The five best Marketing & Sales books of 2021 all focus on the primary importance of people and connecting to others in meaningful ways.
The Marketing & Sales category is always a conundrum. In one respect, it is the easiest category to get through because there are not that many truly great books written on the topics and we don’t receive the sometimes daunting number of submissions we see in other categories. On the other hand, there aren’t that many great books written on these topics, so it can be a hard and dry slog reading all the books that are submitted, making it one of the hardest categories to judge. But marketing and sales are so fundamental to business success that we’ve always felt books dedicated to them deserve their own spot on any list of business books, and 2021 has blessed us with some exceptionally written and useful ones. And like other categories this year, a focus of the five books we’ve found to be the best in Marketing & Sales is the primary importance of people and human connections.
Brand Hacks: How to Build Brands by Fulfilling the Consumer Quest for Meaning by Emmanuel Probst, powerHouse Books
Even though its subtitle suggests the book is about fulfilling our quest for meaning, I did not expect lessons on how a brand can harness mindfulness, or to read about how brands are increasingly taking on a role of religiosity in their customers’ lives, but I found both assertions and many more in Brand Hacks, and they are all reasonable, non-judgmental, and clearly made. I feel slightly uncomfortable with the idea that brands provide meaning in one’s life, but I also recognize that companies of all sorts and sizes, and the products and services they provide, are a part of my life from the moment I wake up until the moment I fall asleep every single day. And so, I suppose, they must, one way or another, for better or worse, provide some meaning to it. I am what I eat, and watch and listen to and read and clothe myself in. So it is better if marketers and the companies they work for align with our values as much as possible, in an honest way, and do that work well to make a positive impact on people’s lives and the overall culture—to support our search for purpose and truth rather than undermining it. We increasingly expect it from them. And Emmanuel Probst has provided a very good guide to doing that work.
The Human Element: Overcoming the Resistance That Awaits New Ideas by Loran Nordgren & David Schonthal, Wiley
The most successful car salesperson in the country—and it is not a close contest—does not consider himself a salesperson, but an advisor, which tells us a lot about the kind of mindset that is needed for greater success in one of the hardest and most notoriously distrusted professions there is. The fact that the authors of The Human Element enlist a car salesperson from Dearborn, Michigan as one of the first examples in their book also tells us a lot—that they are interested in a deeper investigation of innovation and influence than the shiny new objects that provide the typical business book fodder. While most marketers and salespeople work to increase the “Fuel” they believe will launch their ideas and products into a place of prominence, Loran Nordgren and David Schonthal help us understand why it is as—or even more—important to reduce the “Friction” that causes customers and workers to ultimately reject them. They explain that “Proposing new ideas without designing their integrations into the world is innovation half-done.” They identify four Frictions—Inertia, Effort, Emotion, and Reactance—and how to overcome each beginning in the planning phase to make people less likely to push back on the proposed change you are asking them to make.
Sales Management That Works: How to Sell in a World that Never Stops Changing by Frank V. Cespedes, Harvard Business Review Press
Coming from Harvard Business School, you might expect a more number-crunching rather than human-centered approach to business, and Frank Cespedes does not disappoint in terms of thorough research and analysis, but his advice “is to start with people.” That is not only where he starts himself in Sales Management That Works, but where he focuses his attention for nearly 100 pages, or about a third of the book, before moving onto the interconnected topics of Process, Pricing, Partners, and Productivity. And I can’t imagine a better time to focus on these human and business basics. As Cespedes notes before even concluding his Introduction to the book, the fact is that salespeople have increased as a proportion of the US labor force in this century, social media use has remained flat in recent years and even declined among Americans under thirty-five, and an estimated 60 percent of online ad clicks are accidental. All this is a challenge to the narrative of digital ascendence in sales and marketing. That does not mean e-commerce is not important, but even e-commerce companies are moving toward a “clicks and bricks” model. We are living in a multichannel reality that requires a robust salesforce of real human beings who can connect with others across channels. Yet, salespeople are expensive to hire and train, take considerable time to become fully productive, and have a turnover rate of 20 to 30 percent annually. With numbers like that, you can understand why focusing on people is so crucial.
The Secret Lives of Customers: A Detective Story About Solving the Mystery of Customer Behavior by David S. Duncan, PublicAffairs
I remember reading Clayton Christensen’s Competing Against Luck and learning about the theory of “jobs to be done” as an eye-opening moment. It was one that came back to me when I started reading David S. Duncan’s new work of business fiction that imparts the theory in an easily digestible and entertainingly told story. Business parables and fables are often scoffed at, but they are unfairly maligned, because when they are done right, they impart new ideas and information—even actionable strategies and techniques—as quickly as any delivery device in business literature. And The Secret Lives of Customers is done right. The story is of a fictional chain of coffee shops in Boston, Tazza, about to embark on an IPO. But they are experiencing customer and employee turnover at this crucial time, and none of the added bells and whistles they’ve added to their menu and stores or appreciation and incentive programs they’ve introduced are turning the tide. That is when they bring in a self-titled “market detective” to crack the case. Listen, I don‘t always love parables myself, but I fell into this story so easily and devoured the book so quickly that it wasn’t until I finished it and read the author bio that I realized David S. Duncan was a coauthor of Competing Against Luck. Mystery solved.
The Widest Net: Unlock Untapped Markets and Discover New Customers Right in Front of You by Pamela Slim, McGraw-Hill
I read and loved two of Pamela Slim’s previous books, Escape from Cubicle Nation and Body of Work. It has been almost a decade since I’ve read anything from her, though, and I wonder what she has been up to every time I come across her books on our library shelves. The Widest Net answers that question and so much more. One thing she has not been doing is building an empire, and that is a deliberate decision. As she writes:
Tough love business influencers will tell you to hustle your way to building your own personal empire. I don’t know about you, but I have no interest in building an empire. The last time I checked, empires were good for the very few people at the top, but they weren’t much help to the many workers eking out tiny salaries while making empire builders rich.
What I want is a thriving ecosystem.
She has built such a thriving ecosystem at her and her husband’s K’é Main Street Learning Lab in downtown Mesa, Arizona, and brings the lessons she has learned there and from her longer entrepreneurial journey of the past 25 years together in her new book, The Widest Net. It provides a proven method for finding and connecting with customers, but it is also a testament to how working together with others to solve problems for real people rather than focusing solely on profit can “generate abundance in an entire ecosystem, instead of small pockets of concentrated power and profit, where the vast majority of business owners struggle.” I came away not only impressed by what she has built by listening to and working within a diverse community of entrepreneurs over the years, but inspired by how much truly knowing the world and people around us can inform and enrich our businesses and lives.