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?

How You Use Your Smarts Is What Attracts Clients

 

“It’s not what you know; it’s who you know.”

You’ve probably heard that. But – you’ve also probably heard the exact opposite.

You’ve heard, “You’ve got a limited amount of time to impress them; use it.” But you’ve also heard, “Let the client do most of the talking.”

And you’ve probably heard, “You’ve got to be just a little smarter than your client.” But you’ve probably also heard, “Don’t think you know more about your client’s business than your client does.”

So, what’s the role of smarts? How important is it to be smart? In fact – what does that even mean?

To define terms, I’m not talking here about emotional intelligence, political savvy, or so-called street smarts. I’m talking about what we usually mean by “smart” in business, which generally boils down to three things:

  • Native intelligence, IQ-ish talent
  • Subject matter mastery
  • Industry knowledge

But let’s also be clear: being smart is less about what kind of smart you are and more about how you use your smarts. And usage, in turn, deconstructs into timing, amount, and context.

Kinds of Smart

I’ll use “IQ” as shorthand for some measure of native intelligence, mindful that there’s a lot of debate about its validity. IQ is seen as an innate form of smarts—you’re supposed to be born with it.

People with high IQs tend to think highly of high IQs, but that doesn’t mean everyone else does. In fact, if clients perceive someone as more clever, sharper, quicker, adept than them, it can be perceived as a negative—particularly if you’re selling.

“Watch out for this one,” the client thinks. “He might pull the wool over my eyes and outwit me.”

Subject matter mastery is different. It’s not an innate kind of smart; it’s derived from experience.

“I could be as smart as him,” thinks the client, “if I had chosen to work in that area.”

In fact, it’s that mastery that clients seek. A client hires a lawyer who knows the law precisely because the client doesn’t know it as well. A subject matter expert with a slightly lower (perceived) IQ than the buyer is even better. They are seen as knowledgeable but unthreatening.

Like subject matter mastery, industry smart is derived, not innate. But unlike subject matter mastery, its presence isn’t a plus so much as its absence is a minus. Clients, particularly those in professional and financial businesses, look down on “generalist” subject matter experts and functional specialists. There’s a general feeling that “our people won’t accept advice coming from you unless you have industry smarts” (though the speaker usually refers to ‘our people’ and not to himself).

In general industries, it is believed that management is management and sales is sales, that the know-how is transferable across industries. That isn’t the case in the professions—rightly or wrongly. You won’t win fighting that feeling; it runs deep.

Timing: When to be Smart

The time to show your IQ smarts is before you meet. Show it in your resume, qualifying documents, and your website’s “About Us” section. That’s because IQ smarts are the only kind of smarts that are potentially embarrassing to the client. The client doesn’t want to be over- or under-estimating you in real time; they’d prefer to know what kind of person they’re dealing with up front, in advance of meeting you. That way they feel much more in control, which is a good thing.

Once you’re in a meeting or interacting with the client, never mention IQ smarts again. Don’t bring up your resume, your degrees, your globe-hopping upbringing, or the brilliant circles in which you travel unless, of course, you’re asked a direct question.

You also want to show a little bit of subject matter smarts and industry smarts in advance of a first meeting or interaction—enough to assure the client they won’t be wasting their time and that they might well benefit from meeting you.

In short: be IQ-smart before you meet. And in face-to-face meetings, be subject-matter and industry-smart.

Amount: How Smart Should You Be?

No one likes to feel condescended to. Fortunately, it’s easy to avoid being condescending in subject matter and industry smarts. The main place to worry is in IQ smarts. If you really think your IQ is so much higher than your client’s, remember that your client is likely to resent or fear you if you make a point of it. Go work on your emotional quotient.

For subject matter and industry smarts, there is no natural upper bound. You’re being hired in part for your expertise, and your client will respect high levels of knowledge of your industry without fearing it. Your biggest challenge here is to be gracious in revealing how smart you are.

Context: Being Gracious about Your Smarts

The single most common sales error regarding smarts that professionals make is to think they have to show how smart they are. They somehow believe that a goal of client interaction is to demonstrate how smart they are. This is almost always unfounded, and frequently it accomplishes the very opposite of what’s desired. It makes the client feel you are self-centered and ego-driven and that you’re only out to make the sale.

