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Reading This May Be Your Only Non-Sales Activity Today

Daniel H. Pink talks with Inc. editor-at-large Leigh Buchanan about his latest book, To Sell Is Human, and the ubiquity of sales today.
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Even if you've never operated a cash register or made a cold call, you probably spend much of your time persuading or influencing others to take an action or make an exchange--what journalist Daniel H. Pink calls "non-sales selling." In his latest book, To Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others, Pink explains the new art of persuasion, in which buyers have the advantage, solving problems is less important than finding problems, and the aggressive pitch yields to harmony and attunement.

Inc. editor-at-large Leigh Buchanan spoke with Pink about sales-saturated lives.

You write that the 90% of Americans not directly involved in sales spend much of their time selling. How did you arrive at that insight? 

It started with a personal insight. I was procrastinating from writing one afternoon, and I started looking at how I had spent my time over a two-week period. I was amazed what a huge portion I spent selling. There are these commonalities between flogging books and trying to get my 14-year-old daughter to clean her room or trying to get Delta Airlines to change a flight. It's all selling in a broad sense. Convincing, influencing, cajoling. And I had a hunch other people were doing the same thing. So to put meat on those bones I did a survey of 7,000 full-time workers. One question I asked was, "What percentage of your time do you spend trying to persuade someone to give you something in exchange for something, such as time, effort, or attention?" I found a lot of white-collar workers spend a huge proportion of their time doing this kind of non-sales selling. 

How can the knowledge that so much of what you do is selling influence how you conduct yourself?

I think it encourages you to do things a little more strategically, a little smarter. You realize the goal is to move this person in your direction, so that you will both be better off. And so you bring to those activities a greater openness, an understanding of the other person's needs, and the clarity to make a murky situation clearer. That makes such conversations far more effective than if you just looked at them as random events in your day.

For this book, you spent a lot of time with Norman Hall, the last of the Fuller Brush salesman. What did he tell you about what is and is no longer true about selling?

Norman's kind of selling--going door-to-door--obviously has faded away. But a lot of his principles are back in this new world of selling. For example, he had the best description of what salespeople face. He says every day he wakes up and looks out into an "ocean of rejection." That's a very difficult thing. And it's something more of us have to get used to because we are more out there, more exposed. So we will get rejected a lot more. We tweet something and people don't click on it. We write a blog post and people don't retweet it. We do a Facebook post and people don't "like" it. An entrepreneur goes to a potential customer and they say "no," or he tries to raise money and they say "no." Norman gave me a good sense of how to remain buoyant under those circumstances.

Another thing: Norman kept referring to himself as "soft-spoken." And what I learned--and it sounds a little hackneyed--is how important listening is in every kind of endeavor. No one teaches us how to listen. Norman did a great job of it. You can also connect that to some of the research that shows extroverts don't make the best salespeople. 

So what types of people are the best at sales?

Adam Grant, a professor at Wharton, has done research that shows very, very clearly that "ambiverts"--people who are not too introverted and not too extroverted--are the most effective salespeople. Because they are the most attuned. They know when to shut up; they know when to speak up. They know when to push; they know when to hold back. I think most of us are ambiverts.

Some people originally interpreted the Internet and its self-service ethos as the end of traditional selling, which obviously was not the case. How has the Internet changed the way both buyers and sellers approach sales?

The obvious thing is it turned more of us into sellers. Now it's easy for someone to set up a storefront and reach the entire world in very modest ways. So these technologies that we thought would dis-intermediate traditional sellers gave more people the tools to be sellers. It also changed the balance of power between sellers and buyers. Most of what we know about sales comes from a world of information asymmetry, where for a very long time sellers had more information than buyers. That meant sellers could hoodwink buyers, especially if buyers did not have a lot of choices or a way to talk back. The new world is much closer to information parity. When buyers have as much information as sellers, and lots of choices and a way to talk back, then that changes the whole game. It's no longer "buyer beware,"but "seller beware." Because if you try to be duplicitous as a seller, then you are going to get found out. 

If so many people spend so much time selling, what are they not doing instead? Are there opportunity costs?

That's an interesting question. It suggests, from an economic standpoint, a coordination problem. Maybe if people spent less time coordinating others, trying to persuade others, then it would free up time to make more stuff. So that is a possible opportunity cost. But to some extent the act of creation and the act of selling are hard to disentangle. If you create something, whether it's a painting or a company, I think if you care about it, you have some obligation to go out and tell people about it. 

Does the fact that more people are selling also mean more people are buying--or, at least, being moved or persuaded?

That's probably right. They have so many more choices and so many more messages coming at them. And there's more time spent educating themselves to be a more sophisticated buyer. 

I understand more people are out there selling because there are more very small companies and freelancers. But how is that true for larger organizations?

In large organizations there are discrete functions. I do this; you do that. I swim in my lane; you swim in your lane. That can be very effective for certain processes and in certain stable conditions. But it doesn't work in unstable conditions. In growth companies, especially, there is this kind of elasticity of function where they are stretching across traditional boundaries. So there are companies that do $100 million in sales or $300 million in sales--and they have no salespeople. What they say is no one is in sales because everyone is in sales. 

