The Art of Selling

By James Kwak

This morning I was listening to an especially brilliant This American Life episode from 1999, titled “Sales.” I spent a lot of the past decade selling — first pitching my startup company to venture capitalists (not very well), then pitching software to potential customers (a bit better). The first segment — Sandra Tsing Loh listening in as a screenwriter pitches his story to two movie producers — absolutely nails the the staging of a sales call, including the forced casualness of pretending that huge amounts of money aren’t at stake, the small talk (is it good for there to be a lot of small talk?) and the water bottles, the seller talking uncomfortably fast when he doesn’t get feedback cues from the buyers, and the uncomfortable close and the confused debrief. (However, Loh and the screenwriter broke one of the cardinal rules we used to follow: don’t say a word about the meeting until you are safely out of the building, not even — especially not — in the bathroom.)

The third segment — in which a reporter reflects on his time as a radio advertising salesman — also perfectly illuminates the interpersonal dynamics and moral ambiguities of being a successful salesperson. Is it right to sell someone a product he doesn’t need and that isn’t actually good for him? Of course it’s legal, but is it right? If he buys it, is it his fault . . . or yours? What do you do when your skill at getting people to like you* causes your potential clients to open up to you in ways that are not in their interests?

Once someone came to our office to give me a sales pitch. By the end of the pitch, I had the feeling that we were good friends. Later, thinking about that, I felt used. How could this person manipulate me into thinking we were friends in just forty-five minutes? Then I realized this was the best salesperson I had ever seen. And we are friends now. (Or at least I think so.)

In between, the second segment is screamingly funny.

* A skill I don’t really have, by the way.

Update: I should say that I don’t actually have the negative opinion of sales and salespeople that some of the comments below seem to assume I have. As I said, I’ve spent a lot of my time selling, and I don’t think I’m a bad person. For one thing, sales is as critical to the economy as design and production. The rituals of sales — particularly high-touch selling of very expensive products, which is what I was involved in — were established before any of us got into the business, and all salespeople have to conform to them, more or less. Many if not most salespeople really believe that most of their customers will be better off if they buy their products. On the other hand, this is one way that salespeople justify pushing at the envelope of truth on occasion — it’s for the customer’s good, after all. (The other big reason for this behavior is that the market for certain products has settled into an equilibrium where all the competitors are exaggerating, and the customer assumes that you are exaggerating, too, and discounting everything you say, so if you don’t play the game you have no chance.)

26 thoughts on “The Art of Selling

  1. Selling. Don’t get me started. Personally, I think “selling” — in the form of all-pervasive advertising designed and produced by psychological experts — is largely responsible our irrational culture of greed. In the way it inundates our daily lives, it is the equivalent of giant Mao pictures and Mao sayings on every wall. Perhaps North Korea would be a better example. Its effect on our mentality has been building, generation after generation, for most of a century. A thousand years from now I think people will shudder at this psychic pollution, and wonder how we could have been so blind to the damage it caused to our social fabric. How could we not see that it is inherently corrupt to manipulate another person for gain, and to tacitly permit it, and even encourage it, destroys trust and cooperation ?

    We have built-in, ancient social reflexes which urge us to respond to a face which is looking at us intently, yet over and over each day we glance at, and must ignore, ad pictures of such faces. The effect is to deaden a reflex which is essential to social interaction, because we are defending ourselves from persuasion. In this and many other ways, ads mine and hollow out the very substance of our social bonding. Just as, person-to-person, the manipulative salesman mines James Kwak’s natural response to what seems an offer of friendship.

    . . on the other hand . . advertising does indeed have its funny side. Here in Canada CBC Radio has a weekly program about the history and practice of advertising, called The Art of Persuasion (I think that’s the right name). You can download the podcasts. They make great commute listening, and a lot of them are a riot.

  2. When I am out to buy something big, like a house or a car, I always dress in my grubbiest blue jeans and sweatshirt. It is the salesperson who takes me seriously who generally gets the sale. This has led to some enduring friendships. During sales calls at work, any sales person who did not treat the most junior person in the meeting with equal respect was out the door, and if we were seriously interested in the product we asked for a different sales person.

  3. “Selling” is a little different from “marketing”. Marketing like what you talk about does use a lot of psychological research, but being aware of being marketed to makes it rather easy to get around it. A good salesperson though, even if you KNOW they’re going to try selling you, makes you feel (as James noted) a personal and friendly connection to them. THEN they sell.

    It’s a little different, but the devil is truly in the details. Marketing is somewhat impersonal compared to selling the product directly to the customer one on one.

    For the record though, I agree with your general assessment of the proliferation of modern marketing as psychological pollution!

  4. Yeah, I tend to dress very casually myself when I go for a major purchase. I also have a rule of NOT purchasing after the initial talk with the salesperson, no matter how convinced I feel at the time. I give myself at least a full week to chew on the idea, and if I’m not still fully convinced I should go through with the purchase I rule. You have no idea how much I frustrate salespeople. ;-)

  5. Unfortunately, without selling, all of us would still be living in caves. To be intelligent is to retain a sense of proportion about the inevitable. Why is it too much to expect that people understand their own interests? I find television advertising annoying and idiotic and am ruthless with the mute button. I hang up on unsolicited sales calls and do not feel one bit guilty when some poor dope says, hi, jake, my name is blunder and I am calling about your stock portfolio.

    Life is unavoidably a complex affair. People with no real understanding of CDS should not be buying them for school districts and money market funds. Banks with insured deposits should not be leveraging them 50 or 100 times and being rewarded for failure with free money while the real economy implodes. All of these things are obvious. Focus on the real problem which is deeply imbedded corruption of people who are supposed to be representing the legitimate interests of others.

