We Asked a Sales Expert to Analyze ‘Glengarry Glen Ross’

Put that coffee down and check out these lessons from Hollywood’s most toxic sales floor.
Brian Nordli
February 16, 2021
Updated: February 17, 2021
Brian Nordli
February 16, 2021
Updated: February 17, 2021

Scott Leese still remembers the first time he saw the iconic sales movie Glengarry Glen Ross more than 15 years ago.

He had just started his sales career, and he was looking for a way to immerse himself in his new profession. From the moment Alec Baldwin uttered his infamous line, “Put that coffee down,” Leese was hooked. The speeches, the hustle, the tenacity to close a deal despite everyone knowing full well “the leads are weak” — it all resonated with him.

This was what sales was like, he thought.

“It was something that anchored me with sales, and I thought: ‘This is cool. I’m going to have some fun with this,’” Leese said.

Leese is far from the only sales rep to draw inspiration from Glengarry Glen Ross. Nearly three decades after its release, salespeople everywhere continue to quote lines from the movie. (Just try pouring a cup of coffee on a busy sales floor and see what happens.)

“There are some good things to take away from it, and there are a lot of bad things.”

Today, Leese runs his own sales consulting firm, Scott Leese Consulting. Needless to say, he did not model his career after the shady sales tactics of Mitch and Murray, nor did he seek to recreate the toxic atmosphere in the film. Still, he believes the movie has a lot to offer sales reps and leaders beyond the quotes.

“There are some good things to take away from it, and there are a lot of bad things,” he said. “The good would be like, ‘Hey, whatever motivates you.’ The bad stuff is obviously a cautionary tale.”

So, put that coffee down and check out Leese’s key takeaways from the movie Glengarry Glen Ross.

Six Takeaways From ‘Glengarry Glen Ross’

  • Let the buyer do the talking, give them clear and concise answers and be vulnerable. Basically, do the opposite of Shelly Levene.
  • Never forget why you do the job. That “why” can be a powerful motivator when times get tough.
  • Understand what motivates your team. Take the time to learn what each sales rep wants out of their career before you attempt that inspirational sales speech.
  • Always Be Closing is still a valuable mindset. It’s not just about closing deals, but all the little steps that lead up to a deal.
  • When times are tough, keep paddling. Seek out a mentor or do something you’re really good at to regain confidence.
  • Never force a deal if a customer has second thoughts. Listen to the customer’s hesitations and take the time to address each one before moving forward.

 

Meet Shelly ‘The Machine Levene

Glengarry Glen Ross is about a team of sales reps at the fictional real estate firm Mitch and Murray who are pitted against each other in a contest to sell the most plots of land. The winner receives a new Cadillac, second place gets a set of steak knives and third place gets fired. The film features a who’s who of famous actors, including Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon, Alec Baldwin and more. At its core, it’s a movie about resilience in the face of constant rejection, which any sales rep can relate to, Leese said.

Perhaps no one demonstrates that resiliency as much as Lemmon’s Shelly Levene. He’s introduced as a veteran sales rep who has fallen on tough times and hasn’t closed a sale all month.

Throughout the first half of the film, we see him weather rejection after rejection from prospects he knows full well he’s unlikely to close. When he does get on a sales call, he talks nonstop, spewing half-truths and sometimes outright lies in an attempt to con the person into buying property.

“He just oozes distrust,” Leese said. “Those are the things that make you want to take a shower.”

So what can a sales rep take away from Levene’s slick-talking approach?

 

Takeaway 1: ‘Do the Opposite

For starters, Levene’s approach is a blueprint for what not to do in sales. While he is trying to build rapport with the customer, he’s also selling them on a dream and not a reality.

Prospects can smell those lies a mile away and will want nothing to do with you, Leese said. Instead, his advice would be to let the buyer do the talking, give them clear and concise answers and be open with them about the product.

“Just do the opposite,” he said.

 

Takeaway 2: Know Your Why

But there’s also something sales reps can learn from Levene’s resiliency. He refuses to give up despite constant rejection, and that’s because he never loses sight of why he’s doing his job. Levene does the job to provide for his daughter and his wife, who is sick. That’s what keeps him motivated to keep picking up the phone.

“If you can keep your ‘why’ at the front of your brain and tip of your tongue at all times, it’s a lot easier to keep battling.”

Every sales rep needs their own “why” if they want to succeed in this profession, Leese said. The “why” can be to fund a lifestyle of travel, to take care of your family or to gain experience and launch your own company one day. Whatever it is, it’s important to keep that goal top of mind, because there will be days when 50 customers in a row tell you to “buzz off.”

 On those days, knowing why you’re selling may be the only thing to keep you going.

“People lose sight of it all the time, and it’s one of the reasons people struggle with staying motivated,” Leese said. “If you can keep your ‘why’ at the front of your brain and tip of your tongue at all times, it’s a lot easier to keep battling.”

More on SalesHow to Get Past the Gatekeeper and Make Sales

 

‘Coffee Is for Closers

The most famous scene in the movie starts with Alec Baldwin, who is playing a sales trainer from the firm Glengarry Glen Ross, trying to motivate the room of dejected sales reps like a military general. Even if you haven’t seen the movie, odds are this is the part you’ve heard about.

