To Sell is Human Summary and Review

This year, we decided to give copies of To Sell is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others by Daniel H. Pink (signed by the author himself) to all of our employees at A Small Orange as part of our holiday gift package. As a very service-centric company, we wanted to illustrate the fact that sales isn’t what it used to be and isn’t all about conning people into making a buying decision they otherwise would be against. We believe that sales should be consultative and should focus on helping customers choose the right combination of products and services and we wanted this book to help explain that.

Here’s a quick summary of some key points that I prepared to help capture my full understanding of the book. I hope it’s helpful, though keep in mind I was a casual reader and my understanding of some of the key points may vary:

Part one: Rebirth of a salesman

  • Sales used to be defined as a certain profession, like the Fuller Man who went door to door to sell cleaning supplies and such. Today, more than 15 million people work in sales (more than manufacturing and only less than office and administration works).
  • Through a survey, the author determined that people (who don’t work in sales in the traditional sense) still spend 40% of their time engaged in non-sales selling such as persuading, influencing, and convincing others that don’t involve a purchase. The question was “What percentage of your work involves convincing or persuading people to give up something they value for something you have?”
  • Small business owners (i. e. 0-3 employees) and entrepreneurs spend much of their time selling, whether that’s dealing with customers, enticing partners, negotiating with sellers, or motivating employees.
  • Some companies don’t have traditional sales people. Pink cited enterprise software company Atlassian and Palantir as examples. Atlassian has no formal sales people (therefore requiring everyone to pitch in) and Palantir puts engineers in sales roles (called “forward-deployed engineers”).
  • Educators and medical professionals also have to convince people to part with things (time, energy, habits, etc.).
  • People largely hate sales people in the traditional sense. Used car salesman comes to mind when most people are asked what they think about sales people.
  • Today’s world makes high pressure sales less effective because of reduced information asymmetry. In other words, the world of sales is switching from caveat emptor (let the buyer beware) to caveat venditor (let the seller beware).

Part two: How to be 

  • Instead of “Always be closing,” Pink suggests that the new ABCs of sales are “Attunement, Buoyancy, and Clarity”.
  • Attunement is about looking at things from the other person’s perspective. It starts with increasing power by reducing it – essentially a lesson in having the humility to put your assumptions aside and listen to others and their concerns. It also requires understanding what others are thinking (such as understanding any biases or preferences) in addition to just what that they are feeling. Strategic mimicry in a non-obvious manner can also be effective.
  • Ambiverts tend to be more successful at sales than extraverts or introverts.
  • The first step in buoyancy is interrogative self-talk, which is asking if you have the ability to do something. Research shows it’s more effective to question rather than just pump of confidence.
  • Sales people need a good ratio of positivity and negativity to flourish. The research ideal is between 3:1 and 11:1 (positive:negative). Appropriate negativity helps keep people motivated and egos in check. Too much negativity is wearing.
  • Sales people with “optimistic explanatory styles,” or their thought process of explaining negative events to themselves do better than sales people with negative explanatory styles. Those with optimistic explanatory styles tend to explain negative events as specific, temporary, or external.
  • Finding the right problems to solve is important. It’s about being a partner with the buyer and thinking of the right solution instead of just trying to close a deal. This is commonly called consultative selling.
  • Frames of reference are important. Think about the question, “compared to what?” Potential frames of reference are more/less, experiences, labels, blemishes, and potential.
  • Providing clarity on how to act (an off ramp) is important. A lot of sales focuses on trying to improve clarity of thinking while ignoring clarity of acting, which is just as or more important.

Part three: What to do

  • There are six main pitches types: the one word pitch, the question pitch, the rhyming pitch (helps increase retention), the subject line pitch, the Twitter pitch, and the Pixar pitch (story like).
  • Improv can teach a lot about sales. Hearing offers, saying “Yes and”, and making your partner look good are all improv lessons that apply to sales.
  • In service (and sales), personalizing things (demonstrating an account is a person) and adding purpose (illustrating doing something has a meaningful impact on someone besides the seller) are applicable to both sales and services. Emotionally intelligent signage and language helps too.

The Review: To Sell is Human is a great book to help you and your employees reframe your thinking of sales. It’s a simple enough read where it’d be appropriate for just about anyone, but still has enough examples and references to various social science studies to be useful for more experienced and senior professionals. The book is not a sales manual, but it will serve as a frame of reference as you think about how best to sell as an individual or an organization.

Pros: The book is a quick and easy read and is well written. There are a number of actionable exercises after each chapter and frequent references to academic studies that provide additional context for those who are interested in finding them.

Cons: Some may find the points mentioned somewhat obvious the arguments simplistic. However, the book is not supposed to be an in depth sales manual or a treatise on how sales has changed as a profession.

Interested: To Sell is Human is available on Amazon in a variety of formats (including the Kindle and in audio formats), starting at $9.99.

One Response to “To Sell is Human Summary and Review”

  1. Steve DiGioia said:

    Jan 07, 14 at 9:44 am

    As a fellow author, it’s great to see companies distributing business related books to their employees as an additional way to bolster service. Well done!


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