Skip to contentSkip to navigation

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.

(originally published by Booz & Company)

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Let’s also set aside outdated sales stereotypes once and for all.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.”

The very idea of leaders subordinating themselves to followers, of inverting the traditional pyramid, made many people uncomfortable. But Greenleaf’s philosophy excited many more. Those who embraced it learned to “do no harm,” to respond “to any problem by listening first,” and “to accept and empathize” rather than reject. Over time, companies as diverse as Starbucks, TD Industries, Southwest Airlines, and Brooks Brothers integrated Greenleaf’s ideas into their management practices. Business schools added Greenleaf to their reading lists and syllabi. Nonprofit organizations and religious institutions introduced his principles to their members.

What helped servant leadership take hold wasn’t merely that many of those who tried it found it effective. It was also that the approach gave voice to their latent beliefs about other people and their deeper aspirations for themselves. Greenleaf’s way of leading was more difficult, but it was also more transformative. As he wrote, “The best test, and the most difficult to administer, is this: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?”

The time is ripe for the sales version of Greenleaf’s philosophy. Call it servant selling. It begins with the idea that those who move others aren’t manipulators but servants. They serve first and sell later. And the test—which, like Greenleaf’s, is the best and the most difficult to administer—is this: If the person you’re selling to agrees to buy, will his or her life improve? When your interaction is over, will the world be a better place than when you began?

Servant selling is the essence of moving others today. But in some sense, it has always been present in those who’ve granted sales its proper respect. For instance, Alfred Fuller [founder of The Fuller Brush Company]... said that at a critical point in his own career, he realized that his work was better—in all senses of the word—when he served first and sold next. He began thinking of himself as a civic reformer, a benefactor to families, and “a crusader against unsanitary kitchens and inadequately cleaned homes.” It seemed a bit silly, he admitted. “But the successful seller must feel some commitment that his product offers mankind as much altruistic benefit as it yields the seller money.” An effective seller isn’t a “huckster, who is just out for profit,” he said. The true “salesman is an idealist and an artist.”

So, too, is the true person. Among the things that distinguish our species from others is our combination of idealism and artistry—our desire both to improve the world and to provide that world with something it didn’t know it was missing. Moving others doesn’t require that we neglect these nobler aspects of our nature. Today it demands that we embrace them. It begins and ends by remembering that to sell is human.

Reprinted with permission from Riverhead Books, a member of the Penguin Group (USA). Copyright 2012 by Daniel H. Pink.

Get s+b's award-winning newsletter delivered to your inbox. Sign up No, thanks
Illustration of flying birds delivering information
Get the newsletter

Sign up now to get our top insights on business strategy and management trends, delivered straight to your inbox twice a week.