constitutes a kind of hidden demand in the economy which some small businesses have learned effectively to exploit. But doing so requires products able to carry its costs. Paradoxically, one might say, selling itself has to be sold as part of an ambiance or shopping experience. But it can be a hard sell. The erosion of personal selling owes as much to the collusion of the consumer (who is willing to put up with impersonal sales environments in order to save a little money) as to the cost-avoidance reflex of those intent on maximizing profits.


Freedman, David H. "Meet Your New Executives. They're every bit as clever as your old ones. The difference? They may not be human." Inc. Magazine. January 2006.

"Good Personal Selling." American Salesman. December 2004.

"The Importance of Personal Selling." Dealernews. January 2005.

Ingram, Thomas N. et al. Sales Management; Analysis and decision making. South-Western College Publication, 2006.

"Job Performance—Productivity—Effectives—Effort—Failure." Journal of Personal Selling and Sales Management. Winter 2005.

Marks, Ronald. Personal Selling: A Relationship Approach. Atomic Dog Publishing, 2005.