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If You’re Human, You’re In Sales

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(Note: Originally published here on OPEN Forum.)


When it comes to the world of work, no one does a better job of blending firsthand observation with curated science and packaging the mix in a insightful narrative than Daniel H. Pink. From his groundbreaking Free Agent Nation to his bestselling A Whole New Mind and Drive, Dan Pink not only challenges his readers to rethink conventional wisdom, but provides them with the framework and tools to do so.

In January I reviewed his bestselling new book To Sell Is Human, which argues that sales and non-sales selling are ultimately about service, a refreshing change from the traditional view that reduces sales to a simple exchange of resources. Selling is about moving others, and moving others doesn’t require that we neglect the nobler aspects of our human nature, but rather embrace them fully.

I caught up with Dan to ask him a few questions and gain even more insight into sales.

You say that, “Like it or not, we’re all in sales now.” Why?

In the U.S., we’ve got 1 in 9 workers who earn their living sell products, services, or experiences. That’s a lot of people. But the bigger story is that those other 8 in 9 are also in sales. They’re spending huge amounts of their time on the job — upwards of 40%, on average — persuading, influencing, and convincing others. Thanks to a host of forces, “moving” others is a big part of what we do on the job.

Nowhere is this truer than for entrepreneurs and small businesspeople.

In the book you argue that sales has changed more in the last 10 years than in the previous 100. What’s going on?

Big changes in information. For a long time, sellers had a huge information advantage over buyers. That information asymmetry defined the sales relationship. But today, we’re closer to information parity. A world where buyers have not much information, not many choices, and no way to talk back is a world of “buyer beware.”

But today, buyers have lots of information, lots of choices, and all kinds of ways to talk back. That’s a world of “seller beware.” Sellers are now on notice. And that calls for a fundamentally different set of personal qualities and tactical steps.

To sell effectively, do you have to be extraverted?

No. Here’s what the research shows: Extraverts are more likely to go into sales, more likely to get hired in sales jobs, and more likely to get promoted in them. But the correlation between extraversion and sales performance is essentially zero. But this doesn’t mean that introverts necessarily have an edge. Some exciting new research from Adam Grant shows that the most effective sellers are “ambiverts” — neither strongly introverted nor strongly extraverted.

Strong introverts don’t assert enough and have trouble striking up conversations. But strong extraverts, the people we think are the “naturals,” talk too much, listen too little, and come on too strong. Ambiverts, though, occupy the modulated middle. They know when to push and when to hold back, when to speak up and when to shut up. The best news: Most of us are ambiverts.

Sales involves lots of rejection. What’s one way to deal with that?

Change what social psychologists call your “explanatory style.” In a landmark study of insurance salespeople, the great Martin Seligman at the University of Pennsylvania found that the best predictor of success was how these salespeople explained failure. To overcome the sting of rejection, they found ways to recontextualize rejection.

Seligman advises us to focus on the three P’s. Is the rejection personal? Look for ways it’s also external. Is it pervasive? Look for evidence that it doesn’t always happen. Is it permanent? It’s usually not. The more we explain rejection — honestly — as external, occasional, and temporary, the better off we’ll be.

Are there lessons from the research about how we should frame choices for customers to maximize the likelihood that they’ll buy?

Sure. For instance,there’s some great research out of Stanford that adding weak negative information about, say, a product at the end of a list of positive attributes about that product can make people more likely to buy. Why? The small blemishes trigger a comparison with the long list of positives, which makes those more attractive.

Also, some research shows that in job interviews, or for pitching professional services, potential is more persuasive than past performance. So next time you’re selling yourself, don’t fixate on what you achieved yesterday. Emphasize the promise of what you could accomplish tomorrow.

Small business owners and startups spend a good bit of time pitching ideas and business models. Is there a tip or technique you suggest for mastering the elevator pitch?

Not one, but six. A one-size-fits-all pitch no longer works. In the book I suggest the Pixar 6-sentence storyline pitch, the 140-character Twitter pitch, the email subject line pitch, the rhyming pitch, the question pitch, and the one-word pitch. For the rhyming pitch, think Johnnie Cochran’s use of this sentence in the OJ. Simpson trial: If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit. For the question pitch, recall Ronald Reagan’s effective use of the question during the 1980 election: Are you better off now than you were four years ago? And as for the one-word pitch, what company comes to mind when you hear the word “search”?

Whether we know it or not, we’re devoting upwards of 40 percent of our time on the job to persuading and influencing others to give up resources in exchange for something we offer. We are selling ourselves online more than ever–whether it’s products on Etsy,funding ideas on Kickstarter, or ourselves on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. To Sell Is Human is the definitive guide to effectively moving others.

You can buy To Sell Is Human here, follow Dan on Twitter here, and read his blog here.