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(originally published by Booz & Company)


You Gotta Serve Somebody

Jeff Thull, author of Mastering the Complex Sale: How to Compete and Win When the Stakes Are High, introduces a passage that overturns negative stereotypes about sales from To Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth about Moving Others, by Daniel H. Pink.

If you want to succeed in sales, set aside manipulative games and mesmerizing presentations. Instead, figure out how you can improve your customer’s life. This is particularly important in the increasingly complex B2B markets, where customers face daunting buying decisions that can involve billions of dollars and where sales professionals struggle to differentiate themselves and their solutions from competitors.

Let’s also set aside outdated sales stereotypes once and for all. I’ve always found that the most successful sales professionals are what Dan Pink would call servant sellers. In the excerpt that follows, Pink hits the nail on the head when he quotes Robert Greenleaf’s vision of servant leadership—“do no harm...listen first...accept and empathize”—as a model for sales professionals. This model is well-supported by my firm’s research: The thinking and behavior of top salespeople are a close match to those of the best doctors. They diagnose and prescribe while keeping the well-being of their clients foremost in their minds.

In the rush to close deals and make the numbers, it is too easy to forget that we need to address the hopes, fears, and aspirations of our customers. But today’s customers are not saying, ‘‘We need solutions!’’ They are saying, ‘‘We need help!’’ If you reframe the way you sell in line with this reality, it will lead you to more valuable business relationships.

Jeff Thull


An excerpt from chapter 9 of To Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth about Moving Others


In 2008, [Wharton professor Adam Grant] carried out a fascinating study of a call center at a major U.S. university. Each night, employees made phone calls to alumni to raise money for the school. As is the habit of social psychologists, Grant randomly organized the fund-raisers into three groups. Then he arranged their work conditions to be identical—except for the five minutes prior to their shift.

For two consecutive nights, one group read stories from people who’d previously worked in the call center, explaining that the job had taught them useful sales skills.... This was the “personal benefit group.” Another—the “purpose group”—read stories from university alumni who’d received scholarships funded by the money this call center had raised describing how those scholarships had helped them. The third collection of callers was the control group, who read stories that had nothing to do with either personal benefit or purpose. After the reading exercise, the workers hit the phones, admonished not to mention the stories they’d just read to the people they were trying to persuade to donate money.

A few weeks later, Grant looked at their sales numbers. The “personal benefit” and control groups secured about the same number of pledges and raised about the same amount of money as they had in the period before the story-reading exercise. But the people in the purpose group kicked into overdrive. They more than doubled “the number of weekly pledges that they earned and the amount of weekly donation money that they raised.”

Sales trainers, take note. This five-minute reading exercise more than doubled production. The stories made the work personal; their contents made it purposeful. This is what it means to serve: improving another’s life and, in turn, improving the world. That’s the lifeblood of service and the final secret to moving others.

In 1970, an obscure sixty-six-year-old former mid-level AT&T executive named Robert Greenleaf wrote an essay that launched a movement. He titled it “Servant as Leader”—and in a few dozen earnest pages, he turned the reigning philosophies of business and political leadership upside down. Greenleaf argued that the most effective leaders weren’t heroic, take-charge commanders but instead were quieter, humbler types whose animating purpose was to serve those nominally beneath them. Greenleaf called this notion “servant leadership” and explained that the order of those two words held the key to its meaning. “The servant-leader is servant first,” he wrote. “Becoming a servant-leader begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead.”

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The Reviewer

  1. Jeff Thull ([email protected]) is founder and CEO of Prime Resource Group, a sales consultancy. He is the author of Mastering the Complex Sale: How to Compete and Win When the Stakes Are High, 2nd Edition (Wiley, 2010), Exceptional Selling: How the Best Connect and Win in High Stakes Sales (Wiley, 2006), and The Prime Solution: Close the Value Gap, Increase Margins, and Win the Complex Sale (Dearborn, 2005).

This Book

  1. To Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth about Moving Others (Riverhead Books, 2012), by Daniel H. Pink
  2. Daniel H. Pink ([email protected]) is also the author of A Whole New Mind: Moving from the Information Age to the Conceptual Age (Riverhead Books, 2005) and Free Agent Nation: The Future of Working for Yourself (Warner Books, 2002). Previously, he served as chief speechwriter for Vice President Al Gore.
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