Trust Matters, The Podcast: Getting Through Procurement (Episode 3)

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The Limits of Value Propositions

In sales, especially B2B sales, having a clearly developed and clearly stated value proposition is unquestionably important. This is especially true for large, complex, or intangible offerings.

In fact, some experts go so far as to suggest a value proposition is the key component of successful sales. And most would say that a value proposition is at least a necessary condition for success, if not a sufficient one.

But this is certainly to overstate the value of value propositions. Not only are they not sufficient – sometimes they’re not even necessary. They are frequently less important than classic issues of needs and wants. And discussing value propositions without overtly addressing client confidence in the capability of the seller is not useful.

Value propositions are unquestionably powerful. But if you think nailing down a clear value proposition is going to solve your sales issues, you need to think again.

Thinking about Value

First, let’s set some definitions. I’m using “value” in a simple, narrow way to mean economic value. For example, I might offer a client a value proposition that says, “By using a distinctive approach to account development, I can improve top-line revenue by 10% within six months at virtually no cost to margins.” The “value” in that example is “10% of full-margin top-line revenue,” and the total statement includes reference to how I’m going to achieve it and in what realm of the client’s business.

But usually that’s not how clients start out thinking. In my experience, clients go rather quickly from “we’ve got a revenue problem” to “the biggest reason for our revenue problem is sales force turnover,” from whence it’s a quick hop to “we need a salesforce recruiting solution.” In which case, my highly articulated value proposition about the account development process, even if it’s correct and relevant, doesn’t even get invited to the party.

Their problem (“10% top-line revenue gap”) may rhyme with your value offering (10% top-line revenue growth”), but if the buyer is fixated on sales force turnover, game over. You could argue you need to present your value proposition earlier in the buying cycle, but that’s a problem outside the value proposition per se. Call that the “misaligned diagnosis” problem.

Another problem is relative lack of urgency. A 10% increase in top-line growth, while it sounds great, may produce yawns in organizations that are transfixed by products going off patent, or by R&D rejuvenation, or by M&A activity, or by the urgency of a cost-cutting drive.

A value proposition can work its magic only if the client (a) agrees on the issue at hand, (b) feels a need to address the issue, and (c) wants to use the particular value proposition to address the need.

That is not a radical statement. (The value of a glass of water in the desert is greater than when lakeside.) And yet it is violated all the time. Salespeople keen on articulating value propositions to clients risk making the world look like a nail to match their value proposition hammer. We know better than to sell product vs. solution, but it’s so tempting when the “product” is disguised as a total value proposition.

Note: this can work in sellers’ favor. Over half my clients already see what they want in my offerings by the time they contact me. They articulate my value proposition for themselves. And unless they’ve gotten it quite wrong (not very common), there’s little point in forcing them to tweak it. At that point, the imperative to add value as the opportunity presents itself becomes the key task.

Selling Value and Buying Value

Suppose you haven’t productized the value proposition. You’re engaged in a constructive dialogue with an interested client. You’ve articulated your value proposition, they comprehend it, and it meets their needs. However, the same can be said for two competitors, each of whom is also talking to your potential client about increasing top-line revenue by changing the account development process.

Several issues then arise, such as the level of detail. (Just how does your approach to changing the account development process differ from theirs?) You could call this a deeper level of value proposition, but below some level it starts to look like just product variations.

But the biggest issue for buyers at this point is often not the value proposition at all, but the confidence or trust the buyer has in the seller. Confidence and trust can not only overcompensate for lower stated value, but they can overturn the value proposition entirely.

Expected Value

Consider two firms competing for a bid, with general agreement on the value proposition that the client is looking for. Let’s say the economic value calculated by each firm is about net $5 million. Sophisticated decision analytics might reveal the client has 90% confidence that firm A will deliver fully on the expected value, but only a 75% level of confidence that Firm B will do so.

