His distinguished letterhead reads, "One of today's most sought after success counselors." But his first words are folksy: "Just a farm boy from Idaho who finally makes it . . ."

E. James Rohn's rags-to-riches story has been smoothed by thousands of repetitions. The resonance of his deep voice has tickled hundreds of thousands of ears. But his inspirational cliche's and pulpit cadence reveals an identity his million-dollar confidence, wave of white hair and perfectly pressed suit don't quite disguise.

Jim Rohn is one of a new breed of super salesman in the '80s.

His product is success, wealth, happiness. His belief in it is absolute, his fervor evangelical. His sales pitch? He could talk Willy Loman back from the grave.

His target customer: You.

Make sure you don't go looking for the exotic answers to success. Success is a very basic process. It doesn't fall out of the sky . . .As someone wisely remarked, 'To be successful, you don't have to do extraordinary things. Just do ordinary things extraordinarily well.' -- Jim Rohn, Success: The Seven Strategies for Wealth & Happiness

The promise of success is running rampant across America today.

Hundreds of motivational pitchmen are flocking to a profession once dominated by only a few positive-thinking originals -- a Dale Carnegie or a Napoleon Hill. But the guarantees and psychological sales techniques of these new success marketeers make Norman Vincent Peale's Power of Positive Thinking sound like The Little Engine That Could.

"The consulting field's answer to home-delivered pizza" is how Steve Salerno describes the motivational selling phenomenon in his upcoming book about "the new salesmanship," TNS: The Newest Profession (William Morrow, $17.95).

There's a lot of grabbing for a slice of the pie: Since 1973, membership in the National Speakers Association has jumped from 13 to 2,300, says its executive vice president Gail Larsen. More than half those members, she adds, are motivation and success consultants.

"Why the growth of these success speakers? It sounds good, it sounds moral and it is very profitable," says Salerno, a former mirror salesman in New York City who turned to writing in 1982. "If I said to you, 'How would you like to earn $450,000 this year by showing mankind how much you love it,' wouldn't you do it?"

The appeal of the product is no mystery, either. In a decade in which Lee Iacocca's biography is a runaway bestseller and an acronym is assigned to a class of young urban professionals, roadmaps to wealth and happiness are hot property.

A $4.95 poster illustrates a visionary landscape of obstacles (Hotel Know It All, Cliff of Laziness) and smart choices (the Right System Train and Gate of Ideals) along a mountain trek toward a shimmering golden harp of success. "The Journey to Success is not a mysterious force," reads an ad. "It is merely a poster. But it can work wonders."

Don Campbell, president of Learning Alternatives, the East Rutherford, N.J., direct-mail company that markets the poster, says he has sold 15,000 copies. It's his most popular motivational item.

Other success products have bolted to the top of the self-help industry. How-to books such as Zig Ziglar's Secrets of Closing the Sale and Og Mandino's The Greatest Salesman in the World reached bestseller lists. SUCCESS! magazine is fat with ads: an Indiana firm hawks a 24-cassette deal that, at $9.95 a month, provides motivation from famed Sultans of Success, among them Zig Ziglar, Tremendous Jones and Herb True. Another ad announces "The Success Classic of the '80s -- The Paragon Principle," by "Mr. Success," Ben Gay III -- the man who's been "an inspiration to more than 200,000 men and women, from Apollo astronauts to San Quentin 'lifers.' "

This month, 600 to 1,000 true believers will meet in Atlanta for the third annual Napoleon Hill Gold Medal Award Banquet. At $100 a head, it attracts people from all walks of life, according to SUCCESS! founder W. Clement Stone, "who have been motivated by Hill's work to attain . . . higher positions, wealth, and the true riches of life."

Achieving success is going to be "the hot topic," author Salerno says. "It's the self-help of the next generation -- an eclectic blend of est and other self-improvement philosophies. It's saying, 'Okay, we made you a super hunk or a goddess with a great body. And we've helped you to understand your mind. Now we're gonna show you how to be successful, wealthy and happy."

In his book, Salerno recounts a conversation he had with the Scottsdale, Ariz., based guru of modern salesmanship, Tom Hopkins. The man who has taught some of the world's top corporations to sell more had just told Salerno, "Good selling is based on the customer's needs," when unexpectedly he asked:

"We all have problems, don't we? I have problems, you have problems . . . isn't that right?"

Salerno nodded.

"Well, suppose you know somebody -- somebody with a proven track record -- who said they could eliminate some or all of those problems for $12. Twelve bucks!" said Hopkins. "Somebody who said they could remove some of the obstacles standing between you and a more fulfilling, successful life. Wouldn't it be well worth it to you? For twelve bucks? Even if it eliminated just one nagging problem?"

"Sure," Salerno replied.

Hopkins handed Salerno a copy of one of his books, The Official Guide to Success. Cover price: $11.95.

"There you go!" said Hopkins triumphantly. "And you get a nickel change."

Welcome to the Twilight Zone of Persuasion.

"The problem with the new salesmanship and these success strategies . . . is that the public isn't well enough versed to defend itself enough to make a decision objectively about the worth of a product," says Salerno of the psychological sleight-of-hand.

"Society has gotten so much more sophisticated that the old shtick just doesn't work anymore. You can't get by with a shoeshine and a smile. The sales approaches that need to be used need to be almost subliminal. The very best salespeople today seem the least of all like salespeople."

Salerno cites Danielle Kennedy as a prime example. The San Clemente, Calif., based motivational trainer started as an unemployed housewife selling real estate from her kitchen. Last year, she made a six-figure income, says Salerno, mostly from more than 100 seminars.

"When you listen to her at her seminars, she seems like the most down-to-earth, nonthreatening woman you would imagine," Salerno says. "But, by the end of it . . . people are getting up from their seats, walking over to the product tables and spending a lot of money."