Is there anything distinctive about how entrepreneurs sell?

The stakes are higher. You are putting yourself much more on the line. You can't hide behind the Xerox brand or the IBM brand. It is your brand. What that allows you to do, though, is open yourself up a little bit more and make these transactions a little more personal. There's not a lot of great teaching on this, so entrepreneurs may have to go in not well prepared, which is terrifying. The good news is that you have very rapid feedback loops. You come out of that pitch meeting saying, "OK, that didn't work. Let's go to plan B."

What sales traits are crucial for entrepreneurs?

This principle of clarity. Entrepreneurs are moving from a world of problem-solving to a world of problem-finding. The very best ones are able to uncover problems people didn't realize that they had. Today if the customer knows precisely what their problem is they will probably be able to find a solution on their own. The entrepreneur is more valuable in cases where [customers] don't know what their problem is or they are wrong about their problem. So surfacing latent problems, anticipating new problems, is really powerful for entrepreneurs. What entrepreneurs and artists have in common is that they give the world something it didn't know it was missing. 

You talked about different kinds of pitches in the book. How should an entrepreneur choose a pitch?

When the facts are on your side there is huge power in pitching with questions. Because questions are active rather than passive. They necessitate a response. Even if people aren't enunciating the answer they will begin forming a response in their heads, looking for a way to agree with you. The ultimate example of this was Ronald Reagan in 1980, saying "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?" That was far more effective than saying, "The economy has gone to hell in the last four years," or "Your economic situation has worsened in the last 48 months." The facts were very clear that people's economic situations were much worse in 1980 than in 1976. Asking the question got people thinking: "Are things better now? Let's see, four years ago I was…oh my god! They are a lot worse!" So people start summoning their own autonomous, intrinsically motivated reasons for agreeing with you. That's very, very powerful. 

When the facts aren't on your side, however, pitching with a question is an unbelievably bad tactic. Because it gets people to reason through your proposition, and if that proposition is wobbly they will find reasons to disagree with you. Mitt Romney wheeled out the "are you better off" pitch for a few days in October, and wheeled it right back to the barn. Because people knew 2012 was bad. But when they looked back at 2008 they said, "Things were a little bit worse then. Maybe things are getting better."

I think Obama did a reasonably good job with the one-word pitch--what Maurice Saatchi called "one-word equity." In 2008, his one-word pitch was "hope." In 2012, his one-word pitch was "forward." If you look at McCain in 2008 or Romney in 2012, I defy you to tell me what their one-word pitches were. Or two-word pitches. Or three-word pitches.

Don Draper and his ilk are notably absent from the book. Why didn't you write about advertising?

I was trying to expand our notion of selling to more day-to-day interactions. The world of advertising is a very specialized world and so would not be part of the life experience of a lot of readers. That said, there are some great lessons in advertising. There's the legendary story of Rosser Reeves, the advertising executive who came up with "I like Ike." The story goes that one day Reeves was passing by a beggar who had a sign that said, "I am blind." And no one was giving him money. Reeves took the sign and added four words, so that it read: "It is springtime and I am blind." And the beggar started getting a lot of money. So there's a lesson there about the power of contrast. 

What's the relationship between selling and leadership?

On some level, of course, leaders are always selling. But I think there's a very interesting analogy to servant leadership: Robert Greenleaf's notion from the 1970s that leaders should serve first and lead second. So servant salesmanship would be serve first, and sell second. When you go into an interaction--whether you are trying to get your daughter to clean her room or telling a customer across the counter about a new camera or trying to sell an airplane--don't ask yourself, "How can I make this exchange as quickly as possible?" Instead, ask, "How can I make this other person's life better? How can I be of service to him or her?" You're flipping the pyramid, just like Greenleaf did when he put the leader on the bottom, making him the servant of the rest. Put the seller on the bottom. If the seller thinks about ways to serve, then over time he may also sell.

A very interesting example of this is Perfetti Van Melle, the Italian company that makes Mentos. Their salespeople go into mom-and-pop shops and use their company data and more-limited data from the storekeepers themselves to recommend what products these small shops should carry. Sometimes they will recommend carrying four kinds of Mentos instead of six. Sometimes they suggest products from their competitors, which is heresy. That's another example of putting the other person's interests first. The salespeople will tell you, "We're not selling Mentos. We're selling insights about the confectionary business. And as a consequence of that we are going to sell plenty of Mentos." If they went in there and said, "How can I get the biggest Mentos order right now?" I think over the long-term it is less effective. 

Did researching this book give you any new ideas about how to sell it?

Using the data I gathered about rhyming pitches, I considered naming it "To Sell Is Swell." But that didn't test very well.

IMAGE: Rebecca Drobis
Last updated: Jan 28, 2013

LEIGH BUCHANAN | Staff Writer | Editor-at-large, Inc. Magazine

Leigh Buchanan is an editor-at-large for Inc. magazine. A former editor at Harvard Business Review and founding editor of WebMaster magazine, she writes regular columns on leadership and workplace culture.




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