To Sell Is Human

By: Dan Pink



It used to be that sales were all about the closer. About getting the customer to sign on the dotted line and move on to next prospect, deal secured, back patted. What matter was figuring out what a person needed and “solving” their problem by convincing them that you had what THE thing that would make the issue go away.

That held true when information was controlled by a select few, when you had to rely on a salesperson to educate you about the virtues of a certain product and trust that they knew what they were talking about – and perhaps more importantly, that they were selling it to you at a fair price.

As technology made information more accessible and allowed people to research, browse and buy goods and services online, the role of the salesperson shifted to that of the problem finder. People may able to solve their own problems these days, but that only holds true if they are addressing the right problem.

In his book, To Sell Is Human, Dan Pink talks about the way selling now requires curating the massive amounts of information out there to find the most relevant and clarifying pieces. It’s part of a shift in the sales world from a culture of “Always Be Closing,” to Pink’s redefined ABCs, “Attunement, buoyancy and clarity.”

He sees selling as moving others and today we are going to explore how you can do the same.

A = Attunement

There are three keys to reaching attunement, which in its simplest form means bringing yourself into harmony with individuals, groups and contexts. It’s about looking at things from others’ perspective and making your actions and outlooks gel with those of others.

First, Pink says you must increase your power by reducing it. He argues that if you go into an interaction feeling like the person with the lower power, you are more likely to try to see things from the perspective of the person you are dealing with. That will actually help you get inside their heads and move them more easily.

Those who feel powerful tend to anchor too much on their own perspective, and often fail to adjust to others’ vantage point. They end up with a worse read of the situation in front of them.

Second, Pink says you must use your head as much as your heart. He talks about looking at a sales situation from the other person’s point of view as a cognitive exercise he calls perspective-taking. That’s different from empathy, which is an emotional response based on feeling. But he argues that both are crucially important.

He points to one study that simulated the sale of a gas station where the highest bidder was still paying less than the sellers wanted. But both parties had mutual interests that could help seal the deal. One group was asked to consider what the other side was feeling, while another was told to imagine what they were thinking. The last group was a control group, and had only generic instructions.

The emphasisers struck more deals than the control group, but the perspective-takers did even better: 76 per cent came up with deals that made everybody happy. They were able to draw what they needed from the situation and the needs of all involved to come to clear solution that left everyone feeling satisfied.

It’s just as important to read the way people in groups connect and interact with each other as it is to see a scenario form one person’s perspective. Pink calls this mental map of how people interact “social cartography,” and he says it’s a helpful tool to make sure you don’t miss out on a key player in the group – or waste your time pitching to the wrong person.

The third and last principle of attunement is a physical one: mimicking. You’ve probably heard a million times that you should subtly copy the other person’s mannerisms while at a job interview, but Pink takes it a step farther, as a means to connect with people and create a sense of trust.

It’s a skill you should use carefully – if people sense they are being mimicked they’ll just turn against you. But strategic mimicking of speech patterns, affective responses or overt behaviours can deepen attachment and help your ability to move others.

It creates a sense that you are in synch with other people and makes you feel like you are both on the same page.

Pink says that taken together, all these techniques will help become a better salesperson, all while developing stronger relationships with customers you’ll have a better understanding of.

B = Buoyancy

Buoyancy, or the way to stay afloat in an ocean of rejection, is one of the essential qualities to moving others.

He sees three components to buoyancy, which apply before during and after any effort to move others. The first is self-interrogative self-talk before you attempt the sale. Dozens of books have pushed the idea of the pep talk, arguing that if you pump yourself up before a big event you’ll get a confidence boost that will allow you to succeed. Anyone will tell you that such positive self-talk is better than the negative kind, and they are not wrong. But an even better option is interrogative self-talk, because asking yourself whether you can or can’t do something forces you to justify the ways in which you can.

That provides you with a deeper confidence because it makes you draw on examples of times when you did succeed in a similar situation and calls to mind the skills you know you possess and can use to tackle a challenge or problem. It may also bring to mind the intrinsic reasons why you are pursuing a goal, which will automatically make you more interested in achieving it than if you were just doing it solely because of external pressures.

