Why We're All in Sales

Harvard Business Review

An interview with Daniel Pink, author of To Sell Is Human and the article A Radical Prescription for Sales.


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JUSTIN FOX: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review. I'm Justin Fox, and I'm talking today with Daniel Pink, writer, thinker, speaker, and, it turns out, salesman. He wrote a piece for HBR last year called "A Radical Prescription for Sales." And now we has a new book out, To Sell is Human-- The Surprising Truth About Moving Others. Dan, welcome to IdeaCast.

DANIEL PINK: Justin, it's great to be with you here in the studio.

JUSTIN FOX: So, sales. You begin the book describing your own realization that you spend a big chunk of your time selling. How so?

DANIEL PINK: Well, what I did is, I unpacked my calendar, went back and looked at what I'd done for the previous two weeks. And so I'm obviously selling books because that's a part of my business. But if you go beyond that, I am trying to-- no offense to the people, this is not anybody at HBR, but I mean, I spent part of that time trying to convince an editor to abandon a stupid idea for a story. I tried to get an airline gate agent to switch his seat. I've got kids. So I'm trying to persuade my kids to do things. I have various people I do business with. And I'm trying to get them to see it my way, rather than their way, to go my direction, rather than their direction.

And when you actually tease it all out, I'm spending an enormous amount of time selling. Now it's selling in a broader sense. The cash register isn't necessarily ringing. Money's not changing hands. But I'm persuading and convincing people to make a transaction.

JUSTIN FOX: And you see this in the book there's still this when you say the word sales, there's this identification with the hard sell, pushing for the clothes, car dealers, Glengarry Glen Ross.

DANIEL PINK: Oh, and it's very, very deep seated and very, very negative. The connotations attached to sales are just ferocious. We did, as part of the research, I did a survey, and you ask people, what's the first word that comes to mind when you hear the sales or selling. And the words we got were so overwhelmingly negative-- pushy, slimy, sleazy, cheesy, dishonest, manipulative.

I mean, sales has a very, very, very disreputable reputation. Some people think it's low-brow. Some people recoil from it because they think they can't do it, they're not equipped to do it well.

JUSTIN FOX: But you also say that that approach to sales, it may have worked in certain contexts in the past, and certain limited ones even today, but it's just less and less effective. Why is that?

DANIEL PINK: Absolutely, I mean, I think that view of sales as sleazy, slimy, smarmy, disreputable, is completely archaic. I mean, it's a relic of a different era. And to me, that view of sales is not so much a view about sales itself, but a view about the conditions in which sales have long taken place.

What I mean by that is it most of what we know about sales comes from a world of information asymmetry, where the seller always had more information than the buyer. When the seller has more information on the buyer, a lot more information than the buyer, the seller can rip you off. Information asymmetry is a reason we have the principle of buyer beware.

Buyers have to beware if the Chevy dealer knows a huge amount more about Chevy's and cars than you ever possibly could. But that's not our world anymore, or it's not our world everywhere anymore. We live in a world where that's coming closer to information parity so that buyers and sellers are slightly more evenly matched.

And I think cars are just a really great, vivid, example of this. And it's actually kind of interesting how much people associate sales, in general, with cars, in particular. Another question I asked was, what picture comes to mind when you think of sales or selling. And, in overwhelming numbers, we got a guy in a bad suit selling a used car. I mean, this is what we think about sales. But you know, 20 years ago, you go into it a dealer, the dealer knows more about cars than you will. Now you go into a dealer, you can no more about cars, more about that particular make, possibly, than that dealer could. You can go in there with the factory invoice price of the car.

And so in a world of information parity-- buyer beware is always good advice. But it's also seller beware. The sellers are on notice. Buyers have moved from having not many choices, limited information, and no way to talk back to a world where they've got lots of choices, a decent amount of information, and all kinds of ways to talk back. And so that world, at least in my view, that world of seller beware is different in kind, not different in degree, but different in kind from a world of buyer beware. And so you look at the world we inhabit no matter what we do for a living it's basically, were all in sales now, but sales isn't what it used to be.

