Indeed, when Dan commissioned a study asking people what word they associated with "sales" or '"selling," the responses were decidedly unflattering: sleazy, slimy, pushy, smarmy, annoying, and so on.
Nevertheless, as Dan argues in his new book, To Sell Is Human, selling (especially in the form of persuading or convincing someone to do this or that) is deeply embedded in our nature. As such, he insists, "We need to move away from thinking of selling something as a kind of unnatural, scurrilous act."
Calling our ability to sell "an evolutionary advantage" and "a fundamental human quality," Dan's book calls on the findings of social science to explore effective selling techniques, how selling has changed over time, and even how best to motivate the sales force.
As in his prior books, Dan looks at our received notions regarding selling, highlights the flawed assumptions behind them, and cites current research and provide concrete examples to get us thinking about selling in a new way.
For example, many people believe that extroverts make the best salespeople and, as he points out, extroverts are often more likely to go into sales and get promoted in sales jobs.
The problem is, as Wharton's Adam Grant has demonstrated, the people who tend to be the best at sales are not the extroverts but, instead, the "ambiverts"—people who are somewhat introverted and somewhat extroverted. And since most of us fall into that category, these findings show, according to Dan, "That this ability…is something that human beings do and that all of us can get a little bit better at."
Challenging Orthodoxy on Commissions
Another bit of conventional wisdom that Dan calls into question involves the use of commissions to motivate sales people.
Having written his last book, Drive, precisely on the subject of motivation, and having spent considerable time there showing that monetary rewards are often the least effective means for improving performance or encouraging desired behaviors, he told me that the question of how to best motivate salespeople actually led to this book.
Careful to say that he was not advocating ditching the commission system altogether, he did say there is "all kinds of evidence, from all kinds of companies around the world, that have shown that there are alternate ways to motivate salespeople." Those ways include hiring good people who believe in what you're selling, paying people ample and healthy salaries, and giving people a share in profits instead of individual commissions.
He also pointed out that commission systems can often have deleterious organizational effects by undermining collaboration, requiring a complex administrative apparatus, and requiring managers to take up time "litigating the commission system" when the inevitable disputes around compensation arise.
Commission-based selling is fairly entrenched, Dan acknowledges, but adds, "It's worth challenging this orthodoxy because the facts don't show it out."
Listen to the Podcast! Read the Book!
In our conversation, Dan and I also covered the science of effective pitches (rhyming pitches work better!), how "information parity" has changed the the relationship between buyers and sellers, and things that people can do to get better at sales.
If you want to hear all of that, I encourage you to download or listen to the podcast (which you may do above). If you want to take a deep dive, read the book!
Daniel Pink, author of five provocative books about the changing world of work—including the long-running New York Times bestseller, A Whole New Mind, and the No. 1 New York Times bestseller, Drive. His books have been translated into 33 languages.