To Sell is Human: An Exclusive Interview with Daniel Pink (Part 2)

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Recently I interviewed Daniel Pink, one of my favorite authors about his most recent book, To Sell is Human

 I always enjoy Daniel Pink’s books because he is able to dig deep and uncover new insights. His latest book is no different — even though it’s his first foray into sales.

In Part 2 of our conversation, Daniel Pink reveals research on which personality types are better sellers. He also shares how sellers can stay motivated even when it feels like they’re swimming through an “ocean of rejection.”

Read our conversation below or listen to the full audio recording


An Exclusive Interview with Daniel Pink

Jill Konrath: In all your research, what surprised you the most?

Daniel Pink: One of the things that surprised me the most was the research showing that strong extroverts don’t have any advantage in sales.

Jill Konrath: Why did that surprise you?

Daniel Pink: I was gripped by the stereotype of the back-slapping, super gregarious person as an effective salesperson. As someone who is not a back-slapping, super gregarious person I said, “Oh, I don’t know if I could do that.” And it turns out, it’s a complete myth. 

This doesn’t mean that strong introverts are good salespeople. They’re not. They stink. Research shows that the people in the middle, what social psychologists call ambiverts, are the ones who do the best.

It makes sense, now that I think it through. People always associate salespeople with the super cheery, gregarious kind of manner. Veteran salespeople, people who have toughed it out for a long time, kind of chuckle at that. They’ve seen the more moderated people really flourish.

The good news is, looking at the population as a whole, relatively few of us are strong introverts, and relatively few of us are strong extroverts. Most of us are actually somewhere in the middle.

The distribution is along a bell curve with most of us in the middle. It suggests that a lot of us can do this reasonably well if we’re willing to do the hard work of becoming experts and so forth.

Jill Konrath: Tell our listeners specifically about that research.

Daniel Pink: Oh, it’s new. It was just published. It’s a great study by a guy named Adam Grant at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.

Adam Grand conducted a very simple study. He went to a very large software company with a large sales force and measured the introversion/extroversion levels of the sales force and of the folks who sold software. The data needed  was gathered in a very clean way. We know who the introverts are, we know who the extraverts are, and we know how much software each person sold.

When he plotted the data, it turned out that the extroverts did a little bit better than the introverts, but neither group did nearly as well as the ambiverts; the people in the middle. The people who are a little bit extroverted and a little bit introverted ended up doing the best of all.

Jill Konrath: Why do you think that occurred?

Daniel Pink: Think about strong introverts, they don’t assert themselves. You have to be somewhat assertive in sales. Strong introverts are often shy and don’t want to strike up conversations. That’s a big problem in sales.

Strong extroverts have a different problem. They come on too strong. They talk too much. They don’t know how to listen. So they flop too.

It’s really the people in the middle who excel. I really like the term, ambivert, since it’s sort of like ambidextrous.

Ambiverts can go left, they can go right. They know when to push, they know when to hold back. They know when to speak up, they know when to shut up. They know when to assert, they know when to respond. Those are the folks who do the best. And Jill, the good news is that most of us are ambiverts.

Jill Konrath: Yeah, because we’re right in the middle.

Daniel Pink: Somewhere in the middle, right. Just think about a bell curve. Think about a chart. On the horizontal axis is a scale of extroversion, where on the left-hand side would be strong introverts, and on the right-hand side would be strong extroverts. The vertical axis is how many people are represented. And it’s basically a bell curve. High in the middle and low at the ends. So the vast majority of people are right in the middle, more people are kind of close to the middle, and very few people are on the sides.

Jill Konrath: I think that a lot of people are shocked if you take a look at who is successful. You have to be the experts. We have to spend time studying and learning. It’s not the gregarious, rah-rah, type of person. It’s somebody who spends time learning, and studying, and . . .

Daniel Pink: And listening.

Jill Konrath: And listening, and figuring out who they’re talking to and what they’re doing, and that’s kind of what the whole thing is about.

Daniel Pink: Right.

Jill Konrath: One of the things I liked about your book is the research that you’ve gone out and done. You’ve brought me some ideas that I’ve never seen before out there on the concept of sales.

I have one last question I want to talk with you about. You had some interesting research on buoyancy that you brought to the table as well. I think we’d better define buoyancy because it’s one of your ABC’s of selling. Which is not Always be Closing, which was the old icky stuff. Your ABC’s are…

Daniel Pink: They are attunement, buoyancy, and clarity. The social science tells us those are the platform qualities necessary to be effective in a world where buyers and sellers are evenly matched on information.

Attunement is perspective-taking. Can you get out of your own head into someone else’s head?

Clarity we talked a lot about. Can you move from accessing information to curating it? Can you move from solving existing problems to identifying hidden ones?

But buoyancy is an interesting one.

I was able to get this term itself from a fellow who I love talking to. A guy named Norman Hall, who is the very last Phillip Brushman in North America. He spent the last 40 years selling Phillip brushes door-to-door in the business district of San Francisco.

When I talked to him, he said something quite remarkable. He said, “You know, Dan? Here’s what you got to understand. The hard part about being in sales is that ‘Every day I face an ocean of rejection.’”

Jill Konrath: “An ocean of rejection.”

Daniel Pink: That’s what sales is. An ocean of rejection. I wish I’d come up with that. Buoyancy is how you stay afloat in that ocean of rejection.

The social science gives us some clues. Some very interesting things like, what do you do before an encounter with a prospect? As it turns out, before a sales call, questioning your abilities is more effective than pumping yourself up.

Jill Konrath: I thought that was fascinating. I’ve never heard that before.