That’s 15 percentage points variation in expected value—the same as if one firm had quoted a value of $750,000 more than the other! It’s also a discrepancy often sufficient to entirely wipe out the fees difference between the two sellers. Even greater discrepancies emerge when the issues turn to, “what if things go wrong? What will they be like to work with then?”

Yet this discrepancy virtually never gets talked about—at least not in a direct and quantitative way. The discussions are more along the lines of, “I don’t know. I just don’t feel like when push comes to shove they’re going to be able to get with our program.”

If you lose a bid and are lucky enough to get some post-bid debriefing, you’re not likely to hear, “Well, we just didn’t feel like when the chips were down you’d be able to get with our program.” That would be the corporate version of politically incorrect speech.

Instead, you will hear, “The other guys had a more compelling set of resumes on their team, ” or “We just felt like we had to go with their longer track record in this area.” In other words, the language of value proposition gets cited as post hoc justification even though it was not the basis for the actual decision. More prosaically, people buy with their heart and rationalize it with their brains.

Trust Can Even Overturn a Value Proposition

I’ve been on both ends of this one. I won a job by telling the client they flatly didn’t need to do a significant part of the job they were requesting. I didn’t win because I came up with a better value proposition; I won because I showed I could figure out the right thing to do. And the proof of it was they didn’t bother to solicit other bids around the new value proposition.

Sadly for me, I’ve lost this way, too. It’s not about picking the right game, it’s about picking the person who knows how to pick the right game.

The Role of the Value Proposition

Too often it’s assumed that the purpose of the value proposition is so obvious it doesn’t need stating. Doh! We assume clients buy value, clearly expressed, and tightly calculated. After all, that’s what they say they do.

There are seriously valuable roles for a value proposition, of course. They are:

  • To force the seller to have a Point of View: my client may or may not buy what I’m selling, but my statement of it marks a beginning point of discussion, a coherent account—one that suggests other ideas, proves I’ve thought things through, and shows I am worthy of valuable time.
  • To give the buyer “air cover” in justifying a decision internally: a B2B buyer wants to be able to tell anyone who asks, but especially his superiors, that they bought a proven product with a 35% ROI that will provide a 15% CAGR by an experienced-based approach to account management. They do not want to tell everyone they chose vendor A because, gee, they really felt good about them—even if that’s the truth.
  • To undergo a required, universal protocol: like meeting ISO standards, following tax rules, or complying with traffic laws, the tight definitions that come from rigorous thinking about value propositions are an assurance of quality. They may be a little pro forma, they may be subject to some tweaking, and they may not be a guarantee. But if everyone must do them, they form a common denominator by which to compare something of importance—value.

Value propositions are powerful, useful, and often necessary. Typically, however, they are not sufficient. Don’t go to into the sale armed with a value proposition alone.

 

This post originally appeared on RainToday.com

Trust Matters, The Podcast: Why Won’t My Client Say ‘YES’? (Episode 2)

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Don’t Let It Ruin Your Day

Is your child driving you nuts with their self-destructive behavior and refusal to listen to your hard-earned wisdom? (Alternatively, are your parents driving you nuts with their constant attempts to control and guilt-trip you?)

Is your client behaving badly? Not returning calls, not making decisions, refusing to face up to tough decisions, constantly back-sliding on your (excellent) advice?

Did one of your (ostensible) good friends diss you recently? Have they refused to apologize, and continue to evade the issue? Have you heard by the grapevine they said something more that appears to confirm their betrayal of you?

Well, I have your answer. Here it is. Don’t Let It Ruin Your Day.

Of Course, You Already Know This.

But that’s just the problem, see. You already ‘know’ it, so you think that therefore you’ve already extracted full value from the proposition. You think, ‘Yeah, yeah, you can’t control other people, it’s not me it’s them, serenity now yada yada, live in the moment – I got it.’

But you don’t  ‘got it.’

If you did, you wouldn’t be living in a constant state of resentment, stress, and worry.

One of the dominant myths of our time is that if you cognitively understand something, you have mastered it. But the brain is a very weak weapon when up against the heart and the nervous system. Knowing something and a dollar may get you a cup of coffee.  Eons of wisdom literature suggests there’s something more to it.

