Everything You Know About Sales is Wrong

What skills do salespeople truly need to close the deal?

by Kate Pavao, July 2013

To prepare for his latest book, To Sell Is Human, business and technology expert Daniel Pink went on sales calls with the last Fuller Brush salesperson, attended a listening workshop for executives, and poured over recent research as he tried to learn the secrets of selling. The result: an exploration of what makes sales people tick and the traits that make the best sellers successful in today’s marketplace.

Daniel Pink Headshot

Here, Pink talks to Profit about what he learned in the process: what surprised him most, how his research has influenced his own behavior, and why he says we all need to reimagine what a successful salesperson looks like.

Profit: Why should executives be focused on sales right now?

Pink: First, if you look at the U.S. workforce, one in nine people are at work in sales, so chances are every executive has some authority over salespeople. This is important because there was an idea a while ago that salespeople would be rendered obsolete because of changes in the economy. This just hasn’t come true.

More importantly, if you look at what executives do throughout their days at work, everyone is in sales. I’m not just talking about sales executives — I’m talking about HR, marketing, logistics executives, etc. People are spending about 40 percent of the job in this thing that I call “non-sales selling.” They are not necessarily selling their company’s product or service directly to a customer, but they are persuading, influencing, and convincing people.

They are selling an idea to the team, or recruiting a prospect to come work with the company. The cash register’s not ringing, and money is not changing hands; instead, the denomination is time, attention, energy, and those kind of things.

Profit: Why did your decide to call your book To Sell Is Human?

Pink: My hope for executives and other readers is that they learn to take sales more seriously. And I want them to recognize that to sell well, especially today, you have to sell in a way that’s more human.

Sales has such a grim reputation. People think of it as sleazy, duplicitous, and dishonest. I understand where this comes from: If the seller has a lot more information than the buyer, then the seller can rip you off.

But sales is not what it used to be. Over the last 10 years, we’ve gone from a world of information asymmetry to one of information equality in many, many markets. And what that’s doing is it’s forcing salespeople to the high road.

book cover

Whether we’re selling an idea, a product, or ourselves, we need a high degree of openness, honesty, and transparency. It’s a very different world and a lot of the research shows that doing well in this world depends on having fundamentally human qualities — understanding people’s perspectives or leaving people better off.

To be effective, you don’t have to act like a slippery, plaid sports coat wearing sleazebag. You just have to be attuned to what the other person is thinking, buoyant in the face of rejection, and be able to apply your expertise to curate and make sense of information rather than really accessing it. You need to identify hidden problems for your customers rather than existing problems.

Profit: What most surprised you most during your research?

Pink: I originally set out with a belief that some people are just natural salespeople. I went out in some ways to find out who are these people who can sell anything and what can we learn from them?

It turned out that almost every salesperson I interviewed rejected the premise that some people can sell anything. It might have been true in a world of information asymmetry, where the seller just has to get slightly more up to speed than the buyer and could be a kind of party planner instead of an expert.

Today, what really matters is your expertise, and you can’t develop expertise if you don’t care actually at some level about what you’re selling, whether that’s wholesale seafood or enterprise software.

Another big surprise for me was research showing that you don’t need to be an extrovert to be that good at selling. What the facts show is that extroverts are more likely to take sales jobs — they are more likely to be hired for the jobs and promoted. But when scholars looked at the link between extroversion and actual performance, the correlation is basically zero.

When Adam Grant at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania measured the introversion and extroversion of a software salesforce, he found introverts were terrible at sales. And very strong extroverts — the very gregarious, glad-handing, chatting types — only did a little bit better.

People who did the best were ambiverts — the people in the middle, who were somewhat introverted and somewhat extroverted, which most of us are. Ambiverts have a wider repertoire, know when to speak up and when to shut up, when to push and when to hold back.

We have a lot of ideas about what makes someone successful at sales, and in this particular case, our ideas is just flatly wrong.

Profit: Did you learn anything along the way that changed how your operate?

Pink: I realized in writing about attunement — which is how you stop and take someone else’s perspective — is that I have been a really terrible listener. Most of us don’t know how to listen, and think listening is simply waiting to talk. But I think I’ve gotten a little bit better at stopping, slowing down and really trying to listen to what somebody else was saying.

Also, I’ve changed my view on pitching. The research shows pretty clearly that the most effective pitches don’t try to convert people; they try to bring them into a conversation, bring them in as a co-creator.

Kate Pavao is a frequent contributor to Profit.

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