Sales and Sales Management Blog

May 3, 2011

The Civil War, General Patton, and Sales Technology

Filed under: sales,Sales 2.0,selling,technology — Paul McCord @ 9:35 am
Tags: , , , ,

The United States is just launching a celebration of the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War, the bloodiest war in US history.  Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of reading about the war and talking to a few historians and I’ve begun noticing that the politicians and generals during the war faced a similar situation to what salespeople and sales leaders are facing today—how to adapt to the newly developed technology.

From April of 1861 until the end of the war in June of 1865, more than 600,000 and maybe as many as 700,000 Americans died of disease or were killed in battle. 

Battle casualty figures were staggering.  For the combined four years of the war, the two armies combined suffered a 25.1% casualty rate—a rate that no other war fought by Americans can even remotely begins to match.  For instance, the casualty rate suffered during World War I was 6.8% and during World War II 6.6%.  The casualty rate during the Vietnam conflict was only 0.5%.  Yet even during the two World Wars and Vietnam the casualty rates were considered horrendous and the folks on the home front were mortified with the casualties.

What can account for such grime casualty rates during the civil war? 


Technology was outpacing the officer’s and politician’s understanding of how to use it.  The introduction of the riffled gun and cannon barrel and the minie ball changed all of the rules of war—but few understood that at the time.

The generals of the Civil War were taught tactics at West Point or at some other military school.  War wisdom at the time was to line up soldiers shoulder to shoulder with bayonets affixed.  One army was usually behind some type of fixed position—fence, stone wall, barricade or whatever, whiles the other army attacked in formation.  Most guns of the period held one shot.  Reloading took time and couldn’t be done on the run.  The advancing army held fire until they were upon the enemy and then fired and ran trying to breech the enemy line in close combat.  Bloody and gruesome, but it worked—until technological advancements turned the traditional attack into suicide. 

Once the North began acquiring the riffled gun and cannon, the men began falling like flies.  The old gun was accurate from a relatively short distance; the riffled gun and minie ball were accurate up to 250 yards.  In addition, as the war progressed more and more repeating rifles were introduced, giving the individual infantryman more firepower—accurate firepower—than anyone could have imagined just a few years before.  Most of these repeating rifles were in the hands of the Union army.

A further technological wonder that took both armies time to comprehend how to effectively use it was the railroad to transport men and material.

The failure of the officer corps of both armies to modify their tactics caused enormous casualties.  Technology had changed the nature of waging war in a very fundamental way.

Yet in the end, the war wasn’t won by technology.  When all was said and done, despite the great changes that had influenced the waging of the civil war—new guns, new cannon, iron ships, and even a submarine—the war was won the way all wars had been won, with the sacrifice of individual soldiers and superior generalship.

The Union had huge technological advantages as they possessed the vast majority of the new technology, yet barely won the war.  Despite their inferior numbers and equipment, the South outgeneraled the North time after time.  Not until Lincoln got a general willing to consistently take the fight to the enemy did the North begin to get a grip on the Confederate army.  And it wasn’t the technology that gave Grant the upper hand, it was his willingness to get down to basics and engage the enemy every chance he got and to exploit Confederate mistakes.

In the end, technology gave the North great advantages that helped them win, but as in past wars, ultimately it was the basics of good generalship and brave, committed men in the trenches that allowed the North to win.

Even today the basics of war outweigh the advances in technology.  General George Patton out witted and outgeneraled the German army even though Patton’s Sherman tanks were inferior to the German Panzer.  Guerrillas are able to defeat some of the most advanced military and security technology known to man by wit or luck or because their opposition relies too much on  technology and not enough on the proven basics of warfare.

We in sales are facing a very similar situation.  We have at our disposal a huge arsenal of new technology, yet surveys indicate that few really understand how to truly tap the potential of these assets.  In addition, there is a chorus encouraging sellers and sales leaders to not only embrace the technology but to virtually abandon the proven traditional basics of finding, connecting, and solving the issues of prospects.

By all means, embrace the technology that is giving us new opportunities to find and connect with prospects, to develop new solutions to their issues; to give a customer service experience superior to what was available in the past.

 But know that it will not only be sometime before there’s a full understanding of how to really use these assets, technology will always outpace our understanding of how to use it.  In other words, we’ll always be fumbling around trying to corral technology.

