The Machine That Kept Them Honest


Among the new concepts Patterson introduced was the standardized sales talk, codified into a revolutionary document known as the N.C.R. Primer . At first the use of the new method of selling was merely recommended. Later it became compulsory. Patterson never justified it from any theoretical standpoint. He didn’t need to: the men who followed the Primer sold more registers and earned fatter commissions than those who stuck to personality selling. From this pioneering effort emerged the first sales manual. It brought together all the objections and excuses which had ever been advanced for not buying a cash register. A training school soon followed, later elaborated into conferences and conventions with intracompany competitions that provided rewards and distinctions for the fortunate winners. There were company songs, bunting, and banners. A Patterson sales convention was a Rotarian gala, the atmosphere one of emotion touched with grandeur. Part circus, part chautauqua, it resembled a church revival except that there was never any letdown. Early in each year, flags were flung to the breeze over the home office when the first salesman made his quota. The annual Sales Derby was on!

The men who survived Patterson’s schooling came out casehardened and wily. They never simply sold a piece of machinery; rather, they promoted a business function. It was the principle later expressed by Elmer Wheeler, inspirational lecturer sometimes called “America’s Number i Salesman,” in the memorable slogan: Don’t sell the steak, sell the sizzle . Patterson’s men were forbidden to carry screw drivers, lest they become diverted into service work. Nor were they encouraged to become more than casually conversant with the innards of the machine they sold, although in the cash register field it was useful to have a working knowledge of a competitive register so as to be able, on occasion, to put it out of commission.

“I have called to interest you in a way to increase your profits,” the polite N.C.R. man would say. He was itching for an argument, never happier than when the prospect, known in Patterson’s lexicon as the “P.P.” (Probable Purchaser), raised such childish and moth-eaten objections as:

I don’t need one. Times are hard. I can’t spare the money. My present system is satisfactory. You make too great a profit.

The next step was to entangle the P.P. in a net of admissions about his losses on cash sales, credit sales, cash received on account, cash paid out, and charging money as an accommodation . Healthy, shaved, with clean linen and no cigar, his blue serge suit well brushed, the N.C.R. agent staged his demonstration outside the store—usually in a sample room at the best hotel in town—with such theatrical trappings as curtains painted to represent a store interior. There were large business charts and diagrams. Real merchandise and real money were used to heighten the dramatic impact. The P.P. was comfortably seated, and there were no distractions in the room such as a clock, which might suggest that he had better be getting back to the store, or a calendar, a possible reminder that he had a note coming due at the bank.

The closing of a sale was as stylized as a Japanese kabuki play. When the salesman had the prospect sagging on the ropes he was too much the artist to ask crudely lor the order; instead, he moved on smoothly to, “Now, Mr. Brown, what color shall I make it?” Or, “How soon do you want delivery?” If the store owner drew back, the N.C.R. man prepared him once more for signature, gently urging him up to the mark again, pen at the ready—“Just sign here.” With the ceremonial signing went a twenty-five-cent cigar and the ego-boosting assurance that the customer had proved he was a real live wire as a businessman. Nor was that the end of the relationship between the purchaser and the company. The N.C.R. man was already making a note of the date when the register would be obsolescent and should be traded in on a new, improved model, for it was one of the most attractive discoveries made in the early days of specialty selling that the customer who had been knocked over once could be upgraded later.

Patterson scoffed at the going idea that salesmen were born. Not N.C.R. salesmen, he vowed. They were made—by the head man, who often played storekeeper with them in this wise: “Good morning,” the president of N.C.R. would say mildly to a sweating member of the Selling Force. “I have a drugstore down the street. Will you kindly explain the cash register to me?” If the salesman was quick, verbalized well, or was just lucky that morning, Patterson might give an occasional grunt, his most demonstrative expression of appreciation. More often he jumped up in the middle of the pitch, grabbed a piece of red chalk, and scrawled on the easel pad which always stood handy, “ROTTEN!” Before the merciless examination was over, some men faltered, some blacked out. And some just plain quit.

But by about 1910, the Cash was doing ninety per cent of the cash register business. The U.S. Department of Justice thought this was a very high penetration of the market. But the pebble in Patterson’s shoe was that other ten per cent. He could not honestly see a legitimate reason for any cash register to be sold except the National.