Why do salespeople have such a bad image?

by Gerlinde Wynands, Sales Executive, APIIDA AG

Faust: » When, to the Moment then, I say: / ‘Ah, stay a while! You are so lovely!’ / Then you can grasp me: then you may, / Then, to my ruin, I’ll go gladly!« (“Faust: A Tragedy.” from Johann Wolfgang Goethe, Vers 1699–1702)

The study “Trust in Professions,” published in March 2018 by the Society for Consumer, Market, and Sales Research (GFK-Verein, in Germany), shows that the image of salespeople remains stable: A bad one.

In Germany, these professionals have a trusting image with only 51 out of 100 people. Although their reputation has gotten better in Europe and worldwide, it is still far from being good. Sales is still a “people business”: whether at the bakery, the bank or in B2B negotiations. The human relationship is an important foundation.

According to the survey, however, we are intrinsically suspicious of salespeople, and there seems to exist a simple form of basic distrust. (We trust they are capable of anything.)

How does this thought-process happen? There are two parallel threads. On the one hand, the real personal relationship level, on the other, this bad-image perception.

Perhaps it is worth it looking into the past. Are you able to identify clues in century-old legends and stories, which present a sales-thematic? Has it already been presenting itself, the ugly image of the salesperson? From this, can we learn something about our present?

Salespeople and their bad reputation: even in old legends and stories

There is indeed an abundance of those stories, with similar recurring motifs. One of them is the pact with the devil or a demonic force. The most famous example of such a “deal” that certainly comes to mind is Faust: A Tragedy, the fascinating literature masterpiece of Goethe. Mephistopheles, counterpart or even the alter ego of Faust, is the whisperer, the seducer, who is capable of materializing dark needs and desires and making them tangible. Large passages of the tragedy seem like an endless sales negotiation between Faust and Mephisto. The terms of the deal are analyzed, considered, rejected, objections are discussed, scenarios are imagined. Mephisto is not of this world; he is an emissary from the realm of the unlucky, the dark, the mythical, the diabolical. Moreover, he can open the door for escaping the earthly narrowness and the human limitations, beyond what is permitted and possible – towards universal knowledge, eternal youth and virility, wealth and power.

What is the appropriate price for such an accomplishment? Peter Schlemihl, sold his shadow; Timm Thaler, his laugh; there is the Dorian Gray deal; even the fairy tale of Rumpelstiltskin; or the story of the Sandman, from E.T.A. Hoffmann – They are all variations with the core of the salesperson thematic.

Especially at the beginning of modern times, these legends enjoyed a boom in popular belief. The Romantic period had brought these stories back into consciousness, and some remained preserved, disguised in fairy tales.

These stories still fascinate us, while the theme of megalomania keeps playing a significant role. The limits of what is feasible and what is humanly possible are being challenged. In contrast to miracles, which in religious contexts are positive, yet contained, the traditions quoted here focus on the diabolical – the dark side of power, the transgression of the existing order.

These myths emerged, have been and still are increasingly adopted in times of social upheavals catalyzed by technical developments: The invention of windmills with Don Quixote, spinning machines with Rumpelstiltskin, weaving mills, letterpress printing, and all-sized industrialization impulses.

“I like to call it a Faustian bargain. Technology giveth and technology taketh away.“ (Neil Postman: Five Things We Need to Know About Technological Change)

The salesman as fulfiller of our deepest wishes?

Aren’t we all once again right in the middle of a time of upheaval, of great uncertainty? Globalization, digitalization, the profound disruptive changes in the work environment, and the way we deal with one another – which, in central areas, make the perceived loss of control susceptible to seduction.

Don’t we all secretly want to be able to buy back this control – for us as individuals, for our community or our company? This desire is reflected in some job titles such as Solution Strategist, Solution Sales or Solution Analyst.

The purchase, merely described as the exchange of money for goods, may never have been a matter of fact; and exchange has always been closely related to deception. The hunt for the “Big Bet” is back in full swing.

Aren’t buyers and sellers the two sides of the same coin? The untrustworthy, unfair, dishonorable seller is only the reflection, the counter-part, the projection surface of the immoral buyer. Who can already free himself from the “cheap is cool” maxim or a “Me first!” claim?

And yet another aspect you should consider: The protagonists from the quoted legends and stories are all male. The GFK study does not differentiate according to gender. What about women? Would the results here be different or could even be better?


„So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise,[a] she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate.“ (Genesis 3:6)

We invite you to join our blog series about sales and try to take new or unusual perspectives. Do you have a suggestion? We are looking forward to it!

Visit us at apiida.com


1 “Einheitsübersetzung der Heiligen Schrift”, (c) 1980 Katholische Bibelanstalt, Stuttgart, Gen 3,4-6.
Pictures: Handshake with Devil © MaksymFilipchuk / Lucas Cranach d.Ä. “Adam and Eve”

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