Instead, the rule should be to use your smarts as necessary in support of the right thing for the client:

  • If it’s useful to mention that a particular recommendation has been followed successfully by three other clients, then say so. But if you say so just to demonstrate your clout, it’s better to leave it unsaid.
  • If it might be useful to the client that you know so-and-so, a big industry player, then mention it. If you do it only to prove your industry smarts, don’t.
  • If a question is asked to which you clearly know the answer, answer it. But if it’s another question that was asked, and you’re piling on to that question to answer another one, unasked, stifle yourself.

Following that simple rule demonstrates that your driving motivation is client service, not the pursuit of the sale and not your search for ego gratification. And if you’re worried about not knowing the answer to an occasional question, remember a client would rather hear an honest “I don’t know” than a transparent struggle to fake your way through an answer.

The smart call is to use your smarts only in service to your client.

Santa Does Trust-based Selling

Some of you are partaking in the annual ritual of watching Christmas movies – most notably the perennial It’s a Wonderful Life. This is not about that movie.

Instead, I want to remind you of an interesting lesson from the seasonal also-ran, Miracle on 34th Street.

Nominally a cute tale about the existence of Santa Claus and the power of belief (featuring a starry-eyed 6-year-old girl, and the comic relief of the US Post Office dragging in all those letters to Santa as proof-of-existence), it has a hidden gem buried within about the power of trust-based selling.

——————–

The “real” Santa (a kindly old man who is or is not deluded) is employed by Macy’s in its flagship store as, of course, Santa. Santa is nearly fired by a numbers-driven Type-A middle manager for suggesting to a shopper that she buy the toy from Gimbel’s across the street.  (The cynical shopper confounds the manager by congratulating him on “this wonderful new stunt you’re pullin’.”)

This “stunt,” of course, is the Acid Test of Trust-based Selling: the willingness to refer a customer to a direct competitor, if that is the right thing to do for the customer. But it doesn’t end there, with a whimsical sappy Santa.

Macy’s President happens along and instantly realizes that Santa’s customer focus is far more effective for Macy’s than the conventional approaches to sales.  He announces:

…not only will our Santa Claus continue in this manner…but I want every salesperson in this store to do precisely the same thing. If we haven’t got exactly what the customer wants, we’ll send him where he can get it.

No high pressuring and forcing a customer to take something he doesn’t really want. We’ll be known as the helpful store, the friendly store, the store with a heart, the store that places public service ahead of profits.

And, consequently, we’ll make more profits than ever before.

Exactly.

If you focus relentlessly on the customer, you-the-seller will do just fine. Even better “than ever before.”

The good news is you don’t have to believe in Santa Claus to do this. You just have to follow the Four Trust Principles:

  • Customer focus for the sake of the customer
  • Long- not short-term timeframe
  • Transparency
  • Collaboration

Sometimes we view this as a paradox: relentlessly focusing on the Other ends up serving You as well – but only if you do it genuinely, rather than as a means to an end.

Paradoxical yes, but a Truth well-known to most who delve into human relationships. You get back what you put out. Do unto others. Pay it forward. Be the change you want. And so forth.

Truly a message for the season. And not just for sellers.

Is it Ever Trustworthy to Go Around Someone to Get to the C-Suite?

Today’s post is by Trusted Advisor Associates’ own Andrea Howe and Stewart Hirsch.

——————————

We just led a webinar on how to take a trust-based approach to building C-suite relationships. (We decided in the moment that we should call it the Hirsch and Howe Show.) There was a great question asked that we didn’t have time to adequately address, so we’re taking a moment to share our thoughts here.

For context, our webinar proposed three fundamental steps to building trust-based C-suite relationships:

  1. Get your “why” right: Your reason for pursing a relationship affects everything.
  2. Get your “what matters” right: Look thoughtfully and expansively at what would motivate them to engage with you.
  3. Get your “how” right: Follow trust-based best practices for (a) getting and (b) navigating the CXO conversation.

The question came up in our discussion about getting your “how” right:

What if your client below the C-level exec is blocking your access to develop a new relationship with the exec—do you ever go around him or her?

The short answer is possibly, but IF AND ONLY IF, two conditions are met:

  1. You have a darned good reason.
  2. You then do it very skillfully.

First, the darned good reason part.

The hardest work to do with this situation may not actually be the difficult conversations that are required should you choose what we’ll call a “go-around,” but rather the mental prep required to assess the situation in a trustworthy way in the first place.

