December 26, 2012 3:32 pm

A new ABC to debunk sales myths

To Sell is Human: The Surprising Truth about Moving Others
By Daniel H. Pink,
Riverhead Books/Canongate Books, $26.95/£14.99

The best moment in Daniel Pink’s new book comes when he cold-calls the king of cold-callers, Joe Girard, Guinness World Record-breaking salesman and author of How to Sell Anything to Anybody. As Pink archly reveals, the tactics Girard has touted for the past three decades are based on a career in car sales that ended in 1977. Asked what he makes of the internet’s effect on his world, Girard responds: “That is junk. I don’t need that crap.”

Yet, in many respects, both men are in the same business. Both have produced best-selling books, both have carved out careers as public speakers, having given up their previous jobs (Pink was a speech writer to Al Gore until 1997), both are adamant that everyone can learn to sell better.

And that means everyone. One in nine American workers, one in eight Japanese and 13 per cent of Eur­opeans work in sales. But in a survey of 7,000 full-time US workers carried out for Pink, about 70 per cent of respondents said they spent at least some of their time “persuading and convincing others”.

Pink even puts teachers and doctors into this large group of “non-sales sellers” because they persuade people to part with their “time, attention and effort” in return for education or healthcare.

The classroom and surgery seem a long way from the bazaar. But this is Pink’s point: “We’re all in sales now.” Old-style salesmanship is dead or dying, he says, because the widespread availability of the information that buyers need to assess their purchase has made it hard for sellers to exploit what used to be a knowledge gap.

Addressing head-on the association between “salesmen” and “used cars”, Pink visits CarMax. At this Fortune 500 chain of “auto superstores”, the traditional setting where “the seller would look at the computer screen and the buyer at the computer’s backside”, has given way to a slick operation, where both parties view the information simultaneously – “the literal picture of information symmetry”.

As he did in Drive, his 2010 bestseller about motivation, Pink calls in support for his argument from the latest social science, myths about sales in the process. The most successful sellers are not extroverts – humility is a better weapon. Positive autosuggestion – “Tell your­self you can do it” – is not the best way to overcome blows to self-esteem. Instead, the re­search suggests, it is better to prepare for the sale by asking yourself a question, the answer to which should help explain how to meet the challenge ahead. (Bizarrely, Pink cites the “Can we fix it?” catchphrase of children’s cartoon character Bob the Builder as the main example of this approach.) Sales can no longer be scripted; they are more like an im­provisation, with all that implies about pursuing a common goal and making your “partner” look good.

For people like me who hate selling and being sold to, it is nice to think the process has become a co-operative venture, with the “Always Be Closing” ABC of the hard-sellers in Glengarry Glen Ross replaced by a New Age-ish mantra of “Attunement”, “Buoyancy” and “Clarity”.

But old habits persist – and may still succeed. While he demolishes Girard, Pink shadows Norman Hall, last of the once-ubiquitous Fuller Brush salesmen, like a disciple. He watches in awe as Mr Hall convinces office workers to buy items they may not need, using methods that date back to before Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.

Plainly, there is room for different types of seller and sales routine, however old-style. Even To Sell is Human came with one of the longest press releases I’ve seen for such a book. Forget the “one-word pitch”, the “subject line pitch” and “the Twitter pitch”; bring on the 14-page publicity pack and 30-city nationwide tour.

In fact, “the surprising truth about moving others” – to take the book’s subtitle – is that many of the new techniques are neither as surprising, nor as different, as modern salesmen such as Pink might have us believe.

The writer is the FT’s management editor

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