Is ‘Tommy Boy’ Good at Sales?

There’s actually a lot to learn from Tommy’s approach.

Written by Brian Nordli
Published on Feb. 23, 2022
Is ‘Tommy Boy’ Good at Sales?

Growing up, Graham Collins would watch Tommy Boy for laughs. The iconic nineties film essentially played nonstop on Comedy Central, and it never got old.

Rewatching the film decades later as a sales leader, however, something else stood out to him — it’s actually a pretty realistic sales movie.

OK, maybe strapping road flares on your chest to prompt a bomb threat and pressuring a customer to buy your product isn’t the best idea, but Tommy Boy’s actual sales strategy throughout the movie has merit, Collins said. And Tommy’s journey from overeager sales representative who can’t sell brake pads to his father’s oldest clients to competent sales rep brought to mind Collins’ own early career journey.

“When it came to the SaaS sales side, I wasn’t very good at sales at first like Tommy. In my first year, I really struggled in sales and made a lot of the mistakes that he made,” said Collins, who’s now the chief of staff at commission tracking company QuotaPath. “So looking back, I was shaking my head at some of the things that I did that I saw in him.”

5 Sales Tips From ‘Tommy Boy’

  • Internal relationships are just as important as customer ones.
  • Don’t worry about the product, focus on the customer.
  • Talk less.
  • Don’t give up after the first no. 
  • Don’t assume you know what the buyer cares about.

For those who haven’t seen the movie or just need a refresher, Tommy Boy is a buddy comedy featuring Chris Farley and David Spade. Farley plays Tommy Callahan, a man-child who needs to sell half a million brake pads to save his family business, Callahan Auto Parts, after his father passes away.

To do so, he goes on a roadtrip across the Midwest to visit car factories and auto parts dealers with his partner in sales, Richard (played by Spade), where hijinks ensue. There are burning toy cars, a deer that destroys Richard’s vintage 1967 Plymouth GTX convertible, the aforementioned fake bomb threat and more.

While the movie may not be as serious as other sales films like Glengarry Glen Ross, there’s a lot that reps can learn from the way Tommy operates.

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Tommy Boy Returns Home

Early in the movie, Tommy arrives at his father’s factory for his first day of work as a college graduate and immediately makes a fool of himself. He smacks his head on machinery, is out of depth talking business and, at one point, tries to sand a piston only for the machine to shoot out of the factory.

But there’s more to the scene than just jokes, Collins said.

While Tommy walks the floor, he shows a genuine interest and enthusiasm for the people who work for his father. He greets everyone by name and their joy at seeing Tommy reflects the relationships he’s built up with them over the years.

Even when trying out the sander tool, Tommy does it because he’s interested in how it works. In sales, taking an interest in your other team member’s job builds bonds and allows you to work together to grow the company.

A little later in the film, his father passes away from a sudden heart attack. Tommy commits to saving the company and employees’ jobs by trying to sell half a million brake pads. Their support keeps him going throughout the movie.


The Takeaway: Internal Relationships Are Just as Important as Customer Ones

Those early scenes offer a glimpse into what will make him an effective sales rep later in the film — his relationships.

Building connections with other team members gives you a better perspective of how they do their job, which can pay dividends down the line. For example, if marketing is sending you bad leads, you can sit down with someone on the team and have a more productive conversation if you know where they’re coming from.

In Tommy’s own way, he took the time to greet his colleagues and ask them questions about what they were doing. As a result, they had his back and worked hard filling orders to make sure he was successful.

Sales can so often seem like a solo sport, but it takes a team to deliver results and drive revenue. While Tommy looks like a goof early on, it’s the one thing he understands better than his more well-polished sales partner Richard.

“Tommy does a really good job of building relationships with everyone to the point that at the end of the movie, when he sells half a million brake pads, everyone is excited about it,” Collins said. “Sometimes people roll their eyes when sales closes a deal and say, ‘Oh great, that means more work for me.’ … They’re excited about it because [Tommy has] built relationships and shown why what he’s doing benefits them and what they’re doing benefits him.”


Tommy Prepares for His First Sales Meeting

On the way to their first sales meeting together, Richard quizzes Tommy on the different products Callahan Auto Parts sells. It’s a brief scene where Tommy tries and fails to memorize the materials and qualities of the company’s brake pads. Richard then criticizes Tommy for not knowing even the most basic details of his father’s company.