What’s key is making sure you’ve asked yourself WHY you want access to the C-suite person (step 1 above), and that you’ve arrived at a good answer from a trust-building standpoint.

Let’s pause here for a quick poll: What are good reasons, in general, to pursue a C-Suite relationship? Choose all that apply:

  • So we can show them our capabilities
  • Because <insert competitor name> is in there
  • To show them we’re better than the competition
  • To secure a champion to help us expand our offerings
  • Because the lower levels aren’t listening
  • Because they’re the real decision-makers
  • Because we’re getting nudged/pressured/pushed to have more “eminence” by our colleagues
  • All of the above
  • None of the above

The answer that reflects the most trustworthy approach is … drumroll … none of the above.

Think about it: every other option is actually a demonstration of high self-orientation—sometimes sneakily-so. In other words, it’s you wanting something for your benefit, not for theirs. The same is true when it comes to go-arounds.

Going a little deeper, consider what’s often at the source of (and problematic about) each of these motives:

The Why The Source What’s Problematic
So we can show them our capabilities ·      The desire to be heard, which is often far greater than our desire to listen

·      Ego needs

·      A firm norm/assumption that this is the right thing to do

You’re leading with what matters to you, not them.

 

You become a hammer searching for a nail.

Because <insert competitor name> is in there ·      The desire to win/gain power <Competitor name> might be doing really well by your client. If you’re a true trusted advisor, you’ll celebrate that (gasp!).
To show them we’re better than the competition ·      The desire to win/gain power

·      Ego needs

If they’re happy with their current provider, they’re not going to believe you’re better. And you won’t convince them that you’re better by talking at them about your capabilities.
To secure a champion to help us expand our offerings ·      The desire to win/gain power While you care about expanding your offerings, it is highly unlikely that your client cares one iota about expanding your offerings. Leading with your desire to gain more share of the account/market because that’s what your annual goals state (for example) is all about you. Your needs aren’t their problem.
Because the lower levels aren’t listening ·      Avoiding rejection/embarrassment

·      Avoiding what might be hard work to improve these relationships

It’s possible they’re not listening because you’re not being effective, or because they don’t trust you—a go-around therefore doesn’t address the real issue(s), and might even exasperate things. Imagine if someone tried to go around you.
Because they’re the real decision-makers ·      The desire to win/gain power

·      Ego needs

Decisions are often left to—or strongly influenced by—those very people you are trying to go around. So the “go-around” could backfire, because the decision-maker and those in the client organization at your level are both annoyed.
Because we’re getting nudged/pressured/pushed to have more “eminence” by our colleagues ·      Avoiding rejection/embarrassment

·      Ego needs

This is a you-centric motive, not a client-centric motive. And it’s an internal issue to address, not a client issue to address.

 

If some of what’s in the table above seems harsh, well … our language may be too strong to apply to you. Or maybe not. Consider that you can be a well-meaning person of high integrity who likely still falls prey to some variation of what we’ve sketched out simply because you’re a card-carrying member of the human race. The mindsets we describe are actually common, and we’ve heard them from many humans.

Also consider that, in general, everyone’s first “why”—in other words, your rational reason for a go-around—is almost always wrong.

So, what are some good reasons for a go-around?

We brainstormed, and so far we have come up with only one clear, unambiguous reason:

The project, organization, or CXO her/himself is at serious risk—either because the lower-level person is incompetent or is sabotaging (perhaps consciously, perhaps not).

That’s it.

If your situation meets the criterion above, read the next paragraph. If not, jump two paragraphs down.

How do you go-around skillfully?

We came up with at least three best practices:

  1. Talk to people inside your firm about your plans so that you understand how other firm relationships with the client will be affected. You need a full understanding of just how much risk the go-around implies. The stakes could be high. A go-around that backfires, and upsets the CXO enough to call the firm’s relationship into question, could be very costly. Buy-in from your colleagues is worth seeking.
  2. Be transparent with the person you’re going around, either before the go-around, or immediately after, with one exception. The exception: if the person is a “bad actor”—i.e. someone whom you truly believe, based on evidence, is likely to act in an unethical way.
  3. Name It and Claim it with the CXO. Use caveats to show your sensitivity to the situation. Acknowledge that you’re taking this risk because you wholeheartedly believe it’s in her/his best interests, rather than yours. Let it be known that you’ve been (or will be) transparent with the person you’ve just gone-around. In other words, handle it with an “all cards on the table” kind of approach that belies your own sensitivity and vulnerability in the matter.

