Birth of An E-Salesman: A Tragedy in One Act
By Michael Schrage

(FORTUNE Magazine) – It was an e-dark and e-stormy night. An excellent night for jacking into the hotel's Multispectravision feelies. Multispectravision's hotbot knew his tastes. He drew a final puff on his cigarette and then gently crushed it in his Palm. Instead of going out, the dying cigarette began flickering with his initials.

"Damn," he muttered to himself, "What do they want now?" The Firm was e-paging him via his cigarette again. With a reluctant click of his tongue, Lowman flipped on the phone e-implanted in his jaw and lit another networked smoke: "Yes?" The e-mplant had seemed a good idea at the time; it was covered by the Firm's health plan. The doctors had nipped and tucked a Nokia telechip into his mandible during the cosmetic surgery to enhance his chiseled good looks. Unfortunately, incoming-call vibrations jarred his teeth, so he usually left his e-mplant off. That's why the Firm had lit up his Marlboro's IP address.

The conversation was brief: last-minute gig. Huge Potential Client. Global 1000. FORTUNE Most Admired. Could be lead user or major beta site. Didn't quite grasp the Firm's extensive product line or business model. Refused to deal exclusively through the Net. Insisted on fleshpresence--what the e-commerce purists contemptuously dismissed as "meatings"--face-to-face interactions between humans who thought business was still about motivating people, not just managing mouse clicks. They wanted to be sold. And Lowman loved selling. He especially loved the arsenal of salestek the Firm provided even when it required general anesthesia.

Lowman and his digitally augmented ilk were invaluable to the Firm. Innovation was its competitive edge. The Firm needed salespeople who could communicate precisely why those innovations mattered. Markets were fickle: The picosecond a product or service was perceived as a commodity, it got bid out on one of the myriad AuctioNets that dominated the business-to-business WWWebscape. In the e-commercesphere, commodities weren't bought and sold; they were bid and asked.

Tongue a-clicking, Lowman began browsing through the Huge Potential Client's e-dossier on his screenmachine. Reviewed the e-mail and transcripts of earlier interactions. Checked the "meating" bios. Quicksearch for personal bonding opportunities: Schools, significant others, divorces, children, clubs, sports, hobbies, investments, birthdays, vacation destinations.... Lowman then ran a not-quite-legal spybot to check their credit ratings and MCIs--Media Consumption Indices, the sites and channels they spent the most time visiting.

While the spybot might not be completely legal, he rationalized that its purpose wasn't blackmail but friendly persuasion. The e-dossier indicated they liked lawyer jokes; he quickly called up a few one-liners. He reviewed the tapes of his last three sales calls: The Firm's sales critics were right--he really should throttle his enthusiasm back a notch. What's more, the SalezExpert[TM] software analyzer indicated that, on average, he took well over four minutes to ask a prospect his first question. He knew he had to cut that in half. "The key to success in sales is sincerity," he smirked through his Marlboro haze, "because if you can fake that, you've got it made."

The coach flight to Cleveland was uneventful. The "meating" went well. The jokes got laughs. Even Lowman's pheromone cologne--Persuasion--seemed to enhance the chemistry. But Huge Potential Client clearly had her own agenda: "You don't mind if we Netcast this conversation to our operations people," she smiled. "The size of this deal has gotten everyone so excited."

"Not at all," Lowman cheerfully responded, maneuvering his cosmetically enhanced good side to the e-microcamera. He subtly reprogrammed his Palm's laughbot for a few more jokes.

The demos went flawlessly. Lowman's patter brilliantly customized his knowledge of the Client and its competition with the Firm's not-yet-released prototype of its next-generation product. "We'd also love to have you as a beta," said Lowman. "You'd be terrific." The performance was one of his best in years. The deal was an e-lock. He asked for the close.

To his shock, the Client demurred. "I think what you've done is terrific," she said cautiously, "but operations is still skeptical. Can we get back to you in two weeks?"

"No problem," Lowman lied. What could possibly have gone wrong?

The Firm wired his jaw barely 78 minutes after he had left the site; his teeth rattled with despair. Huge Potential Client hadn't just Netcast his pitch to their operations--oh, no--they had Netcast his e-tour de force to their biggest supplier as well. Lowman had done such a stellar job selling that his biggest competitor had immediately slashed its price 11%. He'd been used to close someone else's deal. He'd been screwed.

"The bastards," Lowman whispered through his jaw as he lit up another Marlboro. He decided he was going to use that spybot info after all.

MICHAEL SCHRAGE is a research associate with the MIT Media Lab and the author of Serious Play. He can be reached at