A closely related myth is that the answer lies in doing something. At least that gets one step beyond “understanding” – or so we think.

But the belief in action suffers the same defect. It assumes that there exists An Answer. You’re smart enough to know that The Answer is probably not going to be found in better analytics, Big Data, convincing arguments or brilliant aphorisms. So you look to the softer side – you get better at empathy, listening, vulnerability, open-ended questions and the like. Maybe The Answer lies in better behavior.

Nope, sorry. As long as you’re attached to the outcome, you’re still bound to your attachment – and the attendant resentment, stress and worry. (Medication has its place, of course, but medical-grade marijuana is just the latest non-solution).

At wits’ end, it’s tempting to think, “ah, chuck it all. I’ll just withdraw from the game, there’s no point, I’ll make friends with hopelessness. Maybe happiness lies in just giving up.”

Don’t Let It Ruin Your Day

The answer, it seems to me, is to marry the instinct for thought and action with the detachment from outcome. You should still talk to your kids (and your parents); you should still stay engaged with your clients; you should still strive to make your friendships rich and mutual.

Just don’t let it ruin your day.

The problem is not striving, and the answer is not withdrawal.  The trick is to take the best of both: keep engaging – just detach from the outcome.

Sales

Note: this is not just happy talk for your spiritual side. It also has to do – profoundly – with sales. The answer to sales disappointment is not to “toughen up” and dial more sales calls; and obviously it’s not to stop selling.

The answer, in business development as in life, is to keep striving, for the betterment of your clients and customers. Just don’t let it ruin your day.

Take pride and pleasure in the process, keep putting out good effort for your clients. Just don’t be attached to the outcome. Don’t Always Be Closing: instead, Always Be Helping.

Keep on selling: and when it doesn’t work out, just don’t let it ruin your day.

Trust Matters, The Podcast: Dealing With A Freeloader When Selling Services (Episode 1)

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The Reverse Elevator Speech: Disaster and Recovery

Trust requires that someone take a risk. Perversely, that means the avoidance of risk is tantamount to preventing trust.

One of the hardest things to do is to recognize this need in the face of mundane, everyday interactions, where it always seems that taking a risk is inappropriate.

So rather than give a mundane business example, let me do this one by metaphor.

A British account executive years ago told me the following story:

“I was going to see a potential client for what could have been an important piece of business for us. Unfortunately for me, I missed the scheduled plane by minutes, and thus was delayed by an hour. I called, and they agreed to reschedule the meeting to accommodate me.

“When I arrived, a bit flustered, the team of a half-dozen clients execs had gathered downstairs, and we all then went to the lift to go upstairs to the designated conference room.

“Unfortunately the lift was made for about four people. We all crammed into the lift, and it slowly began to climb. At that point someone – how shall I put this – well, as we English say – passed gas. The lift continued its crawling pace upward. No one, of course, said a word, nor even altered their expression. There was dead silence.

“As the doors finally opened, we all rushed to get out – all at once. And all 7 of us thereby tumbled onto each other on the floor. We all picked ourselves up, even more embarrassed, and again without saying a word to each other, made our way into the conference room.

“As I set up at the head of the room, I could feel the weight of this triple discomfort: I was late, the tumbling all over each other – and of course the ‘gas’ incident in the middle. It was all contrived to create a mutual sense of misery.

“What to do? I stood in the front of the room and said, ‘Gentlemen, little did I know this morning what a fine level of intimate relationship we should all achieve in so little time here this afternoon. I am honored indeed.”

“Well, everyone fell all over each other laughing; I had somehow managed to prick the balloon of the unspoken that hung over us like a cloud, and the rest of the day went marvelously. And oh yes, we got the sale.”

What this gentleman had done, in our nomenclature, was to Name It and Claim It; that is, to speak aloud the one thing that no one could figure out how to talk about. He did it with humor – an excellent tool – and was rewarded for the relief he caused by an appreciative relationship, and even a sale.