JUSTIN FOX: And I mean, this makes me think, when you're talking about the used car dealers, they're all getting paid in commission. That's how they do it. That was your HBR piece last year was saying that commissions don't really work in motivating sales people.

DANIEL PINK: Well, they do work in some cases. What we have to do is, we have the challenge the orthodoxy that's it's the only way to do it-- that salespeople are somehow differently motivated from the rest of us. That they're purely coin-operated, and the rest of us have noble, complex motivations that require more sophisticated motivational mechanisms. And what's interesting, and which I was glad to write about with HBR, was a big public companies, Microchip Technology, gets rid of sales commissions-- this thing that would have been heretical. And so my view on commissions is that you've got to challenge the orthodoxy that it's the only way to motivate sales people.

JUSTIN FOX: And so to turn to what does work, which is really what your book is about, my favorite, probably, of all the expertise you cite in the book is Bob the Builder. What is the key wisdom that he imparts?

DANIEL PINK: Well, there's so much wisdom from Bob the Builder. I mean, he probably belongs on the cover of your magazine at some point. But there's a really interesting piece of research that goes against some our intuitions about what's effective. What's interesting about our intuitions in this realm is that sometimes they're right, sometimes they are totally off. And this is one where the totally off.

So when you go into an encounter, let's say a sales call, or an important meeting where you're pitching something, or even asking somebody out on a date-- our instinct is that what we should do, our self talk, that is, the way we talk to ourselves, our self talk should be positive, affirmative, pump yourself up. You can do it-- the affirmative, you've got this. Sometimes you have a hyper-masculinized version of it, like, you're an animal, you're a monster, you're awesome-- and that we should pump ourselves up.

And there's research out the University of Illinois, Mississippi State, showing that that's actually not the right approach. Instead, they recommend what's called interrogative self talk. That instead of saying, you can do it, you're better off saying, asking, can you do this? Now, this freaks people out a little bit because you're allowing some doubt into your self talk.

But it turns out this is effective because questions and statements operate differently. When we pitch people, when we talk to people, when we try to motivate people, questions operate differently from statements-- and even when we try to talk to ourselves. So questions elicit an active response, whereas statements often have a passive response.

So if I ask myself a question, I kind of sort of have to respond, not out loud, but I respond to it in some way. So if I say to myself, I go into an encounter, let's say, go into this interview. OK, I've got this big podcast for HBR. You can do this, Dan. You've got this. OK, pump myself up going in here-- you've got this. Instead, what I could do is, I'm better off saying, Dan, can you do this? Can you do this?

Why? Because if I say, can you do this, I implicitly begin answering that question. Can you do this? Well, yeah, I've done interviews before. Can you do this? Yeah, I actually know this material inside and out. It is really interesting to me. I think it's going to be valuable to these listeners. Can you do this? Well, yeah, what I should do is that, since I wrote a piece about commissions for HBR, I should make sure that, before I come in here, I look over that piece in case they want to talk about that piece.

What am I doing? I'm preparing. I'm getting ready. You know, that warm bath of affirmation, and you can do it, feels good. I like to tell myself I'm awesome. I love to hear from myself that I'm awesome. But it doesn't really prepare me. And so interrogative self talk is more muscular. And this is what Bob the Builder does. Bob the Builder, when he faces a complicated management situation--

JUSTIN FOX: Can we fix it?

DANIEL PINK: And then, we realize, we think through how we can fix it, and then we say, yes we can.

JUSTIN FOX: Good old Bob. This is part of a bigger theme, and a chapter, actually, in your book. But this idea, you call it buoyancy. And clearly, when you're trying to sell a thing, an idea, yourself, you're putting yourself out there. There's a chance of rejection. So that's one technique for dealing with it. What are some of the other attributes of people who can remain buoyant, I guess?

