insight magazine

Corporate Minds

You Sell, I Sell, We All Sell

"Sales." "Selling." They're harmless words guaranteed to induce a nails-on-chalkboard cringe from just about anyone who isn’t involved in sales.
Rose Cammarata, CPA, CGMA VP & Controller, Mattersight

Whether it's because we’ve had a bad experience with a pushy salesperson or we were forced to sell band candy as kids, the thought of having to sell anything quickly brings on a bout of anxiety.

And yet, selling is an instinctual and fundamental skill. So instinctual and fundamental, in fact, that we first began to use it in kindergarten when we convinced Lucy to share her Legos.

In his book, To Sell Is Human, Daniel Pink reveals that 1-in-9 Americans works in sales, while the rest depend on “non-sales selling” to earn a living—corporate finance types included.

Kindergarten may be far behind us, but the ability to sell is no less critical as adults when it comes to getting things done. Whether we're trying to motivate a team, train new staff, get resources for a project or earn a promotion, we have to be able to convince, persuade and move people. As Pink says, we’re all in sales now.

So how do we get better at it—without feeling as much of the angst that goes right along with it?

Pink highlights three essential requirements: Attunement, buoyancy and clarity.

Attunement. Pink describes attunement as the ability to bring your actions and outlook in harmony with other people and your current context. Pink’s point is that understanding what others think (what he calls “perspective-taking”) is much more effective than understanding what they feel when it comes to moving people. It’s the idea of “using your head and not just your heart.” He notes that although virtuous and important in creating long-lasting relationships, empathy can work against you when selling because it can cause you to give up too much in order to “close the sale.” According to research he cites, we tend to be happier with the results if we focus on perspective-taking rather than empathy. Essentially, you need to ask questions that help you find common ground, while making sure you listen more than you talk.

As Pink points out, there’s also a physical aspect to attunement, namely mimicry. I admit that I thought this a bit strange at first. After all, isn’t mimicry the same thing as faking it? But then I spent time observing conversations, and realized that “mirroring” is something we do unconsciously when we are genuinely interested in what the other person is saying. If someone you respect leans in to tell you something, you instinctually lean in too.

Essentially, mimicry signals trust—and trust, in my opinion, is the most essential ingredient in achieving attunement.

Buoyancy. What Pink calls buoyancy, I prefer to call grit. One of my favorite quotes is from Michael Jordan: “I've missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I've lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times, I've been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

That’s grit. Regardless of how many times you fail in moving others, you have to be willing to try again. It all comes down to “self-talk,” of which, Pink says, there are three stages: Before, during and after the “sale.”  

Before the sale, ask yourself, “Can I do this?” Although positive self-talk (“I’m awesome”) is more effective than negative self-talk (“I suck”), interrogative self-talk is the most effective of all. The impact is twofold—asking yourself if you can do it will prompt you to strategize for success, and interrogating yourself may clarify the intrinsic motivations behind your desire to succeed (which in turn may have an inspirational effect).  

During the sale, keep your self-talk positive, which will inspire positive emotions. Be genuine, but also be mindful that too much negativity can undermine your efforts to move others towards your cause.

After the sale or lack thereof, explain negative outcomes to yourself in terms of temporary, specific and external, rather than permanent, pervasive and personal.

Clarity. Clarity, Pink explains, is the capacity to help others see their situations in fresh and more revealing ways. He suggests finding and conveying the 1 percent; in other words, the essence of the issue that drives the other 99 percent.

Framing an issue can bring clarity, and one way to do that is to introduce contrasting alternatives to highlight the virtues of what you are proposing. There are many other ways to frame an issue and I highly recommend Pink’s book for more on the topic.

Pink also describes clarity as the capacity to identify problems others didn’t realize existed. The two key skills in this are the ability to curate data to find the most relevant information and the ability to ask questions to uncover underlying issues and opportunities.

Moving—or selling—others is a fundamental and valuable skill whether or not your job is in sales. The requirements for successful selling—attunement, buoyancy and clarity—are qualities we all have the ability to develop.