We Chatted to Dan Pink, the Author of 'To Sell Is Human'

Dan Pink is one of top 50 business thinkers according to Harvard Business Review and the author of five provocative books about the changing world of work, including the long-running New York Times bestsellers, A Whole New Mind and Drive. (In other words, he probably didn’t need this introduction.)

To Sell is Human by Daniel Pink

In To Sell Is Human, his latest book, Pink states the obvious but often overlooked fact that sales today is completely different than it has been for most of history. Today everyone is in sales, independent of whether your job title contains the word sales or not and no matter whether we like it or not. Dan shines a light at the trends that have brought us here, proposes the new ABC of Selling (hint: it's not "Always Be Closing”), shows why the traditional wisdom that extraverts make the best sales people doesn't prove true and much more, all that in his research-backed and yet humorous way.

As a long-time fan of Pink’s work, I was thrilled Dan took the time to have a chat for our blog.

What motivated you to write To Sell Is Human?

Several things.  One of them was that I went back and looked at how I was spending my own time and I realized I was spending an enormous amount of my time selling in some sense.  I was trying to talk to magazine editors out of giving me a stupid assignment or trying to persuade a book editor to make that change or trying to get my kids to do something.

And the other driver was I wrote a book a few years ago called Drive about the science of motivation, and that book found that there's certain kinds of motivators, particularly something I call an if/then motivator as in "If you do this, then you get that", that are very good for simple tasks, are not so good for complex tasks.  I was always wondering why do we compensate salespeople only with sales commissions?  Is that a mistake?  Some readers started asking me that question and then I started looking around at sales, something I've never written about before. There wasn't a lot of intelligent material on that, so I decided to give it a try.

Interview with Dan Pink

Who has more to learn from this book - people active in sales or people without the word “sales” in their job title?

Probably that second group has more to learn.  A lot of us don't think of ourselves as salespeople, and I think that's a mistake because we are selling it all the time. I also think that people who aren't in sales have certain kinds of stereotypes and certain biases against sales, and what I tried to do in the book is correct those and try to say that, like it or not, we're all in sales, and secondly, sales isn't what it used to be.  Sales has changed more in the last ten years than in the previous hundred.

How would you pitch the book, using one of the six pitching methods you've described in the book?

I think I'd have to go with the question pitch. We pitch too often with statements and not enough with questions, and what the research shows is if the facts are clearly on your side, pitching with questions is enormously effective.  It gets people to reason things through.  So if I have to pick one of those six for this book I would go with a question pitch, so something like "If we're all in sales, don't you think you should get a little better at it?"

One of the things that surprised me in the book was that positive self-talk that so many people associate with sales is actually not that effective.  Could you please explain why is this and what’s the alternative?

Here's the thing, it is effective, but it's not the most effective thing that somebody can do. Typically when we try to prepare for a sales call or do something important, inevitably we talk to ourselves.  We narrate our lives, explain things to ourselves and so forth.  As you would say it's called self-talk.

The typical advice is when you go into an important encounter like that, say a sales call, that your self-talk should be very positive and very affirmative.  "I can do this.  I got this."  Research shows that doing that is absolutely better than going in a neutral way.  But that positive self-talk is not as effective as something else, and it doesn't relate to positivity or negativity.

It's what scholars call interrogative self-talk, which is instead of saying to yourself "You can do this" is to ask yourself, "Can you do this?"  The reason for that is that questions by their very nature elicit an active response.  So if I ask you or myself a question as opposed to making a statement then at some level it's more engaging.

You or I, whoever your audience is, has to process that a little bit. If I go into a sales call and ask myself: "Can you do this?"  At some level I have to answer, and the way I answer is really important.  I can answer “Last time I did this sales call I didn't do a good enough job of listening, and so I've got to make sure I listen more carefully." So what are you doing there?  You're preparing.  You're rehearsing.  You're practicing.  And that ends up being more muscular than the kind of chest thumping "I can do this, I got this" kind of self-talk.

