Glengarry Glen Ross: 10 sales lessons from the 1992 cult classic movie

Sales tactics to lead and those to avoid are seemingly peppered throughout the classic, star-studded, independent black comedy Glengarry Glen Ross from 1992 that I finally got to watch — after quoting clips for years.

“We’re adding a little something to this month’s sales contest. As you all know, first prize is a Cadillac El Dorado. Anyone wanna see second prize? Second prize is a set of steak knives. Third prize is you’re fired,” says the character Blake, setting the mood early on.

As you might expect, there are some takeaways to be had.

The film, adapted from a 1983 play that won a Pulitzer Prize, shows the desperate, two-day plight of four real estate salesmen specializing in investment properties in retirement developments like Arizona and Florida. They’re getting squeezed by corporate to increase sales, represented by Alec Baldwin’s memorable, single-scene performance (watch a clip below).

Shot in Brooklyn, apparently subtly set in Chicago but including a New York Telephone sticker early on, was a critically-acclaimed box office bust that earned a Best Actor nomination at the Oscar’s for Al Pacino, who was joined by Baldwin, Jack Lemmon, Kevin Spacey, Ed Harris, Alan Arkin and other familiar faces. (Watch below a clip of Pacino’s famed monologue-laced sales pitch)

The film, dubbed ‘Death of the Fuckin’ Salesman’ because of its similar themes to Arthur Miller’s classic play and its coarse language, is an actor’s film destined to be a cult classic: well shot, smartly lit, full of monologues, a simple plot with deeper themes, filled with younger versions of top-flight actors. Yes, you know, all the reasons for it to not succeed financially.

My Takeaways:

  1. “A man is his job,”says Shelley Levene, played by Jack Lemmon. Even if you don’t define yourself by your work, the very fact of choosing work that allows you to not be defined by it makes it a part of who you are. What we do, what we spend most of our time doing, surely says a great deal about who we are.
  2. It takes brass balls to sell…” says Blake, played by Alec Baldwin. The effort, confidence and savvy to sell damn near anything is an admirable, enviable and, often, loathsome toolkit.
  3. ABC. Always be Closing — Those immortal words from Baldwin’s character are very nearly cartoonish in the movie, but the sentiment is real. Before entering any meeting, know what your ask is, what is considered a success. Because, my friends, as Toby Keith sings, “if you don’t know where you’re going/You might end up somewhere else.”
  4. “You’ve never even been on a sit,” says Lemmon’s character, accusing Kevin Spacey’s bookish character of being unaware of the real challenges of sales.  Two things on this point: one, there is a clear sense that any entrepreneur, any red-blooded American, really, should have some sales experience; and two, well, gosh, Brian Kirk and I use this phrase ‘going on a sit’ from time to time just because it sounds so god damn cool.”
  5. Appearances matter — This, of course, is nothing new, but the movie’s humor comes best when the real estate agent characters are deploying any mechanism of treachery to fool potential clients into believing any number of lies (the properties are moving fast, deadlines are rapidly approaching, their operation is very established, etc.). Picture Jack Lemmon in a phone booth on a rainy night asking his lead on the other end of the call to hold on a minute, as he shouts to a fictional secretary named ‘Grace’ to get his nonexistent plane ticket ready. Lies are, ultimately, bad for business, but the point is clear. In most cases, you are who you present yourself as. You probably do good work and know your industry well, but do you look like you do?
  6. Tell a story, get familiar, speak with passion — Lying or not, succeeding or not, even these small-time real estate agents are always doing these three things. (1) They have a story arc for why what they’re selling is the right fit and what now is the right time. (2) They are getting and remembering names and details to develop a connection and making that ‘no’ even a touch harder. (3) They are speaking like what they’re talking about matters.
  7. Have a deadline, always have a deadline — In the movie, every character is always leaving, so, yes, we need to make the deal now. It’s all hogwash, of course, and the lying isn’t necessary, but understanding that without a deadline of some kind, getting the movement you want is always going to be harder is paramount.
  8. Make people explain themselves — This fits into a classic of journalism: shut up and let your interview speak. We too often bail each other out or simply misunderstand each other when we impatiently finish people’s sentences or thoughts, when, rather, it’s better to wait someone out. In sales, a sense of directionless from someone else, is an opportunity to create direction for you both. Details are like family, you love them, but they don’t always need to be around. Bring them up when they’re beneficial or focus on the overall meaning or broad vision otherwise.
  9. Ownership of the upperhand goes round and round — Throughout the movie, the cast of characters is always attacking someone else, only to find that vitriol coming back hours later. It was a combative, competitive work environment of one-upsmanship. It didn’t seem like any of the characters were aware that he would surely be in a different situation soon. That’s a lesson everyone should remember. Give help, because you’re surely going to need it soon.
  10. You never open your mouth unless you know what the shot is,” says Ricky Roma, played by Al Pacino. Perhaps one of the better, less known quotes of the movie, Pacino’s character scolds Spacey’s for bluffing without knowing the context and screwing up a deal. The big takeaway for me is that — while, clearly, lying is bad business, despite its common usage in the film — going hard on a sell, bluffing or not, is only the right bet when you’ve done your research. Know who, why and how this is the person to sell on this subject. Otherwise, it’s easy to get burned.

Any other takeaways from other fans of the film?

3 thoughts on “Glengarry Glen Ross: 10 sales lessons from the 1992 cult classic movie”

  1. Great article Chris! I would only like to expand on number 8. To put it simply, only ask open ended questions. Customers feel,more involved in the sale when they are forced to explain themselves rather than answering with “yes or no”.

  2. Just discovered this and enjoyed it immensely. Brought back some memories of a film I haven’t watched for a while but know inside-out and back-to-front. One of the best modern scripts ever IMHO. Nice piece, thanks!

  3. The leads are critical. Look at how he converts a guy that his boss says lacks the credit. What a waste.

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