8 Powerful Sales Lessons from “The Wire”

“Oh my God – you’ve NEVER seen The Wire?”

You’ve probably heard this refrain any time the critically-acclaimed HBO TV show comes up. Though the show only had average ratings and never won any major awards, The Wire has become a cult hit since it ended in 2008, with intensely passionate fans.

Created by former police reporter David Simon, the realistic drama delves deep into the city of Baltimore’s drug underworld, corrupt politics, struggling police department, and failing public schools. While a show about drug dealers and homicide police might be an odd source of business lessons, there is actually a surprising amount of wisdom in The Wire’s characters, dialogue and plotlines. The show offers fascinating lessons about the power of leadership, market economics, statistics, and reputation to drive your life.

Here are the most valuable sales and business lessons from The Wire that you should apply to your career today. Also, for those who haven’t watched the show yet (you should!), there are major spoilers below.

1. Push yourself to compete with the best.

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On the streets of Baltimore, you have to be prepared to go up against deadly threats at any time. Omar isn’t interested in easy money, but takes pleasure in stealing from the toughest drug dealers in Baltimore – both Barksdale or Marlo in their prime. He knows that going after the top players keeps him sharp and always on his game.

While sales reps aren’t robbing violent drug dealers (we hope!), the lesson still holds true. You should always challenge yourself and go head on against your toughest competition. If you work for a smaller company that’s trying to disrupt the market and take on an established business, you can’t be afraid of a challenge. If you only go after easy deals and never try to compete for serious customers, you’ll never beat out the biggest names in your industry. If you challenge those top players, you may surprise yourself and win.

2. False metrics can’t measure progress.

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Measuring performance by metrics isn’t a new phenomenon – just ask any public school teacher or police officer. The Wire offers a depressing glimpse into how political pressure trickles down in Baltimore, forcing both police and educators to fake the numbers to artificially deflate crimes rates and inflate test scores. Instead of arresting criminals, cops make low level street rips on drug possessions; instead of educating students, teachers hand out the test questions.

Sales reps have also been known to juke the stats – sandbagging deals for the end of the month, so they pull through at the last minute. While messing with the stats may make you look good personally, it harms the company overall. Your manager doesn’t have an accurate sales forecast, doesn’t really know which deals will close, and therefore can’t accurately plan for the future. If you’re not honest in reporting your stats, you can’t track your own performance and improve. As in Baltimore, the only thing that improves when you juke the stats is appearances.

3. Go above and beyond.

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A colder day is notable, and a warmer day makes people happy, but a 40 degree day is worthless, according to Stringer. He scolds his crew for their mediocre performance and tells them they need to step up. He’s harsh, but he’s trying to motivate the people who work for him to push harder and do better. Stringer is a good manager, and he knows how to get results.

This should also motivate you to push beyond OK, past mediocre, and excel. For sales reps, there’s always one more dial you can make, one more prospect you can engage, one more piece of content you can send to help close that deal. If you put in the effort, you’ll see the rewards long-term. If you don’t, you won’t be remembered.

4. The world is changing fast, and you have to adapt.

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Cutty is a street soldier who gets out of prison and goes home expecting to fall back into his old murderous habits. However, he quickly realizes he just can’t kill anymore, and tells the Barksdale crew that he’s out. He tells Slim, “The game done changed.” Slim responds, “Game’s the same, just got more fierce.” Cutty can’t adapt to how things have changed on the streets, and so he finds another job for himself. He opens up a boxing gym to train the local boys and keep them off the corners, instead.

For sales reps, the world is also changing quickly. If you’re still stuck using old-fashioned selling tactics, you won’t be closing deals. Reps today have to keep up with the newest selling techniques – jumping into social selling, using triggers events, implementing sales tools and adapting to new technology. Sales is a competitive world, and you can never sit back and relax. If you can’t keep up,  you might as well find a new career.

5. Your reputation matters.

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In sales, your company’s reputation and your personal reputation are incredibly powerful. You want to be known as a rep who is trustworthy, helpful and honest. You have to be careful to cultivate this positive reputation at all times, and represent your product and your company well. If you consistently lie to prospects or rip people off, eventually the word will get out and your sales will dry up.

In the world of The Wire, reputation doesn’t just mean a lost sale – it means life or death on the streets. In Season 4, Marlo is the toughest dealer, willing to kill anyone who defies him in order to hold onto his corners. When Omar challenges him to come and face him in the streets, Marlo is furious. He knows that if he doesn’t, Omar will be perceived as tougher and Marlo will seem like a coward –  something Marlo can’t allow. For Marlo, his reputation is more important than even his life.

6. Be willing to give and take.

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Different from Marlo, Stringer doesn’t believe that toughness is the only quality of a great leader. Stringer offers some of the best business advice on the show: schooling others about supply and demand, forming a co-op of gangsters, and even getting his MBA on the side. In this case, he tells Bodie that a little flexibility will help him earn not just respect, but also loyalty from the people around him.

Sales reps can learn from Stringer’s advice in how to give and take in negotiations with a prospective customer. If you’re talking price, you should only make concessions if you’re getting something in return – if I give you something, you get something equally valuable. It doesn’t have to be exactly a win-win, but many sales reps either try to get as much as they can, or give away too much too easily. Stringer knows that negotiation is always about flexibility.

7. Offer good product to the right market.

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In Season 3, Prop Joe and Stringer Bell decide that rather than fighting each other, all the dealers in Baltimore should collaborate and form a co-op. They stop killing each other, attract less attention from the police, and profits go up. Prop Joe sells the best product, and Stringer sells to a huge number of people in the towers. Because the product is great, demand goes up and this arrangement works well – for a while.

This is a key business idea; that you should sell a good product to a market that needs it, and not be distracted by anything that doesn’t benefit the business. Sales reps must be incredibly focused on their ideal customer, know what they want, and know why their product is better than others out there. If you stay focused and offer your product to people who need it when they need it most, you’ll see your sales grow.

8. Take your shot when you have it.

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B2B sales have become increasingly complex with more and more stakeholders involved in every decision. You might spend an entire sales cycle trying to reach the person in power, and you might only get one shot, so you better take advantage of it. Ask your internal sales champion what value the business really needs from the product and be sure to thoroughly prepare your pitch. If you have a shot to talk to the CEO, you better be ready to close.

Omar tells Wee-Bay the exact same thing, in a way. Wee-Bay tries to kill Omar for stealing from Barksdale, but he couldn’t pull it off. He got one shot to take out Omar, and he missed. He won’t get another shot.

If you’re a fan of The Wire, it may be time to rewatch the series and keep an eye out for business lessons scattered throughout the series. Tell your manager it’s serious sales research, and then sit back, and enjoy.
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