So What?

Charming, you think, but quite beside the point. What’s it got to do with me?

Well, as it happens, I had another conversation just last week (with, as it happens, another Englishman). He was a business development manager, tasked with what felt like an impossible burden.

“The senior partner insists on bidding a job in a sector in which we frankly have no experience. Certainly far less than anyone else. And he wants me to pretend it just doesn’t matter, or to dazzle them with bluster, or in some way to just blow through it. It’s simply not going to work, and we’ll look the fool.”

Well, yes they’ll look foolish if that’s how they go about it. They don’t recognize the relevance of the reverse elevator speech.

The solution is for the senior partner to say something like this:

“You may be wondering why a firm with so little experience in this sector is even here pitching you at all today. Certainly I wondered it! But I assure you we don’t make a habit of tilting at windmills.

“There is an angle here that I fear conventional wisdom might not point out. We’ve seen it a few times before, and it can make the difference between a run-of-the-mill project and a truly game-changing solution.

“I simply could not let the situation rest un-addressed. And that is why I am here in front of you today. Now, what we see going on here is…”

You may have picked up that there’s a ‘catch’ here.  The catch is that you actually have to have something consequential to say. If you have nothing consequential to say, then you shouldn’t be there in the first place, and you deserve what’s about to happen to you.

But if you do have something to say, the surest way to strangle it before it sees the light of day is to deny the elephant in the elevator – the lack of relevant sector experience, in this case.

Hope, they say, is not a strategy. Hoping somebody won’t notice the obvious is a strategy-killer. In such cases, not to take a risk is the biggest risk of all.

Get credit for stating the obvious, for telling the truth, and for relieving the tension that everyone feels. Put it out there. That way everyone is leaning forward on their seats, waiting to hear the idea that just might be so good as to overcome the banality of traditionalism.

Take the risk. Call out the wind in the elevator. Like a vaccination, it amounts to taking a little risk to mitigate the much larger risk staring you in the face. And you’d be surprised at how often it works.

Client Service vs. Client Servility

With every technological advance in communications, we get another chance to negotiate the boundaries between good client service and client servility.

Where do you draw the line?

Better yet: How do you draw attention to a line that’s already there, if we think about it rightly?

Most client-serving organizations I know make a pretty big deal about client service. It is right at the top of their list of stated virtues. And rightly so.

But sometimes, things can get a little twisted.

What do you make of:

o The SDR who unquestioningly responds in detail to every detailed request, without adding perspective. Regularly.

o The project manager who video-cons the team on Sunday to re-work the slide deck. Regularly.

o The senior officer who drops in on the staff meeting to “show the flag” but leaves early because “when the client calls, you know…”  Regularly.

o The salesperson who cuts price at the drop of the hat when the client demands.  Regularly.

o The VP who cancels the cleanup position on the third round interview because, “I had no choice, the client changed the date.” Regularly.

o The manager who joins the training session late and slips out to take calls between scheduled breaks, because “we’re in the middle of a really tough time for the client – they need me.”  Regularly.

The key word is, of course, regularly.  Any one of those examples can be held up as a case of client heroism.  If, that is, it’s an isolated event. But if it’s endemic – then that’s not client service, that’s client servitude.

They are not the same. Great client service is being willing and able to behave in unusual ways when faced with unusual situations; and doing them selflessly, for the sake of the client.

Being servile is quite another thing. It means seeking out options to give faux service.  Terms related to servile include sycophant, suck-up, boot-licker, and toady.

We suspect those who are servile of dishonesty – of speaking falsely in an attempt at self-aggrandizement. Their motives are suspect; which means their credibility is at risk as well.

Ironically, their servility costs them in terms of respect from the very people they are most trying to impress.  Above all, we don’t trust such people.

If we’re honest – I’ll just speak for me here – if I’m honest about it, there’s always a tiny touch of servility lurking around the edges of most client service I perform.  It’s hard to be unaware of the value of being perceived as client-serving.

