Needless to say, Philip Delves Broughton's The Art of the Sale: Learning from the Masters About the Business of Life had been in that not-being-read purgatory for as long as it had for that whole “sales” thing … I've never been good at sales, not having the sort of psyche needed to take endless rejection, so when I have read “sales books”, it's been sort of a latter-day “cod liver oil” for me, something to take because I need it, not that I really want it.
However, it turns out that this is a delightful book … sort of a string of mini-biographies of a wide array of people who sell, and how these examples illustrate core truths about selling. I realize that this sounds counter-intuitive, given my antipathy toward “teaching stories”, but these aren't “dancing around the subject”, just addressing it from real-world examples. I have to admit that I took a peek at the Amazon reviews before launching into this and there were quite a number of people who were being bitchy about this not being “sales manual” – which is, basically, what I was dreading getting into.
The genesis of this book was the author's previous (about his mid-life attending Harvard's business school) ... and how he was shocked to find there was nothing about sales in most MBA programs, and how his professors suggested he “take a two-week evening program somewhere” if he wanted to study sales (oddly, I got a similar response when I wanted to study typography as part of my art major in college). He notes that there are two general schools of thought on sales, on one hand the “Dale Carnegie” side which sees sales as a path to success open to all, and the “Death of a Salesman” side which holds sales to be a soul-crushing hell. The stories here don't end up on either extreme, but float around in the real-life zone between.
The book starts with a memory of the author (who was born to English ex-pats) at age 12 in Morocco where his parents went shopping for rugs in the bazaar. Unlike many, his family was up to the process, and he fondly recalls the event. This sets up the tale of his visiting a Moroccan named Majid, who has become famous … “He is known to interior decorators, collectors, and antiques dealers the world over, and yet he started out a street hawker.” … Majid grew up in a family of traders and artisans, and he learned how to size up buyers and sellers early on. There's a bit in here of him selling a carpet to a Texan, who wanted “the very best”, which Majid understood meant “the most expensive” – had he interpreted that as “the finest” he would have wasted his time selling the wrong rug. The initial take-away the author presents here is: “Accurately perceiving the motivations of a customer then, is just as important as understanding what product they want.” … before going into a discussion of some research on “declarative knowledge” in sales.
The next chapter starts with a look at Tony Sullivan, a TV infomercial host, known for his pitches for the Smart Mop, among many other products. As a child, his father placed gambling machines in pubs, etc., and would sometimes send Sullivan out to do collections … then one summer he was helping to sell t-shirts at a festival, and encountered a guy that was selling something called a “Washmatic”, and moving unit after unit with a highly animated pitch. Sullivan was fascinated, and after a while convinced the other fellow to let him learn the business. He apparently was a natural, and began selling all sorts of products at various events around the U.K., eventually making a break into TV by moving to the U.S., and selling the Smart Mop to and then on the Home Shopping Network. Interestingly, for coming from a “hucksterism” environment, he is very adamant on only selling stuff he, essentially, believes in, saying “if a product doesn't work, or people don't think they're getting value, they can destroy your reputation online”. He also isn't “always on”, noting that he needs to take a product home, use it, think about it, and take a considerable amount of time to come up with a pitch. Broughton says:
The chapter then switches over to discussing Las Vegas hotelier Steve Wynn, who was highly impressed with another hotel's efforts to provide over-the-top service for his family while on vacation. His enthusiasm about this, told to the other hotel chain's chairman, started his outreach to Wynn employees with a system called “storytelling” that encourages staff to create service that's worthy of being told as a story. This then moves to a bit about P.T. Barnum, and then a look at an anonymous jewelry salesman who had gone to work at Cartier (getting the job after having spent nearly all his savings on Cartier products that he subtly produced at the interview), and developed into “a keen reader of people's underlying fears and wants”, much like the skills exhibited by Majid.Stories serve two purposes in sales. They enable a salesperson to sell to a customer, and they enable salespeople to sell themselves on the value of their work. A good story works in three stages, which resemble those of the sales process itself. … These are the same stages Aristotle prescribed for tragedy in the Poetics: an inciting incident, a climactic struggle, and, finally, a resolution.
