Daniel H. Pink argues that 'To Sell Is Human'

We're all in sales, argues Daniel H. Pink.

We're all in sales, argues Daniel H. Pink. (Credit: Getty)

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TO SELL IS HUMAN: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others, by Daniel H. Pink. Riverhead, 260 pp., $26.95.

Daniel H. Pink knows something about sales. Two of his earlier books, after all, have been bestsellers. His latest is intended to let the rest of us in on the secret.

And he succeeds well enough. Pink, whose works include "Drive" and "A Whole New Mind," is one of those amiable writers who artfully blend anecdotes, insights and studies from the social sciences into a frothy blend of utility and entertainment.

His new book, "To Sell Is Human," follows this reliable recipe, complete with a reference to the Prisoner's Dilemma, a staple hypothetical without which no such work would be complete.

Pink's main message is that we're all in sales now. One in nine Americans, and a comparable proportion of workers in other countries, is directly employed in selling. Yet that's only the beginning, for the rest of us also spend a huge proportion of our time trying to talk people into things. Pink concludes that it's all sales, so we'd better get good at it.

His other point is that today's selling landscape has changed radically. No longer can characters who act like they jumped right out of a script by Arthur Miller or David Mamet talk the rest of us into swampland or aluminum siding. A shoeshine, a smile or even some inside dope aren't enough now to get people to buy what you're flogging.

Pink's first point -- that we're all in sales -- is valid, but it's not as new as he seems to think. None other than Adam Smith observed that, as a result of capitalism, everyone "becomes in some measure a merchant."

That was in "An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations," which first appeared in 1776.

But as to the changing nature of sales, Pink is onto something. He observes that the Internet has swept away much of the information advantage previously enjoyed by salespeople, so that now customers arrive in automobile showrooms, for example, armed with extensive research, including knowledge of the once-sacrosanct invoice price.

In place of the time-honored ABCs of selling -- Always Be Closing -- Pink suggests the New Age-y sounding Attunement, Buoyancy and Clarity.

Sellers, he says, must focus on a buyer's needs -- and not just the ones the customer knows about, but ones customers haven't even realized they had. Effective selling means not just problem-solving, but problem-finding. It means not exploiting, but serving.

Pink is right, although here too, the news isn't as new as he thinks. Once upon a time, some Wall Street types really did live by this idea. Some no doubt still do.

Like most of its Malcolm Gladwell-inspired brethren, this short book is a little too long; the section on improvisational theater is mostly a waste.

But the time spent with the last active Fuller Brush Man is a joy, and it's fun to read about how Elisha Otis gave the world's greatest elevator pitch -- by cutting the cable on an elevator with himself in it to prove his version was fail-safe.

The author does offer up a fair share of insight and concrete suggestions. What gets people to read your email? A subject line that emphasizes usefulness or curiosity, but not both. The more email your recipient gets, the more you should lean on utility. And be specific, as in "4 tips to improve your golf swing this afternoon."

It's easy to make fun of books like this, with its predictably counterintuitive studies and emphasis on measures like "mirroring" -- subtly aping the posture and gestures of your interlocutor. But such works have their uses.

This one is fun, and readers will be well served if they adopt its wholesome message: that to persuade, you must believe in what you're selling, and serve those to whom you sell it. Sales, in other words, takes idealism.

"Moving others doesn't require that we neglect these nobler aspects of our nature," Pink concludes. "Today it demands that we embrace them."

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