The Art of Non-Sales Selling


Over the past one year and a half, I have been working as a Fundraising Assistant in the Annual Fund office at Denison. My responsibility is to call the alumni/ae to ask for their gifts for the Annual Fund. Now the job is tough, as I’ve met with so many rejections since the beginning; however, it actually has trained me for an incredibly important skills: sales. As a huge advocate of entrepreneurship, I came to realize that a world of entrepreneurs is a world of salespeople: the exchange of ideas, products, skill sets, or service. In addition to that, the liberal arts education at Denison provides me skills that stretch across functional boundaries – something called “elasticity.” In a world of competitive job search, every employer looks for potential employees with high elasticity, and sales skill is definitely a belonging element. Ultimately, college graduates need to sell themselves to the recruiters, right?

I just finished reading the book “To Sale Is Human” written by Daniel Pink, and it strategically shows how to be and what to do as a successful salesperson. He suggests the 3 rules on being good at sales in the modern age: “A-B-C: Attunement – Buoyancy – Clarity.” This is opposite to the old “A-B-C” of traditional sales: “Always Be Closing.” This approach is strikingly similar to what I use in my job.

Attunement is the ability to bring one’s actions and outlook into harmony with other people and with the context you are in. I also like to frame it as “perspective-taking.” There are 3 principles that can make effective attunement:

1 – Increase your power by reducing it: this says that always put yourself in a lower chair than your customers. For example, in most of the Annual Fund calls, I keep myself humble and always address the person on the other side of the call with much respect and friendliness. By reducing my power towards them, I actually raise my credibility and value in their eyes.

2 – Use your head as much as your heart: Be rational in your interaction with the clients. I can put a lot of emotions in convincing an alumni to give but by approaching a phone call with a game plan (like reading from a scripted dialogue), the chances of success will be way higher.

3 – Mimic strategically: this is the ability to chameleon – to follow the flow of the conversation and seek out commonalities to get in sync with the other side. When talking with an alumni, it’s all about identifying those common areas – same majors, same hometown, similar activities, same fraternity, related career interests etc. – to keep the conversations going.

Buoyancy is the ability to stay afloat amid an ocean of rejection. The nature of the Annual Fund job is learning how to deal with rejections, so I can’t agree more. There are three components that a salesperson need to work on before, during and after the ask:

1 – Before – Interrogative Self Talk: Instead of boosting yourself with an affirmation that you are going to get this deal, asking yourself questions on what you can do to secure a good deal. For example, before asking an alum to make a donation, I will need to question myself whether this is an appropriate amount of money to ask for or if this is even remotely possible based on the few interactions we had previously. Inherently, I will have to come up with a smarter ask.

2 – During – Positivity/Negativity Ratio: The book says that the perfect ratio is 3:1, meaning that for every 3 positive things to say, one negative things need to arise. If I constantly say a bunch of great things about Denison, about how the Annual Fund office does an excellent job in raising funds, about how fabulous the new president is, about how awesome the new cafeteria looks… then the alum will know that I am just trying to flatter them. By adding a few negative details (how bad Ohio weather is, how the food is kind of blah…), the conversation seems more realistic and the ask comes naturally.

3 – After – Explanatory Style: Let’s say I failed to have the alum to make donations to the Annual Fund. Instead of being indifferent about it, I should have an optimistic explanation (not a blame) on why it didn’t work. Maybe I asked too early, maybe the alum is in a bad mood, maybe it’s just not the right time etc. This habit allows me to constantly reflect on past mistakes and look for improvements.

Clarity is the capacity to help others see their situations in fresh and more revealing ways and to identify problems they didn’t realize they had. It includes:

1 – Finding the right problems to solve: The rationale here is that problem solving is not as important as problem finding. In the age of information, clients are surrounded with information and easily look up ways online to solve their problems, unless they do not know what their problems are. Thus the goal of the salesman is to help their customers find the problems.

2 – Finding your frames: Pink suggests 5 different frames to be used – the less frame, the experience frame, the label frame, the blemished frame, and the potential frame. Some of these are quite relevant to my job: talking about how the experience calling the alums have been absolutely pleasant, labeling their donations as a valuable gifts to the institution, or referring the huge potential impacts these gifts can make on future Denisonians… They all boost my chances of convincing the alum to make their contribution.

Those are some of the ideas I learned from reading the book. You all can check it out here. Ultimately, as each of us is a salesperson, here is the keyword: Empathy – the ability to empathize with your customers and be honest, direct, and transparent when making deals with them. Hope you find this post helpful. Now it’s your turn to share: What has been your most memorable “selling” experience? How did you approach your ask and did you find that successful?


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