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Leveraging the Psychology of the Salesperson

Leveraging the Psychology of the Salesperson

There’s something about sales that fascinates us. We have to admire the salesperson’s endless resilience in the face of constant rejection, his certainty that things will work out in the end. At the same time, we’re repelled by the job because of what it does to the people in it. Everyone is familiar with the play Death of a Salesman, which portrays a well-meaning man broken by the hollowness of his work. Dramas such as Glengarry Glen Ross present an even bleaker picture, in which success seems to require moral capitulation.

Just what type of person goes into sales, and how do salespeople cope with the job? For insight into these questions, senior editor Diane Coutu approached the psychologist, anthropologist, and marketing guru G. Clotaire Rapaille, who is well placed to comment. Rapaille holds a master’s degree in political science, one in psychology, and a doctorate in medical anthropology from the University of Paris–Sorbonne. He worked as a psychoanalyst for ten years in France, using both the Freudian and Jungian approaches.

Rapaille researches the impact of culture on business and markets; he has written several books that explore the cultural significance of everyday products such as shampoo, coffee, cars, and toilet paper. Most recently, he has published The Culture Code. His work has attracted the interest of some of the world’s largest companies. Rapaille lists the likes of Citibank, DuPont, Exxon Mobil, General Electric, IBM, Procter & Gamble, and Unilever among his consulting relationships. He helps organizations understand how to operate in a global environment, where different cultural norms are increasingly coming into conflict with one another. As Rapaille points out, the Western businessperson will better understand a Japanese partner if he knows that the Japanese have more than ten words for “quality,” each with a distinct meaning.

What follows is culled from the transcript of HBR’s interview with Rapaille at his home in Tuxedo Park, New York. During the course of a wide-ranging conversation, Rapaille explained his theories about culture and the psychology of sales. Salespeople, he believes, are essentially the same whatever culture you are in, although there are obviously some local variations. They are “Happy Losers,” he says—people who actually relish rejection and look for jobs that provide them with opportunities to be rejected. That, of course, has implications for the ways you should motivate and manage them.

What exactly do you do for a living?

I study archetypes, the underlying patterns in psychology that enable us to understand the human condition. Carl Jung was the first psychiatrist to investigate them. Although I use them somewhat differently, I share Jung’s belief that archetypes can be analyzed.

How do archetypes affect us, and what do they reveal?

An archetype preconditions how we respond to our biology—birth, death, sex, and so forth. There are variations from culture to culture, as well. Cultural archetypes appear in religions, dreams, and the arts. They drive our myths and epics as well as basic rituals such as cleaning and eating habits.

Not surprisingly, many cultural archetypes cut across different societies. The Hero is a common one, as are the Seductress and the Witch. Typically, archetypes are so deeply embedded in a culture that people are unaware of them. Just as we can speak a language without understanding its grammar, so too we can function in a culture without a conscious awareness of its prevailing archetypes.

Each culture has a pool of shared archetypes that guide the behaviors of its members—a collective unconscious, if you will. Companies consult me in an attempt to decipher the collective unconscious of their customers, employees, and stakeholders. My background is well suited for this. When I was a psychoanalyst, I worked with autistic children. I constantly had to decode what they were telling me because they had trouble putting their thoughts and feelings into words.

What have archetypes got to do with sales?

They are the essence of sales. The art of selling is complicated in every nation, but it is always influenced by collective experience.

I remember working many years ago with a business unit at AT&T before the company split up. The unit produced cables, and one of its clients was Nippon Telegraph and Telephone in Japan. NTT ordered some cables and gave AT&T a list of specifications. Before AT&T shipped the order, it made sure that all of the specifications were met. But when the cables arrived, the Japanese took one look and rejected them. Their explanation was that the cables were ugly. The Americans were dumbfounded. They had met all the specifications, and beauty had not been one of them. The Americans were particularly confused because the cables would be buried underground and no one would ever see them. But for the Japanese, aesthetics is an archetype of quality and, ultimately, of soul. Just look at their calligraphy, the exquisite ceremony that they put into pouring a pot of tea, the care they put into presenting food. To NTT, the ugliness of the cables was an indication of how little soul AT&T had put into its work.

When I first moved to Japan on a scholarship from UNESCO, I went to see a sensei, a master, who was going to teach me to paint. I dressed in special clothes and meticulously prepared my ink, brush, and paper. The sensei asked me whether I was ready, and I said I was. “Then close your eyes and wait for the perfect picture,” he said. “You may have to wait five or six years, but once you have the perfect picture inside, you’ll do it right.” Imagine American customers waiting five or six years for the perfect picture. It’s never going to happen. Americans simply don’t think this way. The people at Nike captured the American archetype of quality perfectly with the slogan “Just Do It”—and look at its success.

It sounds as though archetypes are cultural rather than biological.

They’re both—like language, to which archetypes are closely related. Language is innate; it is hardwired. To be human is to speak. But think about the fact that there is no word for “intimacy” in Japanese. This is cultural, not biological, and it has centuries of history behind it. Japan is a very small and dense country; people are forced to live close together. Because privacy is very rare, so is intimacy, and the language reflects this fact.

When you learn any language, you learn more than words—you learn a way of looking at the world. In this sense, language is not only a means of communication but also a way of defining realities. It’s not insignificant, I think, that the Japanese also have many ways to say “I,” depending on whether the speaker is talking to a spouse, a child, or a boss. In a hierarchical culture where space is so limited, the language reflects the need for everyone to know his or her place. Everyone in the Japanese culture understands this. The Eskimos have at least 20 ways to say “snow,” which is not surprising, given the environment in which they live. In some cultures, a dolphin is a fish. In others, it’s a mammal. If it’s a fish, our main concern may be how to cook it. If it’s a mammal, our concern may be how to teach it communication and language skills. Language organizes the world into different categories. But the process is so shaped by both nature and nurture that we’re not even aware of the influence it has on how we look at the world.

Is there a universal archetype of the salesperson?

All archetypes differ according to culture, but some aspects of the archetype are universal. Consider, for example, the Warrior. This archetype may manifest itself in Japan as a samurai and in the United States as a cowboy, but in both cultures, the Warrior is a fighter who takes on society and wins.

Similarly, although manifestations of the Salesperson archetype vary from culture to culture, there is an “ur-archetype,” if you will. Salespeople are Happy Losers. Whether they know it or not, they are like addicted gamblers; they are after the thrill. On some level, addicted gamblers know that they are going to lose most of the time, but they are excited by the outside chance of winning. Salespeople share that temperament. They are pros at losing. They are rejected at least 90% of the time, I’d say. Why would anyone choose that job? For the chase. I assure you, salespeople are never going to be an endangered species. There will always be people who enjoy and want this job, just as there will always be addicted gamblers.

Are there any exceptions?

No. Whatever your culture, you cannot be a salesperson without losing most of the time, so the successful ones have to be those who are happy when they lose. They don’t develop low self-esteem or lose hope or get destroyed by the losses. Look at Donald Trump. At the high point of his career, he was on the covers of dozens of magazines. Then he came tumbling down, but he dusted himself off and came right back. He is the prime example of a good salesman, though in his case he is his own product. Trump is a Happy Loser.

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