Life of a Salesman

The image of a salesman hasn’t always been a positive one. In U.S. culture, simply saying the word conjures images of a pushy, deceptive individual, hoping to squeeze hard-earned dollars out of others for a product that rarely lives up to the hype.

This might be because most of what we know about sales comes from a world of asymmetric information — the seller, in most instances, had more information than the buyer.

According to Dan Pink, that reality has changed. In his latest book, “To Sell Is Human,” the business author writes that because of the Internet, smartphones and general transparency of information, society has largely switched from “buyer beware” to “seller beware.”

Moreover, as emerging fields of knowledge workers overwhelm corporate America, more and more non-sales roles are driven by sales skills — time spent persuading, influencing and moving others.

Talent Management spoke with Pink about what the trend means for human resources. Edited excerpts follow.

What is the thesis of “To Sell Is Human”?
“To Sell Is Human” makes two big arguments. First, like it or not, we are all in sales. If you look at white-collar workers, whatever their job is, if you look at what they do day-to-day, they’re spending a huge portion of that time persuading, influencing and convincing other people, trying to get people to make an exchange of resources. It could be a boss trying to get employees to do things in a different way; it could be a team member trying to recruit somebody to work on her team.

The second big idea derives from the first. Sales is not what it used to be. Because of some changes in information, because we’ve gone from a world where sellers always had more information than buyers to a world where buyers and sellers have equal amounts of information in many cases, the old approach doesn’t work very well. We’ve gone from a world of “buyer beware” to a world of “seller beware,” where sellers are now on notice because buyers of products, services, ideas, concepts, whatever, have lots of information, lots of choices and all kinds of ways to talk back.

What was the motivation behind the book?
A few years ago I wrote a book called “Drive,” and that book was about looking at 50 years of research and the science of human motivation. One of the conclusions is that there is a certain kind of motivator we use inside organizations. I call it an “if-then” motivator — as in, “If you do this, then you get that.” What 50 years of research in behavioral science tells us is that if-then motivators are very good for certain types of tasks — tasks that are simple, straightforward, with short time horizons. If-then rewards are not so good for work that requires judgment, creativity, complexity and longer time horizons.

The problem is we use if-then rewards for everything rather than simply where social science tells us they’re effective. In response to that book, a lot of readers contacted me and said, “OK, this is interesting, what about sales?” How do we motivate salespeople? We offer them commission. “If you do this, then you make money. If you don’t sell anything then you hit the bricks.” I realized that in my 20 years writing about business, I had never written anything in-depth about sales. I started looking into it and found it really fascinating.

One afternoon, in a moment of frustration trying to figure out what the heck I had done for the past few weeks, I felt I wasn’t accomplishing anything. When I looked at my calendar I noticed I was spending a huge portion of my time selling — selling this idea, that idea, selling to an airline agent to switch my seat, my son to take the dishes off the table. I realized I’m not that unique, so there must be other people like that.

What evidence surfaced that you felt was firm enough to write the book?
If you look at the labor market data in the United States, you find that 1 in 9 workers work in sales. We have a huge number of people — 15 million or so — still in sales. They sell mattresses, they sell wholesale seafood, they sell consulting services, they sell Toyotas. When I was trying to make a case for this book, I decided to do something I hadn’t done in my previous books and do some survey research. I worked with a data analytics company and assembled a survey of about 7,000 full-time adult workers in the U.S. and asked them a bunch of questions. And among the insights from that is people reported they were spending about 40 percent of their time on the job in what I call “non-sales selling.” It’s selling with a twist; they’re selling, but the cash register isn’t ringing; they’re selling, but the denomination isn’t dollars or euros, it’s time, effort, attention, energy, commitment, energy, those types of more intangible things.

How does this apply to HR?
HR people are selling all the time; they are selling in all kinds of different directions. They’re selling up to the people in the C-suite to say, “Take talent seriously.” They’re selling to redesign the benefits package, alter how the company is recruiting. They’re selling sideways and down by trying to get employees to participate in benefit programs, trying to entice people into options for training and development. At some level, HR people are always selling their profession itself as a muscular, vital piece of any operation. The HR folks who are in recruiting are selling people to work at their company rather than a competitor. HR people spend probably a third of their time listening to complaints and 50 percent of their time trying to persuade and influence others.

Is this a skill HR individuals should be teaching, or is this a personal development skill only for individuals?
It’s both. There is room in training and development. There is room for a systematic approach. I would start small; I would not try to do anything bold, dramatic or transformative. Help people master this quality of attunement. Attunement is a platform ability in this new world of sales, where people you’re trying to persuade have as much information as you do. You need to be able to see things from somebody else’s point of view.

There are some really specific, easy techniques to get better at this. One is to teach people how to listen more effectively. What’s amazing to me is, if you think about our schools, we teach kids how to read, how to write, but no one teaches them how to listen. The fact that we have two ears means we can hear, but it doesn’t mean we know how to listen. There are very specific things you can do to get people better at listening. One of them would be to encourage people to practice waiting 10 to 15 seconds after someone has talked before they jump in to make sure the message has settled in.

That said, I do think that any kind of learning is partly on the shoulders of the individual, and it is up to the individual to always be sharpening skills. It doesn’t have to come in formal classes, curriculum or training; it could just come from practicing; it could come from reading. But again, any kind of real learning that is transformative in the workplace or anywhere else is going to be a mix of both of those — formal and informal — approaches.

Pink’s Favorite Newsletters

Texting and tweeting are all the rage, Pink said. But if you’re looking for fresh ideas and information, those digital tools don’t compare to the email newsletter. He subscribes to a few dozen of them — and they’ve proven to be a great source of insight. Here, in alphabetical order, are six of his favorites:

1. Barking Up the Wrong Tree
Editor Eric Barker’s aim: “I want to understand why we do what we do and use the answers to become awesome at life.”

2. Brain Pickings Weekly
Digital curator Maria Popova offers what she calls “A library of cross-disciplinary interestingness and combinatorial creativity.”

3. Next Draft
Every day, Dave Pell manages to find the most interesting articles and blog posts on the Internet.

4. SmartBrief on Workforce
A daily collection of essential reading for those of us obsessed with talent, work practices and recruiting.

5. Springwise
A regular report on entrepreneurial ideas and new business models emerging around the world.

6. Quartz Daily Brief
A smart daily roundup of business news from a smart young publication devoted to the topic.
Pink has his own “irregular and irreverent” newsletter. You can find out more here.