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The Art of Pursuasion: A Helping Hand from Sales

I recently stumbled over this really great article from Steve Martin (not the comedian) in the Harvard Business Review on "Personality Traits of Top Sales People."  The article had some surprising revelations, most of which I realized could end up helping almost all of us in our daily lives one way or another.  It's a quick read, so do please run off and read it.  But I had a couple of thoughts about how Steve could help the rest of us out.
From Jeff Moore,

Professional sales people are role models to all of us in at least one crucial thing:  the ability to pursuade.  Sales people get their targets to do two very hard things:  make a decision, and commit money to be spent on that decision.  In our lives, we may feel we have had a "big win" if a decision maker we work with tentatively agrees to go along with a suggestion we have made for a while on a trial basis (while planning to disclaim all knowledge if it goes south), so long as it doesn't cost anything.  Now picture that deal if it had been handled by a real professional:  the decision maker would have committed to the idea in the budget!  Perhaps a supportive email would have been sent!  Hands could have been shaken.  That's what I'm talking about!  How do we get there?

Surprisingly, to me (sorry, professional sales friends), it's not by being ostentatious or even friendly.  Top traits are:
  1. Modesty
  2. Conscientiousness
  3. Achievement Orientation
  4. Curiosity
  5. Lack of Gregariousness
  6. Lack of Discouragement
  7. Lack of Self-Consciousness.
Actually, when I compared this list of traits to the personalities of people I know are top sales people in my company, I realized they are very true, but I hadn't recognized them before.  So thank you HBR!  Additionally, though, I had a couple of thoughts about this, in terms of persuasion you or I might need to do on a daily basis:

Develop a pursuasive persona:  it's not what you might think!

If you are a person who likes to get her way, (and who isn't?), then here is a behavior strategy to cultivate in a work setting:  internally, be a man or woman of steel:  determine your goals in a way you can measure (brush up on S.M.A.R.T. goals), and then pursue those goals doggedly, sloughing off discouragement and self-consciousness.  This advice encompasses traits 2, 3, 6, and 7, above.  But externally, be modest, quiet, and somewhat aloof, coming out of your shell only to ask a lot of questions (1, 4, and 5, if you're keeping track).  This combination of behaviors tracks remarkably well to rules of thumb given to consultants when dealing with clients anyway (see for example Rule 22 in "Rules to being Software Consultants," "Only speak 30% of the time.").  Or think of the Art of War, always a handy reference for software consultants:

It is the business of a general to be quiet and thus ensure secrecy; upright and just, and thus maintain order. (XI.35)

In particular, understand that self-deprecating humor may not be the thing here for you or for your client.

I don't mean to be sexist, but I think especially of my women friends with this point.  Any of us who try to be friendly and non-scary as our primary communications mode may want to rethink this strategy in a work environment where we hope to be persuasive.  If we are trying to achieve anything in particular, we need the respect of our clients (or coworkers), not their friendship.  Martin says that you need to keep your emotional distance to stay in control:  "Dominance is the ability to gain the willing obedience of customers such that the salesperson's recommendations and advice are followed. The results indicate that overly friendly salespeople are too close to their customers and have difficulty establishing dominance."

Lastly, be a Tigger:  don't be self-conscious, and learn to bounce.

As Woody Allen famously said, "80% of success is just showing up."  Stay focused on the goal, and don't let small setbacks get in your way.

...because selling is what Tiggers do best!  


  1. Awesome post, it was so informative! I was doing research online on High Jump Software when I came across your blog. I'm happy I did because this was so interesting and helpful. Thank you for sharing this with us!


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