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8 of the Top Salespeople in History (And What We Can Learn from Them)

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Top Successful Salespeople in History

Building a great sales team can be difficult. Between thinking up proper interview questions for salespeople, negotiating commission rates and sifting through stacks of apparently ill-qualified candidates, finding the right salespeople for your company sometimes seems like an impossible task. Without years of experience and success on his/her resume, it is hard to trust that a new hire will get the job done.

Some of the greatest salespeople in history, however, had less than conventional starts that led them to extreme levels of success.


8 of the Greatest Salespeople in History:

  1. Johann Tetzel

An amusing, if not exemplary, character from the sixteenth century who famously sold indulgences for the Catholic Church, Johann Tetzel is best known for his compelling pitch “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs”. A true opportunist, Tetzel’s enterprise grew to include not only indulgences for past sins, but also future sins and the sins of loved ones who had passed on.

While the effectiveness of his product is debatable, Tetzel tapped into some basic sales wisdom early on by appealing to the emotions of his customers and was ultimately so successful he helped fund the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome and spurred Martin Luther to write his famous 95 Theses.


  1. Napoleon Hill

Napoleon Hill is perhaps more famous for his writing about sales and self improvement than for his success in sales, but a closer look at his life story reveals his personality as a consummate salesperson.

Hill gained success, rubbed shoulders with great people, lost everything multiple times, achieved fame and learned how to bounce back from his failures with gusto. His optimism and hunger for success gave him a deep conviction that every failure carried with it an equal opportunity for achievement.

While he dedicated his life to writing and spreading his motivational message rather than purely sales, Napoleon Hill exhibited Drive in his career, used it to crack the code on personal achievement and ultimately found great success. Salespeople around the world still refer to Hill’s books on sales strategies and personal achievement as must-reads.


  1. David Ogilvy

Ogilvy got his start as a stove salesperson in England and ended up writing a manual for selling stoves in 1935, which is still considered to be one of the best sales manuals ever written. In his manual he advised salespeople to research their customers as much as possible before meeting them and that the “worst fault a salesperson can commit is to be a bore.”

Later on Ogilvy moved to America, founded his own advertising agency with a few of his colleagues and won assignments from major accounts like General Foods and American Express. His advertising agency lives on today as Ogilvy and Mather.


  1. Joe Girard

Joe Girard is a salesperson in the purest form of the word. From an early age he exhibited the critical sales traits of Need for Achievement, Competitiveness and Optimism by striving to make life better for himself and his family in any way he could.

By the age of 9, Girard had taken it upon himself to help his mother pay the bills and begun his first entrepreneurial venture as a shoeshine boy at local bars. Even at a young age Girard thought strategically about his work and chose to sell shines at bars because people tend to be happy and free with their cash while sitting down for a drink.

From his work as a shoeshine boy, Girard moved on to sell papers, build stoves and defend his country in the military, but he did not find his true calling until he stumbled into a Chevy dealership, desperate for a job with a wife and kids at home and in need of food. Joe sold his first car that very day and went on to sell more cars on his own, year after year, than most dealerships did as a whole.

At the peak of his career, Girard took clients by appointment only and independently hired two assistants to process his clients’ paperwork so he could spend his time selling. Today Girard is retired from car sales, but has published several books and now tours as a motivational speaker.


  1. Mary Kay Ash

Mary Kay Ash developed the first multi-level marketing corporate sales structure with women in mind. After her husband returned from World War II and ran off with another woman, Ash was left with three children to support and turned to the world of direct sales, which gave her the flexibility and autonomy to be a mother and a businessperson.

Frustrated by the “glass ceiling” that kept many women from advancing in the corporate world, Ash decided to found her own “ideal” company that would promote on merit, treat salespeople as “consultants” and sell products based on performance and usefulness rather than profitability. In 1968, Mary Kay Cosmetics went public and Ash became a millionaire.


  1. Ben Feldman

Feldman is one of the most successful salespeople in history based on the sheer cash value of his transactions. Feldman’s job was selling life insurance for New York Life and during his career he sold an astonishing $1.8 billion dollars in life insurance with a single-day maximum of $20 million dollars.

In 1980, a book was published outlining Feldman’s sales method and working philosophy, which is still considered an important and influential read for salespeople everywhere.


  1. Erica Feidner

Erica Feidner is famous for her success as a piano salesperson. Over the course of her career she sold more than $40 million dollars’ worth of pianos for Steinway & Sons. Her unique success can be credited to her ability to understand and interpret her client’s wishes and find the perfect piano for their needs.

Rather than go for the hard sell, Feidner skillfully inspires clients with “musical ambitions they never knew they harbored.” She has been deemed the “piano matchmaker” and was featured in the New Yorker as well as Inc. Magazine as one of the greatest salespeople of all time.


  1. Joe Ades

Joe Ades lives in a three-bedroom Park Avenue Apartment in New York City, eats lavish dinners in the city’s finest restaurants almost every night and funds his lifestyle by selling potato peelers on the street for five dollars a piece.

Featured in Vanity Fair and dubbed the “gentlemen grafter,” Ades dresses up in a suit every day and parks himself on a street corner with two buckets and a pack of carrots to demonstrate his now famous Swiss peeler.

His routine is thoroughly strategized, from his sitting position low to the ground (so people have to stop to get a good look at what he is doing) and waiting to mention the price until the last possible moment of his demonstration, building a little anticipation and coaxing passers to stick around for the reveal. Ades’ method is intelligently thought out and apparently very effective.


How Can I Hire Stellar Salespeople Like Them?

Would you have hired any of these people before they made it big?

Few of them had the ideal resume for success in their field, but all of them became great.

Composing great interview questions for salespeople is not always enough to find those candidates with raw talent for sales, but there is one common factor between all of these historically successful people, and that is Drive.

By incorporating sales aptitude testing into your hiring process, your company can find the people out there with Drive and maybe even put together a sales team great enough for the history books.


Have we missed any successful salespeople on our list? Who comes to mind when you think of the greats?


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