Maybe you are a seducer. Or a rationaliser. A closer, perhaps. However you go about it, Philip Delves Broughton says when you can master the sale you’ve mastered everything
Selling – be it a product, person or even an idea – is something we all do every day. We are always pitching and presenting, trying to persuade people to accept us. Sales is nothing more than the purely human ordeal of rejection and acceptance.
We come to know if people believe in us or find us phony. Ideally we believe in what we sell, but often we need to act, to put on a show, maybe even conceal the truth.
Our ability to sell, to persuade others, to serve others, is intimately wrapped up in how we define ourselves. Master the art of the sale and you will master the art of life. Could you ever say the same thing about accounting?
I am particularly fascinated by all this because on the few occasions in my life when I have had to sell, I have hated it. No one has ever suggested I was a “natural salesman”, the shiny-toothed, back-slapping hero of the car lot and backyard barbecue. I could never, as they say, sell sand to Arabs, or ice to Eskimos. There are more lies told about selling than about any other aspect of business life. So I went in search of some truths. Not absolutes or answers, but honesty.
In 1961, the Harvard Business Review published an article by industrial psychologist Robert McMurry, who argued that a good salesperson does three things. First they seduce the “prospect”, sifting quickly through the prospect’s emotions and fantasies to arouse the particular one that will be satisfied by his product. Then they provide the logical justifications for buying the product, which the prospect may neither need nor be able to afford – “It’s a 12-month payment plan, Mrs Johnson, just $75 a month, and this offer ends tomorrow”. Finally, they apply the pressure to close, to relieve the prospect of their cash.
Those three steps of seduction, rationalisation and closing may require very different talents. The seducer may not have the authority or dominance to close. The rationaliser may depend too much on logic and fail to make an emotional connection. The closer may be too much of a bully to seduce.
McMurry suggested that the single most important trait in a salesperson is “the wooing instinct”. The habitual wooer is “an individual who has a compulsive need to win and hold the affection of others”. The wooers can come in very different packages, of course. One can be a noisy brute, the other a whispering cad. But the trait remains consistent. The wooers can come in very different packages, of course. One can be a noisy brute, the other a whispering cad. But the trait remains consistent.
McMurry identified five lesser characteristics useful for the successful salesperson: boundless energy and optimism; plenty of self-confidence in order to brush off rejection; a “chronic hunger for money”; self-discipline and a capacity for hard work; and finally a “state of mind that regards each rejection or obstacle as a challenge”.
The challenge in finding good salespeople is that you need excellent empathisers who aren’t so empathetic they can’t close a sale. And you need people with strong egos who can still take a moment to figure out what another person wants. They must be aggressive enough to close, but not so aggressive they put people off. Too much empathy and you’ll be a nice guy finishing last. Too much ego drive and you’ll be scorching earth everywhere you go. Not enough of either and you shouldn’t be in sales at all. It’s a miracle anyone can do this job.
I went to Tangier to meet Abdel Majid Rais El Fenni, or Majid for short. Majid had started out like every other peddler in the souk, but had figured out a way to rise above the competition. His guest book contains the signatures of Yves Saint Laurent and Jacques Chirac, and he has sold to rock stars and ritzy hoteliers. If you’re rich and you want a north African feel to your home, you come to Majid.
“My uncle used to say that in business, you need three things,” said Majid. “The age of Noah, hundreds of years. The money of Suleyman, who dressed his slaves in gold. And the patience of Dawud, David.”
Majid has a vast body of crystallised intelligence made up of his experience in selling, but he also draws on a formidable fluid intelligence, a well-stocked working memory, which allows him to make fast and accurate assessments of his customers. Of the two, fluid intelligence is less specific to products or customer, and so is more easily applied to many different kinds of selling.
“You judge a good salesman when he buys. The profit is not when you sell, it’s when you buy. Only losers wait till they sell to make a profit. Everyone is always ready to buy or sell, it’s just a question of asking. The thing that is not for sale is haram, forbidden by God.”
Majid told me: “There was this American man once who came in and started looking at my things. He looked at my silver and asked: ‘Is this silver?’ I said yes, and he said ‘Moroccan silver’, meaning it was a blend of metals. He looked at another piece and asked if it was antique. I said yes. He said: ‘Made in the backyard, you mean.’ When you have the fish, if you force it, you break the line. So you must let it out, bring it in, let it out, bring it in, until it gets tired.
