"We're All in Sales Now": Associations and the New Sales Economy

By: Kristin Clarke

Associations often say that all staffers are responsible for great customer service, but what about sales? No? Too late—the revolution within the "new sales economy" is already hitting associations, says bestselling author Dan Pink. The question is, what will we do about it?

Congratulations on your new job! What, you didn't know it had changed? You're in sales now. No, really. Why the glum face? I'm in sales, too. In fact, the whole organization is, and all of our members are salespeople now, too. So says journalist Dan Pink.

Pink, whose bestselling books Drive, Free Agent Nation, and A Whole New Mind led him to his latest research project, concludes that the profession of selling has experienced such seismic changes in the past decade that America's sales force must be viewed as a much larger universe than the one in nine U.S. workers with official sales titles. Indeed, it's the other eight without that label who need to pay special attention to what Pink calls "non-sales selling" versus "sales-as-we-know-it selling."

"Sales is ultimately about moving people to part with resources so you're both better off, which is different from persuasion, which is getting you to change your mind, and marketing, which is about positioning your product, pricing it right, and so forth," says Pink, though he notes those disciplines are related.

Teachers, art directors, software writers—the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn't count them among the 15 million sales professionals in the country. But these are exactly the type of under-the-radar workers who Pink has found are "spending an enormous amount of their time, brain power, and energy trying to get other people to part with resources—time, attention, and effort—for mutual gain." They are America's new non-sales sales force, and you're probably one of them.

While documenting the emergence of this trend and what it means for organizations and workers, Pink also is writing the obituary of the traditional salesperson: the mythical plaid-jacketed, slightly smarmy used-car dealer or "the loser who couldn't do anything else."

It will appear throughout his book, tentatively titled The Moving Business, to be released in January 2013, but Pink will present his most association-relevant findings August 14 at the Closing General Session of ASAE's Annual Meeting & Expo in Dallas.

"Associations are in many ways the embodiment of non-sales selling because you're dealing with volunteers, people who are members of the association whom you want to get to do stuff that requires them to give up time, effort, and energy," he says. "And you are trying to convince outside folks of the worth of your cause. The point is that at some level, we're all in sales now, and that is very different from the past."

Sales 2.0

Pink cites four big forces responsible for this dramatic shift:

The nature of jobs has changed. "You have more people who are entrepreneurs, especially small ones, and more people doing conceptual work," he says. "Concepts always have to be sold, so you have more cross-functionality in jobs. And while sales used to be a specialized function, now a number of organizations don't have salespeople anymore, because everybody is involved in sales in some way."

The nature of sales as we know it has changed. The bulk of "transactional stuff has gone online, but that makes the higher-touch, less-transactional stuff much more valuable," says Pink. Today, customers want experts, and they want them much later in the purchase decision-making process, since they already have consulted customer reviews, lifecycle product analyses, price comparison websites, and myriad other sources. That shift changes the seller's conversation completely.

The nature of people's lives has changed. "Look how people spend their lives online," he says. "What they're doing is trying to sell themselves, their ideas."

The nature of the world's economy has changed. "We tend to think of people as consumers, but now more people are producers," says Pink.

"All of these forces, in a weird way, have propelled everybody to be at some level in sales in a way that I don't think most have realized," he says.

Indeed, nearly all sales books and training focus on how to close a deal, perhaps on how to tweak language or approaches to convince people to do something they don't want to do—"shenanigans," in Pink's words. In the new reality, associations must understand that "the whole world of sales has been built around information asymmetry. The seller always had more information than the buyer, and [sales training] always had this as a premise. That world has ended," he says.

Pink warns that "we've gone from a world of 'caveat emptor'—buyer beware—to what I call 'caveat venditor'—or seller beware—because if you take information and try to trick someone, you're not going to succeed." Car buyers, for instance, now negotiate better deals because they can access factory invoices with the dealer purchase prices of every car on a lot. In the new world of information symmetry, what consumers need, want, and value has changed.

How to Sell More Today

Associations that want strong sales conducted ethically need to "get to the source code of what it means to move people" to buy. Embracing three "deeply human" qualities and developing four tactical skills will help them do so, Pink says.

That's where some of the myth-busting about what makes a good salesperson today and what constitutes best-practice selling today emerges from his research. "The particular skills that matter most often fly in the face of our belief about being aggressive, super sociable, tricky, and a little slick," he says. "It turns out that doesn't work very well."

The three qualities that meet with greater sales success:

Attunement. "Figuring out where the other person is coming from. It's about listening, about empathy, which seem to be soft skills, not the kind of aggressive things we associate with sales," Pink says.

"Attunement is important in understanding customer concerns, because in a world awash in information, there is a premium on problem identification rather than on problem solving," he says. "That is, if people know what their problem is, there's enough information out there that they can probably find a solution. But the real action is in identifying new problems. That requires being attuned with a person or situation where they're coming from."

Ambiversion. Another myth is that the most persuasive people (and therefore, the likely top salespeople) are extroverted. Data indicate that is false.