DANIEL PINK: Yeah, no, there's not a chance of rejection. There's, in many cases, a strong likelihood of rejection. And one of the people who I interviewed in this book, a guy named Norman Hall, one of the last Fuller Brush men in America, talks about sales as being confronting, each day, an ocean of rejection-- an ocean of rejection. And so there are all kinds of techniques.

If you look at the work a Barbara Fredrickson at the University of North Carolina, what she has found is that, actually, positivity is a plus. Now positivity is one of those words that sort of make us a little squeamish, make our eyes roll a little bit. Particularly here in New England, positivity has a sort of a downcast view of it. And what she has found is that people are better off when the ratio of positive to negative emotions exceeds three to one. So she has, basically, a ratio, kind of a golden mean, of positivity.

So if your positive emotions outnumber your negative emotions by two to one, you're actually not that happier, more buoyant, than people who have more negative emotions than positive emotions. But once you hit about three, you tend to be, actually, more buoyant and more effective in what you do. There's a ceiling on it, too. If your positive emotions exceed-- it's a high ceiling, 11 to 1, then you're in La La Land.

JUSTIN FOX: Are there many people who score that high?

DANIEL PINK: I hope not. I don't want to spend any time with them. They sound profoundly annoying to be around. But it does show, and, actually, I think the consequences of that are, we tend to think, like in negotiation sessions, that you should be very poker faced, kind of grim, and dour, and so forth. And her research suggests, actually, a positive affect can be quite effective.

And there's a very interesting research about people's willingness to go along with-- one famous study-- willingness to go along with they changed circumstances in a contract, or changed circumstances in a price. That when it's, actually, the person presents it in a kind of a positive way, and they're friendly, and so forth, people are more likely to say, OK, that's fine. But when they're a jerk about it-- I mean, I don't know if we needed social scientists to go at this but, basically, not being a jerk, and being kind of positive about stuff, ends up being fairly effective.

JUSTIN FOX: And another thing in that vein is, when things do go wrong, the way that you explain it to yourself really matters, right?

DANIEL PINK: This is huge. This is the work of Martin Seligman, who, it's an interesting trajectory in his research. He started out studying learned helplessness. And then he said, well, if we can learn to be helpless, that is, people who feel helpless even though their situation doesn't make them helpless, that it's essentially learned behavior-- that maybe you can turn that on its head, and people can learn to be more optimistic.

And one of his avenues to research this question was looking at how people deal with rejection. And so, of course, to find that ocean of rejection, he went to Pennsylvania life insurance salesman, who were going out making sales calls, cold calling people-- tough, tough business. And he studied easy these life insurance salesmen. I think they were 99% plus men. And he found that the best predictor of their success as a salesman, was what he called their explanatory style-- exactly as you say, how they explained their failures.

And he came up with-- he, Seligman, came up with what he calls the a three P's-- personal, pervasive, and permanent. When people explain their failures as personal-- it's all my fault-- less good for your buoyancy. When they explain it as pervasive-- this always happens-- less effective for their buoyancy. When they say permanent-- it's going to ruin everything-- less effective for their buoyancy.

And there are ways for us to look and, very honestly, very clear-headedly, explain things saying, you know what, they're some external reasons why this happened. It wasn't only my fault. This doesn't always happen.

Look at this instance when it went my way. Look at this instance when it went my way. This isn't permanent. Very few things have a permanent, devastating effect. And the more people adopt this explanatory style of looking at things as less personal, pervasive, and permanent, the more they're better at sales. Because they're more buoyant.

JUSTIN FOX: Another key attribute for being effective in sales, and persuasion in generally, that you talk about is being attuned to whoever you're talking to. And one of the things that really struck me was how big an impact it can have if you just mimic what the other person is doing.

DANIEL PINK: It's unbelievable. This research is frightening. And I've sort of been wrestling with it, turning it over my head. One of the things about mimicry, the word mimicry, is that it sounds duplicitous on its face. And the more I've kind of reflected about this, is it's what human beings do.