The trick is to not be overcome by a need for recognition. To do the next right thing, yet to be detached from the outcome; particularly whatever benefit clearly might accrue to me from doing the right thing.

This is the heart of it.  Client service is doing good for the client.  Period.  We are not surprised when we get credit for doing it.  But expecting good from doing it is Station 1 on the slippery slope; the End-Station is doing client service  in order to get credit for doing it.

That way lies client servility.

Most clients don’t want servants at their beck and call – they want equal partners at the table who can make a plan and stick to it; who have enough respect for themselves and their own firm that they will, on occasion, push back; who take the partnership seriously enough that they will keep their own team healthy enough to deliver in the long run, rather than burn it out in a never-ending series of faux client crises.

And if you really think you have one of those rare clients who actually wants servants – then put your money where your mouth is.  Give that client to a competitor.

Stop Measuring ROI on Soft Skills Training

Many, perhaps most, of our clients tend to ask us about how they can measure the returns from Trusted Advisor workshops. However, I suspect their reasons are a little opaque. More often than not, these buyers are already persuaded of the benefits. The potential clients who are truly skeptical are rarely the ones who actually call–nor are they likely to be persuaded, even by a hard-nosed ROI calculation. 

So – why are they asking?

Let’s tackle a garden variety corporate orthodoxy: the one that says your company shouldn’t do training without a measurable return on your training investment.

Variations on the theme: if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it; all training must be defined in terms of behavioral objectives; each objective must link to behavioral milestones, each quantifiable and financially ratable.

Let me speak plainly: Subjecting soft-skills training to pure skills-mastery financial analytics is intellectually dishonest, wrong-headed, useless at best and counter-productive at worst.

There, I said it.

Now let me explain – and offer an alternative.

There are are sprinklings of truth in the rush to measure soft-skills ROI – but they are surrounding a germ of falsehood at the heart of the matter.

The ROI-behavioral view of training is fine for pure cognitive or pure behavioral skills. If your focus is on teaching Mandarin to oil company execs, mastering the report generation functions of CRM systems, or teaching XML programming, you can stop reading this now.

But if you’re talking about communications skills, trust, customer relationships, listening, negotiation, speaking, giving and receiving feedback, consultative thinking, influencing, persuasion, team-building and collaboration, then read on.  There are at least four problems with measuring “return” on these kinds of programs.

First problem: definitions. We evaluate golf coaching by lowered golf scores—neat, clean, unarguable. But try defining “good communication.” Or trust. Or negotiation. You might as well define the taste of water, or the quality of love. To accept behavioral indicators (“she smiles, she touches me”) is to miss an essence.

Second: causality. All causality is unprovable, though we know when to accept it anyway. “I had 3 lessons with a golf coach, and cut my score by 8 strokes. It was the coaching—you can quote me!”

But what if I take one course in trust, and another in listening. Suppose my sales go up next year by 50%. Which course did it? Or did my company’s 70% growth have something to do with it? Or my happy new marriage? Too many variables.

Third: the Hawthorne effect. (Or, the Heisenberg Principle in physics). Sometimes the act of measuring alters the measurement of the thing being measured. If I know I’m being graded on listening, I’ll do whatever it is I think that you think makes me look like I’m listening. Which destroys real listening.

If you hype net-promoter scores, many will game the scoring – thus reducing the genuineness that underlay the original idea.

Fourth: the perversion of individual measurement. Most soft skills deal with our relationships to others. The drive to individually behavioralize, then metricize, has the effect of killing relationships by focusing on the individual – an ironic outcome for relationship-targeting training.

Suppose a course teaches focusing more on the customer, listening, helping others achieve their goals, helping teammates grow – worthy objectives, found in many programs.

The usual reason to define those results financially is to evaluate them financially. Thus someone – somewhere between the CEO and the person getting trained – is responsible for deciding to do more, or less, relationship-building programs – by using short-term individual measurements, often with short-term incentives.