That being said, do not abandon the proven basics of selling because despite the hype, technology will never replace the personal relationship–it cannot replace the human connection and selling is at its core a very personal experience, not a mechanical one.

 If you want to turn your product or service into a commodity—bought like any other commodity primarily on price—then by all means abandon your traditional offline prospecting and relationship building activities.  But if you want to maintain profit margins and build a loyal client base, embrace technology as a servant of your primary selling activities rather than turning your traditional activities into a servant of technology.

Technology advances killed tens of thousands during the Civil War because it had outpaced the general’s ability to mesh their tactics with it.  How many sellers will it kill today the same way? Technology is great—and it will enhance the way you sell; but don’t allow it to replace the way you sell because in the end you’re selling to humans, not machines. 



  1. Your post gave me an image of salespeople lined up shoulder to shoulder in front of a buyer with a rifle shooting them down like ducks in one of those carnival booths. If salespeople viewed their losses like soldiers on the battlefield, they would treat opportunities with greater value.

    “Technology is killing sales, if we allow it.” Keeping it personal, people-to-people, and employing technology to make the process more productive is a great challenge. It’s up to leadership to shift from spreadsheets to the human side.

    Comment by Gary S. Hart — May 4, 2011 @ 9:53 am | Reply

    • Gary,

      I couldn’t agree more–time for sales leaders to recognize that selling isn’t just numbers, it’s people. We have to connect on a human level–with both our sales team members and our prospects and clients.

      Comment by Paul McCord — May 4, 2011 @ 10:46 am | Reply

  2. Hi Paul,

    Interesting post. Technology gives combatants and insurance sales professionals an edge and needs to be embraced as you’ve sited. Ultimately, tactics and people win the battle in war and the business in insurance sales. I especially enjoyed your use of history to make meaningful points concerning selling. I do the same at with an America’s Gilded Age themed SELL LIKE A ROBBER BARRON. I’d be interested in your feedback.

    All the best,


    Comment by Ed Lamont CIC, CRM — May 6, 2011 @ 7:29 am | Reply

  3. We in sales are facing a very similar situation. We have at our disposal a huge arsenal of new technology, yet surveys indicate that few really understand how to truly tap the potential of these assets.

    Comment by mean — May 9, 2011 @ 10:47 pm | Reply

  4. “That being said, do not abandon the proven basics of selling because despite the hype, technology will never replace the personal relationship–it cannot replace the human connection and selling is at its core a very personal experience, not a mechanical one.”

    I think you are missing the major point. Selling is not about the seller’s personal relationship to the buyer. It is about understanding the personal relationship the buyer wants to have with the seller. I buy ton’s of books from amazon and I have never spoken with a person. I don’t have a personal relationship with my Mortgage company. Buyers act in their self interest in an many ways are looking to eliminate the personal connection to the buying process. There are many reasons for this change. Primary because Sellers have burned their bridges with buyers. There is so little trust in a sales person, so customers are looking for ways to eliminate the emotional influence that sales people impose. Evidence shows that buyers are looking for ways to reduce the interpersonal interaction that come from Sellers imposing their need to be validated as professionals.

    If your statement was true we would still have a local bookstores, a record stores, and a corner pharmacy. Geico, and Progressive would not exist and online shopping would be dead. Technology is offering customers more choices than ever. Given an option to buy from a web site or a trained sales professional, I am afraid that many sales people come out on the short end of that decision.

    Comment by Pierre Hulsebus — May 19, 2011 @ 8:07 am | Reply

    • Pierre,

      I agree that many products that have been commoditized such as almost every one you mention is being bought by increasing numbers of people not based on relationships but on price alone. That being said, there are still millions upon millions who don’t, who still buy based on their connection to their pharmacy or to the people in the local Barnes and Noble. Look past the obvious commodity products and you’ll find a whole world of much more complex sales that are relationship based. In addition, there are thousands of companies taking commoditized consumer products and creating new customer service options–if all people wanted was cheap with no interaction, Geico and Progressive would be dominating the market instead of being down the list in terms of sales of auto insurance.

      We obviously have very different views of salespeople. I’ll stick with my relationship based sales; you stick with your cynicism. Only time will tell who’s right.

      I do have to say I find your view of salespeople very interesting considering you work for a company that sells a product to help companies and salespeople manage their relationships with their customers. Kinda ironic, huh? Or simply provocative to get people to click on the link?

      Comment by Paul McCord — May 19, 2011 @ 8:45 am | Reply

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