Death of a Salesman



Kansas City:



(Courtesy of  Cashill Newsletter - August 30, 2000 )

By Jack Cashill

Two years ago, while my wife and family were abroad, everyone I knew forgot my birthday. Everyone except Joe Solscheid. Joe's card arrived on the day of my birthday, as it did every year, except this year I noticed it and appreciated it.

It was the last birthday card I would ever get from Joe.

Joe was my insurance agent. I had known socially before he sold me my policy. It wasn't a hard sell-Joe was sincere and convincing--and it wasn't a big policy. Still, Joe was the last guy I would have imagined as an insurance salesman. I had presumed insurance salesmen to be glad- handing and gregarious, backslapping, born Rotarians. Joe was none of the above.

Joe, in fact, was a tough guy, laconic and laid back. It would not have been much of a stretch to imagine him as a character in a Spaghetti western--on either side of the thin line between good guy and bad. Lineman of the year and an honorable mention All-American at SMSU, Joe had graduated college to become a teacher and coach. But he needed more than Junior High teaching could give him. He needed respect. And in the real world, as he saw it, respect was scored in dollars and cents.

When I bought my policy from Joe, he was just starting out. One reason I bought it was that I kind of felt sorry for him. I knew myself what it was like to make a cold call--the one true vestige of free enterprise in a world gone soft with corporate buffers--and I did not envy someone whose life would be measured by them. Especially Joe. I did not think Joe had the stuff to make it. But I underestimated him. Badly.

Indeed, we tend to underestimate all would-be salesman. Insurance salesman, encyclopedia salesman, aluminum siding salesman--they are to a man or woman fodder for sly allusions and easy jokes. In the public imagination, they are pushy, obnoxious, boorish and dishonest. Richard Nixon, for instance, was often likened to a used-car salesman: from the media's perspective, the bottom feeder of all sales people. Think of the plays and movies that capture the salesman's life: Tin Men, Glengarry Glen Ross, Wall Street, Boiler Room, Breaking Away, Death of a Salesman. Each of them a tale of deceit and desperation.

But I would imagine that the people who write the scripts have never had to make a cold call. If they had, they would have a keener appreciation of the courage each call takes and the consequences for the economy of each sale made. For in the final analysis, it is the sales folk who make prosperity happen.

When I worked in advertising full time, I would occasionally give talks to high school or college marketing classes on what the real world was like. I remember being asked one time what was my favorite part of the job- producing TV, writing ads, doing radio, what? I responded without reflection that for all ad people there was one moment brighter than all others-landing the new account. Everything else was mopping up; you could hire people to do that. But to land the account, that's where the magic was.

That's where the magic is in just about every field of business I have ever explored, and in advertising, as in business reporting, one explores a lot. Advertising. Law. Accounting. Telecommunications. Banking. Magazine publishing. You name it. The real heroes in these worlds are the people who sell. If America kicks butt around the world, as we tend to do, it's because we have better sales people.

A few years back I taught in a French University as part of the Fulbright program. One day the seniors all went on strike because, incredible as it seems, they wanted the university to find them jobs when they graduated. Next day, back in class, I wrote one word on the board for them to comprehend. I said until they understood this word, and the concept behind it, neither they nor their country would ever really prosper. The word was "drive."

Drive is what Joe Solscheid had in spades. For nearly 30 years Joe spent his days on the phone and his nights in the living rooms of homes all across the metropolis, many of them in the inner-city where more timid sales folks feared to tread. Joe wanted them all.

Joe didn't sell big policies, but he sold a lot of them. "He cared absolutely about his customers," Joe's widow, Ann Billman, told me recently. "He was so prompt. He did everything immediately. He sacrificed a lot." For Joe, "a lot" included a social life and two early marriages.

By the beginning of 1999, with Ann's help the last several years, Joe had accumulated an active customer base of 5,000 families. During one year, he wrote eight times the standard national goal for policy writers. Five times in the last decade, he was named "Man of the Year," by American Home Life Insurance. And each month, despite his success, he pushed himself a little harder, keeping all his totals manually the way he must have kept the batting averages of his youth.

I knew none of this. I would see Joe and Ann from time to time, but he always seemed like the old Joe, polite and unpretentious, and I always felt a little sorry for him as I do for all those who dwell full time in the brotherhood of the cold call.

I learned about the extent of Joe's success only at his funeral. Just 54, and tough as nails, Joe died of a brain tumor. He had been diagnosed about nine months earlier. "He never got angry, never got mad at God, never gave up hope," says Ann. He never let up either. Until nearly the end he kept sending his birthday cards, 10 or 15 a night. He died on December 10, less than a week before my birthday. "In dying," says Ann, "he showed the man he could be. The real Joe."

This is the reality of a salesman's life and death that Hollywood can't even imagine. At Ingram's we see this side a little closer. In the pages that follow we will show you more of the same, super salesmen and women whose talents may be known only to their families and the folks who write their paychecks but whose work makes the world go round.



Posted: August 30, 2000
Cashill Newsletter
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Editor's note: Jack Cashill is Ingram's Executive Editor and has affiliated with the magazine for 25 years. He can be reached at


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