Then, one of the things you also describe in the book is the massive shift from the world where buyers need to be careful (caveat emptor)  to one where sellers need to do that (caveat venditor). Does this affect all walks of life, or are there any areas where the old-fashioned manipulative selling is more effective and will remain to be more effective?

Well let's go back to the reasons for that.  Why do we have the principle of caveat emptor, buyer beware?  The reason we have the principle of buyer beware comes from a certain set of economic conditions.  Those economic conditions were that the sellers always had more information than the buyer.  When the seller has a huge information advantage, the seller can rip you off, no question about it.

But what's happened in many, many markets is that we've gone from a world of information asymmetry to one closer to information parity where you and I have in some ways equal access to information.  So it's harder for me to rip you off.  So that's a world of seller beware, and so that's the big change. Is it true everywhere?  I don't think so.

That said, I’m struggling to think of an example where in what kind of market where sellers have a huge amount more information than the buyer ever could.  Do you have a particular market in mind?

I was recently talking to a colleague who spent several summers selling educational books door-to-door. The company's ways have been the same for the last 30 or 40 years, and they're doing record summers, although it seems there's more information available online and there are less reasons to actually buy these books.

I don't have a good response to that, although what you see more broadly is door-to-door selling in the United States is almost nonexistent.  So it might be a function of if you're dealing with prospects and customers who for whatever reason have been locked out of the access to information you might be able to get an unfair advantage that way.  I don't see it happening in many markets.

In fact one of the big things retailers are dealing with is the ubiquity of pricing information and consumer ratings on things, and so it's hard particularly in the product business to have any kind of huge information advantage.  Maybe you have a fleeting advantage if you have a totally new product that no one has seen before, but even that kind of advantage evaporates pretty quickly.

But I see your point.  I don't wanna suggest that we've gone to a world of perfect information, of exact parity, where buyers and sellers in all circumstances for all things are evenly matched.  I don't think that's the case, but we’re moving to that direction.

In the age of marketing automation and lead nurturing, do you think that the importance of face-to-face and human-to-human contact is on the rise or will technology kind of be a more important component in sales?

It could be both actually.  It depends in some ways on what you're selling.  There are certain kinds of things that are purely transactional where buyers and sellers are evenly matched, and I think with transactional kinds of things the face-to-face matters that much.  If I am looking for, say, some new razorblades for my razor, who cares about face-to-face?  It's essentially a commodity product and there's transparent pricing out there.

With other kinds of things, particularly in business-to-business sales, it might matter more because a lot of what's happening in B2B,  complex sales and higher ticket items and services, the buyer doesn't necessarily know precisely what he or she needs. There that face-to-face contact with another human being can really help the buyer understand what he or she needs, help surface hidden problems and do all kinds of things that would be difficult to do in a purely automated way.

So I think that it's both. Your question is very astute and there is sort of a bifurcation of sales.  Some things are purely transactional; others require a higher touch.  There's not much in the middle though.

I wrote a piece a long time ago for Wired about the broader phenomenon about  the hollowing out of the middle and the move toward bimodal distributions of all kinds of things.  We tend to think that everything is almost always distributed along a bell curve.

What I was suggesting is that there's a new kind of distribution going on that I called a well curve that looks like a well.  It's a U and what you have is you have not much in the middle but a lot on the edges.  There is a move towards certain kind of bimodal distribution in a lot of areas, and this could just be another example of that.

Switching gears, if we're all in sales now we’re also always on the buyer side. Do we as buyers of goods and ideas need to behave any differently than we used to?

What I tried to make clear in the last chapter of the book, is the idea that what we should be doing is serving first and selling next.  We're always selling in some way.  We're always persuading, convincing, trying to move people.  I think the most effective way to do that though is to serve people.  But your question is very interesting.  What does that look like from the other side?

I think that from the other side I don't think we've obliterated buyer beware, and I think that there there are a lot of people out there trying to influence us, so we need to be very astute about how we process this.

If the primary goal of sales is to serve, but yet most of the compensation schemes for people in sales and sometimes also non-sales seems to be tied to the old "always be closing".  Do you see a way how to close that gap?

