When many people think of sales, it's still "guys in plaid sport coats with slimy handshakes trying to rip us off," says Daniel Pink, author of the new To Sell is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others. But that's largely an outdated view, he says, thanks to the decline in "information asymmetry" -- the condition in which the seller knows much more than the buyer about what something is actually worth. "Twenty years ago, when you walked into a Chevy dealer to buy a car, that dealer knew a lot more than you. But today," courtesy of the Internet, "my 77 year-old mother can go into the dealer clutching the invoice price of the car. Information parity has changed the game, and buyers now have multiple choices and a means to talk back." With Twitter, Facebook and review sites like Yelp, "if you manage to hoodwink me, I can tell everybody," said Pink.
So what does that change mean? According to Pink, sales has largely stopped being about trickery (though it still pays to beware) and has instead becomes a sophisticated, authentic means of persuasion. Indeed, whether it's influencing a gate agent to change his seat assignment or his son to clean up, Pink discovered he spends a great deal of time "selling," even though money isn't necessarily involved. "One of the insights I found, like it or not, is that we're all in sales now. When you actually unpack what white-collar workers are doing with their time, one in nine Americans works in 'sales,' which is selling in the traditional sense. But I'm arguing that for the other eight, they're in sales, too. It's true for teachers, nurses, doctors -- anybody who's managing people -- if they're raising money for a nonprofit or a startup company."
The recognition that everyone needs to sell can be traumatic. "Few people are prepared for this new world of selling, and it can be daunting," says Pink. "It used to be that people's functions at work were highly segmented -- accounting, marketing, sales, operations. That worked well in stable business conditions where you could predict fairly far out what your company will be doing. But now you don't have that." Citing successful companies like Palantir Technologies, which doesn't have any official salespeople on staff, Pink says "it's totally Zen and inscrutable -- it's not anyone's job, but it's everyone's job."
But the good news is, we've moved beyond the hard sell tactics of yore. The 'new sales' is about embracing fundamental human qualities (like listening) and taking a broader view, says Pink: "Every email we send is a pitch, and I don't think we realize that." Even small adjustments -- like thinking carefully about your subject line to ensure it sounds useful or piques interest -- can have a big payoff. "If somebody I know sends me an email with a blank subject line, I open it before the other ones, because it appeals to my curiosity," he says.
What are your best strategies for selling to and persuading others?
Dorie Clark is CEO of Clark Strategic Communications and the author of the forthcoming Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (Harvard Business Review Press, 2013). She is a strategy consultant who has worked with clients including Google, Yale University, and the Ford Foundation. Listen to her podcasts or follow her on Twitter.
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