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We all spend our lives selling

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This article also appeared in Finweek Magazine in their 5-June-2014 issue.

The uncomfortable truth: Even if we’re not selling for a living, we are all in sales. Get over it.

According to the US Bureau of Labour Statistics, roughly one in nine Americans work in direct sales. In other words, more than 15 million people in the US earn their daily income by persuading someone else to buy their offering. Worldwide the estimate is around 92 million people in the sales profession.

However, when non-sales workers were asked the question, “What portion of your time do you spend convincing people to give up something [in exchange] for something you have to offer?”, the research found that respondents spent on average 41% of their time on that activity. What can we conclude from this? We spend much of our time persuading, convincing and influencing others to make a change. In other words, even non-sales workers spend a big portion of their time selling.

If you’re an executive, think of your typical day. Assuming you have kids of school-going age, you probably spend your early morning coaxing them to get out of bed when the alarm goes off, to eat the healthy breakfast option rather than the junk food they prefer, to brush their teeth properly and to put on their seatbelts on the way to school. At work, you pitch your new project to the board, then off to budget meetings to persuade the CFO to give your department more budget. You interview a job applicant who sells you on why they are the best man (or woman) for the job. Then your promising protégé stops you in the corridor to ask for a raise. The workday ends in a client meeting, presenting a compelling business case as to why they should renew the contract with your company. Back home, you tackle homework negotiations with your children, and then convince them (no easy task) to bath, eat their supper and be in bed by 8pm. Then the negotiations start all over again with your spouse as to who gets to control the TV remote. And so it continues.

Dale Carnegie referred to it as “winning others to our way of thinking.” Call it persuading, negotiating, convincing or coaxing – it’s all selling, in some shape or form. We all spend our lives trying to sell to others.

In the words of Daniel Pink, author of bestselling book “To Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others”, “It’s selling in a broader sense. The cash register isn’t necessarily ringing. Money is not changing hands. But we’re persuading and convincing people to make a transaction … and like it or not, we’re all in sales now.”

So how comfortable are people with this idea? Not very, it seems. The connotations that sales evokes, are deep-rooted and extremely negative. As part of the research for his book, Pink asked people: “What is the first word that comes to mind when you hear the words sales or selling?” The descriptions that respondents used were tremendously negative: words such as pushy, slimy, sleazy, cheesy, dirty, dishonest and manipulative. Another telling question that Pink unpacked in his research was: “What picture comes to mind when you think of sales or selling?” Overwhelmingly, people described a man in an ill-fitting suit selling a used car.

During my MBA, I encountered this attitude very often among my peers. And yet we spent most of the MBA persuading classmates and lecturers to our point of view in classroom debates, presentations, exams and assignments. To make matters worse, the typical MBA curriculum covers every aspect of business from marketing to HR to management accounting and entrepreneurship. But at most business schools, sales training is a glaring omission, further fuelling the negative attitude that many MBA students have towards sales.

So if most of our time is spent selling, is this negative attitude, this state of denial, helping us? Definitely not. Some people don’t like selling because they think they cannot do it, or it is beneath them. But in order to be more effective at selling, you first have to accept that you are indeed selling. It’s analogous to grieving – after the death of a loved one, you cannot heal until you move from denial to acceptance. It’s the same with selling. Only once you acknowledge that you are in sales in some shape or form, can you practice your selling skills, hone your technique and become an expert in it.

To practice your selling skills, a perfect opportunity we all use every day is the email pitch. But email is information-sharing, right? Usually not. Many of us have forgotten that emails are sales pitches. They all begin with a captivating subject line. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon explored what makes one email’s subject line effective, and others not. Interestingly, they found that two types of subject lines are opened most often:

  1. subject lines that are useful, and
  2. subject lines that make us curious.


A useful subject line shows very clearly that this email is useful to you or to your work. For example, it could read: “Answers to your questions about the cost vs. benefit of flexi-time” if your reader had raised questions about this in a previous discussion. Usefulness comes down to knowing your audience. Understanding what their hot buttons are, and what things are useful to them, answering specific questions they have asked. Address these elements in your email subject line, and your emails are more likely to get opened.

The second type of email subject line is effective because it arouses curiosity. How does it do this? By creating uncertainty and raising questions. And so people want to open your email in order to answer those questions. For example: “What is your flavour?”

Interestingly, the two types of subject lines trigger very different reactions. When readers have a lighter email load and more time on their hands, curiosity is effective. When they have an overloaded inbox, usefulness works better. But many of us, and I’m also guilty here, get our subject lines stuck in the middle, halfway between curiosity and usefulness. Think of an email subject line that only says “Follow up”. It’s not clear what the email is about. Emails like this are more likely to end up unopened or deleted.

During his first presidential campaign, Barack Obama himself used a very effective email subject line that evoked America’s curiosity. What was the subject line in the most frequently opened email? It was simply “Hey” from Barack Obama. People were curious as to why someone of his stature was saying “Hey” to them and naturally, they wanted to find out more. Of course, this strategy will only work if we are of the standing of Barack Obama, an unlikely scenario.  

It all comes down to perception. Words like persuade, convince and negotiate have positive connotations, whereas words like sales and selling do not. Yes, there are sleazy car salesmen out there. But not all sales is sleazy. Think of the late Steve Jobs. He was the master negotiator, and negotiating is selling.

It doesn’t matter whether we’re at work pitching an idea to our colleagues, or entrepreneurs appealing to investors to fund our businesses, or teachers and parents coaxing children to study. Like it or not, even if we’re not selling for a living, we are all in sales. So get over it. And get on with it.

Author: Colette Symanowitz

Director of FraudCracker. Passionate about entrepreneurship, personal branding and networking. I also tweet under @FraudCracker

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