In today's New York Times there’s a story about companies that are rethinking sales commissions, and I've written about this before too.  We tend to think that the only way that salespeople will do anything is if you give them a commission.  If you sell then you get paid, if you don't sell then you hit the bricks.  For more transactional, simple sales I think that  makes sense and it's very consistent with the research on the science of motivation.

When you get to more complicated sales where it's much more consultative, where you're trying to understand the other side's business, build a long-term relationship and be a trusted advisor as much as a transactional salesperson, I think there's an argument that sales commissions might actually erode the relationship.  Sales commissions can lead to people gaming the system.  They can actually be enemies of collaboration among individuals.  If you and I are both individually commissioned salespeople, why in god's name should I ever help you?  I should probably try to steal your business.

Businesses need to challenge the orthodoxy that commission are the only or the best way to compensate salespeople. There's a lot of practical evidence out there showing that companies that have architected a different approach end up doing quite well. It's easier to do in a smaller privately held company, but even public companies like Microchip Technologies down in Phoenix, Arizona is doing $6 billion a year in sales without commissioned salespeople.  So the key point here is really organizations really need to look into this, particularly as sales becomes more complex.

The book has been out now for six months or so.  Is there anything in the time this book has been out, is there anything that you think differently about now or anything that you actually feel more strongly about that you've written about?  

Books are like software in some sense.  There's always room for an upgrade and there are always fixes to “bugs” and more elegant ways to craft it.

In the section of attunement I wrote how feeling powerful can distort one's perspective taking abilities. There's some interesting new evidence that's come out really underscoring that when people feel powerful they talk too much.  As a consequence of that, the people they are interacting with don't feel listened to.  So I think there's been a lot of evidence coming out about the distorting effects of power, how feelings of power can impede your ability to influence other people.  I think that's very, very important for leaders in organizations especially.

One thing I was surprised by was how much negative connotation with sales is very, very deep.  It might even be deeper than I would've expected, and getting people over that is not as easy as I would've thought.  That is especially true with people who aren't in sales. At some level even the word, you say the word "sales" and people are like, "Okay, I'm not interested in that.  That's not me."  But if you have the opportunity to say "Wait, let me explain" then you might be able to reel them in.

How did this negative feedback reach you, in what shape or form? 

Just in terms of people saying "Oh yeah, I read your other books, but this one's about sales.  Why would I wanna read that?"  There's some barriers to getting a fair hearing.  Some educators for instance, teachers, principals, whatever had read previous books of mine saying "Okay, I understand how motivation applies to my job as a teacher.  Oh yeah, I understand how creative thinking applies to my job as a teacher, but sales, what?  I'm not a salesperson."

So the dismissal at the outset and people's deep distaste for it was actually a little bit stronger than I suspected.  Now I think I can overcome it, but you don't have a sense of the people you've lost saying "Oh wait, Dan Pink wrote a book about sales.  Why would I ever wanna read that?"  I can't go "Wait, let me explain" to every person who has that reaction.

In the book you emphasize the need to be improvisational and the lessons from improv comedy also.  So I wanted to improvise the last question. Not a very good question I must admit, but what's next for sales?  

It's work in progress. People are  reconsidering many things and I think that the really interesting stuff is happening in a way that's a little bit blurry.  So if you look at companies that don't have a sales force even though they sell a lot of stuff, it's hard to make sense of that, but there's something very interesting going on there. Companies rethinking the orthodoxy of sales commissions. That might be the direction where things are going.

There are some business schools now that have begun to rethink, "Wait a second, are we underserving our graduates by talking about sales once in a two-year MBA program in our marketing class when we talk about channels?"  So the answer to what's next for sales?  I don't know.  I think it's in flux more than it's ever been in a long time.  I also think that the more people have the experience of being buyers in a world of information parity, the more some of these negative perceptions of sales will begin to evaporate. 

Our sincerest gratitude to Dan Pink once again. You can get his “To Sell Is Human” on Amazon and probably at your friendly neighbourhood bookstore or airport as well. If you’re a Pipedrive user, another way to get this book is to tell a friend about Pipedrive.