What are some viable alternatives to a go-around?

We brainstormed this, too, and came up with two for starters. Note they are not mutually exclusive:

  • Take yourself out of it. If a relationship with “the boss” is the right thing to pursue for the right reasons, but your current relationship(s) are creating a barrier, then look for someone else in your firm who could work that C-level relationship instead of you. If it’s really about what’s best for the client, then you, personally, are not all that important.
  • Work the relationship with the person who seems to be gatekeeping. This may be the hardest of all the options—maybe even harder than the go-around. Dare to put the gatekeeping issue on the table. Find out why she or he is hesitant or concerned or just plain obstructive. What’s missing in your relationship? In what ways might you not seem trustworthy enough for that person to take a risk on you? An honest dialogue could open many doors wide—including the one leading you directly to the executive. You might also discover ways to make the gatekeeper look good for being the one to bring you in to the CXO.

Now you have the Hirsch and Howe point of view on the matter. And now you know why we couldn’t adequately answer the question in the two minutes that we had on the webinar. It’s complex, with a lot of nuance, and requiring masterful mindsets as well as skill sets.

Kind of like the nature of trust.

Do You Trust Your Customers? Do They Trust You?

It’s popular to claim that “trust is down.” Mostly, that’s true. It’s definitely true that trust in government in the US has declined. It’s a bit less true of big business, but not enough to be proud of. Edelman basically has it right: trust is broadly on the decline.

This is mainly a business blog, so let’s focus there. My clients have lots of questions about trust, ranging from what to why to how. But most of them have one question about all others: How do we get our customers to trust us?

It’s the wrong question.

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A long time ago, at least as we remember it, we all had more control over our businesses and our lives. Not everything we wrote would appear instantly on the Internet. We didn’t need to mention price until we had discussed value. We largely controlled our public image.

Back then, it wasn’t hard to trust our customers. After all, we held all the cards. And our customers more or less trusted us because we appeared trustworthy.

That was then; this is now. Information now is drastically, radically free. Copyrights and trademarks are losing their protective power, and first-mover advantage lasts a nanosecond. Your brand image is determined by forces outside your control.

Nowadays it’s hard to trust our customers. They can integrate upstream, threaten us with reverse auctions, switch suppliers in a heartbeat, force us to deal with procurement, and screen us out of every advertising and promotional channel we can think of. Worst of all—they trust us less than ever before. The ingrates!

In such an environment, the natural response is to tighten control. That is precisely the wrong response. The right response is not to stand in front of the wave, but to get out your board and surf it. And ironically, the best way to get our customers to trust us may be to trust them first.

Ways We Control

Given the volatility in nearly every aspect of business over the past decade, we don’t need more scary headlines. We are all overly conscious of terrorism, intellectual property theft, out-of-control jury awards, computer hacking, identity theft, and unscrupulous business practices. The fear factor is more than adequately taken care of just by reading the headlines (online) or watching the evening news (cable, delayed so as to strip ads).

We have responded with controls. We put screens and filters on our email, phones, and social networks. We use password protection programs. We instruct our lawyers to include non-compete clauses. We require our subcontractors and customers to indemnify us against all conceivably imaginable negative events. We engineer our CRM systems to include sub-routines to cover all possible downsides to the sale.

AI and Big Data are bringing new dimensions to this dynamic. We no longer have to trust our customers to tell us what they want: we can discern it from their behaviors, from scraped data. Increasingly we can divine intentions, rather than having to trust what our customers themselves say.

We do all this to manage risk. But when we expend so much energy on the negatives, we tend to mistrust everyone—customers, employees, subcontractors, strategic partners. And the result of all that mistrust is—mistrust handed right back to us. Trust is, after all, reciprocal: what you put out, you get back.

All the stats about the decline in trust tend make us think we’re seeing a decline in trustworthiness. Often that’s true, but it also implies a shift in our propensity to trust. We have become, as a business culture, less willing to take the risks that are necessary to building a trust relationship. And when we trust less, we get less trust back.

The Dynamics of Trust and Trusting

We sometimes forget that a relationship of trust requires two players: one to do the trusting and one to be trusted. Those roles are very different, and the players have to switch back and forth between them.

All the risk lies with the trustor, the one doing the trusting. By contrast, the one being trusted (the trustee) has a largely negative task: to not appear untrustworthy. But, if all the trustee does is appear trustworthy, and never take any risks, eventually the trustor will become suspicious: “Why am I always taking all the risks here?”

