BOOK REVIEW: “The Art of the Sale” by Philip Delves Broughton (2013)

Cover picPhilip Delves Broughton made quite a name for himself by writing a book, which was highly critical of Harvard Business School and the MBA system in general.  During his time at HBS, he was surprised that sales was not part of the curriculum.  He expected it to be very present in MBA programs and yet found that, in general, they looked down upon such mercantile procedures. 

Key words

Higher education, psychology, business, sales, communication, marketing, leadership, strategy.


Philip Broughton

Philip Delves Broughton

Mr. Delves Broughton considers that sales is fundamental to the workings of business, and decided therefore to write a book on the subject.  Sales, according to Delves Broughton, is everywhere, and he goes on to prove this by giving a whole host of anecdotes and stories from different walks of life.  There is the story of Steve Wynn, the billionaire hotel and casino owner, that says he wishes that employees would relate to people not as customers with an employee, but as two human beings talking to one another.  Then there is Ben Feldman, repeatedly the greatest life insurance salesman of all time, who sold over 1 billion dollars of life insurance in his 50 year career.  He says that the key to a sale is to ask the disturbing question.  “Don’t sell life insurance,” says Feldman, “sell what life insurance can do.” 

Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela successfully negotiated with his captors for better conditions.

Sales, in general, has always had a bad reputation.  In 1961, the Harvard Business Review published an article by Robert McMurry, an industrial psychologist from Chicago, titled The Mystique of Super Salesmanship.  In the article, McMurry suggests that the typical salesperson is a habitual wooer, who, as an individual, has a compulsive need to win and hold the affection of others, and that he is characterized by the conviction that he is really unloved and unwanted- hardly a positive image.  However, good sales can come from all walks of life.  It is said that Nelson Mandela, who was imprisoned on the Robben Island, began to speak to his captors in Afrikaans, and started talking to them about rugby, a sport adored by white South Africans but loathed by blacks.  Having talked in depth for several times on the subject, he then began asking for gentle improvements to his conditions in prison, and immediately got them.  “By treating sales with disdain,” says Delves Broughton, “business schools prove themselves both foolish and elitist.  Without selling, there is no business.  It is also the greatest leveler in business.”  Delves Broughton concludes that business schools should teach more sales, and it should be the starting point of business education.  According to his HBS professor, Howard Anderson, the most useful film a modern salesperson can watch is Lawrence of Arabia, which is a constant to-and-through of persuasion and resistance under very difficult circumstances. 

scared salesperson

Sales anxiety is estimated to affect 40% of salespeople.

Of course, all sales people, however good they are, will be subject to what Delves Broughton calls the “psychological battle” between the need to sell and the need to be liked.  This he tested in Bloomingdales, where several sales assistants were happy to talk and chat to him, but did very little to persuade him to actually buy some goods.  Indeed, sales anxiety is estimated to affect 40% of salespeople within their careers, and is based upon the anticipation of rejection when you ask for commitment in the closing of a sale.  “Sales success,” says Delves Broughton, “entails the ability to step away from one’s ego.  Easy to say of course, not always easy to do.” 

Interesting quotes from the book:

I imagined when I went to Harvard Business School to study for my MBA that sales would be part of the curriculum.  But it wasn’t.  In fact, the subject is absent from most MBA programs. 

When Hunter S. Thompson described America as a “nation of two hundred million used car salesmen,” it’s hard to know if he meant it as a jibe or a compliment.

Clotaire Rapaille, a French psychologist who has worked for many of the world’s largest corporations, describes successful salespeople as “happy losers.”  They see each rejection as a step on the way to a win.

When firms hire salespeople, Rapaille recommends, they should be looking for this willingness to fail rather than a track record of successful selling.  They should ask, “How many things did you try in your life that you failed at?”

At sales meetings, he suggests awarding “the gold medal of rejection: Jonathan sold 500,000 computers last month, but he was rejected 5 million times!”

Philip Delves Broughton talks about his book

In 1961, the Harvard Business Review published an article by Robert McMurry.  An industrial psychologist from Chicago, titled “The Mystique of Super-Salesmanship.”

McMurry wrote that for all advances in modern industry, from automation to organizational theory, “salesmanship- as an art applied at a face-to-face level- remains just as primitive today as it was applied 100 years ago.


Successful salesmen must have two qualities, empathy and ego.

Successful salesmen must have two qualities, empathy and ego drive: enough empathy to listen and understand what is in the customer’s head, and enough ego to close the sale.