Hence the perversity: training people to focus on relationships, by measuring and rewarding them individually.

“The more unselfish you are, the more money we’ll give you for being unselfish.
“The more you get rated as providing ‘excellent customer service,’ the more we’ll pay you” (which leads to pathetic begging by CSRs)
“The more you focus on others, the more we’ll pay you.
“Quick, get over here, I want to genuinely listen to you so I can raise my quarterly bonus and get promoted.”

Raise this perversity to the level of an industry over decades, and you can understand why pharmaceutical and brokerage companies have accrued such low ratings on trust.

So what’s the answer? Simple. And you don’t even have to give up your addiction to metrics.

Just measure subjective rankings.

Ask people these simple questions, over time:

1. Would you do that training again?
2. Would you recommend others attend?
3. Would you include it in your budget?
4. How do you rate that training compared to these other five programs?

You can run regressions, chi-squares and segmentations on that data to your heart’s content – as long as it’s measuring subjective data in ranking terms. Just stop trying to monetize interpersonal relationships by measuring ROI on soft skills training.

And for those of you still interested in seeing some data – I recommend our Trust360 multi-rater assessment tool. It’s not going to measure your ROI from a soft-skill training, but when you run a program as a before and after, you’ll be able to see and track key, measurable changes and improvements as a result of a soft-skill program. We recommend running a Trust360 in advance of a program and then again, for the same group, about 6 months later. Our clients who have done so have seen measurable results that still focus on the changes in soft skills, how the program and the Trust360 provided key insight to allow participants to really get to the root of the trust-building in relationships.

Give it a go – talk to us about it. What’s the downside?

 

Sample Selling Without Giving Away the Whole Store

Sample selling isn’t just for ice cream and perfume. I have argued that it works for intangible services, mainly because the seller has expertise beyond the buyer’s range, and sample selling makes it appear less threatening.

But not everyone buys that. Consider a phone conversation I had not too long ago. It went like this:

“I know you recommend sample selling for intangible services, Charlie,” the caller said, “but I have to tell you, I think that’s naïve.”

“I followed your advice,” he continued, “I gave them a great idea; but I didn’t get the deal. Worse, they stole my idea; now they’re making it a practice area. You can’t trust everyone; you can’t give away the store.”

The Three Myths of Giving Away Too Much

My caller is not alone in his fear of being taken. And as the saying goes, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.

Yet he is the architect of his own misery. He has fallen prey to three mistaken beliefs. And while you can’t think your way out of all tough situations, this is one where you can.

Myth 1: Ideas, Like Shoreline, are Limited. I’ve heard it said there are really only seven jokes—all others are variations. I have no doubt that’s true: but there is no end to standup comedians telling no end of those variations. Limited categories don’t preclude infinite instances.

Myth 2: Ideas are the Scarce Resource. As a consultant, I originally bought into the idea that corporate strategies were invaluable; if discovered by competitors, they could bring the company down.

This turned out to be a conceit. In truth, you could give an entire industry public access to each other’s written strategies, and due to a combination of hubris, incompetence and the inertia of culture, very little would change as a result.

As the NRA might put it, “ideas don’t change businesses—people do.”

Myth 3: They’re Out to Take My Stuff. Yeah, some are. And they are the people who believe that ideas are limited and that access to ideas alone is valuable. See myths 1 and 2 above.

Those who are out to take your stuff are co-conspirators in a joint exercise of self-delusion. They’re like thieves bent on stealing counterfeit cash. Go find some fresh air to breathe.

 

Sample Selling without Giving Away the Store

Let me acknowledge that there are certain businesses where idea theft is quite real. Chemical formulae in the pharmaceutical industry, novels in the publishing industry, code in the software business—I’m not talking about these cases. They are covered by patent, trademark and copyright laws. There are still lawsuits, but by and large the rules and case law are very well developed.

I’m talking about marketing, change management, business strategy, process change methodologies, sales processes, communications, systems implementation—the world of complex, intangible services. Like jokes, there may be a limited number of categories—but there is an unlimited number of applications.