Daniel Pink: Interrogative. It’s a relatively new study. There’s some really interesting new work on something called interrogative self-talk.

Let’s say I’m going on a sales call and I say to myself, “Dan, you’ve got this. You can do this. You’re awesome.”

That’s better than doing nothing. There’s no question about it. That positive, affirmative self-talk is better than going neutral. That’s very, very clear.

But it’s not as good as going in and saying, “Dan, can you do this? And if so, how?”

That happens because when you ask a question, questions provoke an active response. So, your brain has to respond in a way. And so, if I say, “Can you do this?”

My brain goes, “Yeah, I can do this. I’ve done this kind of thing before. Yeah, I can do this.  I’m totally prepared. I know this client’s business inside and out. I’ve got to make sure that I mention these two key points.

“Can you do this?” Yeah, I know that the one possible objection that could come up is this. I’ve got a great answer for that.

“Can you do this?” Yeah. On the last sales call I didn’t listen well enough, so I’m going to make a concerted effort to listen more here.

What am I doing? I’m preparing. I’m rehearsing. This interrogative self-talk, is more powerful than the positive affirmative self-talk.

Again, positive affirmative, you can do this, you’ve got this. That pump-upis better than going in neutral. I just want to make that clear. Don’t go in neutral. If you have a choice between going in ‘eh’, and going in and pumping yourself up. Pump yourself up. But your choice isn’t only that.

Your choice is between pumping yourself up and doing interrogative self-talk. And that ends up being more effective. What’s interesting is you can take some of this research and extend it well beyond sales.

There’s some great research on athletes. And it turns out that athletes who use interrogative self-talk, a version of which is often called instructional self-talk, do better than the ones who merely pump themselves up.

Jill Konrath: “Can you do this?” sort of affirms in your body. It’s not like you’re trying to pump yourself up, it actually feels stronger. “Can you do this?” And my answer feels like a stronger response mentally when I say yes. And you say to follow it up with “how?”

Daniel Pink: Absolutely. Because you’re rehearsing. You’re preparing. Listen, “you can do this, you got this, you’re awesome.” That actually feels good, but…

Jill Konrath: But I don’t always believe that. That’s the truth. I don’t always believe it. It’s like you go into a call and go, “Can I do this?” It is kind of a quieter one. It’s “Yes. Yes, I think I can.” And then, how? “Well, I need to start here and I need to do this.” It seems to bring in my mental engagement at a deeper level by saying that.

Daniel Pink: Bingo. There you go. Mental engagement at a deeper level. That’s exactly what it’s all about. The other thing is that sometimes if you say to yourself, “Can you do this?” and the answer is no. 

That’s not a bad thing. It means maybe you shouldn’t be going on this sales call right now. Maybe you’re not ready to do this right now. Whereas this affirmative “you can do it, you’ve got this” glosses over some of your weakness. So it’s an intellectually-honest response.

Jill Konrath: I think it is. There are some times you shouldn’t be going because you don’t have the information you need, you’re not prepared, and to go would make things worse. And you would dig your own hole if you did that.

Daniel Pink: Exactly.

Jill Konrath: You also had some research in your book too about how you explain your failures. 

Daniel Pink: Yeah, this was some other interesting work. It’s pretty enduring work by a guy named Martin Seligman, who is essentially the founder of the field of positive psychology. Also at the University of Pennsylvania.

In this landmark study of insurance salesman, he found that the best predictor of sales success was how these people explained failure. They had a way of explaining failure that put it in a different context. That looked for honest and authentic ways to say it’s not entirely personal, it’s not pervasive, and it’s not permanent. A lot of times, especially people who are new to sales, people who are getting their legs on persuasion and sales in general… I mean, we don’t like rejection very much.

Jill Konrath: Nobody likes it.

Daniel Pink: Even the veteran salespeople don’t like it. I mean, you and I have written books and we’re used to getting criticized every once in a while, and it’s part of the game. And, I still don’t like it. I don’t lose any sleep over it, but I still don’t like it. Some idiot gave me a one star review and he clearly hadn’t read the book. And I’m like, “Come on.”

A lot of times rejection feels like a catastrophe and this explanation can de-catastrophize that feeling. It can de-catastrophize that failure by saying honestly, “Maybe he didn’t buy, not because I’m an idiot, but because the company is going to go out of business or he has a brother-in-law who’s a vendor.”

All right. So, it’s not all my fault. It doesn’t always happen.

So this explanatory style ends up being a way to maintain your buoyancy on that “ocean of rejection.” 

Jill Konrath: I think that’s a really good place to end. We’ve talked about what makes a salesperson successful today and how it’s critical to serving customers today with valuable information. But another big part of being a successful salesperson is attitude, and how you feel about what you’re doing. That’s something that’s hard to maintain in a field where you do have that “ocean of rejection.” So, thank you.

Daniel Pink: Absolutely.

Jill Konrath: Thank you so much for sharing just some of the excellent information that’s in your new book, To Sell Us Human. Which I’m delighted you wrote and have shown us that it’s OK to be in sales. If Daniel Pink says it’s OK to be in sales, it’s got to be OK. 

Daniel Pink: Of course. But I do mean that, as an outsider, I have a new respect for the difficulty and the degree of intellectual firepower needed in sales. I think a lot of civilians don’t realize that. I have an absolutely new respect and appreciation for it.

Jill Konrath: Thanks for taking your time to share all these valuable insights. I really appreciate it.

Daniel Pink: My pleasure, Jill. Great talking to you.

Jill Konrath: Yeah, you, too. Thanks. 


 Download the full transcript here.

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