A Timeless 5 Step Sales Philosophy From Mark Twain

There are and will always be steps in the sales process. They actually have changed very little since 1865, when Mark Twain created what might be one of the first sales training manuals “The Successful Sales Agent.”  He was not only an author but a very savvy businessman who understood the power and importance of personal sales and training.  He created a sales training program for all of his, “outside sellers”, who sold his books to the public.

Mark Twain quote

No email, no social media, no video, no blogs just people taking products and services directly to the people.

Personal branding at it’s best and most basic.

Mark Twain understood and appreciated the value of a sales process 147 years ago.  He sold thousands of copies of Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer, through “subscription agents”, salespeople who would pre-sell his books door-to-door using sample pages of the books.

Here are the five progressive steps from The Successful Sales Agent to what he called “Canvassing” taken in the following natural order:

  • First: Thorough preparation
  • Second: Securing influence
  • Third: Gaining a hearing
  • Fourth: Creating a desire
  • Fifth: Taking the order

*From Hamlin Hill, Mark Twain and Elisha Bliss (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1964)

He opens the manual with this statement:

“You must be interested yourself, or you cannot interest others; and the way for you to become interested, is to KNOW your book THOROUGHLY.”

Is this sales 101 or what?

“Know your product, be a user of it and be passionate about it’s features benefits and results.”

Please take a few minutes to read the “Successful Sales Agent Manuscript” written in 1865 by Mark Twain and marvel at how the fundamentals of salesmanship that we follow today have not changed at all. Fast forward to today and add in some fancy technology, uber cool new media, a ton more competition and being in a completely different time in history and those five progressive sales steps from 1865 are still the steps we take to deliver the products and services we market and sell today.

Ask yourself:

  • Do you have a passion for sales?
  • Do you believe in your product?
  • Are you building relationships?
  • Are you developing testimonials and referrals?
  • Are you presenting yourself professionally?

We can learn a lot from Mark Twain about sales:

  • Be prepared
  • Know your customer
  • Follow common sense tactical fundamentals
  • Practice, practice, practice

Mark Twain Quote Photo via Shutterstock


Deborah Shane Deborah Shane has been recognized as a Top 100 Small Business Champion and Top 50 SMB Influencer (Dunn and Bradstreet 2015). She is a career transition author, personal branding and social media specialist. Deborah's book "Career Transition: Make the Shift" is available through all major book sellers.

17 Reactions
  1. Great classic advice, thanks to both you and Mark Twain himself. These tips really are timeless.

  2. I see every individual in this world as a sales person because we have to sell ourselves right if we are going make progress in our personal and professional lives. Everyone must have his/her own sales philosophy but Taiwan’s 5-step fits into all the scenarios.

  3. Karl, thanks for stopping by. Is this amazing or what! What is your best sales tip?

  4. Honestly, you had me at Mark Twain.

    • I couldn’t agree more! I found this a few years ago and couldn’t believe someone archived it! Thanks Dave!

  5. I love seeing fundamentals that whether the test of time. I would love a follow-up post that talks about improvements on these fundamentals specifically, whether they be new ideas or just programs/techniques that increase their value. Just a thought.

    • Curt, thanks for the suggestion and I certainly will think about that! I really wanted to stress how fundamental this process is. Increasing their value today? Great topic. Stand By!!

  6. I had no idea that Mark Twain was a businessman too! Great article on going back to the basics. Thanks!

  7. Katie Evans-Haythorn

    I love your article. Thank you for sharing your inspiration!

  8. Understand how your customer’s perception of value manifests and prove that value to exist.

    A customer will ask you what following questions (or similar):


    Each question refers to an issue the customer needs to solve.

    What is the issue?
    How can I fix the issue?
    Why is it an issue?

    Take each question and confirm and solve, without giving the solution. The customer must tell you what the solution must be.

    1) Confirm the Why – I sounds like the problem is [ The Issue ]
    2) How to solve the issue (On the terms of the customer) – What do you require the solution to do for you?
    3) What solution you have based on their needs. – It sound like you need [Product / Solution]

    This creates a scenario where the customer has already said they need your product before you have presented them with the solution.

    *** This is how I have been selling for the last 2 years. I hope it helps out other people ***

  9. This is a classic and needs to be shared several thousand times. Thank you for the great article.
    – Best Anon