. . . It is said of those with divine authority that 'the meek shall inherit the earth,' but where does it also say that in order to be 'meek' you must also be poor. That is total folly. -- Jim Rohn, The Seasons of Life

Between attending a White House reception and being honored in Washington by the National Speakers Association, Rohn slips out to Columbia, Md., to pump up an audience of 250 with a three-hour lecture called "The Challenge of Success."

A college drop-out, he tells them he once thought that if you arrive early, stay late and work hard, you'll succeed. But he was saved from that fallacy, he says, by Texas businessman Earl Schoaff, who befriended and hired him.

With Schoaff's help, Rohn says he set goals, disciplined his life and bank account, kept a daily journal and read a book a week. To become wealthy, happy and successful, Rohn gives away the secret, you must study wealth, happiness and success.

"Schoaff said, 'If you . . . practice these daily disciplines, all these things can happen for you: sophistication, wealth, success, happiness, life style and culture,' " says Rohn. "I bought that whole philosophy . . . Sure enough, it happened to me." Now Rohn sells the philosophy.

. . . I don't know you personally. I'm not familiar with your dreams. Or your problems. But fortunately for you, I don't need to be. Because the ideas we'll be talking about . . . are fundamentals to the art of winning. They will help you achieve your most inspiring dreams -- guaranteed . . . -- Jim Rohn, Success: The Seven Strategies for Wealth & Happiness

Henry Smith of Anaheim, Calif., first heard Rohn in 1981. Since then Smith, 55, has become a success devotee, attending more than 20 Rohn lectures. He also has become a wealthy man: Sales this year at his business, Anaheim Hills Auto Body, will reach $2.5 million, he says.

"I attribute most of it to Mr. Rohn's philosophy. We use it daily," says Smith.

"When somebody says, 'The day I sat in your lecture was the day that turned my life around,' that's called heavy-weight stuff," says Rohn. "That kind of thanks you can't buy with money."

But clearly every Henry Smith who tunes into Rohn's message doesn't become wealthy. So where is the banana peel on the path to success?

"It's just not easy emotionally or intellectually for people to buy a change," says Rohn. "Some are ready; some aren't.

"The Bible says the day the Christian church was started, the sermon was preached and the multitudes heard it. And some mocked and some were perplexed and some didn't know what was going on and some be- lieved . . .

"The difference is going to be you. And if you want your life to change, if you give me some time, I'll give you a chance."

"Give" isn't the right word. Rohn admits that what started 20 years ago as "sharing a few ideas" with friends has turned into a big business. He mentions his first book, The Seasons of Life -- a sort of Jonathan Livingston Seagull meets "The Wheel of Fortune." His touring schedule consumes at least 12 days each month, increasingly taking him beyond southern California.

"I do lectures for AT&T and Sony and Standard Oil," he says. "I cover the full range . . . from sitting around a conference table with Chevron executives to talking to orphan kids in Louisville, Kentucky."

Rohn charges $50 per adult for his seminars and says he earns between $3,000 and $8,000 a lecture. "Plus I have a lot of products to sell -- videos, cassettes and my book," he says. A new Rohn brochure lists special holiday prices: a 45-minute video cassette, "An Evening with Jim Rohn," down from $115 to $89; his audio cassette "Three Keys to Success in Sales," priced at $12.

Rohn says it has paid off: "In the millions -- a couple." Suggest to him that he is selling a "bill of goods," and he counters, "It's the art of persuasion."

Salerno claims it's more like the "religion" of persuasion for many motivation and success hawkers: "Zig Ziglar sat down one day and said, 'If you are a salesman and you have failed to sell the product, you have hurt your customer. You have done irreparable harm to that person because you have deprived him of that product.'

"Now when you start the salesman thinking that way, he starts to think he is on a holy crusade. He thinks that he has got to enlighten these people, change their lives for the better.

"The problem with these strategies is when you set up yourself as some guru of success, and there is no guarantee it will work or even be good for other people."

Ask Rohn if he is a snake-oil salesman of the '80s, and he answers, ". . . You just really have to do your homework on who has got a gimmick and who is doing it for money and who has some genuine interest in helping people."

Salerno says most "of these people are scrupulously moral . . . The danger of this whole thing is that it is so subtle even the person doing it does not see the potential harm in it."

"It has turned into a jungle . . .," says John R. Noe of his profession. "For a lot of people, it's an ego trip. It's a fantasy . . ."

Noe bills himself as "The Motivated Mountaineer . . . one of the vanguard of the new breed of motivational speakers in America." His multimillion dollar, Indianapolis-based firm sells its "Climb Ev'ry Mountain" theme with a motivation-from-God message to corporate clients such as General Electric, Amway and Ford. His book: Peak Performance Principles for High Achievers.

"I used to stand them up and tell them, 'We feel terrific, don't we?' and 'You can succeed beyond your wildest dreams if you're willing to pay the price,' " says Noe. "And I walk away thinking, 'Boy, I slayed them today.' But I got over that.

"People get excited and motivated, and go out of that room and run head on into life. There isn't anything worse that you can do than raise expectations and not enable people to fulfill them."

Noe also warns that success isn't for everybody. "Our whole society is so geared to telling people they've got to achieve and achieve . . . how many people have gone on this high achievement thing only to climb the ladder to success and jump off at the top?"

And the polished sales techniques? "I use 'em but I don't stress 'em," says Noe. "I get disturbed about manipulation. A lot of motivators manipulate people.

"I'm not a household word but if I do become one, I want to become it on the merit of my message, not because of a great marketing program," he adds. "I think I'm a voice that's crying out and needs to be heard. But then all motivational speakers think that, don't they?"