When a book about sales and salespeople starts with one of the hard-boiled lines from David Mamet’s famous play Glengarry Glen Ross, you know you’re in for something a little different.
In his last book, Ahead of the Curve, Philip Delves Broughton eviscerated the MBA program at Harvard University. In The Art of the Sale he posits that sales is at the root of everything we do as people, offering a clear-eyed look at how to succeed in business—while really, really trying.
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What makes The Art of the Sale different from other books about making deals?
The Art of the Sale is not a set of neat tricks on how to be a better salesperson. It’s a more wide-ranging examination of a fundamental question which all of us need to answer before we sell: what are we willing to do for a buck—or for what we believe in?
We all have to sell, whether we like it or not, and it’s important we get comfortable with that idea. We sell ourselves to get jobs and to develop relationships. We are constantly selling as we seek to persuade and influence others. Selling is how we turn our talents and passions into a living. The art comes in selling in a way consistent with who we are, not twisting our selves or our ethics in the process.
This could have easily been a dissertation on best practices, or an exposé of current financial practices. What questions did you want to answer?
The essential question was this: How do we sell without losing our souls? It sounds grandiose, but the central idea is that so much of what we read about selling treats it as a kind of game in which the salesperson finagles the customer into buying. I think this idea is hugely damaging and makes selling hard for many people. It implies that we become the kind of people we might not wish to be. Fortunately, I don’t believe it’s either necessary or true.
I also wanted to try to understand the mechanics and psychology behind more personal styles of selling. Long before there were business schools, after all, there were market places at the heart of towns, where people bought and sold. Selling is the most elemental aspect of business and yet the least regarded by the business academy. I wanted to figure out why.
What is it that fascinated you about the subject enough to devote an entire book to it?
On a personal level, I was trying to figure out sales for myself. I’ve always hated having to sell and yet realized it was a necessary skill. I’ve read lots of books about sales habits and techniques, but had never found one which dealt with these broader challenges around sales without tilting either to mindless optimism or anti-capitalist despair.
You touch on the tricky problem of cognitive dissonance—that chasm between one’s sense of self and the perception of what’s needed for success. Can anyone bridge this gap, or does it take a certain type of person to be successful in sales?
People find different ways to cope with the cognitive dissonance inherent in much selling. Some treat sales as a grown-ups’ game, with its own set of rules understood by both buyers and sellers. Others treat it as a play, in which they are the actors, no more responsible for what they do than actors are responsible for what they do on stage. Some simply try to ignore the tensions in sales, as if they didn’t exist at all. All can work, but none are ideal. The best sales people have a clear sense of their own boundaries and take care not to breach them, because that way lies mental chaos.
You make a point of not avoiding some of the more famous depictions of salespeople in popular media—the predators in Glengarry Glen Ross, or the despondent Willy Loman. What do these kinds of portrayals tell us about selling in America, or elsewhere?
Of all the activities in business, sales is the one which forces us to confront who we are and what we are willing to do for money. It is the aspect of business closest to the rest of life, and the most inherently dramatic.
Salesmen can be both heroic and tragic characters. The best tend to be charming, often funny, and if they choose, inspiring. I think the most important thing is not to gloss over the realities of selling. It’s not all Willy Loman, but nor is it all the nickel-bright hoopla of Tony Robbins seminars. Loman and Mamet’s salesmen reflect what happens when men are measured by nothing but their economic usefulness. It makes monsters of some and suicide cases of others. This is an accurate view of certain areas of Western capitalism, but fortunately, there is also a broad middle.
What do you find to be the most common false impression about sales?
That it’s fundamentally duplicitous. It can be, but it needn’t be.
You’ve written that this book is for people who sell, whether they like it or not. What would you hope readers, whether or not they’re engaged in the business of selling, would take away from this investigation?
A sales trainer I interviewed once asked me what one thing I wanted most for my two sons. I stumbled around, talking about happiness, great relationships and interesting work. He said the one thing we want most for those we love is that once we are gone, they are able to fend for themselves. He was right. Sales ought to be viewed from this perspective. It’s the means by which we create a life out of our talents and interests. I hope this book helps people develop their own sense of how they can sell more effectively in order live the lives they choose.
Clayton Moore is a writer and a photographer based in Boulder, Colo. His work can be found at claywriting.blogspot.com.