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Hidden Sales
All salesmen are actors: their priority is persuasion, not sincerity. That’s why the word “salesman” can be a slur and the used car dealer is our archetype of shadiness. But we only react negatively to awkward, obvious salesmen—that is, the bad ones. There’s a wide range of sales ability: there are many gradations between novices, experts, and masters. There are even sales grandmasters. If you don’t know any grandmasters, it’s not because you haven’t encountered them, but rather because their art is hidden in plain sight. Tom Sawyer managed to persuade his neighborhood friends to whitewash the fence for him—a masterful move. But convincing them to actually pay him for the privilege of doing his chores was the move of a grandmaster, and his friends were none the wiser. Not much has changed since Twain wrote in 1876. Like acting, sales works best when hidden. This explains why almost everyone whose job involves distribution—whether they’re in sales, marketing, or advertising—has a job title that has nothing to do with those things. People who sell advertising are called “account executives.” People who sell customers work in “business development.” People who sell companies are “investment bankers.” And people who sell themselves are called “politicians.” There’s a reason for these redescriptions: none of us wants to be reminded when we’re being sold. Whatever the career, sales ability distinguishes superstars from also-rans. On Wall Street, a new hire starts as an “analyst” wielding technical expertise, but his goal is to become a dealmaker. A lawyer prides himself on professional credentials, but law firms are led by the rainmakers who bring in big clients. Even university professors, who claim authority from scholarly achievement, are envious of the self-promoters who define their fields. Academic ideas about history or English don’t just sell themselves on their intellectual merits. Even the agenda of fundamental physics and the future path of cancer research are results of persuasion. The most fundamental reason that even businesspeople underestimate the importance of sales is the systematic effort to hide it at every level of every field in a world secretly driven by it. The engineer’s grail is a product great enough that “it sells itself.” But anyone who would actually say this about a real product must be lying: either he’s delusional (lying to himself) or he’s selling something (and thereby contradicting himself). The polar opposite business cliché warns that “the best product doesn’t always win.” Economists attribute this to “path dependence”: specific historical circumstances independent of objective quality can determine which products enjoy widespread adoption. That’s true, but it doesn’t mean the operating systems we use today and the keyboard layouts on which we type were imposed by mere chance. It’s better to think of distribution as something essential to the design of your product. If you’ve invented something new but you haven’t invented an effective way to sell it, you have a bad business—no matter how good the product.
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