Book review: Life's a Pitch, by Philip Delves Broughton

It's the ability to win trust that makes a great salesman, says the author, in a fascinating look at the history of selling. Ivor Dickinson is a willing customer.

by Ivor Dickinson
Last Updated: 09 May 2012

Life's a Pitch: What the world's best sales people can teach us all, by Philip Delves Broughton.

When I was first asked to review this book, I have to admit that my heart sank just a little bit. I have read so many sales books over the years, constantly seeking answers for both myself and my company. It's a thankless task, as each book about selling delivers the same message in a slightly different way, and even if a golden sales mantra is found, remembering it or putting it into practice is a different story altogether. Even the title of this book put me off. I don't like it. Firstly, I have always been taught never to use the word pitch and, secondly, a book of the same name has already been written by Stephen Bayley and Roger Mavity.

However, it was not long before my worst fears about this particular Life's a Pitch were dispelled. This is not a 'teach you how to sell' book but a history of selling. Delves Broughton accepts that you can't teach selling and also that great salespeople come in many different guises - both of which are long-held beliefs of mine.

We are told the story of Magid in a Moroccan souk who notices everything from the wear on your wedding band to the state of your teeth - a tale that I wish I had read before my last fleecing in Marrakesh! Or the extraordinary Mrs Shibata, who rose from nowhere to become the top insurance person in all Japan. Or the dastardly art dealer Duveen.

My favourite character (for that's what this book is, a smorgasbord of rich characters) is Memo from Baltimore, who runs a construction company. He rises every day at 4.30am and, after his very early morning run, sets about managing his team of Mexican labourers and more importantly his wealthy Baltimore clients, whom he handles with extraordinary deftness.

These stories are all beautifully written, thoroughly researched and with protagonists from all walks of life using very different techniques to achieve excellence. It proves the point that there is no simple answer to being good at sales. Instead, Delves Broughton digs far deeper into the secrets of their success.

Inevitably, it is not about technique. The characters in this book are highly driven, ambitious and hardworking, but above all else they have an extraordinary ability to win trust. The author also claims that they were born this way. 'Hybrid vigour' proves that there is no easy route to being a successful sales person, it has already been decided and it is our genetics and the life we lead that make us who we are.

This is a fascinating read, both inspiring and at the same time humbling. As well as some riveting stories, Delves Broughton goes some way to explain how selling is a fundamental part of our life and that we are all engaged in it in some way every day. So why is it a dirty word, why is it not taught at school, he asks. He writes about Jesus being one of the greatest salesmen (which I don't think is blasphemy), and how the serpent in the Garden of Eden was a master of the one-off sell.

He explores the techniques of Lawrence of Arabia, Estee Lauder and Nelson Mandela, and compares the thrills of sales to the thrills of fox hunting, as described by the French psychologist Clotaire Rapaille. He is just one of many academics and experts to have been studied by the author in order to give us such extraordinary insights.

What I particularly enjoyed about the book is that it isn't one story after another about brilliant sales people who are obviously extraordinary, and whom we mere mortals could never emulate. Delves Broughton also provides refreshingly candid insights into the surprising techniques of people such as broadcasting magnate Ted Turner.

The easiest way for me to determine whether a sales book has been worth reading or not is to observe the amount of notes and underlinings that I have made. On this score, Life's a Pitch proved to be a clear winner, every page being littered with notes by the time I had finished reading it.

Above all else, his description of fluid intelligence proves what I have always believed about sales people, 'that intuition and native wit are like the large lungs of a cyclist, a psychological gift that most of us, however hard we study and practise, can never compete against'. If you have not got those lungs, this book will not give them to you, but it sure as hell is a darn good read.

- Ivor Dickinson is managing director of estate agents Douglas & Gordon

Life's a Pitch: What the world's best sales people can teach us all

Philip Delves Broughton

Penguin Portfolio, £14.99

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