Idea Review: 'To Sell is Human'

When I picked up this book from the Library shelf, it was Dan Pink's name, whose books on Future Work and Motivation I have read before, that made me do it. I was expecting to read a book on sales: Not that I wanted to, but I must admit that I was intrigued by the literary interest in sales (Philip Delves Broughton's Life's A Pitch appeared around the time this book was published), just as the profession seemed to be dying (see some data here). 

What the book turned out to be is more than I bargained for: This turned out to be a book about persuasion, starting out with a proposition that as sales is dying, we are now all in sales. 'Non-sales Sales', Mr Pink uses the term, is all about the job of persuasion that sits at the heart of almost all the jobs that we are doing now. He cites three main trends - entrepreneurship (that we are all business owners now, either running small businesses, or being self employed), elasticity (that almost all jobs today need persuasion, either of 'internal' or 'external' customers) and Ed-Med (which is about the expansion and robustness of Health and Educational professions). So, as the 'Fuller Brush' man is disappearing, sales is becoming ubiquitous, embedded and different.

Mr Pink's argument about the emergence of a different sales hinges on the proposition of 'information symmetry', a situation where more aware customers are operating with vast amounts of information, taking away the 'upper hand' traditionally salespersons used to have. In this transparent world where 'attention' is the scarce commodity, Mr Pink sets out to challenge some of the old rules and conventional wisdom about selling.

For example, he turns on its head the old 'golden rule' of sales, ABC - Always Be Closing, which has, in a way, created the impression of salespeople as a pushy sort. The alternative ABC that Mr Pink offers is Attunement, Buoyancy and Clarity. Attunement, which is the ability to understand and to be understood; buoyancy, which is about maintaining a positive yet realistic approach amid the 'ocean of rejection' that one must face in sales (and it must be added, in life); and clarity, the ability to project one's message persistently and clearly. 

In establishing this new ABC, indeed, many of the conventional wisdom of sales, still pedalled around by various sales gurus, had to be challenged. For example, a sales person must be an Extrovert. Instead, Mr Pink cites research to show that in fact the 'Ambiverts', those who sit right in the middle of extroversion and introversion, usually do the best in sales. (He offers a free tool to assess what kind one is) He is also challenging the notion that declarative self-talk - 'I am the best and I can do this' - is usually bested by, hold your breath, Bob-the-Builder type 'interrogative' self talk, 'can we fix it?' The book is full of insights from social science research, presented in the context of sales and persuasion, and Mr Pink has already established a 'Gladwellesque' reputation in this.

This book ends with very practical advice on how-to: How to Pitch, how to improvise and how to serve. All this establishes sales as a very human activity, finally resurrected from its industrial age awkwardness, in its full 'post-modern' splendour.  This is what, for me, established a greater significance for this book than just a quick, attractive manual of new sales. In a way, this presented for me a very usable guidebook for designing an education for learners today, in any discipline, about a very important ability, to sell, and also a discussion of what's really important. In a very enjoyable section of the book, Mr Pink details, using psychological and social research, how 'Problem Finding' is trumping 'Problem Solving'. A lesson that I shall now carry, he cites a survey by Conference Board:

"(A) few years ago, the Conference Board, the well-regarded US business group, gave 155 public school superintendents and eighty-nine private employers a list of cognitive capacities and asked their respondents to rate these capacities according to which are most important for today's workforce. The superintendents ranked 'problem solving' as number one. But the employers ranked it number eight. Their top-ranked ability: 'problem identification'." (See 'Ready to Innovate' here)

Interesting snippets like this go beyond the immediate context of sales and clarify some of the issues about the future work and the models of education that we should be thinking about. This has been my key takeaway from this book.

Watch Dan Pink speak about 'To Sell is Human'


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