Healthy trust relationships are composed of an ongoing ever-reciprocating pattern of trusting and being trusted, with the roles frequently shifting. I reach out my hand in a gesture of greeting, risking your disapproval, and you return the gesture by shaking my hand. You share some important information with me, risking my abuse of that information, and I return the gesture by ensuring that I will treat the information appropriately. It is the back and forth that forms the pattern of trust.

Trusting Customers and Trustworthy Customers

Henry Stimson is credited with saying, “The only way to make a man trustworthy is to trust him.” Other pieces of received wisdom echo the same principle: “Whether you expect good or ill of someone—that’s what you’ll get.” “No pain, no gain; no risk, no return.” But what does all this have to do with customers?

Plenty. Let’s take buying. In the old days, we controlled the information and doled it out when it suited us to suit our sales process. Buyers know they no longer have to put up with that; they can put together almost all the information necessary on their own if they have to. They now resent having to deal with salespeople to get information that should be available on the web.

So, trust your customers. Put all your information out there on the web for your customers to see. Don’t force them to wade through salespeople to get it. Instead, use those salespeople to respond to intelligent questions from customers who arrived informed on their schedule.

Don’t force your “customer service” on customers. They no longer believe “your call is very important to us” or “our menu has changed,” and they can’t stand having to repeat their problem at every step of a convoluted process built because you don’t trust your employees and reverted to low-cost automation. Instead, invest in educated, empowered, always-available support.

Don’t hold back on price until value is established. Get price out in front; trust your customer to be smart enough to ask you value questions to determine whether the trade-off is good. Don’t try to “close” your customers. That’s just another form of control. Instead, trust them to make an intelligent decision, and help them by providing useful questions.

Don’t force your customers through returns hell. Take their word for it that the jacket didn’t fit, it wasn’t the right book, or they already paid for the software.

And while you’re at it, trust your employees. Don’t start the employer/employee relationship by threatening them with lawsuits if they ever leave and try to work for a competitor. Don’t sue people who “steal” clients from you (what do you mean “your” client, anyway?). Above all, listen very carefully to them. They’re the ones who can tell you what customers are talking about.

Back to the Most Common Trust Question – How do we get our customers to trust us? By changing the question. Channeling Stimson: the best way to get customers to trust you is to first trust them.  Try focusing instead on asking, “How can we find ways to trust our customers?”

It’s not the latest insight. In fact, it may be the oldest. But it still works.

Trust, Inc.

Walgreens, the venerable (116 years old, second largest) US drugstore chain, has announced a new tagline as part of a new brand positioning strategy.  No longer will it be “At the corner of happy and healthy” – the new mantra is “Trusted Since 1901.

Well.

I wish Walgreen’s nothing but the best, and don’t doubt their good intentions. Nor are they necessarily wrong on the facts. And, Walgreens is hardly alone in wanting to trumpet their levels of trustworthiness, or their trusted relationships with customers.

However, the use of “trust” in corporate branding is problematic on at least three dimensions. Walgreens provides a good opportunity to explain why.

Cognitive Dissonance

I always tell people not to call themselves a ‘trusted advisor,’ and certainly not to incorporate the phrase into their advertising. It’s like saying “humility is my best quality.”

Trustworthiness is something of a virtue, and calling yourself virtuous just explodes the claim. It’s wonderful when other people use trust to describe you or your relationship with them – as long as it’s them saying it. (“Trust me” may be the two most trust-destroying words you can say).

Calling yourself ‘trusted’ is also different from calling yourself innovative, or respected, or high quality. Walgreens might want to take note that none of the ”Top 10 Most Trusted Brands” brands incorporate trust itself into their taglines.

They might also take note of how it’s worked our for “The Most Trusted Name in News,” whose tagline allows Donald Trump a convenient foil.

Risky Business

Claiming to be trusted is a bit like the Gary Hart strategy – daring the press to find otherwise. It’s like a red flag to a bull.

How many people will manage to dig up the fact that Walgreens made a substantial amount of money and growth during Prohibition by selling (legally) whiskey? Or that the pharmacy business managed to quickly carve out a very liberal interpretation of “medicinal purposes” during that period? Sorry, Walgreens, it’s what you’re setting yourself up for.

