Thursday, January 10, 2013

[book] Daniel Pink on Selling

Daniel Pink

Business author Daniel Pink first impressed me on an Econtalk episode a few years ago with his ideas about what motivates people (the subject of his book Drive). Earlier this month he published a new book, To Sell Is Human, and I heard him talk about it today. (I always enjoy seeing an author in person!)

The central claim of the book (at least, based on what I took from his talk) is that although 9% of the American workforce works in a “sales” job (more than double the percentage that works in all forms of government, by the way), the rest of us spend a big part of our day trying to “persuade people to part with something of value, in exchange for something else”, which Pink claims is basically the same thing.  The talk (and the book) is mostly about ways to enhance our abilities to sell: “Increase your power by reducing it”, “use your head as much as your heart” and other good, practical advice.

Successful selling -- persuasion – requires a good understanding of the other person’s needs, but it turns out that high-status and “powerful” people (managers, politicians) are often pretty bad at that.  In fact, a 2006 paper by Kellogg business school profs Galinsky and Magee shows that power and self-orientation are often correlated. Conclusion: we need to be better at empathy.

But empathy – understanding the other person’s perspective – isn’t about understanding their “feelings”.  People who do best at selling are better at considering what the other side “thinks” more than what they “feel”. Interesting…and it matches my own experience and intuition.

My favorite part of the talk was Pink’s discussion of “social cartography”, and how good salespeople are instinctively able to tell who’s who in a given room, who matters for the decision-making and who doesn’t.  That’s a great skill, and Pink shows a wonderful chart to illustrate what we all know intuitively: that often the people who do the most talking are the least important.

He points to upcoming research from Adam Grant, a professor at my Alma Mater, that claims that while extroverts tend to be hired and promoted much more often in sales positions, they don’t perform that much better than introverts. Although this seems like good news for a natural introvert like me (assuming I wanted to be in sales), I take research like this with some skepticism.  Everything depends on methodology, it seems to me.

In fact, this is one of my biggest questions about Pink’s thesis. It might be possible to make claims about the art and practice of persuasion in general, but like most things, it seems to me this is highly situation- and context-dependent.

Frankly, I’m not sure it’s much of an insight to claim that everyone is selling.  I mean, even in a highly-specialized world, all jobs require some degree of just about every job.  Few people are full-time negotiators, for example, but all of us do it some of the time. Only a small percentage of people are “making stuff” in the sense that old-fashioned factory workers did, but broadly enough defined, we all make something. Saying that everyone is a salesperson seems to me to be a bit of a stretch.

That’s a quibble.  Daniel Pink provides some insight that is worth considering, but I would add that successful managers know to think like a team and that the right mix of skills, personalities, and experiences are as important as individual high performance. Though not mentioned in the book, Pink answered my comment about this with a pointer to the work of Brian Uzzi, from Kellogg.

I’m sold.