Hair loss, for example, used to be just hair loss.  Now it is a medical problem.  The British Medical Journal reported in 2002 that in order to sell its hair-loss treatment, finasteride, in Australia, Merck hired the public relations firm Edelman to arrange for experts to contribute articles on the dire consequences of hair loss.  These experts explained that when losing their hair, men underwent all kinds of emotional problems.  Their job prospects and mental well-being collapsed.  Newspapers reported that an international Hair Study Institute had been set up to consider this awful epidemic. 

Sales is to the socially phobic what the subway car is to the claustrophobic.  Researchers estimate that anxiety about sales calls affect 40 percent of salespeople in the course of their careers.  I suspect that this is a conservative estimate. 

Errors in logic, Schulman wrote, include “personalization,” or assuming everything is about you.  Your boss passes you in the hall without acknowledging you and you immediately assume you have done something wrong, when in fact he may have just learned his dog has died.

Warren Buffett, the investor, credits Carnegie with changing his life.  One of Buffett’s biographers wrote: “Unlike most people who read Carnegie’s book and thought, gee, that makes sense, then set the book aside and forgot about it, Warren worked at this project with unusual concentration; he kept coming back to these ideas and using them.

Warren Buffet talks about influence of Dale Carnegie’s book

Martin Nowak, a professor of mathematical biology at Harvard, believes that humans are more cooperative than we think.

Nowak defines five basic mechanisms of cooperation: direct reciprocity, you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours; indirect reciprocity, in which decent acts enhance your reputation and benefit you in the future; spatial games, the idea that it pays to be good to those who live near you; group selection, the power of the tribe; and kin selection, or the old idea that blood is thicker than water.

This psychological battle inside the salesperson’s head: the need to sell and the need to be liked.

What’s the economic value of adding the elevator? Eliminating the need to climb the stairs, she said.  The salesman envisions and creates value where previously there was none.  Because he is by nature an optimist, he can make the best of everything.

School of Business

Business schools prefer to teach less brutal vision of business life.

Augie Turak told me “the best salespeople are every insecure.  They passionately want success because they think it’ll make them a different person.  Then they achieve success and it dawns on them they haven’t changed at all.  What drives salespeople is a need to celebrity.  This hard truth may help explain why business schools, which prefer to paint a less brutal vision of business life, are so loath to teach it. 

By treating sales with such disdain, business schools prove themselves both foolish and elitist.  Without selling, there is no business.  It is also the greatest leveler in business.  Done well, selling frees people from the oppression of corporate culture and allows them to define their own personalities and destinies.  Not only should business schools and companies teach more sales, but it should be the starting point of a business education.


See also:

Other Book Reviews

Have We Got a Review for You

The Wall Street Journal: “Mr. Delves Broughton knows that as customers we have all had terrible sales experiences, but he reminds us of an American tradition—stretching from Benjamin Franklin to Sam Walton—that considers sales the great leveler. “It holds that in a properly functioning democracy, no matter the condition of your birth, if you can sell, you can slice through any obstacles of class, status, or upbringing in a way inconceivable in more hidebound societies.”

The Art of the Sale/Life’s a Pitch –  Interview with the Author

Philipdelvesbroughton: “Q: Were there some universal qualities you found in great sales people? – A: resilience, persistence and optimism are the fundamental traits of good salespeople. They have high degrees of emotional intelligence and empathy, but also sufficient ego to deal with endless rejection and to push through a sale against the odds.”

The Art of the Sale

Jack Malcolm: “The book is useful for sales professionals and non-salespeople alike. I wish everyone in business who is not in sales would read this book, because it explains why nothing in business would happen without the special talents, tenacity and hard work of salespeople.”

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cover pic publish or perish

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The Development Guy: “I used to work for a company which placed its sales teams into two categories. Sales Makers or Sales Takers. The latter were the people who waited for a customer to ask for the order. They lacked sales skills and techniques, and beyond waiting for a customer to walk directly up to them and ask for a product would have had no idea how to sell.”

Cover Pic featured image.jpg Cover
Why would somebody who pays fifty or sixty thousand pounds for a car want to save 50 cents on a liter of milk? The answer was, of course, that they were ‘trading up.’ 
Most people think of dealmaking as being about negotiating. This book brings in not only the concept of auctioneering (getting several potential buyers to participate at the same time) but also shows how the two are compatible with each other. Sets out some of the challenges and external pressures on business schools today and the impact that may have for the coming years.


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Filed under Book Review, Business, Business Schools, Higher Education, MBA, Negotiation, Psychology, Strategy, USA

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