Everyone is in Sales

In a recent post I quoted Warren Buffett who said, “The most important skill in finance is salesmanship.”

I said that I completely agreed with this statement, but it took me a while to come to this understanding. A few people asked so I decided to expand on these thoughts.

I always used to assume that sales were shady or a way to scam people out of their money. It was only a tactic that used car salespeople used to try to rip you off.

I certainly never looked at myself as a salesman. Then I tried to find a job and my older brother gave me a great piece of advice. He said, “You’re not selling yourself enough. You have to play up your accomplishments better.”

Once you start to look at the world this way you realize that many things in life are really about sales.

In a recent podcast with James Altucher, Seth Godin talked about the difference between advertising and marketing. Back in the Mad Men era of the 1960s advertising and marketing were the basically the same thing. And the more advertising you did the better you did with your customers and brand because that was the only game in town.

This worked until the 1990s when it all fell apart because of technological advances:

Marketing stopped being about advertising and it started being about a lot of things. And what I discovered in the process of doing my work is that it started in the square that was clearly marked as marketing. But what I discovered is every time you made that square bigger and bigger and bigger it got more and more effective. Because marketing is everything. It’s the promises we make, the work we do, the people we connect with, the folks we lead, the hard decisions we make, our values, our ability change the status quo…that’s all marketing.

In many ways, sales and marketing really are everything:

  • Finding a good job is about selling yourself and your strengths.
  • Finding a spouse is about marketing your good qualities (and hiding your bad qualities for as long as you can — kidding, kind of).
  • To put forward the thoughts and ideas that you care about you have to be able to convince other people that your opinions matter. This is especially true when you’re first coming up in the working world and have little-to-no experience.
  • Networking plays a huge role for many when finding a job these days so you have to have the ability to convince others that they should make a sale on your behalf.

Just about everyone is selling a good or a service, whether they realize it or not. And right or wrong, people are susceptible to a good story or narrative. So if you’re like me and weren’t born to always be closing, this is something you have to work on.

In The Win Without Pitching Manifesto, Blair Enns discusses the importance of sales:

We cannot be in business without embracing selling. We must, therefore, overcome the stereotypes and learn to do it properly – professionally.

Enns says that to sell is to:

  • Help the unaware
  • Inspire the interested
  • Reassure those who have formed intent

He continues:

The first thing we must understand if we are to approach selling properly and respectfully is that the client’s motivation, and by necessity, our role as salesperson, evolves as he progresses through the buying cycle. He moves from unaware of his problem or opportunity, to being interested in considering the opportunity, and finally, to intent on acting on it. As he progresses in this manner, our role must change from one of helping, to inspiring, and ultimately to reassuring.

The psychology of buying is the psychology of changing. Selling, therefore, is change management. The very best salespeople are respectful, selective facilitators of change. They help people move forward to solve their problems and capitalize on their opportunities. The rest talk people into things.

So selling doesn’t have to be a scam like many would have you believe. There are perfectly acceptable forms of sales that don’t require you to rip someone off. The first step in the process is actually having a skill, solution, product or service that others will find useful. From there it really depends how effectively you can communicate how your skill-set can fulfill someone else’s needs.

Everyone is in sales.

Many just don’t know it yet.

Change Your Mind, Choose Your World & More Genius Advice From Seth Godin (Altucher Confidential)
The Win Without Pitching Manifesto

Further Reading:
Ciadini’s 6 Principles of Influence & Persuasion

Now here’s what I’ve been reading lately:


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  • Noel Farrelly

    I agree that everybody has a sales role, whatever their position within an organisation; I think this discussion is a little confused, however, perhaps because your starting point is that there is something shady about sales or that it is a scam. Professional salespeople have nothing shady about them, nor do they indulge themselves in scams. As for Seth Godin’s remark that advertising was marketing until the 1990s, this demonstrates a real ignorance as to what marketing is and has always been. Advertising has only ever been part of the marketing mix.

    On a business management course in 1984, I was told that there are only two disciplines in business. The first is finance and the second marketing, “because marketing is everything you do.”