    We need a constitutional convention, not pie in the sky ethics and collectivist altrusist fantasy.

  6. I came from a technical background, and got into sales after starting a software business. When I started, I had a negative impression of sales as a shady business in which you tried to make friends with, or manipulate, potential sales.

    I have since learned that selling ‘techniques’ that manipulate people are ineffective. I have found that acting as a consultant (being extremely knowledgeable about the product you work with, learning about each customer’s needs and common practices in the industry, and then explaining which needs can and cannot be met) is by far the most effective strategy.

    I also found that the kinds of sales that can be made through manipulation, but not through consulting, are sales that you do not want. You are pushing your product into a situation where it will not be successful, and will be a headache.

    I think if you are selling a commodity, it is probably different. But if you are selling a differentiated product to a business customer, I don’t think sales needs to be shady at all.

  7. . . “deeply imbedded corruption” — connect the dots, Jake.

    We get the leaders we deserve. And you get the financial system you deserve. You were the ones who bloated the monster when you opted to play their greed games. Who cared if the banks and corporations were exploiting someone somewhere, as long as it wasn’t you ? Only now it’s you.

    Not all societies are so skewed toward greed, materialism and competition. Even nature keeps a fine balance between competition and cooperation. That is no fantasy. And as for collectivism, your very body is a collectivist colony. To participate in this complex modern world, to use the internet, and dis the collective and cooperative aspect — that is a kind of insanity.

    As for “selling”, I am not talking about superficial irritants which can be tuned out. I am talking about invasive and pervasive propaganda which expertly exploits the sources of social cohesion.

    I am a hard realist, and I like to take the long view to get perspective. If that appears to be pie in the sky or fantasy to you, then maybe you are a cave man yourself. And not a very polite one either.

  8. People make the mistake of thinking selling is something you do to someone rather than something you do with them.

  9. The Art of Selling could be viewed from many directions.

    Far-fetched that Selling takes many forms…

    From a fellow bloggers as he stated prior, there are two attempts to get the soul of a consumer.

    The first is done with well crafted “Marketing Campaigns”. Second, are “Selling by Direct or Indirect Contact Attempts”. Contact to get another to actually buy in or purchase what is being sold or actual tangible item.

    In this post I will bring out a third form of Selling that involves the battle between “Deception or that of Truth”. Looking deeper behind the promises and words of the ones who peddle their desire to have the receiver accept and willing to consume what is being offered.

    At the root to this thought are best drawn out by introducing why so many blog sites exist. The simple fact that why are their a rise in so many voices Selling or if we choose to call it The Greatest Marketing Campaign in our modern world today.

    This very Selling and Marketing Campaign sits within the very soul of our structures we call our government and corporate structures. These structures that would use this institution of public sales and campaigns for Good and/or Evil intentions. The ultimate goal; to get the end consumer who will either buy in, or as witnessed, the incredible amount of passion by so many bloggers and journalist, refuting the deliver campaign or selling with a clear resounding call of, “No Sale Today or Any Day”.

    The following video clip certainly will bring forward one of our salesman that has risen to the top of our radar these days.

    His sales and marketing abilities seem to far out do many that would be his contemporaries or opposition to what he is selling these days.

    Watch the video and let me know what your thoughts of Selling mean in relation to a global picture.

    Far-fetched, Not Anymore!
    James Gornick

  10. mondo pinion: “We have built-in, ancient social reflexes which urge us to respond to a face which is looking at us intently, yet over and over each day we glance at, and must ignore, ad pictures of such faces. The effect is to deaden a reflex which is essential to social interaction, because we are defending ourselves from persuasion.”

    Maybe not. A researcher on the recent Charlie Rose “Brain” series showed how young children respond quite differently to a person in the flesh than to the same person on TV, talking to them in the same way. There may be some transfer to TV from real life, and TV is a powerful medium, but if the TV effect is attenuated, that does not mean that the innate social reflex is, as well. :)

  11. Hi Min –Sorry, I don’t quite understand your last sentence.

    Anyhow thanks for the info. I am sure person-in-the-flesh is a more powerful effect than a picture. Me, I just notice this in myself. I can feel the effect when an ad is on the side of an internet page I am reading. If it is one of those pesky flashing ads it is merely irritating, but if it is a face with eyes seeming to look directly at me, I can feel it drawing on my human feelings, my social feelings. I have also noticed this rather powerful reflex when passing by those full-sized cardboard “people” they use in supermarkets . . and I find myself dampening it so the ads don’t catch me. ( Interestingly, some of the simpler moving ads on the net draw my attention on a more primitive level, kind of like how you notice a spider moving across the floor.) I really don’t know how typical I am in this — I am very intuitive and, like most intuitive persons, I have a bit of social anxiety. But Mad Ave. sure spends a lot of money on this stuff and if their looking-face ads are indeed effective, we will inevitably be erecting defenses against them.

  12. i work directly with sales… tell you what… they need everyone around them… but man can the good ones sell
    sales aint routine and failure to compete aint’ an option

  13. I teach radio advertising account execs (yes, radio advertising) that Selling = Educating.

    If you do have a product or service that will add to the prospects’ lives, your job is to educate people the point where they understand how and why it will help them.

    “Conning” or “Lying” are not synonyms for “Selling.” At least, they shouldn’t be.

  14. This is true. My best friend, somehow, is a very good salesman. I think the most frustrating thing in our friendship is not how often he’s trying to sell me on something, but how often I listen to him selling *himself* on something just before he tries to sell it to me. It’s kinda scary the things he can talk himself in to if money is involved.

    The best salesmen seem to be the ones that can sell anything to themselves first.

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