While the scene is meant to highlight how ill-prepared Tommy is, Collins has a controversial take on it: It’s Richard who is in the wrong, not Tommy.


The Takeaway: Don’t Worry About the Product, Focus on the Customer

One of the biggest mistakes salespeople can make early in their career is focusing too much on the product. This can lead to over-explaining features to sell a product, which will only serve to drive customers away, Collins said.

Even in the movie, at no point did any buyer ask what materials the brake pads were made out of or how they were made, Collins said. In fact, whenever Richard tries to talk about the product, buyers immediately shut him down.

“People tend to over-rely on product specifications and how everything works ... Instead you should be asking the why behind that.”

If you’re a manager watching this scene, Collins suggests thinking through buyer-centric questions Richard should be asking.

For example, instead of memorizing the fact that the brake pads reduce stopping distance by 25 percent, he’d ask: “What kind of benefit does that offer the buyer?” and “Why would they care?” Questions like that get the sales rep to think through what will drive the customer to purchase your product.

And if you’re a new sales rep learning the product, he’d suggest thinking through the types of questions buyers might ask and how you can answer them.

“People tend to over-rely on product specifications and how everything works,” Collins said. “Instead you should be asking the why behind that. ‘What goal would that accomplish if you do XYZ with our software?’ If you ask those questions, … you’re likely to talk less about the product and more about the value of buying it instead.”

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The Desktop Demo

After a series of immediate rejections early in the movie, Tommy and Richard encounter the first customer who gives them hope. When asked if he’d consider their product, he says maybe.

Richard tries to explain the product qualities, but the buyer shuts him down. So, Tommy takes a different approach. Using the model cars on the desk and a lighter, he plays out a scene to highlight the differences in brake pads.

In the first example, he tells a story of the buyer and his family driving to a picnic when they encounter a tire — represented by the lighter — in the middle of the road. Using Callahan’s brake pads, they stop on time.

So far so good. The buyer grimaces, but he’s receptive. Then he shows what happens with the competitor’s brake pads. He crashes the car into the lighter, and then plays out the panic and chaos of the crash.

“Oh my god, we’re burning alive,” Tommy says imitating the family as he burns the model car. “I can’t feel my legs.”

By the end of it, the buyer’s maybe turns into a horrified no.


The Takeaway: Talk Less

For all of the cringe in this scene — and there’s a lot — Tommy’s sales instincts were actually good, Collins said.

He understood that the buyer didn’t care about the product specifications and instead positioned the conversation around the product’s value over the competitor. To do so, he created a relatable scenario for the buyer and presented an alternative where they didn’t use his product.

It’s a common tactic in the challenger sale methodology and an effective one, Collins said. “Presenting a world where you don’t have your product then letting them feel that pain and present your product as a solution.”

But Tommy made one crucial mistake (aside from lighting the car on fire): He talked too much. Throughout the scene, both Richard and the buyer try to interrupt him, but Tommy is too focused on his pitch to notice. As a result, he doesn’t give his story room to sink in or for the buyer to ask any questions, Collins said.

It’s a mistake a lot of new sales reps make.

“It comes from feature selling,” Collins said. “You have so much knowledge and so many things you want to say, you just want to get it all out there.”

Collins recalled one sales rep he managed who wouldn’t stop talking and would override the customer and lose deals. To help him overcome his habit, Collins would occasionally mute his phone to give the buyer room to talk. Every time, the customer would fill the silence with an important question the rep might’ve missed.

No matter how good your pitch is, make sure you create pauses and read the buyer’s body language. They may just have something important to say that could help you clinch the deal.


The Guarantee Is on the Box

After a string of rejections, Tommy and Richard attempt to pitch an auto manufacturer. While walking the floor, the owner tells them he likes the price and quality of their product, but he can’t buy it. The reason: It doesn’t have a guarantee on the box. 

For the first time, Tommy doesn’t just accept the buyer’s rejection with an “okey-dokey,” he pries into it.

He starts by questioning why someone would put a guarantee on a box. He then sows doubt by way of some scatalogical humor, explaining that anyone could slap a guarantee on anything. Finally, he delivers his coup de grace, explaining their product is tested and known for its quality. It doesn’t need a guarantee on the box. 

