Arthur Miller’s play, Death of a Salesman, is one of the reasons I never considered a career in sales. The image of the burned out main character, Willy Loman, wearily stumbling through a door carrying an enormous suitcase in each hand was enough to convince me that sales was often brutal and thankless work.
But Dan Pink, in his book To Sell Is Human, makes a compelling case that we are all already in sales. He explains, “When I sat down to deconstruct my own workdays, I discovered that I spend a sizable portion of them selling in a broader sense – persuading, influencing, and convincing others.” This is what’s known as non-sales selling.
According to a Gallup poll Pink cites, most people spend around 40% of their time at work engaged in non-sales selling. If you’re a leader, you are probably spending even more than 40% of your time doing this type of work – trying to influence internal and external groups of people, encouraging those around you to embrace change, convincing a job candidate to join your organization, and persuading individuals to work together toward a common cause.
At its core, selling is the act of convincing or persuading others to give up something they value for something you have. Defining sales this way explains why despite the fact that we are all already in sales (leaders especially) selling isn’t easy. To learn how to sell better, Pink interviewed social scientists, read stacks of behavioral economic research papers, and tagged along with top salespeople in order to learn their secrets. From the knowledge he gleaned from these sources he determined that all good sales people are attuned and buoyant.
Attuned people bring themselves “into alignment with individuals, groups, and contexts.” This requires seeing situations through the eyes of others and adapting what we say and do to be sensitive to those whom we are trying to persuade or convince. It lowers the probability of offending individuals and groups, and it also enables you to find a unique and powerful way to best connect with your audience.
Buoyant people expect opposition, but they engage with it in a positive way. Salespeople face rejection and disappointment every day. But by employing psychological strategies, they are able to persevere until they are successful. Pink mentions several of these strategies in the book, but the one I find most compelling is simply remembering that if you truly believe in what you are selling, you’ll always have the strength to keep pushing forward.
The last section of Pink’s book describes specific things you can do to boost your sales success rate. He argues that with people’s attention spans constantly shrinking, it is increasingly important to distill the essence of your message down to the length of a Tweet, or even a single word. Pink also recommends making pitches personal and purposeful. This means that coldly worded corporate edicts handed down from on high are probably the worst way to sell an idea or policy change. He recommends communicating openly and in person with those in your organization. He also suggests that explaining how your ideas fit meaningfully into the bigger picture will make your pitch stick.
The top leaders in an organization are powerful, and it is tempting to think that persuasion and convincing aren’t necessary for them. But that isn’t true. It ignores the importance of buy in. There is an immense difference between employees who are simply following orders and employee who actually believe in the orders. This is why, if you’re in leadership, you also need to be in sales.
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