Review: To Sell Is Human

I was experimenting with listening to this book on Spotify, which was wonderful in some ways (I enjoyed having Dan Pink in the kitchen with me while I made my son’s birthday cake) and frustrating in others: turns out there’s no Spotify equivalent of the bookmark or post-it flag. It’s hard to know exactly how the experience of listening rather than reading shapes the way that you absorb a book, but my sense is that it’s more impressionistic. Not better or worse, just different.

His premise is that, far from being a functional specialism, sales is something nearly every one of us engages in for a significant part of the working (and indeed non-working) day. So we might as well do it well, and throw out the outdated idea that it’s somehow distasteful. As an entrepreneur with no background in sales and an instinctive aversion to the idea of ‘salesiness’, I found this hugely helpful.

Pink tells a great story, and he brings in heavy-weight research with a light touch. The style is masterful. Much of what he says feels obvious, if I’m honest, but he articulates it neatly. For example, the way the information asymmetry of the past between buyer and seller – which gave rise to the motto ‘caveat emptor’ – has shifted:

‘If you’re a buyer and you’ve got just as much information as the seller, along with the means to talk back, you’re no longer the only one who needs to be on notice. In a world of information parity, the new guiding principle is caveat venditor—seller beware.’

One concept I particularly loved was ‘Buoyancy’, part of Pink’s reframing of the classic ABC sales mantra ‘Always Be Closing’, which he transmutes into ‘Attunement, Buoyancy and Clarity’: if we’re all in sales now, we all need to learn ‘how to stay afloat amid [an] ocean of rejection’. How? He identifies three strategies to build your ability to cope with rejection (and therefore your ability to go out and keep selling), and my favourite was the interrogative self-talk before each new sales conversation, illustrated, wonderfully, by Bob the Builder. ‘Can we fix it?’ asks Bob before each new job, and the answer of course is always ‘Yes we can!’. But Bob displays some cutting-edge psychological insight here: ‘The interrogative, by its very form, elicits answers — and within those answers are strategies for actually carrying out the task.’ It replaces the lurking dread and fear of rejection with a rational evidence base and ideas for how to make the interaction better. Turns out asking yourself ‘Can I pitch this?’ beforehand is actually a better strategy for success than pumping yourself up with positive mantras.

Another concept that stood out for me was Pink’s insistence that we scrap the self-serving idea of ‘upselling’ to a customer and replace with an entirely new mindset: ‘upserving’. He draws in the servant leadership theory of Robert Greenleaf and applies it to sales – the business function so many of us have secretly despised for so long – and in doing so ennobles it: ‘This is what it means to serve: improving another’s life and, in turn, improving the world.’

I’m sold.