Daniel Pink on Why ‘To Sell Is Human’

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Bestselling author Daniel Pink’s new book, To Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth about Moving Others, argues we are all in the sales business. Whether you are an educator, an art director or a project manager, part of your work involves convincing people to make an exchange. Pink recently visited the University of Pennsylvania as a guest lecturer in the Authors@Wharton series, and also teaches in Wharton’s Advanced Management Program. Wharton management professor Adam M. Grant interviewed Pink while he was there to learn more about the ideas in his book, including why consumers mistrust salespeople, what the new ABCs of selling are and why questions may be the greatest selling tool.

 

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Adam M. Grant: We’re excited to have you here to discuss your new book, To Sell Is Human. Could you start off by talking to us a little bit about why we are all in sales?

Daniel Pink: There are a couple of animating ideas in the book, Adam. One of them is that — like it or not — we’re all in sales. If you look at the labor data, one in nine people in the economy today make a living selling stuff. They are car dealers, real estate agents. But I had an instinct about those other eight in nine. I went out and did some survey research and found that those other eight in nine are people who are nominally in sales. They are managers; they are project team leaders; they are teachers and art directors. They are spending an enormous amount of their time in what I call non-sales selling. They’re selling. They’re convincing you to make an exchange. Give me something you have in exchange for something that I have. But it’s not denominated in dollars. It’s denominated in time; it’s denominated in attention; it’s denominated in effort. If you look at how white-collar workers are spending their time — whether they are in traditional sales or in some other kind of function — a lot of their time and efforts are spent convincing, persuading, cajoling and influencing people. The truth is that when you tell people you’re in sales, a lot of people don’t like it very much at all.

Grant: I don’t want to be in sales.

Pink: What’s interesting is why people don’t want to be in sales. Because they have this association that sales is sleazy, slimy, smarmy, low-brow, low-rent. It’s about hoodwinkery and sleaze-baggery and all those other great words that we use to describe it. You know something is awesome when there are so many different synonyms to describe how duplicitous it is.

My view is that this is a very outdated form of sales, in all its dimensions. The view that sales is slimy, smarmy, sleazy, duplicitous is a view to me about the conditions in which sales have taken place for a long time, rather than the nature of sales itself. What I mean by that is that most of what we know about sales — car sales, real estate sales, whatever — comes from a world of information asymmetry, where the seller always has more information than the buyer. When the seller has more information than the buyer, the seller can rip you off, period. This is why we have the whole principle of caveat emptor — buyer beware. But now more and more — and not everywhere, but in a lot of markets — that information asymmetry is becoming more like information parity. You see this in … business and consumer sales, where people walk into a car dealer armed with information that in some cases not even the car dealer had 20 years ago….

The animating ideas here are — like it or not — we’re all in sales now, but sales isn’t what it used to be. If sales is more about the high road, what are the qualities that matter most? There I plumb the research of social scientists like you and your colleagues all over the world to try to say, let’s not go based on books about 18 ways to close the deal or the kind of books that populate the sales shelves. Let’s look a little bit at what social scientists have told us about what’s effective here.

Grant: What is effective if I am in sales and we all are?

Pink: Here’s the thing. I think that educators are in sales. Essentially what you are doing is making an exchange with your class. You’re saying, give me your attention. In exchange, I’ll give you something else. The cash register is not ringing. It’s not denominated in dollars or cents or euros, but it is a form of sales in a way. It is an exchange. Managers and organizations absolutely are doing this. If you look at some of the data that we have, we asked a question about how much time people are spending doing this sort of stuff. We had a mean of 40%. But at some level, it masks what else was going on, because we had a lot of people up on the upper register — 70% to 80%. A lot of them were managers. What are they doing? They are trying to convince someone to join their team. They’re trying to get a current employee to do things a little bit differently or to do something else that’s a little bit different. They are dealing with their own bosses and trying to persuade them. Managers, leaders inside of organizations, are spending huge amounts of time doing this.

The way to do it better in all senses of the word, more effectively and more ethically, is what I call the new ABCs — attunement, buoyancy and clarity. A, attunement — perspective taking. How do you understand someone else’s perspective? B, buoyancy — sales people in general. One of my favorite characters in this book was a guy named Norman Hall, who [is] the last Fuller Brush Man in San Francisco. He said, when you’re in sales every day you face — and I love this phrase — an ocean of rejection. So buoyancy is how do you remain buoyant on the notion of rejection? What do you do before? What do you do during? What do you do after?

And then clarity is really important for leaders and even business school students. First of all, we get a lot of information, so accessing information doesn’t give you much of an advantage. What matters more is being able to curate the information, filter the information, make sense of it and detect patterns in the information — and not only through data analytics and things like that, but also being able to synthesize information on your own. The second thing is the premium has moved from problem solving as a skill to problem finding…. If I can articulate and identify exactly what my problem is, I can probably find a solution. But you’re more useful if I don’t know what my problem is or if I’m wrong about my problem. This move from problem solving to problem finding is clarity.