The buyer pauses to consider his logic and then agrees, giving Tommy his first sale.


The Takeaway: Don’t Give Up After the First No

In this scene, Tommy finally aces his sales test. It’s a sound sales approach from start to finish, Collins said.

Once again, he identifies what’s important to the buyer — in this case the guarantee — and then focuses on how their product fills the need. It’s textbook value-based selling. But what stood out to Collins even more was the way he pushed back on the objection.

Objection handling is something every new sales rep struggles with, Collins said. It often goes against every instinct to hear no and challenge it.  

“It’s embarrassing, it sucks losing deals. So you want to remove yourself from that situation as quickly as you can,” Collins said.

But it’s also rare to go through an entire sales cycle without hearing no at least once. To get over the hump, it’s important to ask why they’re not interested. You may learn that your demo wasn’t effective or the timing isn’t right, but you may also find a way to turn that no into a yes.

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Selling 500,000 Brake Pads to the Auto Parts King

At the end of the movie, Tommy faces dire odds to save the family business. He has to sell 500,000 brake pads to prevent the company from being sold to the “Auto Parts King” Ray Zalinsky (played by Dan Aykroid).

At first, Tommy tries to appeal to what he thinks is important to Zalinsky. Earlier in the movie, Tommy sees a commercial in which Zalinsky says, “I make car parts for the American working man because that’s what I am, and that’s what I care about.” He explains to Zalinsky that purchasing the brake pads will keep his father’s company open and save the jobs of hundreds of employees.

Zalinsky rejects the deal, saying that’s only his public persona and all he cares about is money. So, in the climactic final scene, Tommy returns with road flares strapped to his chest to look like bombs and returns to Zalinsky’s office in a Chicago skyscraper. His fake bomb threat attracts the attention of the local news station, who follows him to Zalinksy’s board room.

Once inside, Tommy plays into Zalinsky’s desire to uphold his public persona. He explains that his father’s company is filled with hard working men and women who will put out of a job if he doesn’t commit to buying 500,000 brake pads. Cornered, Zalinsky commits to buying 500,000 brake pads.


The Takeaway: Don’t Assume You Know What the Buyer Cares About

In Tommy’s first sales approach, he falls into a common sales mistake: assuming you know what the buyer cares about.

While you should research your buyer and come prepared with a few ideas of what they care about, you have to be willing to adjust your strategy, Collins said. Here, Tommy came to the meeting with some knowledge of what might be important to Zalinsky. But he didn’t confirm those assumptions.

Even if you think you know what’s important to your buyer, Collins suggests asking questions to confirm your conclusions first.

“You can say, ‘Hey, I talked to a lot of auto parts manufacturers and what’s important to them is generally XYZ. Is that the case for you?’” Collins said. “You either get a confirmation … Or they say, ‘No this is what’s going on with me. These are the things I’m thinking about.’”

Setting aside the fake bomb threat, his second approach is more effective. He identifies that Zalinsky cares about money and his public persona, and he plays on those to get the deal done, Collins said.

Of course, in real life, this deal would never happen. And that’s OK, too, Collins said. It’s important to realize you can’t win every deal.

“Even if you try to do everything properly, you’re not going to win every single deal,” Collins said. “Could Tommy have done things differently? Perhaps. But he did a lot of pretty good things.”


So, Is Tommy Good at Sales?

What’s the verdict? Is Tommy a sales savant or did he just get lucky?

Throughout the movie, he actually shows significant growth and sound sales instincts, Collins said. He understands what his buyers care about, he utilizes value selling and challenger sale techniques and he is a sound objection handler.

He also shows interest in learning from his mistakes, which is an important trait for any new sales rep.

Richard, on the other hand, is more of a cautionary tale. Throughout the film, he’s negative, sarcastic and critical of everything Tommy does. But he also represents a specific type of sales manager that Collins calls the “bad high-school coach.” They’re someone who only criticizes their reps, blames them for their failures and punishes them without explaining how they can improve.

“I’d recommend the movie to sales coaches on how to think about how you could coach Tommy to be a top performer,” Collins said.

If Collins had to distill the movie down to one takeaway it might be this: Be a Tommy. Don’t be a Richard.      

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