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Toby Young
Wednesday 18th July 2012

Life’s a Pitch: What the World’s Best Sales People Can Us All by Philip Delves Broughton


Imagine you’re a shoe salesman. A customer comes into your shop, picks up a shoe and asks, “Does this come in green?” How do you answer?

If you think the best response is simply to say “yes”, a career as a shoe salesman probably isn’t for you. But if you think a better answer is, “Would you like it in green?” you have a promising future in sales ahead of you.

The key to selling, it turns out, is to engage the customer in conversation, to manoeuvre them into saying “yes”, rather than browbeating them by repeating the word “yes” over and over again yourself.

This is just one of the fascinating titbits in Philip Delves Broughton’s excellent book about salesmanship, a topic that’s usually relegated to the “how to” section of WH Smith’s. Don’t be put off by the subtitle (“What the World’s Best Sales People Can Teach Us All”). This isn’t just another self-help manual. Delves Broughton is a well-respected broadsheet journalist and this is a thoughtful book about a business practice that deserves to be taken more seriously.

Salespeople occupy a position somewhere near the bottom of the professional status ladder, often thought of as losers or con artists. As one of the people interviewed in this book puts it, when most people hear the word “salesman” they think of “the guy who didn’t go to law school or medical school, who took a job at the car dealership because he had to”.

Delves Broughton sums up this attitude: “For generations, the English aristocracy belittled anyone in ‘trade’. Salespeople are the ‘trade’ class in business.”

But few businesses would survive without a good sales force. After all, if no one’s buying your products, whether it’s a £10 Smart Mop or a £50 million jetliner, you aren’t going to stay afloat for very long.

“It’s all about sales,” says Richard Perry, the founder of Perry Capital and one of America’s most successful investors. “If I have sales, I can create profit.”

Delves Broughton sets out to discover what makes a good salesperson, beginning with a rug seller in a Moroccan souk and taking in a host of colourful characters along the way. These include Tony Sullivan, a Devon-born resident of Miami who’s the most sought-after “pitchman” in American infomercials; Mrs Shibata, the top life insurance saleswoman in Japan; and Sekkid Belyamani, a Moroccan-born American known as “the $30 billion man” because he sold $30 billion worth of aircraft as the head of commercial airline sales for Boeing.

He doesn’t just quote these sages, he tells their stories, demonstrating time and again how their lives have been transformed by their innate grasp of salesmanship. He concludes that good salespeople are born not made, but even the best have to work hard at it before they can expect any sort of reward. The key personality trait of successful salespeople is the ability to bounce back from failure.

“They do not avoid rejection, but see it as a vaccine that strengthens their ability to resist the personal battering inevitable in a life of sales,” writes Delves Broughton.

One of the most compelling figures in the book is Guillermo Ramirez, a Mexican immigrant who arrived in America aged 19 with nothing and now owns a building firm with sales of $8 million a year. Among his customers, he’s known affectionately as “the Termite” because “once he gets inside a house, he is all but impossible to displace, burrowing through the walls until everything is repaired or upgraded”.

After spending a day with Ramirez, Delves Broughton is dazzled by the array of skills he brings to bear on selling kitchens and garden offices. “It takes organizational discipline and serious acting chops,” he writes. “It requires charm and quick thinking, the ability to apply pressure in the moment and yet keep in mind the larger picture. It also requires a dose of cynicism.”

At the beginning of his journey, Delves Broughton admits to feeling ambivalent about salespeople, caught between “the positive view of selling as a means to human progress and the negative view embodied by Death of a Salesman”. Yet by the end, he’s been thoroughly won round.

“Done well, selling frees people from the oppression of corporate culture and allows them to define their own personalities and destinies,” he writes. “It is a way for people with little formal education, but plenty of perseverance, to do well.”

After reading this thoroughly entertaining book, few would disagree.

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