Anthropology & Sales: How to Cultivate the Human Side of Selling

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Anthropology & Sales: How to Cultivate the Human Side of Selling

cartoon of a businessman evolving from a primate

For four straight years, Salesforce has found that over 75% of buyers want sellers to always act as a trusted advisor. On top of that, they want sellers to meet them “wherever” they are.

That’s a lot of pressure to add on top of economic uncertainty and rising quota.

How can a salesperson meet all of these standards while also enjoying what they do?

What if the answer was this: Be more human.

Much has been said and written about the human side of selling. Yet there is one perspective that has been underrepresented, that is, the Anthropological perspective.

In this blog post, you’re going to learn about business anthropology and how it’s best applied to your everyday life in sales.

1. Focus on a Buyer’s Human Problems
2. Find a Shared Sense of Community
3. Share the Intangible Benefits of Your Solution

What is Cultural and Business Anthropology?

When we talk about Anthropology we are not talking about Darwin, Primates, or Archaeology. In this case we are concerned with Cultural Anthropology and its sub-branch Business Anthropology.

Cultural anthropology is the branch of anthropology that is concerned with human, social and cultural characteristics.

Business anthropology, on the other hand, is a sub-branch of anthropology that is concerned with social and cultural characteristics within a business context. This can include organizational culture, consumer behavior, human-centered design, as well as marketing and sales strategies

photo of a sales rep and their customer

Yes, if you didn’t know by now, there’s a branch of Anthropology dedicated solely to business practices. This is not about how a remote tribe trades shells and beads for fish and game (although that would be a very interesting and valid reference for a discussion of sales) rather, we are talking about the professions and business techniques within our own cultural setting: Western industrialized corporations.

But why should you understand cultural and business anthropology as it relates to sales? And how exactly should you apply it to everyday selling activities?

Continue reading to discover three ways to satisfy the customer experience by applying anthropological principles.

How to Cultivate the Human Side of Selling

Spending most of your day nurturing the human experience you share with prospects, leads, and customers is easier said than done. So how exactly can you apply business anthropology to your sales process?

Let me show you how.

1. Focus on a Buyer’s Human Problems

So how does a Business Developer apply anthropology in their sales activities? How does a profession historically rooted in persuasion, and sometimes coercion, consider human values and characteristics such as trust and empathy?

What many businesses have come to realize is that “to sell is human”, thus the human factor cannot be separated from products, value, or even profit.

In Warren Moss’ 2017 article in Chief Marketer entitled “Dig It: 3 Ways Anthropology Can Enhance Sales Training”, Moss shows how an anthropological approach can differentiate from common sales approaches by addressing the emotions behind the search for solutions rather than a traditional problem-solving approach.

“Say you’re trying to sell software to the CTO of a large corporation. If you start your sales conversation around how your technology can solve their problems, you’re not differentiating yourself. But if you use anthropology, you may discover that CTOs have a genuine fear of irrelevance; in fact, most of them are preoccupied with ensuring their company is still around in 10 years’ time. Armed with this insight, you can start the conversation in a way that directly addresses this underlying fear.”

This approach aligns with the most basic anthropological theories and approaches – acknowledging the human motivation or emotions behind the problem and applying empathy.

In other words, don’t start your sales conversation with how your product can solve a business problem. Start with understanding the human problem first, by listening for what emotions are coming out of the conversation.

photo of a stressed out businessman

In the above case referenced by Moss, it’s clear that there is “fear” – it’s what the fear is about where a business developer can begin addressing the problem that needs to be involved.

Another human problem that a potential customer might have, also rooted in fear, is risk or exposure of vulnerabilities.

This can be rooted in data security, lawsuits, competitor success, or even loss of relevancy through lack of innovation.

How might a vendor address these issues before introducing a product or service?

How can you communicate empathy, trust, and assurance to a potential customer?

Easy: Put your sales pitch aside – listen and empathize first, build a shared camaraderie and thus, a shared sense of community that works toward the same goal.

photo of a happy business person

2. Find a Shared Sense of Community

But what about making that initial sales conversation?

What about the anxiety that is the job of the Business Development Representative who is responsible for making those connections and first contacts?

Perhaps the answer is NOT to be making a first contact or a cold call. Perhaps the way to get one’s foot in the door is to already be inside.

Anthropologist Victor Turner coined the phrase “communitas”, that is a shared sense of community and belonging, usually achieved through a common ritual.

photo of businessmen shaking hands

In the past, it was common for companies to gain a sense of “communitas” with their customers by meeting on the golf course and the country club, which is where many business deals were actually made.

Nowadays, companies cannot even accept gifts from other companies (tickets, travel, golf packages, etc.). Times have changed.

So how to adapt? Now we can mention Darwin, who in a nutshell said “Adapt or Die”.

The most financially successful businesses today have been putting great emphasis on social consciousness and impact, working with local charities, and implementing social and economic development projects.

They have put emphasis on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in hiring, employee engagement and experience. The question to be asked here, is whether the vendor, the sales entity can align with such values.

Can the vendor find common ground and build “communitas” with their customers by aligning with their values and collaborating with their social engagement efforts?

Perhaps it’s time for B2B sales companies to meet their potential customers at a Habitat for Humanity event or at a local school system meeting with young entrepreneurs, or whatever might be their prospective customer’s favorite charity.

My advice to Business Developers is to start a conversation with prospective customers on partnering in the community on a charity or program (preferably the customer’s chosen).

Once a sense of “communitas” is developed with that prospective customer, trust can more smoothly develop and conversations about business and products will come much more easily. This will transcend the liminal tension of those Business Development Reps who spend days on the phone just trying to persuade prospective customers to have that first conversation.

Business Development Reps can spend their time talking to companies about social projects where they can partner and let the sales opportunities develop from there.

Looking for another good place to start? Review your customers’ LinkedIn profiles and scroll to the bottom to discover interests, volunteer service, and more

3. Share the Intangible Benefits of Your Solution

In the same spirit of social consciousness and responsibility, salespeople may want to start listing the benefits of their products in terms of positive social impact.

For example, if a vendor is trying to sell software to automate business processes, their customer may immediately imagine an ROI from decreased need for manpower.

However, companies are also extremely concerned about turnover and retention. It may be wise for the vendor to explain how the product can support retention efforts by making work less burdensome for employees thus promoting employee wellbeing and giving employees more opportunity to take on sophisticated tasks or other roles within the company.

Another example would be if you are selling HR products such as an applicant tracking system. Explain how your software can aid and assist in recruiting candidates from historically marginalized groups and include the data and insights that support this feature.

Listing those seemingly “intangible” benefits can go a long way, especially with those companies who are in the business of promoting wellbeing among their employees.

several photos of humans expressing emotions

Final Thoughts

Salespeople are always looking for new tactics to hit and exceed quota faster and easier. There are thousands of tactics to choose from, which is why sometimes you just need to take a step back and look at the human element of sales.

While there are a number of other benefits that Anthropology can bring to sales. This blog entry only touches on the proverbial tip of the iceberg.

For further reference and reading, below is a list of on-line articles and videos where one can pick up additional insights and ideas on applying anthropology in the business development space.

Got questions? Ping me on LinkedIn

More information:


Keith Kellersohn

Keith Kellersohn

Keith is a renown expert in business anthropology. He carries a Master of Arts in Business & Organizational Anthropology, and a Masters of Science in Strategic Leadership. With over 20+ years in Organizational Behavior and Effectiveness, Keith loves sharing anthropological insights as it pertains to sales and marketing.

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