These are the new ABCs and there are some really interesting ways that managers, leaders and organizations can get a lot better at them.

Grant: If I think about these ABCs, at least the A and C, it almost sounds like selling is a little bit more about advising or consulting than it is sort of influencing, pushing, persuading. Is that fair?

Pink: It’s a very, very fair comment. That’s, in fact, one reason why I wanted to draw the contrast. ABC comes from [the slogan] “Always be closing”, which is the pushing, steam-roller, drive, drive, drive. What I wanted to try to do is in some ways take that on. One of the things that you see out there in sales sales is a move from selling solutions, which was an idea that’s been around for a while, to selling insights. One of my favorite examples is Perfetti Van Melle, the candy company — they make Mentos. I happen to love Mentos. [For] their sales forces going into mom and pop shops, convenience stores and bodegas selling Mentos, they made a transition in their sales process and the way that they trained their sales people and the way that their sales people did their work. They felt that they had a lot of data about candy of all sorts. They were able to take that data with each store’s data and put it together. They come in on a sales call, and they say to that mom and pop shop, we’ve looked at your data, we’ve looked at our data, here are our recommendations for the suite of products that you should be selling. In some cases it’ll mean we’re only going to recommend five kinds of Mentos for your store instead of seven. Even though, in the short term, seven is a better deal for us. In some cases, we’re going to recommend our competitors’ products, which is heresy in the world of sales. They say, we’re selling Mentos, but we’re really selling insights about the confections business. As a result of that — to your point about advising — these are sales people who are actually welcomed when they arrive because they’re offering insights. They’re not simply trying to push more candy on your store shelves. In the long run, I think today that’s much more effective.

Grant: That’s an incredibly interesting example. It touches on one of the skills that you talk about in the book, which is pitching. It’s easy to pitch a product. How do you pitch an insight?

Pink: Oh, interesting. Well I think the insight in that case would be — for some reason this is an area that isn’t that predisposed to mint flavors or something like that. Or there’s a new emerging more natural kind of product that’s actually perking up in areas like yours. You can pitch basically that. It ultimately is an insight about a product. It’s an insight about how to run your business. But at the heart of it, especially in the confections business, it’s about what group of products you actually offer.

Grant: Let’s come back then to the B in the ABCs — buoyancy. We all face a lot of rejection as we try to achieve our goals. What are some of the most effective strategies you’ve uncovered?

Pink: One of my favorites, because it’s so counterintuitive, comes from some work by some folks at Illinois — actually one of them is now here at Wharton — and Mississippi State about self talk. The conventional view on self talk is that we should pump ourselves up. Going into a sales call, you can do it, you’ve got this. Even some of the hyper-masculine — you’re an animal; you’re a monster — kind of stuff. What this research found is that you’re better off deploying what they call “interrogative self talk.” Not saying I can do it but asking yourself, can you do this? It seems weird. It seems like Stuart Smalley and Tony Robbins would start going crazy over this. But when you unpack it, it actually makes a lot of sense.

If I go into an encounter — let’s say I’m pitching ideas for a new book. If I go into that pitch meeting ahead of time and say, Dan, you can do this, that’s sort of an affirmative, declarative, pumping up — I feel pretty good about that. I do. I like hearing that I’m awesome. I like telling myself it’s fine. Again I don’t know the research on this particular thing, but there is, at least in our human experience, a certain level of momentary buoyancy in that affirmation. We feel good. But if I say instead, can you do this? Questions are active. That’s the whole point. The questions — even in self talk — elicit active response. If I say, can you do this? I say, well, yeah, I can do this. I’ve pitched books before. Can you do this? Yeah, I can do this because this is a really great idea, I’ve researched it really well, and I’m very confident in the contours of this idea. Can I do this? Every time I pitch a book, Maria over there, she doesn’t like it. She’s a total naysayer, but I’ve done some research and figured out what really lights Maria’s porch light. I’ve got to make sure that I mention that to get Maria. So what am I doing there? I’m preparing.

It has a fake muscularity to it — this you can do it, you’ve got this. But the real muscularity is in asking yourself the question and actively responding because then you actually begin to rehearse, you begin to prepare, you begin to summon your reasons for doing it. It ends up being far more effective. What I like about that is that anybody can do it. It doesn’t cost you any extra money. It just is a matter of changing your self talk from affirmative and declarative to interrogative.

Grant: This is one of the most powerful themes in the book — the idea of questions. You’ve talked to us about questions that you direct toward yourself. How do questions play into then moving other people?

