The new ABCs of selling

SMM: Your new book, “To Sell Is Human,” offers a fresh look at the art and science of selling and states that everyone is in sales in one fashion or another. Who will benefit most from it?

PINK:I like to think it will be two groups, although that encompasses 100 percent of people. I think a lot of traditional salespeople get a very bad wrap and I think it’s utterly undeserved. Some of what I write about in the book can be helpful and reassuring to people in traditional sales. As someone who is not in sales and who spent some time examining what they do, I have a very different view of what they do. I think it’s much more sophisticated, much more difficult, much more intellectually complex and also much more noble than what people realize.

Then there are the people who aren’t in sales, but they’re in another kind of sales. The book is for them as well as a way to understand that you’re spending an enormous amount of your time each day in this quasi sales role, and you need to get over some of your outdated stereotypes about what selling is and recognize that you can do it a little bit better if you have some fundamentals.

SMM: If everybody is in sales, what does it mean for those who are in traditional sales?

PINK:That you have to be an expert. People have this view that some people can go from selling steak knives to selling used cars to selling computer systems. I think that’s flatly wrong, especially in B2B. If you are selling something that is significant to an organization that has a very, very high price, and the offering itself is complex, I think the elasticity that’s necessary – and that is already present in the best B2B salespeople – is elasticity that switches from sales to actual subject matter expertise... to actually knowing about computer systems and actually knowing about the prospect organization’s business process… to having a sense of how it fits into their strategy… to having a sense of what the prospect company’s place is in the market. It’s both subject matter expertise on a particular offering, but they also have to have some industry expertise to be able to see the competitive situation from the prospect’s point of view.

SMM: That gets into what you talk about later in the book in regard to finding problems that prospects don’t even know about.

PINK: We’ve all heard about B2B sales being consultative sales, but at many levels we have gone beyond that to something that is more about helping them fashion a strategy and seeing around corners.

If the seller’s only advantage is access to information, then their advantage is going to be short-lived because ultimately the prospective buyer is going to have that information. So it’s really the skill of staying a step ahead – of seeing around corners. It’s helping the buyer diagnose what the buyer needs. And that requires some subject matter expertise on what you’re selling and some industry expertise on what’s going to make a difference in that company.

SMM: Explain the importance of attunement, which is part of your new ABCs of selling (Attunement, Buoyancy and Clarity replacing “Always Be Closing”).

PINK: It’s really about seeing things from other people’s perspective. For B2B salespeople, it’s urgent on a number of levels. First, even if they end up mastering a lot of subject matter expertise and industry expertise, it’s worth going into these encounters, asking a lot of questions and not thinking of themselves as the most powerful person in the room. The research shows clearly that when people are feeling powerful, they end up being less adept at taking someone else’s perspective. What’s important in B2B sales much more than in consumer sales is the attunement that I call social cartography – who are the decision makers? Who is related to whom? Who is antagonistic to whom? There are situations where if Fred wants to do it, then Mary will absolutely oppose it because she hates Fred. The ability to attune oneself to the circumstance, to the context, to the social setting is enormously important in business-to-business sales.

SMM: Related to that is your discussion on studies that show mimicking can be an effective sales tool.

PINK: One of the things that’s interesting about mimicry is that human beings do it naturally.  If you were to go on a sales call with a really effective salesperson, that person is probably going to be subtly mimicking, not because they are trying to fake the other person out, but because slightly mimicking the other person’s mannerisms and word choices and posture is a way to actually see the world from their perspective. All of these things can give a small advantage for B2B salespeople in a very tough environment where every edge matters.

One of the things that made me hesitant to write about it is it sort of feels like complicity, but it’s not. If you stop and look at it, it’s very bizarre what people do. But it’s a way that people understand each other. It’s a way that people attune themselves to each other. And if you try a little harder or those people who are a little more conscious of it, you do it a little bit better.

SMM: Let’s talk about buoyancy. Is it as simple a relief pitcher forgetting the homerun that gets jacked over the fence? And is it new or a trait that good salespeople have always possessed.

PINK: Sales managers and the people they are leading have probably organically learned a lot of these things. But I think for the rest of us, as we go out and sell more in our work, are going to face much more rejection than we’re used to, and we really need to equip ourselves for that. Many people kind of crumble under rejection.

For the B2B sales group, it’s something that sales managers can help build in their sales force. There is established research by scholars saying there are a few tactical things that you can do to get much better at this, including the fact that there is something to be said for positivity, which surprised me. I always took a view that the positivity thing was a little bit empty-headed. But the research is solid that having a ratio of positive emotions to negative emotions that exceeds three to one actually makes you more effective. And the really powerful one, and it goes to your relief pitcher example, is how you explain things after the fact. It isn’t simply forget about it, because we don’t forget about it. It’s how you explain it in a way that doesn’t hobble you.

SMM: Were you surprised at your discovery through other studies that extroverts don’t make good salespeople?

PINK: I think it’s one of the most interesting things in the book and somewhat heartening. If you actually go into the research, what it shows you is that the correlation between extroversion and sales performance is basically zero. When you start thinking it back, it makes some sense. People who are super strong extroverts may talk too much and can sometimes overwhelm people. They may not have the sharpest listening skills. What’s interesting is that introverts aren’t good at it, either. The people who really rock it are those in the middle – the ambiverts – and the good news is that most of us are in the middle.

SMM: What’s your overall opinion of the skill level of salespeople today? Did writing this book change your perception of the sales profession?

PINK: One of the things that drives me crazy is how the “smart set” – lawyers, doctors, engineers – often looks down on sales. My view as a non-salesperson who spent some time in this world is that what salespeople do is easily as complex, difficult and intellectually sophisticated as what the smart set does. It draws on a wider repertoire of skills. It draws on analytic skills, on strategic skills, on interpersonal skills, on an array of non-verbal skills. I don’t think that necessarily was always the case, but now, as you get into more complex sales, it absolutely is the case.

I have become a much bigger admirer of it in my consumer role. It’s sort of like listening to music or watching a good movie. It’s fun to watch people who are really good at it and who are really artists at it. Like anybody who is really good at anything, whether they are really good at hitting a baseball or really good at playing the violin or whether they are really good at selling, I like watching and I admire the virtuosity of it.

Daniel Pink