“To Sell Is Human” Book Review

By Daniel Pink
Check out my recent book review:
Book Review by Dr. Susan Banke, CoachED

“The only thing you got in this world is what you can sell. And the funny thing is you’re a salesman, and you don’t know that.” – Arthur Miller (Death of a Salesman, 1949)

There is no shortage of negative stereotypes associated with sales. For some, it may be the sneaky car salesperson; for others, the never-ending solicitations and advertisements they receive by phone, email, or snail mail. In many minds, the salesperson is oppressive, manipulative, relentless, and dishonest. However, in To Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others, author Daniel Pink challenges our view of sales. Pink examines its changing role in the information economy and argues that we are all in sales to the extent that our work involves the need to influence others and exchange resources.

Pink begins his book by revisiting the history that has inspired many modern stereotypes around sales. He recounts tales from the door-to-door era when men sold everything from encyclopedias, to make-up, to Fuller Brushes from a briefcase or catalog. As the world changed, so did door-to-door sales, which became a practice of the past. Even Girl Scout cookies are no longer sold door to door.

However, Pink has found a relic: one of the last door salesperson, still working in San Francisco in 2012. Norman Hall has been selling Fuller Brush products for more than 40 years. With the departure of door-to-door selling, he has adapted his techniques and offers Fuller products to retail shops and business employees. Even as the Fuller Brush Company has filed for reorganization, Pink shares Hall’s philosophy on selling which is to focus not on the sale, but on the customer. His strategy is to value individuals, trust them to know what they want, and always leave them feeling better about themselves after they’ve talked with him.

So where do sales fit in the 2015 economy? In the United States, one in nine Americans, or around 15 million people, works in sales according to the U.S. Census Bureau (page 15). That number accounts for about ten percent of the total workforce. The numbers are similar internationally. Whether in Canada, Australia, Europe, India, or Japan, the average amount of workers in sales hovers around ten percent (page 16).

But as door-to-door sales have disappeared, the definitions of sales and service have also changed. The Internet has ushered in a new era of consumer behavior, giving buyers the upper hand in many cases. As a result, Pink offers a strong case to change the term from buyer beware to seller beware. With just the push of a button, people can find whatever they want to know (true or false) about your product, your school, and your business. With social media, this dynamic even translates to our personal lives. People post what they want others to think about their lives on Facebook, or their career on LinkedIn, etc. In fact, in surveys Pink conducted about people’s daily tasks, 40 percent of their time was spent convincing, persuading, or influencing others. Even though these behaviors did not involve an actual sale, an exchange of resources was common (page 21).

As a result, Pink challenges us to rethink how our day-to-day tasks, on and offline, mimic sales behaviors. We are selling when we are convincing our children to finish their chores, develop good hygiene or eating habits, or study for a test. We area selling when we are convincing a family member or friend to do something we want. Politicians spend their careers selling themselves and their ideas. As employers, we are selling when we are convincing our employees to get on board with a new program or to complete mundane, but necessary tasks, such as filling out time sheets.

Pink offers more examples. In the health care industry, the doctors or nurses spend time trying to convince their patients to adopt new habits or follow regimes based on the information they provide. In education, the teacher tries to convince the students that the class they are taking is relevant and will improve their lives and/or help them get into college. In the words of Martin Luther King Jr., “A genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus, but a molder of consensus.” A leader, in many ways, is a salesperson.

Consider also the growing number of entrepreneurs seeking funding online at websites like Kickstarter; or the individual entrepreneurs who have made websites such as eBay and Etsy such a hit. As of 2014, Etsy had 54 million registered users, 1.4 million active sellers, and 19.4 million active buyers, generating $1.93 billion in total annual sales.

Pink also explores the ways many technology start-ups sell to customers today. They don’t push products on their customers. They offer them on a trial basis and provide support and eventually entice the customer to buy. Developers of apps on mobile devices and tablets follow a similar pattern for selling; start with the free version and then upgrade for more options. In addition, many technology salespeople today are engineers. Companies found that it was much easier for engineers to sell to engineers. Plus, the engineer salespeople were able to identify ways to improve the product from their experiences in the field.

According to Pink, there are three skills that the modern salesperson must master to be successful: attunement, buoyancy, and clarity. In order to influence others, you must be attuned to what they are saying. This involves two critical competencies: the ability to consider different perspectives and employ empathy. Pink sites an interesting study in this section by Adam Galinsky from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management (page 71). The study explored the relationship between perspective taking and power and found that the more power people had, the less they considered another person’s perspective (an important realization for leaders in any organization who want to avoid tunnel vision!). He sites one example of a leader who tries to compensate for that weakness. Amazon founder and CEO, Jeff Bezos, leaves an empty chair at all his board meetings to remind everyone of the very important, although absent, person in the room – their customer (page 89).

Buoyancy refers to the ability to remain unaffected by defeat, but realistic about expectations. Pink stresses the importance of refraining from too much optimism or negativity, but walking a line of confident inquiry. Last, the modern salesperson must have clarity about what the client needs or wants. They must listen and be able to engage the client or customer and pique their curiosity around two questions: what do you need? and how can I fix it?

Pink also instructs the reader how to put these skills into practice through a pitch, the ability to improvise, and a focus on service. He says regardless of what we are selling or who we are trying to influence, we should come up with a simple and memorable way to make our point via a pitch. At the same time, we shouldn’t be tied to one strategy. We should be attuned to our subject and what they need, and improvise our responses. Lastly, if you want to influence people, you have to give them a message that inspires and resonates. You need to explain how what you are doing is having an impact on people lives. You need to focus on how your product, service, or idea is changing lives and the world. This approach inspires the customer, client, or population to want to be part of what you are selling because it makes them part of a good cause.

To Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others offers a unique perspective on the well-known and often underappreciated skill of sales. Coming from the field of education and executive coaching I found many concepts translated well into the classroom and the boardroom. Pink demonstrates that at the heart of influence and sales are human elements which must be the primary focus. I would recommend this book to any readers who want to understand how sales and influence work, and who want to refine those skills in their day-to-day lives.