How do you avoid falling prey to the myths? How do you not give away the store? Here are three tips to remember.

Sample Selling Tip 1: Present Ideas Collaboratively. The context in which you present an idea is critical. Don’t waltz in and dump an idea on your client’s desk; first they’ll reject it, then they’ll tweak it, then come to believe it’s theirs—leaving you to stew in your own juices. (That’s best case; most likely, they’ll ignore it.)

Instead, go back three steps and engage your client in a general conversation; let the idea emerge in context, between the two of you. Don’t be obsessed with ‘ownership’ of the idea unless you already have a patent.

You might say something like:

“Susan, I was thinking about the XYZ problem we discussed Monday. Does that situation ever arise in other divisions? I’m wondering if it’s really a process problem, or a people problem; can we bounce this around for a while?”

If you’re really smart—and evolved; see Tip 3 below—you’ll let your client discover the idea.

Sample Selling Tip 2: The Real Sample is Problem Definition. The idea of ‘sample selling’ is a bit of a misnomer. The real sample you’re giving the client is not a sample answer, but a sampling of how it feels to work with you.

You do this by continually asking—with the client—“what problem are we trying to solve?” You might say something like:

“Joe, we’ve come up with some great ideas in the business process arena. As we’ve talked, some related issues have arisen in the talent side of the business. Could we schedule some time to work those issues together?”

Then repeat Tip 1 above.

Sample Selling Tip 3: Rebalance Humility and Confidence. You need humility. Not humility about your ability—humility about your uniqueness. You are not Einstein (unless you are); you aren’t the only one with ideas. And frankly, your ideas are probably not unique either.

You need confidence. Not confidence in your ideas—confidence in your ability to spot an infinite number of problem areas in your client, and confidence in your ability to generate more ideas to address each problem. It starts simply with seeing opportunities for improvement.

Above all, you are the one with the client relationship; in that, you are unique. So—go define problems, and generate ideas collaboratively.

You’ll get credit—but more importantly, you’ll get repeat business.

How Trusted Advisors (Should) Think About “Business Development”

When you think of business development, what is the first thing that comes to mind about the purpose behind it?

If you thought “to drive sales,” then this post is for you.

It’s a special kind of person who finds his or her way into an expertise-based advisory career. They are, of course, what we call “smart”—meaning cognitively talented, analytical, with high IQs. They are also often driven, motivated, and high achievers.

What doesn’t get mentioned as often is that they also tend to have high standards—for their work, and for themselves. These high standards are reflected in ideas like devotion to customer service, ethical behavior, and commitment to quality.

And if there’s any one thing that feels contradictory to all those fundamental beliefs, it is probably business development.

I don’t know a single professional who started out wanting to be in ”business development.” For starters, the phrase itself feels like a contrivance. Isn’t “business development” just a softer word for ”sales?” (Note it’s even phrased in the passive voice, to distance itself from “develop business”).

Customers, we believe instinctively, resist being ”sold.” The dictionary is loaded with secondary and tertiary meanings of “sales” that suggest selling is manipulative, conniving, even morally offensive. Our customers work from that dictionary. They tell us—and we want to believe—that they buy from us because of our quality and our ethical devotion to service.

That’s what it means to work in a meritocracy, and a big reason we signed up. If customers don’t buy from us, it was because someone else beat us on quality and expertise. (Or, of course, on price). And again, that is what our customers tell us.

This is why the ”business development” professionals’ message is so distasteful. They seem to suggest that customers don’t buy on quality and price; that having the best expertise doesn’t guarantee the sale. And that, worst of all, customers are making buy decisions based soft criteria and emotions, and not being honest with us, or even with themselves, about it.

The whole matter is profoundly distasteful. We don’t like to think that we’re selling our time for money to begin with. We particularly don’t like to think that people are buying us for reasons other than expertise. And we recoil from being lumped together with car salesmen in such obfuscatory phrases as “business development.”

What’s a poor professional to do?