If you go out and go to Harvard Square, or go to a busy downtown setting, or go to a shopping mall, it's an interesting thing to do. Take a step back. The thing about having a long lens is, if you're filming a wildlife documentary, and you're just looking at wildebeests on the savanna there. And watch how people behave.

And what you'll see is an enormous amount of mimicry. People will mirror their gestures. They'll mirror their postures and so forth. If you were to beam in and here what they're saying, you see a lot of repeated phrases and things like that. And it's part of what human beings do. And it's a way for us to understand each other. And the research on mimicry is amazing.

I mean, one of my favorites is, let's say that you are my server at a restaurant. And I make an order. So what do you want? Or, can I take your order-- probably not, what do you want. Can I take your order? I say, I would like a grilled cheese and bacon sandwich, mustard on the side, and salad, not fries. Now if you say to me, OK, so you want a grilled cheese and bacon sandwich, mustard on the side, and salad, not fries, repeat back, exactly, you're mimicking.

JUSTIN FOX: Right.

DANIEL PINK: Tips are 70% higher than if you said, OK, got it, great, got it. And as we puzzle through that, we think, OK, why is that the case? Well, you're heard. First of all, you have some assurance they're going to get it right. They took your perspective. They understood what you were saying. They heard what you were going to say. And all these things are very effective.

And it's also, the other thing is, there's an impact on the mimicker, not only the mimickee. It's not only that the mimickee likes to see him or herself reflected back. It's that, remember, the whole point of attunement is to take someone's perspective, to understand their position. And in some ways, sort of physically adopting their physical position can be helpful in, OK, where is this person coming from? And I just wish there were another word because mimicry sounds so duplicitous. But what it is, is basically human beings turning themselves to, not only the listening channel, but also the physical channel.

JUSTIN FOX: Well, and another thing you talk about is, people who are really extroverted, who, I think, a lot of us identify that--

DANIEL PINK: Absolutely.

JUSTIN FOX: That they would be the most effective salespeople. But talking about the mimicry, you have to be able to stand back and actually pay attention to be good at that.

DANIEL PINK: Exactly right.

JUSTIN FOX: So the finding in terms of, who is best at selling, in terms of extroverts and introverts.

DANIEL PINK: Well, here's what we think. I mean, we can go to the evidence on this. The evidence shows pretty clearly, extroverts are more likely to go into sales. Extroverts are more likely to get hired at sales jobs. Extroverts are more likely to get promoted in sales jobs. So that's pretty clear. The trouble is, in declaring that extroverts are the best, is that when social psychologists have looked at the link between extroversion and sales performance-- not who gets hired, not who gets promoted, but who makes the cash register ring-- the link between extra version sales performance is just about 0.

So Adam Grant, at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, has just finished some fairly interesting research that gives us a clue about why this might be, and what a better answer might be. He measured the introversion-extroversion levels of a group of software sales people. And what he did is, he plotted them on a one to seven scale. One, extremely introverted, seven, extremely extroverted.

And we've taken these instruments at work. They give you certain kinds of prompts that say, oh, I'm the life of a party. That's a lot like me, not very much like me. I like to sit and read. That's a lot like me, not very much like me. And so we locate people on this one to seven extroversion-introversion spectrum.

Then he looked at their sales revenues over the next three months. And here's what he found-- strong introverts, not surprising, they aren't very good sales people. They are not very good at it. But the strong extroverts, the people we think are the classic glad-handing backslapping, hey, buddy, what can I do to put you in a Buick this afternoon kind of friendly, smiley guys-- they were only a little bit better. They weren't very good at it.

The people who did the best were the people in the middle, what social psychologists since the 1920s have called ambiverts-- a little bit extroverted, a little bit introverted. On the scale, they're not the ones and twos down at the introverted side. People who are extremely introverted have problems asserting themselves sometimes. Sometimes listen to much, or don't talk enough, and most of those don't even get hired as salespeople.

The people at other extreme, though, who we think are great-- and they get hired-- they're not very good at it. Because they come onto strong. They talk too much. They don't listen. They don't do the kind of standing back and inspecting that you're talking about.