"It's more subtle than that," Pink says. "It turns out that people who are very extroverted are not very good in this [era of non-sales selling]. Why? Because they don't listen well, and they're too concerned about being right."

But heavily introverted workers don't excel either, because "sometimes they don't have the gumption to speak up. The folks who really flourish in moving people are those who are not real extroverts or introverts but who are what social scientists would call ambiverts." These people have the ability to exhibit both personality types, and "they can ride up and down that scale between the two."

Pink believes the majority of us fall within the range of ambiversion, although most people lean one way or the other, particularly toward introversion. Still, "what really matters is that [ability] to know when to speak up and when to shut up," he says. "The people on the far ends are having a much more difficult time selling."

Buoyancy. This non-sales selling quality includes learned optimism, resilience—important because sellers are often rejected—and authentic conviction.

Pink says conviction, in particular, offers a unique selling opportunity for mission-driven associations. "Believing in what you're doing ends up being extremely important and infectious in selling," he says. "It's very hard to fake or manufacture. … People who are doing something they love and believe in it do a better job of selling it, because they actually care. … There's an outdated notion that some people can sell anything, but the research shows that just isn't the case."

While those three qualities—attunement, ambiversion, and buoyancy—are vital to successful non-sales selling, so are the four practical skills Pink identifies:

Curation. This skill is critical, Pink explains, because "the flip side of the end of information asymmetry is that there's a huge amount of information out there, so people most effective at moving others to part with resources … can take that mass, whittle it down, and make it compelling and relevant to each person."

Pitching. Good curation powers the pitch, a skill that "many people were never shown how to do well," he says. "I feel like people are pitching all day long, and in the world of Twitter, pitching has become so much more important because there's such a premium on brevity." (Pink will roll out a new way to pitch—"the 21st-century elevator pitch," as he calls it—at ASAE's Annual Meeting.)

Improvisation. The art of improvisation relates to authenticity in selling. From the early years of door-to-door salespeople to telemarketing of the 1990s, sales were "very mechanical" because salespeople had specially memorized scripts to combat each potential customer concern. Now, the if-this-then-that style of selling doesn't work well, and instead "what really counts is the ability to … use the skills of improv actors to respond to questions and objections," says Pink.

An effective sales response "wouldn't be anything you memorized; you'd just be quick on your feet to respond to any objections because you believe in what you're saying and are knowledgeable."

Service. The final non-sales selling skill is a familiar one to associations: great service. "That's the whole point of this exercise," Pink emphasizes. "Organizations have this notion that selling is about 'I get something from you and therefore I win,' but it's ultimately about service. You have to understand that what you're doing when selling is in some ways noble. You can make someone's life better. That is a surprising notion for people. … If you look at [who is] good at this … they are the selling equivalent of servant leaders."

Some pharmaceutical companies, for instance, are eliminating their sales teams and commission structures in favor of creating service teams whose members are paid to be resources and educators. "That can be a much more effective way to sell today," Pink says, and associations could have an advantage in this role, since they already emphasize education and information-sharing with members.

Time to Adapt

Association leaders will need to help their members and staff acknowledge and adjust to the new sales economy. "I can imagine associations [focusing significant education on] curating, pitching, asking, improvising, and improving service," Pink says.

In particular, associations could boost sales and membership loyalty by developing higher-level curation skills, a conversation that seems to be playing out already across the association community. "There's so much information about [professions and industries] that members will look to associations as curators more than ever," he says.

However, he cautions associations to expect some internal pushback from staff who may resist an all-in sales approach, warning that organizations may be stunned "at the level of visceral distaste of selling." They will need to face that attitude openly, he says.

"Have a conversation that asks, 'When you think sales, what do you think of?' It's amazing how many people think of used-car salespeople," Pink says. "The personal associations with sales are very, very negative. That is a huge barrier for associations. … What I'm trying to say is, 'Let's take a step back and look at this a bit differently. The world has changed fundamentally in the last 10 years, and sales isn't what it used to be. If you think of this as non-sales selling, we can overcome that.'"

He points to a survey he conducted of 50 top international MBA programs that revealed only eight of them teach sales. "That's amazing!" Pink says. "It's as if making the cash register ring is somehow ancillary to commerce. We don't take it seriously because we're laboring under outdated notions of what sales is. … It's amazing that so few folks have taken a serious look at this thing so integral to everything we do."

Kristin Clarke is a business journalist and editor for ASAE. Email: [email protected]

Learn More

  • See Dan Pink's Closing General Session presentation at ASAE's 2012 Annual Meeting & Expo, August 11-14, in Dallas, and look for tools, conversation, and other learning aids on Pink's upcoming website for The Moving Business in 2013.
  • After publishing his last book, Drive, Dan Pink spoke with Associations Now about how motivation has changed and why old motivators won't work. See "Rethink Motivation," interview by Samantha Whitehorne, Associations Now, March 2010

Kristin Clarke

Kristin Clarke is books editor for Associations Now and a business journalist and sustainability director for ASAE.