Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Duplicitous Salesmen, Double Salaries:

In the early '80s, I wrote software for Exxon Office Systems (EOS), one of the more disastrous ventures in the history of computing. Exxon tried to make EOS into a worldwide presence with sales in dozens of countries. They paid well – otherwise who would work for them? – but their sales force presented a special problem, one that's probably well-known in many industries.

Many of the sales people worked on their own, covering some large geographic region. They set their own hours and planned their own campaigns to make sales. Occasionally they reported to regional meetings or came to the home office for new information and training, but their real challenge was to sell enough to support themselves well, and they could use their time as they wished to accomplish that. (To raise their gross, some salesmen, when visiting the home office, would steal copies of new software applications not even ready for alpha testing and sell them, but that's important now.)

The problem was that sales were dismal. EOS sold some expensive, poor products. They also sold some very expensive good products. Prospective customers were wary of a gasoline company in the office business; so every sale was hard to make. In fact, most sales people could not live on their commissions. To keep sales people, EOS paid them decent salaries. Therefore most of their sales staff had little incentive to bust their chops to make a few more sales.

Remember how I described the life of the sales force above? Well with all that independence, it was understood that some sales people had two fulltime jobs. They sold just enough EOS products to keep getting their salary, and they also worked on commission, maybe even for for one of our competitors.

In September 1984, it became obvious that Exxon planned to shut down its Office Systems division. But they did not wield the axe until the following January, giving us all four more months of salary. In the interim, the documentation people set up a little shop to polish resumes for everybody. Marketing played trivial pursuit; the software people played computer games; the hardware designers worked on inventions that they could use to start up their own companies; and we suspected that many, many sales people took that second fulltime job.

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