“Finally, he picked up this beautiful ivory bowl and he started shaking it. So I took him by the wrist and removed the object from his hand and held it up to the light. ‘You mishandled this piece,’ I told him. I explained its history, and he realised how stupid he had been. That night he went to dinner with some people here in Tangier who told him of my reputation. The next day, he came by. Yesterday he was a wild horse. Today, he wants to be ridden, and I ride him. Whatever I say is now correct. He bought some impressive silver bracelets. If I hadn’t had the patience, I’d have lost a good fish. I didn’t use force, I used my head.”
Majid revels in the tricks of his trade, but also in the quality of what he sells and his position as king of the Tangier Kasbah. Majid, and others I met on my travels prove that great salespeople come in many different forms. There is no archetype. The common traits are resilience and optimism. But aside from that, there are salespeople who are motivated by money and others who found sales to be the best way to level the walls of worlds that were otherwise closed to them.
Like all the most interesting things in life, selling is both light and dark. For both the successes and failures, there is the endless rejection, the long line of people saying in so many words: “I don’t want you, I don’t want what you have, I don’t want you in my life.” If nothing else, selling is an endless confrontation with truth, the truth about yourself and about others. It is raw and uncomfortable and personally exposing in a way other business functions rarely are. This hard truth may help explain why business schools, which prefer to paint a less brutal vision of business life, are so loath to teach it.
But clearly, it need not be so grim. By treating sales with such disdain, business schools prove themselves both foolish and elitist. Without selling, there is no business. It is also the greatest leveller in business. It is open to anyone and it possesses that most democratising quality, of being wholly measurable. Done well, selling frees people from the oppression of corporate culture and allows them to define their own personalities and destinies. It is a way for people with little formal education, but plenty of perseverance, to do well.
Mix a fine education with the desire and talent for selling and the fruits of such hybrid vigour can change the world. Not only should business schools and companies teach more sales, but it should be the starting point of a business education. It is from sales that everything follows: how you make money, how you treat people, how you wish to grow. Every ethical question a businessperson could face comes down to a question you confront in your very first sale: what are you willing to do for a buck?
Meeting the US TV sales king
I first came across Sullivan late one night when he was pitching the Smart Mop. What grabbed my bleary-eyed attention was not the mop, but the fact that he was a fellow Englishman, pitching on American television. “What do you do if you get a spill like this all over your kitchen floor? This is a whole can of soda,” Sullivan barks as he pours a can of Diet Coke on the floor. “I’ll tell you, you reach for the Smart Mop.”
Every one of his staccato directions and boasts is accompanied by images of the Smart Mop in action. “You shimmy the chamois and look, this mop is as thirsty as a camel in the Sahara desert.”
He is tall with broad shoulders and cropped grey hair and seems to be constantly fighting the urge to laugh. The moment he mentions any of the many products he has sold, he drops effortlessly into his pitch
When he was 21, a friend asked him to look after his T-shirt stand at Bideford market. Shortly before the market opened, a man pulled up opposite him in a brown Volvo wagon. He took out a folding table and a few small contraptions. After drinking a cup of tea, he began his pitch for the amazing Washmatic: “It gives your car a shower rather than a bath!”
“He made £500 in a day, I made £50,” Sullivan says. “The difference was, he was pitching and I was just sitting there waiting for customers.” At the end of the day, Sullivan went up to him and said he wanted to learn. Two weeks later he ended up selling seven units in an hour. The next week it was 60. The purpose of the pitch is to put a crowd “under the ether”, Sullivan explains. It is about telling an irresistible story.
“Come on in,” he’ll say, taking a step backward, which makes his audience step toward him. “Not $40, not $30, but just $19.95 for one mop and three extra heads. I can do this for five people. Who’ll be number one?”
He puts his own hand up first and others quickly follow. He never uses the word “buy”. Sullivan says he has had fights break out for his $20 mops.
This is an edited extract from Philip Delves Broughton’s new book, Life’s a Pitch: What the World’s Best Sales People Can Teach Us All (Portfolio Penguin, £12.99).