And it's the people in the middle who are more modulated. They're not the sixes and sevens. They're not the ones and twos. They are the three, fours, and fives. They know when to push. They don't when to shut up. They know when to speak up. They know when to shut up. And they end up being much more tuned to who they're dealing with. They have, in some ways, a broader repertoire of the abilities. They have some of the tools of the introverts, some of the tools of the extroverts, and they're more adroit at deploying them in the right moment.

JUSTIN FOX: In the last third of your book, you have a ton of practical tips for being better at selling and persuading. And there's no way I can get into very many of them. But I think I just want to focus on one, which just struck me as some that is so much a part of everyone's daily lives. And that's crafting a good email subject line.

DANIEL PINK: Oh, yeah yeah.

JUSTIN FOX: I mean, you refer to that as the email pitch.

DANIEL PINK: Yeah.

JUSTIN FOX: And why is it so important, and what works?

DANIEL PINK: It's great question. I think what we've forgotten is that every email is a pitch. And I changed my view on pitching when I actually did the research. There's some really interesting research on pitching. And what it shows, very much, is that, when you pitch, effective pitches don't say-- I don't convert you in the pitch. What I do, essentially, is, I invite you in to participate and co-creating it, in a way. There's some fascinating research out of Hollywood in that regard.

So basically, what a pitch is, is it's a plea-- hey, pay attention and engage. Well, that's what an email is. An email, in its subject line is, hello, pay attention to me. Pay attention to me. Open it up and then engage. And so researchers at Carnegie Mellon looked at what makes an effective email subject line.

And the methodology was actually fairly interesting. What they did is, they sat with people looking over their shoulder as people opened their email. And these people narrated why they were making decisions about opening email and so forth. I mean, it sounds kind of interesting for about five minutes. But I mean, to do this for hours, and hours, and hours is, I think, would be an appropriate punishment for certain white collar crimes.

JUSTIN FOX: That's what grad students are for, right?

DANIEL PINK: Right. So they do this painstaking research. And what they found-- actually, pretty clear results. There are two categories of subject lines that tend to get opened the most. Subject lines that appeal to utility, subject lines that appeal to curiosity. So the utility, when the subject line is very, very clear-- this is going to be useful to you or work, or it's going to be useful to you. So it's three answers to your question about supply chain changes. Three new vendors for our photocopier, something like that. So, OK, I know what this is about. It's very clear. It's going to be useful. I'm going to open it.

The other one, which is really interesting, is email subject lines that appeal to curiosity. They actually create some uncertainty. And they make people, say, oh, I wonder what that's about.

Now it turns out they operate somewhat differently. When people have a lighter email load, curiosity is effective. When they have a heavy email load, you've got to go with utility. But what a lot of us do is, myself included, is get caught in the middle. And that's where emails go to die. Email subject, and I am so guilty of this, even after reading the research, I'm guilty of this. So email subject lines that say, question. Email subject lines that say, follow up. Email subject-- you know, it's in that mushy middle. And so it's not clear, exactly, what that is.

Actually, someone who turned out to be pretty good at this was the President of the United States. Barack Obama, he sent out gazillions of emails during the campaign. And you know what the subject line in the most opened email? The sender was Barack Obama. The most open email subject line said, hey. H-E-Y. From Barack Obama, hey. Well, I'm curious. Hey, the president is saying hey, what's going on? And the principle of curiosity. So utility, curiosity, don't get caught in the mushy middle.

JUSTIN FOX: Well, and the hey or hi subject line really does-- it works depending on who you are, sending it.

DANIEL PINK: Absolutely.

JUSTIN FOX: It's like, an intriguing person, that works.

DANIEL PINK: Exactly, if it's an anonymous person sending you an email, no. But if it's Barack Obama sending, hey, it's like, OK. I mean, the subject line created curiosity.

JUSTIN FOX: Dan, thank you so much for talking with us. That was Dan Pink. His new book is called To Sell Is Human. And for more on sales, by Dan and others, go to hbr.org.

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