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The Trials, Tribulations and Triumphs of a Sales Force : THE FORCE by David Dorsey ; Random House $22, 320 pages

May 03, 1994|KAREN STABINER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

As a practitioner and fan of "process books," I'm here to tell you: It is not as easy as it sounds.

A process book is supposed to show the reader how something works--a computer company, as in Tracy Kidder's "The Soul of a New Machine"; the building of a new house, as in Kidder's "House"; a movie studio, as in John Gregory Dunne's "The Studio." The author works hard to be as unobtrusive as possible, to observe the conditions he or she hopes to document without in any way affecting them.

It's tough. David Dorsey covered Xerox for seven years for a Rochester, N.Y., daily newspaper, so he knew a great deal about the company. But when he stepped into position to write about the Xerox sales force in Cleveland, he was on foreign turf. He had to establish relationships with the members of the team, he had to take notes on everything until the story began to emerge--and he had to fashion a story that moved, out of a reality that doesn't always move.

The goal, for the Cleveland office, was to sell enough copiers to exceed its quota. The year hadn't been promising; by May, the team had made only 35% of its projections. But Dorsey and his subjects got lucky (who, after all, wants to read about a bunch of all-American losers?), and the plot takes an appropriately Rocky-esque turn, just in time to save the force--and to save the force behind the force, district manager Fred Thomas.

For Thomas' marriage to the beautiful Kathy is suffering from too much devotion to task. He's out at dawn and back late, up until midnight thinking about his salespeople--how to motivate them, how to close those deals.

His behavior may seem heroic, but the task at hand leads even Thomas to the occasional bout of self-doubt. Sacrificing one's life to save humankind is hard enough, but giving it up to sell a machine? Dorsey does a nice job of capturing Thomas' doubts and fears, as well as his public bravado. He also gives us a portrait of a frustrated wife, who finally realizes that she'd be happier in a smaller house on a smaller budget if she could see her guy from time to time.

Dorsey got incredible access; sometimes it's painful to imagine him lurking in the corner of the Thomases' kitchen as they bare their souls to each other, and, because of Dorsey's presence, to the general public. In fact, my one hesitation about the book may be a consequence of his access--then again, it may just be the difficulty that comes when it's time to prune one's notes and shape them into a story.

The trick is to be willing to toss, to throw out a beloved anecdote because it doesn't contribute to the tale, or to shape the material and give it a point of view. Not a prejudice--we are talking good journalism here--but a vantage point and a voice.

Dorsey seems too often to be working for his notes instead of working with them. Either he pushes too hard to make a philosophical point, until the reader wishes he'd back off and let the story tell itself, or he leaves in too much stuff. The writing sounds forced, as though he's afraid the information needs plumping.

It's hard to make a whole book about selling sound suspenseful. Dorsey writes: "One day passed, and then another, and another. All she could do now was wait to hear from Cook. Finally the phone rang. She suspected how it would turn out. She had just as much instinct and intuition as the rest of them--at a certain point in a deal, you know what's going to happen. . . . Nancy needed this deal . . . to keep her self-respect."

Yep. That's what selling's about. But it can get monotonous.

Ironically, the salesman's heroism comes through more clearly in Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman" than in "The Force." Willy Loman had secrets that gnawed at him and a desperate yearning to prevail, to save his doomed family by selling them an illusion.

"The Force" is chock-full of information on how a salesman lives, and intermittently offers glimpses of the emotional toll of his success. If it does not quite resonate, perhaps it is because the process book requires that its creator be just a bit of a storyteller too.

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