The next chapter starts off with a look at the nature of sales, from the general elements true across all settings (“At its most basic and technical, selling is about understanding a customer's needs and delivering a product to meet them.”), then into various types of sales, and some research that showed how fundamentally different the aspects of the sale (motivation, aptitude, etc.) were in the different sorts of settings. This is followed by the work of Robert McMurry, who “helped establish a unique position for the study of sales, somewhere between economics and psychology”, and listed various “levels” of sales, from the simple to the very complex, and characteristics of successful salespersons, but with the “single most important trait” being “the wooing instinct”, which is found in those with “a compulsive need to win and hold the affection of others” … whose behaviors are unsettling close to the dynamics found in psychopaths. He then shifts to a consideration of the insurance industry, but focusing on this in Japan, and a woman (rare in the upper echelons of Japanese business), Mrs. Shibata, who is the top salesperson at Dai-ichi Life, having worked her way up from nothing. This looks at the dynamics of that industry, then flips back into some more research on the psychology of sales, then into some more examples of insurance salespeople, and thence to skipping through car sales, pharmaceutical sales (whose sales force is largely staffed by ex-cheerleaders), and funeral service sales. The chapter ends with a bit of a profile of the legendary Ron Popeil (one of whose daughters was a classmate of mine in high school) which introduces a bit on “ethical questions”.
Speaking of which, the book now moves to a look at “cultish” sales environments, starting with Apple, whose devotees' blind allegiance has always irritated me (especially for grossly over-priced products), this then goes to a look at some books comparing sales and religion, a look at “utopian groups” which then leads to the world of network marketing. This then shifts to a more philosophical stance, looking at optimism and pessimism and confidence and fear … ending up with a recommendation of a stance of “cheerful realism”. There are a vast number of figures name-checked here, generally with a story that then either sets up or illustrates some piece of research, making it hard to cherry-pick items for the review.
The next chapter is “Leveling”, about how sales allow people to rise up from nothing if they have the right mix of dedication and skills. The first story here is of a black lady, Madam C.J. Walker, who made a fortune in hair care products … which leads into looks at Estée Lauder and Mary Kay Ash. There was a particularly arch bit in here, discussing the prejudices many have against salespeople:
The chapter concludes with an extensive description of a Mexican contractor called “Memo” who has an interesting quote: “once you have built something from scratch, you know you can do it anywhere, anytime again”.Managers are dependent on them, but fear their power, which seems an uncontrollable, Dionysian force, overwhelming to those in the neater world of financial spreadsheets and strategic plans.
What follows is a relatively brief chapter on the Art world, with several figures in assorted levels of that arena (which involves a whole other set of dynamics, skills, and psychology). Subsequent chapters relate illustrations from the author's experiences around preparing for his marriage, software and technology sales, and the business of selling jet liners. Again, there are a lot of names, companies, products, and the contexts in which those operate … all interesting enough, but not as notable as the longer looks at key figures. Another bit, returning to the genesis of the author's look at sales, stood out here:
As noted up top, I quite enjoyed reading The Art of the Sale, although parts of it were decidedly uncomfortable for me (I'm totally the wrong personality type to succeed at this – reflected in how much I related to the line “If they felt lost or purposeless they could not sell”). It's not a “sales manual”, but it is has a plethora of information that would help anybody “wrap their head around” the world of sales.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.
The paperback of this is still in print (as one might hope as it's only been out a couple of years), but the hardcover (which I guess I found at the dollar store), can be had in “like new” condition from the new/used guys online for as little as a penny plus shipping. While this won't be of interest to everybody, if you've ever wondered about sales, thought about sales, or been faced with the necessity of actually doing sales, you're likely to find something worthwhile in this. If nothing else, it's quite an enjoyable read … especially for a “business book”!