To Sell Is Human… Even If You’re Not In Sales

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A review of To Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others.


Are sales jobs being threatened by technology/the Internet/social media? Are salespeople a dying breed? There are good reasons for imagining this to be the case, but author Daniel Pink says the facts tell a different story: About one person out of nine now works in sales, a figure that has remained more or less constant for the past decade. “The technologies that were supposed to make salespeople obsolete in fact have transformed more people into sellers,” he says.


And those are just the folks who are actually “salespeople.” The eight out of nine who are in non-sales jobs are actually spending many of their working hours in “non-sales selling”—persuading someone to do something that furthers the business purpose of the “seller.” Pink says his research suggests that, “we’re devoting upward of 40 percent of our time on the job to moving others.”


By this broad definition—moving others; non-sales selling—we’re all in sales, and there are two reasons for emphasizing this point. First, “sales” still has an image problem. The “word cloud” below, taken from the book, shows the 25 adjectives and interjections that came up most often when people were asked to free-associate with the words “sales” and “selling.” Size of the word in the graphic corresponds to the frequency with which participants in the survey used it:



So we have a clear winner: “pushy”―with “yuck” in second place. The negative stereotype of salesmen (the stigma is largely gender specific) is an old, old one, but Pink offers a very modern theory of its roots: information asymmetry. When the seller knows more than the buyer—used car salesmen are the classic villains here—the stage is set for a lopsided deal and a dissatisfied customer. Now that information-as-a-consumable stretches as far as the eye can see, like amber waves of grain ripe for harvest, buyers can become as well-informed as they want to be. Not only can “symmetry” be achieved; the balance can shift to favor the buyer. Honesty, transparency and genuine helpfulness now have an obvious, self-reinforcing benefit to the seller. So if we’re all in sales, let’s all be happy and prosper.


The second reason for emphasizing the point that we’re all in sales is that sales skills suddenly become relevant to everyone. Non-deceptive persuasion techniques can enable productive interactions between co-workers, between department heads, and even between teacher and student. “To sell well is to convince someone else to part with resources,” says Pink, “not to deprive that person, but to leave him better off in the end. That is also what, say, a good algebra teacher does.”


In this view, schools share one shortcoming with many sales training programs: “In the new world of sales, being able to ask the right questions is more valuable than producing the right answers. Unfortunately, our schools often have the opposite emphasis. They teach how to answer, but not how to ask.” The SPIN evangelists here at Huthwaite are in fervent agreement with the importance of asking questions, as well as cultivating the attendant skill of listening to the answers.


To Sell is Human is a lot of fun and useful insights abound. Pink’s closing advice is priceless: “Treat everyone as you’d treat your grandmother, but assume that Grandma has eighty thousand Twitter followers.”