History aside, stuff happens. Ask BP about oil spills, or the old Union Carbide about explosions. Or, closer to home, J&J about Tylenol redux. Mis-steps are magnified, and stay in the press longer, for those who claim to be trustworthy in the first place.

Corporations are Not People

This is the biggest one. “Trust” is a word with much contextual nuance of interpretation. But one thing we can say for sure: personal trust is richer and stronger than corporate trust.

We trust people on an emotional level. We trust people based on our views of their intentions, their transparency, and their willingness to trust us.

By contrast, corporations’ intentions are usually very much self-oriented; transparency is little-practiced; and rare is the corporation without legal disclaimers governing their customer relationships. That’s not a criticism (well, it is a little bit); but it’s mainly just stating the difference between protein-based and legally-based entities and the ways we trust them.

Most corporate executives would probably agree with this in the abstract – but they ignore the implications in the particular. If they really believed it, they would be spending money on becoming more trustworthy, rather than on PR campaigns to be seen as more trustworthy, or on reputation management to change perceptions rather than underlying reality.

So What’s a Company to Do?

A company that is serious about being seen as trust-based would start by recognizing – it’s personal.

Trust is not created by spin, advertising, PR, or taglines. It is created by the collective personal behavior over time of corporate employees interacting with customers, suppliers and each other.

This means corporate trust is a culture-and-values issue – not a process-and-marketing issue.

A company that is serious about trust will, among other things:

  • figure out how to trust its customers and suppliers, often by taking some form of risk (because trust is reciprocal – we trust those who trust us);
  • invest in customer service by focusing on effectiveness, not efficiency; by using ROI, not budget variances, to measure success;
  • hire, train for, and role-model best practices for interpersonal trust, including emotional intelligence, strict truth-telling, and vulnerability;
  • consistently prioritize long-term, relationship-based behaviors over short-term, self-aggrandizing behaviors, in its compensation and promotion policies;
  • focus on ways to establish deeper relationships with stakeholders, rather than focusing on issues like NDAs, non-competes, or arbitration clauses;
  • make heroes out of people who model trust-based behavior.

We trust those more who do not protest how much we trust them.

 

It’s Always Risk-on for Selling

In the financial trading community, there is a concept called “risk-on, risk-off,” or RoRo for short. It refers to the general market sentiment at a point in time. Simply put, if the prevailing trend is toward more risky and aggressive instruments (e.g., stocks, emerging markets), that is called “risk-on.” If the trend is toward less risky and conservative assets (e.g., cash, developed markets), that is called “risk-off.” Traders have evolved all kinds of complex strategies to deal with this indicator.

What does that have to do with selling professional services? It’s tempting to view selling as a series of RoRo moments, where sometimes it’s appropriate to take a risk and sometimes it’s not. Maybe the client has become complacent, and you need to shake things up. Or maybe the client seems overwhelmed, and you need to back off. It feels only natural to construct our responses to situations based on our readings of “risk-on, risk-off” coming from the client.

That might seem natural, but most often it’s more wrong than right. In selling, particularly in the complicated worlds of complex or professional services, we systematically make one mistake. We err mostly in one direction. We keep doing the same thing, expecting different results. We have a built-in bias to view the world as risk-off, and we need to shift our attitude toward risk-on.

People and Risk

Adult humans have a well-developed sense of fear and suspicion. Maybe it comes from our ancestors’ close encounters with saber-toothed tigers (that food looks enticing, but I’ll pass it up if I have to walk too close to the tigers). If we view the world as full of such threats to our existence, then we behave in a risk-off mode, being very careful.

If we view the world as risk-off, we will guard against a Bad Thing Happening. And if that means we leave a Good Thing Undone, we are fine with that decision. Who wants a close encounter with a sabere-toothed tiger, anyway?

But suppose the world is risk-on, and we constantly behave cautiously. Suppose we always leave Good Things Undone, not taking a small risk, never daring to take the next step forward. Suppose we are so afraid of doing “sins of commission” that we constantly commit “sins of omission.” That can end up very badly, too.

The world of sports has plenty of adages about this situation. No pain, no gain. Just do it. Swing the bat. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. As Wayne Gretzky put it, “You’ll never miss a shot you never take.”

Finally, add the dimension of time. If the Good Things are far in the future and the Bad Thing is here-now, we are likely to focus much more on the here-now Bad Thing even if the future benefit is much greater and well worth the risk. In fact, even if the Bad Thing is far in the future and the Good Thing is here-now, people tend to be very cautious about the future negative, even if it is smaller than the positive.

