The Washington Post

Commentary: When it comes to sales, some contrary advice

Occasionally, we publish blog posts, statements and other commentaries of interest to the Washington business community. Here are excerpts from a transcript of author Daniel H. Pink’s appearance at a recent Greater Washington Board of Trade breakfast to discuss his new book “To Sell is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others.” (Capital Business was a media sponsor of the event.) Board of Trade president and chief executive James C. Dinegar helped guide the conversation.

Dinegar: I’d like to start where you start [in the book], the Fuller Brush Co. and a salesman named Norman Hall, who goes door to door selling household brushes, hair brushes.

Pink: Norman Hall is one of the last Fuller Brush men in America, the last Fuller Brush man in San Francisco. He’s spent the last 40 years going door to door in the business district.

The hard-won wisdom of Norman Hall actually squares very nicely with a lot of what the social science tells us about what is effective in persuading, influencing and convincing other people.

Dinegar: One of those elements is the idea of buoyancy, and he’s got it. He would be turned down and turned down. You call it the “ocean of rejection.”

Pink: Norman called it that. It’s a lovely phrase. Norman said the hardest part of sales is that every day you confront an ocean of rejection. Buoyancy is how do you remain afloat. Social science has given us some really interesting clues that Norman has learned on his own.

Dinegar: He doesn’t hop out of bed and start the day giving himself a pep talk.

Pink: When you go into certain types of encounters, whether it’s a sales call, asking someone out a date, or pitching an idea, the conventional view is that ahead of time we should pump ourselves up. We have our self talk: “You can do this.” “I got this.”

The research shows you are actually better off asking yourself a question. Instead of saying you can do this, you are better off with interrogative self talk, asking, can you do this?

Why? Questions by their very nature are active. If I ask questions, I start to think of answers. Can I do this? Yes, I’ve been in this place before. I’ve done my research. I know the objections, and I’m prepared to address them. I’ve got to remember to make this point. What you do in a more muscular way, is you prepare.

Dinegar: People make the assumption that it is the extroverts who are the best in sales. You turn that on its head.

Pink: Adam Grant, [the youngest tenured professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania] finished a study this summer. The research shows extroverts are more likely to take sales jobs, extroverts are more likely to get hired, and extroverts are more likely to get promoted. But if you look at the link between extroverts and sales performance, strong extroverts only did a little better than the strong introverts. The classic glad-handing extroverts only did a little bit better than the introverts cowering in the corner.

The people who did best by far — and it is not even close — were the people in the middle.

Why are the extroverts not very good? They don’t listen. They are too pushy. Why are [the introverts] not very good. They don’t assert. They are quiet

The people who in the middle, they have the best of both worlds. They know when to talk. They know when to listen.

They know when to push. They know when to hold back. They are much more attuned. The good news is most people are ambiverts.

Dinegar: You suggest a more human approach is needed these days.

Pink: If you know a lot more than your prospect ... if your prospect doesn’t have many choices, if your prospect has no means to talk back, you can totally take the low road. But that’s not our world. We are basically forced to take high road, and the high road requires a much more fundamental human approach: understand where other people are coming from, be clear, be honest, put the other’s person’s interest first, have an ethic of service. Those things might sound superficially touchy feely but they are actually very hard-headed ways to [sell] effectively.

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