To sell is human

I picked up a book by Daniel H. Pink called “To sell is human” and it helped me realize a few things. They key thing it argues is that we have generalized what sales people are and have gotten it completely wrong.

We paint sales as “a task for slick glad-handers who skate through life on a shoeshine and a smile” or “a realm where trickery and deceit get the speaking parts while honesty and fairness watch mutely from the rafters”. Even as far as some people viewing at as “white-collar equivalent of cleaning toilets - necessary perhaps, but unpleasant and even a bit unclean”.

Times have changed.

Salespeople were the main source of information as well as sales pitches. You would go to a store to buy a new TV and the salesperson would describe all the different ones they have and what they can do. Often times the information provided would be incomplete or biased. But they were the source of your knowledge on TVs so you bought based on whatever the salesman pitched you.

Car salesman

This no longer works. Because of the internet, most customers know more about the product than salespeople. This is as true for the classic example of selling, car dealerships, as it is true for enterprise software. Thus salespeople are no longer leveraging the knowledge asymmetry to sell a product. Because customers have reviews and ratings, and comparison shopping available at their fingertips, sellers have more incentives to be fair and honest.

Instead sales have become a consulting job. Which is much more about understanding customer problems and identifying a solution, than it is about forcing a solution on them. Sounds almost obvious, but that’s not how many people approach and describe sales.

Inspired by this book Adam M. Grant of The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania published a research paper titled “Rethinking the Extraverted Sales Ideal”. They main thought in it is that despite the widespread assumption that extraverts are the most productive salespeople, research has shown weak and conflicting relationships between extraversion and sales performance. What his research has found is that a mix of introversion and extroversion, dubbed ambiverts by Adam, is the best performing salespeople.

To me, this is largely because of the previously mentioned shift in selling. Since sales is no longer a job of trying to drown the other person in words, extraverts might struggle to rather listen. I know salespeople on both ends of the spectrum and have seen flaws in both. When things are going well extraverts are killing it, but when presented with a complex problem they tend to struggle to stop forcing the prepared solution. While introverts give up too easy when all it takes is to push the sale a bit harder.

In the world population, levels of extraversion typically follow the shape of a bell curve, with most people falling somewhere in the middle. Which suggests that most people are ambiverts and thus most people can sell.

They key to realize is that what we define as a salesperson is a Hollywood character. It is not real. Yes, there are some (dying) areas where sales is all about trickery. Yet nowadays sales is not possible on trickery alone. Car dealerships is a great example of a dying trickery area. More and more customers have done their research online and know what car they want, what options it has, and how much it all costs. That’s why Tesla showrooms are so different from the gloomy car lots old school dealerships have.

When I see tech startups struggle, it is often because they refuse to try selling. Many technical people think it’s not something they should do, so they don’t even try. But as research has shown, and as many examples argue differently, selling is not what they think it is.

*all illustrations done by Frits from