Pink: There are a number of different ways. One of the interesting techniques — at the level of tactics, [which] goes in some ways to clarity — is some of the work in the therapeutic technique of motivational interviewing. Let’s say … I’ve got a 14-year-old daughter and a 16-year-old daughter, and neither one of them ever cleans her room. Their rooms are just total pigsties. For a long time, my strategy was just to close the door. But again it ends up actually affecting me when someone can’t find something: Hey, Dad, where’s the bubbada?

Okay, so let’s say I want to convince my 14-year-old daughter, Eliza, to clean her room. Now I could try the parental command-and-control approach: You have to clean your room. I could try the carrot-and-stick approach: I’ll give you ten bucks to clean your room. That’s not going to work. It might get some nominal cleaning in the short term, but it’s not sustained behavior. I could do a stick approach: I’m going to issue some punishment. But those kinds of things don’t have any enduring effect.

What this motivational interviewing technique suggests that we do is to say to my daughter, “Eliza, on a scale of one to 10 — one meaning not ready at all, 10 meaning totally ready to do this — how ready are you to clean up this mess of a room?” She’s obviously not that ready to do it because it’s still messy, so let’s say that she says a three on a scale of 10. All right, this is where it gets interesting. I say, “Three, okay great. Why isn’t it lower?” This is the really key point here in this therapeutic technique: Why isn’t it lower? First of all the question is a surprise because the standard expectation is, “Three!? What do you mean? It should be a nine! This is really important!”

She begins summoning her own reasons for doing something: Well, it’s sometimes hard to find stuff; sometimes you and Mom aren’t around so if I lose something I can’t find it; it actually feels a little bit better when my room is a little bit clean. It’s active… so she has to respond actively but she also summons her own autonomous, intrinsically motivated reasons for doing something. That’s generally a better path to sustained behavior.

Grant: I love the example. I guess I’m wondering what happens when you repeat it, and she learns and says, one.

Pink: Yeah, yeah. No, here’s the thing. On that one, you have to deploy it very carefully. You don’t do it on everything. It’s like, okay guys, we’re having dinner now, and somebody needs to set the table. I don’t want to set the table. On a scale of one to10, how ready? No, I think you have to deploy it sparingly and for things that actually matter. But again it goes back to this book Drive that I wrote, where one of the great social psychologists of our age, Edward Deasy, says repeatedly that we have to think about motivation not as something one person to another, but as something people do for themselves. I think questions have that kind of power. They’re not directive. They’re active, they’re engaging and if people respond to them, they come up with their own reasons. The truth is, if we have our own reasons for doing something — reasons that we endorse — we’re more likely to do it, we’re more likely to stick with it.

Grant: That makes a lot of sense. One thing I’m curious about is if you think the more slick and manipulative types of sales people that you’re debunking in this book can use this for evil in the sense of leading the witness?

Pink: That’s possible. It’s possible to use some of these tactics for … not good things rather than for good things. For instance, there’s some interesting research showing that [this is the case] when we hear rhymes: If it doesn’t fit you must acquit…. If you take the aphorism, “woes unite foes” versus “woes unite enemies,” [they are the] same…. You give those two statements to people and they will say, “woes unite foes” is a much more accurate description of human character, a much more true principle about life. The reason is that rhymes increase processing fluency.

I’m sure there are histories where a rhyming pitch could be used for evil ends or nefarious ends. I bet certain kinds of far right, far left, Fascists or extreme totalitarian folks have used questions as a way to summon people’s responses.

Grant: If we can take this toward your own application of these principles, I know your identity has evolved a little bit as you worked on the book to see yourself as a salesman.

Pink: Yeah. Well, that’s true, yeah.

Grant: So what implications has that had for how you do your own daily work?

Pink: It’s actually had a lot — probably more than any other book that I’ve written…. I don’t want to say it’s late in the game, but I realized that I wasn’t very adept at listening…. One of the things that I’ve tried to do, at some level, is just simply to wait, not to jump right in when people say something. To make sure that I actually hear it and to concentrate a little bit more on listening as a form of attunement. The other thing, I was very taken by some of the research on perspective taking as something different from empathy. That is not simply understanding people’s feelings, but understanding what they’re thinking and what their interests are. I found myself, in certain kinds of conflicts and negotiations, really stopping and saying — literally saying — what are these persons’ interests? What are they thinking? I want to be emotionally intelligent about it all. I want to have empathy, see where they’re coming from. That’s more effective than doing nothing. But I think the muscularity of perspective taking as a kind of cognitive skill has been very useful to me.

Truly, the interrogative self talk has been useful to me in preparing myself for things. And even some of the information about pitches. There’s some interesting research at Carnegie Mellon about how you draft an email subject line. That has been really useful to me. I realize how bad my email subject lines were. They were too mushy. That’s helped me clarify that. There are lot of things really at the tactical level that have made me say, hey you know what, I can get a little bit better at all this stuff.

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