At the start of Baldwin’s speech, Levene attempts to pour himself a cup of coffee, and it’s then that Baldwin delivers his notorious line — “Put that coffee down. Coffee’s for closers.” He proceeds to drill into the sales rep’s failures and lays the stakes for a new sales contest.

First prize gets a new Cadillac; second place gets a set of steak knives; and “third prize is you’re fired.”

Once he’s done flaunting his successes as a salesperson and demeaning the reps, he unveils a sales strategy you’ve also probably heard of — “Always Be Closing.”

Here’s what Leese takes away from these moments.

 

Takeaway 3: Understand What Motivates Your Team

Leese has been on sales floors where managers have given speeches like Baldwin’s. Maybe not with the misogyny or verbal abuse that Baldwin spews, but with a similar sentiment: It’s first place or bust.

“When I hear stuff like, ‘First place is a car, second place is a set of steak knives,’ I just laugh,” he said. “But part of it makes me not want to be second place because I’m a super competitive person.”

Ultimately, what Baldwin is trying to do in this scene is inspire the sales floor by appealing to the reps’ competitive nature. His energy and confidence are good, but this approach won’t work for every sales floor.

“Meet them where they are, rather than making a decision in your ivory office.”

To truly inspire, the sales leader needs to know what motivates the team. It’s important to spend time on the sales floor and in one-on-ones learning about what’s going on in each rep’s life and what’s important to them. Those insights are what you should use to create buy-in and fuel ambition.

“Meet them where they are, rather than making a decision in your ivory office,” Leese said.

 

Takeaway 4: Always Be Closing

One of the most popular strategies to come out of Baldwin’s speech is the sales tactic “Always Be Closing.” It seems too reductive to actually work in real life, but Leese believes every sales rep can actually benefit from having that mindset.

In Leese’s version, however, ABC is not about always closing a deal. That’s a quick way to overwhelm a customer and get hung up on. Instead, it’s about having the mindset of always closing something. This could be a closing on a couple of pieces of key information you need to move a deal forward or closing on a next appointment.

“It’s about closing all the little steps that lead up to a deal,” Leese said.

 

Shelly in the Rain

After failing to close a deal on a house visit, we see Levene standing in a phone booth in the pouring rain. He makes a call to his wife, sounding broken as the rejections pile up. He then collects himself and gets back on the phone, trying to pitch another lead that he has small odds of closing.

 

Takeaway 5: Keep Paddling

This scene has always stuck with Leese because it’s a moment every sales rep will encounter at some point or another.

It may not be that dramatic, but all salespeople have a low point, Leese said. The only way to crawl out of it is to follow Levene’s lead and keep trying. But sometimes, even that seems overwhelming.

“Keep paddling. There is no quick fix.”

If that’s the case, it can be helpful to read or listen to something that inspires you — or to find a coach or mentor for help. Confidence is important in sales. Sometimes it helps to take a break and do something you’re good at to get your swagger back. But at the end of the day, you have to get back out there like Levene and take another swing.

“Keep paddling,” Leese said. “There is no quick fix.”

 

Roma Loses His Sale

At the start of the next day in the movie, top sales rep Roma, played by Al Pacino, strolls into the office having closed a deal that will guarantee him the Cadillac prize.

As he settles into his desk, however, the buyer, James Lingk, returns with second thoughts. It turns out his wife isn’t happy about the purchase and wants him to get their money back. If Roma doesn’t return the check, the buyer threatens to retrieve it through the attorney general.

Rather than listen to the buyer, Roma does whatever he can to push the deal through. He lies, he tries to postpone their meeting until the check has been cashed and more. In the end, the sales manager played by Kevin Spacey blows the deal, and the customer storms out.

Here’s what Leese took away from that scene.

 

Takeaway 6: Don’t Force a Deal

Roma’s approach with his customer is another textbook example of what not to do. For starters, Roma could have prevented that situation from happening in the first place by making sure all parties were involved before closing the sale, Leese said.

“It’s not about rattling off 1,000 more benefits that your product has.”

Pushing a deal through without full buy-in is a quick way to rack up a lot of cancels.

“Nobody wants to hire a sales rep who operates like that,” Leese said. “You’re just creating a mess for the rest of the business to take care of.”

When a customer does have second thoughts, like Roma’s prospect in the movie, it’s important to take things slowly. Listen to the customer’s objections and work through them. It can be as simple as saying, “I hear you’re worried about the cost, let’s talk through it,” Leese said.

“It’s not about rattling off 1,000 more benefits that your product has,” he added. “It’s about understanding [the customer] and being willing to take the time to give them what they need to be comfortable.”

And, while Roma wouldn’t like to hear this, sometimes you have to be willing to go back to square one with the customer and start the sale over.


Closing Thoughts

As a sales consultant, Leese is used to working with sales teams to help them refine their strategies and processes. Asked if he’d have any advice for the sales reps and manager at Mitch and Murray, he said it would require nothing less than a full-scale tear-down.

“If you were to go in to work for Mitch and Murray, you’d have to tear down what they have in place and start from scratch,” Leese said. “The place is screwed up.”

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