To Sell is Human

5 minute read

We are in a new age of selling… at least that’s what Daniel H. Pink argues in his New York Times best seller To Sell is Human.

After reading, I realized that the stereotype of the “sleazy salesperson” is no longer the norm: the internet has disrupted the information disparity traditionally enjoyed by sellers, resulting in well informed buyers, and sellers that act with buyers’ best intentions in mind.

From Buyer Beware to Seller Beware

With the dawn of the information age, a power shift has occurred from seller to buyer in sales interactions.

In the past, the buyer-seller relationship was one of imperfect information: sellers had more information about the products they sold, buyers had less. This allowed sellers to prey on uninformed buyers and led to a stereotype of salespeople being smarmy and untrustworthy. The mantra for buyers in this kind of environment was emphatic: Buyer Beware.

With the internet in our pockets, however, the information disparity between buyer and seller has been made equal. Car buyers visit Kelley Blue Book to determine the true value of a used vehicle before purchasing. Those in search of a new home look up comparable listings in an area to ensure they do not overpay. Research is possible on demand, resulting in buyers that are often more informed than sellers about their products and the competitive landscape.

The internet, and the informed buyer, has brought us in to a new era of salesmanship: Seller Beware.

The Value of a Salesperson

Seller Beware has changed the seller from an information keeper and protector, to an information curator. The true value a salesperson brings in this new age is to help buyers find the right solutions to problems that they encounter.

Finding the right solution is important to emphasize: buyers may come to salespeople with a problem that can be solved by the seller’s product, but perhaps the solution does not address the problem’s root cause. Sellers need to help buyers find the signal in the noise of data available to them, and should not coerce the buyer in to accepting a solution that does not optimally address their problem. This requires sellers to see problems from the buyer’s perspective to solve their problems more effectively.

Pink presents two guiding questions that sellers should ask during every buyer interaction:

1) If the person you’re selling to agrees to buy, will their life improve?

2) When the interaction is over, will the world be a better place?

If the answer to either of these questions is no, or if you’re unsure of the answer, then put on your pinstripes and head back to the used car lot because you’re not delivering the customer value that is intended by your role.

Modern Sales

Here are a few additional ways that sellers and sales organizations can change to better serve customers in a modern sales landscape.

  • Get Rid of Commission Comp: Commission incentives encourage sales people to press their solution on any buyer who will listen. Sales organizations should incentivize sellers to target the right buyers instead. Not only does this result in higher customer satisfaction, but a product in the hands of the right buyer leads to higher quality product feedback from relevant market segments. A virtuous cycle!

  • Brainstorm With Buyers: The best salespeople will brainstorm with their buyers to help understand and even find new problems to solve for them. Palantir takes this to the next level, sending engineers to the front lines to ensure customer success with Palantir’s products. This results in happy buyers, but also aligns with long term product objectives, as engineers will stumble upon new customer problems while deployed in the field. Palantir turns this information around into new products which are then sold back to the customer. This interweaving of customer success, market research and technology is truly unique and seems so effective I’m surprised more tech companies don’t take part in it. I think it could even make sense for startups, who are often starved for customer feedback, to consider sending engineers to the field to maximize time with customers during initial product development.

  • From “Upsell” to “Upserve”: Sales should focus on how to best serve the customer by solving their problem optimally. Pink calls this practice “Upserving” – going above and beyond to satisfy and delight the customer during every interaction. If the experience is memorable, customers are more likely to repeat purchases and evangelize your brand to their network. Amazon’s legendary customer service is a “Prime” (get it?) example of upserving the customer. Even when mishaps occur, Amazon goes out of its way to rectify its mistakes, often at it’s own monetary loss. This has resulted in one of the largest and most loyal customer bases of any brand in existence.

  • Something Better than Empathy: It seems reasonable that the modern salesperson would be expected to develop deep empathy for the customer and their problems, but too much empathy can actually hurt the interests of the seller. Instead of connecting with the customer on an emotional level (empathy how the customer feels), Pink suggests getting in the customer’s head by understanding their perspective (how the customer thinks). Pink posits that “perspective taking” by sellers results in higher quality outcomes on both sides of a deal. How to achieve this? Sellers should try to reduce the amount of power they have in their interactions with buyers. This results in more confident and comfortable buyers, and forces salespeople to listen more and talk less.

The New Sales Landscape

In my opinion, the sales landscape in the information age seems more fulfilling than that of the age of Buyer Beware. “Help people find the right solution to their problems” is a more appealing job description than “take the buyer for all they’ve got”. Let’s shed the traditional slimy salesperson stereotype, and focus on attracting customer-centric problem solvers to drive business in our modern sales organizations. This should lead to a new age of customer focused problem solvers in the field, happier buyers, and better business outcomes for all.