    • Ben

      I think you missed my point here. I’m saying I was originally wrong about the role of a salesperson and I have come around to the idea that it’s not all like that. As for Seth Godin, I would advise you to listen to the podcast. He is one of the leading experts in the field of marketing and has written countless books on the subject. What you said is exactly his point.

  • “Finding a spouse is about marketing your good qualities (and hiding your bad qualities for as long as you can — kidding, kind of)” No “kidding” … you nailed it. The problem is when you are too effective at hiding your bad qualities.

    Nick de Peyster

  • Absolutely Ben. Unfortunately, I learned the lesson rather late after toiling early years as a research engineer. Salesmanship is a valuable skill indeed.

  • DCP

    Your points about good salesmanship are well taken, but the problem I have is that far too many salespeople have either an inferior product/service, or clients who don’t need what they are selling, or both, yet still use the skill sets you describe to take advantage of people. I have also seen too many executives parlay their sales skills into jobs they can’t handle, and the folks who hire them can’t see through the facade because their own forte is salesmanship as well. Yes, we all need to bring a constructive and outgoing approach to delivering our own value to the rest of the world, but we also need to guard against using sales skills to gratify our baser instincts at the expense of others.

    As for marriage, I’d like to think it involves much more than marketing/seduction. Here’s my two cents: if you and your prospective spouse together can make the world a better place than the sum of your individual efforts would, then go for it.

    • Ben

      Yeah the hard part is finding the right purpose behind what you are selling. Poor incentives are often the driven of bad behavior here.

  • Heather Brebaugh

    Thanks for initiating a ‘sales’ discussion from a financial person’s perspective. The fact that you once thought about sales as sleazy, highlights the key point that plagues sales. There’s a negative connotation in general about sales…..even though we all sell. We just don’t realize we are selling. Planning to go out to dinner with friends? If you have a place in mind, you are selling your friends on the features and benefits of going to that restaurant. If you all end up going there – score a point for your sales prowess.

    Whether you are a quality sales person or a sleazy one starts with a mindset. If your mindset is about making a difference, you will do the right things for the person you are trying to help. It may sound counter intuitive, but the more you focus on their needs (sincerely) and the less you focus on yours (gotta make that quota), the better you will do in the long run. And the better you will feel about yourself. This applies to much more than just selling a product or service. There’s plenty of application in your person life, too. Of course, the devil is in the details, but you get the idea.

    I also love your opinion on advertising and marketing. Technology has changed a lot of things, making companies and people more accessible (and vulnerable). Today, marketing includes so much, both for companies and for individuals who want to market themselves. It’s a little like the wild, wild west!

    PS – sounds like your brother is a pretty sharp guy!

    • Ben

      yeah, this comes back to having a purpose in what your doing. I’ve always said I was never the “sell a ketchup popsicle to a woman in white gloves” kind of sales person, but if it’s something I believe in it doesn’t feel like selling.

  • Ravichand

    Thanks Ben for your detailed thoughts on salesmanship. I remember requesting you on the earlier post. Your point that many things about life is about Sales resonates nicely.In the original quote the term mentioned is “salesmanship “. My two cents:
    I looked up the Merriam-Webster dictionary and found that the precise meaning of the term salesmanship to be: “ability or effectiveness in selling or in presenting persuasively”. The second part “presenting persuasively” to me is the key here.
    Applying this to finance i am extrapolating that financial acumen , skill with numbers etc is fine but more important skill to have is the ability to articulate your financial insight persuasively and effectively to both your internal stake holders (Manager, Top Management, Board) as well as your external stake holders ( Customers, shareholders). Having financial skills is the expected functionality, salesmanship or presenting it persuasively is the WOW factor.

    • Ben

      agreed. well said

  • Brice Matheson

    Selling has a bad rep and I don’t think that’s going to change too soon. Also, I believe that there is a genuine need for sale speeches because of natural psychological traits like people needing a quick fix or needing a sugarcoated truth. The downside is that scammers will always take advantage of these traits. However, in this day and age, a normal person would search the internet if presented with a “fishy sale”. As for selling yourself, I believe that the days when one’s selling himself short because of modesty are long gone. We live in a shameless Kardashian world where everything is possible.
    Brice Matheson,Editor at http://moneyplate.com/.