The second component is positivity. Think of experiences in which you were planning to buy a product and the sales people were either kind or impatient, created positive or negative emotions. Were you not more likely to want to purchase something from the person you liked and who was kind to you rather than from the one who made you feel bullied?

Pink cites an experiment that divided participants into three groups. They were told they were planning a wedding. They had an agreement with a catering company that was going to charge them $14,000 for the food, but suddenly the vendor came back to them saying the price had gone up. In one scenario the vendor was friendly, in another antagonistic, in the third neutral. The study found that those who heard the positive-style pitch were twice as likely to accept the deal as those who heard the negative one, even though the terms were the same.

Positivity requires you to believe in what you are selling, but it comes with a little twist. Too much positivity is not actually a good thing. It can make you delusional and keep you from the learning and analysis that comes with negative feelings. Some negativity is essential to keep you centered and allow you to get feedback on your performance.

The last component comes after the fact, and it’s what Pink calls the explanatory style. It’s the story you tell yourself to make sense of the way things worked out. How you think about your day and how you explain the worst parts of it can go a long way to determining whether you stay afloat.

If you give up too easily, think all failures are your fault and feel helpless toward what you think is a permanent circumstance, you will have a lesser chance of success than if you see rejections as temporary, specific and external. The right mix of those two world views can make you a realistic optimist – one that sees good things, but with eyes wide open.

If you put these ideas into practice, rejection may still sting, but you’ll probably find it a little easier to rise above it.

C = Clarity

Pink argues that the capacity to help others see their situation in different, more revealing ways and to identity problems they didn’t realise they had – or clarity – is one of the most important skills the “new” salesman must have.

And one of the most useful tools salespeople (or anyone) has to provide clarity is called framing.

Pink tells the tale of Rosser Reeves, an American advertising executive who made a famous bet with a colleague. The two men saw a homeless man begging for change with a handwritten sign that read: “I am blind.” He wasn’t doing very well, and looked discouraged. Reeves told his friend he’d be able to dramatically increase the amount of money the man collected by adding four words to his sign. The bet was on, and after speaking to the man, Reeves altered the sign. He sat back and watched strangers stop to talk to the man and fill his cup.

The words he had added were “It is springtime and,” so that the sign now read: “It is springtime and I am blind.” What moved people to help the man was the contrast those four words created. That contrast provided clarity to people who were now able to compare their reality with that of the man, and feel empathy.

It is why one of the most important questions to ask when seeking or trying to provide clarity is “Compared to what?” Pink describes five frames you can use to provide clarity to those you are hoping to move.

The first is the “less frame,” which says that framing people’s options in ways that restrict their choices can help them see those choices more clearly. Everybody likes options, but too much of a good thing may just become frustrating enough to make people walk away.

Next is the “experience frame,” which reminds us that people have stronger and longer-lasting emotions around experiences than material possessions. If you want to sell someone a car, you should emphasise the trips they will take, things they’ll see, friends they’ll visit and not the vehicle’s features. Customers are more likely to be sold on the idea if they can picture themselves living that life.

The “label” frame helps people define something by answering the “compared to what question.” It can put actions or experiences into context and outline what is expected, which tends to make people fall into line.

The “blemished” frame shows that if you bring up one negative aspect of a product after extolling many of its virtues, people are more likely to pick the “blemished” product than one that is purely positive. This seems to work best for people who are busy or distracted, and deemed to be putting in little effort into a decision.

Last there’s the “potential frame,” which suggests people are more interested in and intrigued by what someone might do than what they have already done. It’s the reason why good prospects are sometimes more exciting to a team than an established player, or why an up-and-coming designer catches everyone’s attention if she or he is deemed as “the next big thing.”

Pink offers one last tool on the way to clarity, and that’s on off ramp. He says you shouldn’t just point people in the right direction without giving them a roadmap to get there.

If you want people to move, or to buy what you are selling, you have to provide clarity on how to act as well as how to think. If you do that, Pink says, you will have little trouble convincing people to agree with you.


So there you have it - a primer on how to use the new ABCs of selling to get to where you want to go.

Good luck, and happy selling.