The answer—amazingly—is at once simple, profound, and easily accessed. It lies in fundamentally redefining the purpose of business development, beginning in our own minds.

The Purpose of Business Development

For most people, the purpose or goal of business development is obvious: to get the customer to buy something. Indeed, that’s what most people believe, which is precisely the source of the problem. It all starts there, and heads downhill fast.  Here’s why.

Those who believe the purpose of business development is to get the customer to buy have made three key assumptions:

  • That the purpose is one-sided, meaning all about the business developer.
  • That value to the customer is per se irrelevant, as long as it’s enough to result in a sale.
  • That the process is essentially competitive, and you fail if you don’t get the result, whether the loss is to a competitor or to the ubiquitous DND (Did Not Decide).

Those assumptions just fuel customers’ paranoia. They enforce the notion that business developers do not have their customers’ best interests at heart, that ‘the deal’ is all that matters, and that you can’t trust anything business developers say. It’s the kind of attitude that fuels traditional sales wisdom like “buyers are liars,” and “there are no be-backs.”

And those are just the key assumptions. There is a host of secondary implications which also follow from believing the purpose of business development is to get the customer to buy. For example, it suggests that efficiency is key—that business developers should work to qualify and prioritize their leads so they don’t waste unproductive time. For example, it suggests that you should be very careful about giving anything away. And especially it suggests that you should never, ever refer a competitor.

All of these are equally pernicious beliefs. It’s easy to characterize them as just traits of used car salesmen, but they’re taught in many ways by well-respected business development programs. Of course, that doesn’t make them better. They are still the source of all the negativity held by so many about business development. Softening the word doesn’t change the truth; “sell” is usually a four-letter word no matter how you spell it.

Fortunately, there is great news: It doesn’t have to be this way.

The Striking Alternative: A New Mindset

Try this simple statement on for size:

The purpose of business development is to improve the customer’s outcomes

There, does that sound more comfortable?

But wait! There are radical implications. It means, for example, that if the services don’t improve things for the customer, then you shouldn’t sell it to them. That’s a little bit radical.

Much more radically, it means that if a competitor truly has a superior solution for a given customer, you as the business developer should actually recommend the competitor. (Rest assured that the willingness to do so endears you so strongly to the customer that you’ll virtually guarantee future sales).

But even those aren’t the really radical implications. The Big Implication is that— properly conceived—there is virtually no difference between professional, high quality, ethical delivery and professional, high-quality, ethical business development. Why? Because both aim at improving the customer’s outcomes.

The Freedom to Be of Service

It is liberating to think of business development this way. It means the best way to generate new work is the same as the best way to execute on existing work: by giving samples, by helping them define the real problem, by being open and candid about … everything.

Let’s draw out the implications of this view. See if you agree to the following two statements:

  1. “I have a professional obligation to point out issues and opportunities to my customer that I can see and that I think would be of benefit to address.”
  2. “If those issues or opportunities aren’t obvious to the customer, I have a professional obligation to explain them so they become clear.”

If your answer is “yes,” then not only have you agreed that you have an obligation to develop business, but you have succeeded in re-defining business development in an ethical and customer-focused manner. You’re doing it for them, and for the same reasons you deliver high quality, ethical, customer-focused project work. You’re just not getting paid yet.

Paradoxical Results

When you see the purpose of business development is to improve the customer’s outcomes, things change fundamentally. Your goals are no longer in conflict with your customer; they are precisely and profoundly aligned. Your customers have every reason to trust you. And the new work becomes not the goal, but a byproduct.

Here’s the ultimate paradox: If you re-conceive the purpose of business development in this way, your customers will recognize it very quickly—even instantly, in some cases—and be more inclined to give you opportunities to be of service.

Your very willingness to forego the “sale” actually increases the likelihood that they’ll “buy.”

There is one catch: You can’t work the paradox against itself. You actually have to be willing to forego “developing business” as your objective in order for it to come true. You have to mean it. After all, you can’t fake trust.

But then, why should you even try?