Again, we have sayings: A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. Really? Unless you’re starving, turning down a two-to-one deal isn’t very smart. A poker player who constantly folds will never lose big, but he’ll slowly bleed dry. The suitor who never asks out the enamorata is never rejected, but nonetheless always dines alone.

Risky Business

Business is full of risks, to be sure. Hiring the wrong employee, investing in the wrong market, those things are real and we are right to worry about them. But in selling, the risk of not doing the right thing is a lot higher than the risk of doing the wrong thing. We act as if we are in a risk-off world, but in selling, more often than not it’s a risk-on world.

The saber-toothed tigers we face in selling seem to come in droves: The client might be offended. I don’t want to look unprofessional. If my price is too high they might not buy. That might be inappropriate. I don’t really know that area of finance. It’s too early in the relationship. They might not like me. They might go with my competitor. My peers won’t respect me. I might be wrong. I might say the wrong thing.

So we do nothing. We take the easy way out, the path of least resistance, all the while telling ourselves that we have avoided an imminent saber-toothed tiger. And sure enough, no tiger appears. By folding our hand, we avoid catastrophic loss. But we never win, or never win much. We act like the world of sales is risk-off when in reality it is far more risk-on.

Fighting Human Nature

The world of product sales approaches the problem as mainly one of motivation. Sales books and conferences are full of admonitions to get out there and try some more, it’s a numbers game, don’t take rejection personally, read this book, listen to that motivational speaker.

You probably don’t see yourself that way. You think motivational speakers are cheesy, and losing a widget sale pales in comparison to the agony of being told that your particular service just isn’t all that good. You need something deeper, something that really changes your approach to risk-taking. And reviewing the odds isn’t going to cut it. It’s human nature we’re dealing with here, and the brain is over-matched when it’s up against the heart.

Instead, recognize the powerful-positive role that risk-taking actually plays in sales. Unlike with saber-toothed tigers, the act of taking a small risk now actually lowers the odds of a big risk later. Yes—small risk-taking mitigates big risk. If you take risks, you lower the bigger risk.

Think of a vaccine. For the small pain of a shot in the arm, we gain protection against a plague. For the small risk of a hand extended, we gain greater likelihood of a conversation to follow. For the small risk of making a phone call instead of an email, we lower the risk of later emails being left unread.

The key to taking more risks lies in taking a broader view: the risk is not the risk of one transaction now; it is part of a series of transactions to happen over time. In that broader view, taking the small risk now is the least risky thing you can do.

This is where we part ways from our product-selling brothers and sisters. They have to sell widgets, pretty much one widget at a time. It is much easier for us, selling complex services, to envision relationships and lengthy time horizons. And that is the key to mastering the risk problem.

The world of sales is far more risk-on than we think; the environment is much more welcoming of small risks than we think. The key to beating risk lies precisely in taking the small risk of making that phone call, commenting on that shared intimacy, being transparent about your experience, and being open about your price.

It’s a risk-on world out there for those of us willing to see the bigger picture.

 

Trust and Selling to the C-Suite: Interview with Ken Roller

Ken Roller is an experienced B2B salesperson; he spent the past 35 years in Corporate America working for 2 industry leaders (including 21 years at Intel), serving Global 1000 customers.

Ken’s classic sales credentials are impeccable: he exceeded his quarterly sales quota for over 20 years straight – 83 quarters in a row – in a time and in industries that faced brutal competition and roller-coaster global economic conditions.

I came to know Ken during his tenure at Intel; he was extremely helpful to me at a time I was writing Trust-based Selling. We’ve stayed in touch; I asked Ken to share with us some hard-earned wisdom from his career.
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Charlie: Ken, it’s great to have you ‘here’ on Trust Matters. I’ve always thought you embodied many of the things I write about.

Ken: Thank you. I’ve always thought that we’re kindred spirits in our concepts and feelings on how we work and relate to customers and people. One of the inflection points in my professional career was when I read “The Trusted Advisor.” It succinctly captured the essence of selling with integrity, something that is paramount to my being and who I am.

Charlie: Well then, you’re a great person of whom to ask this question: How do you establish trust with “C” level execs at some of the biggest companies in the world?

Ken: First, I’ve always taken seriously my counsel with my customers and would never jeopardize their livelihood, career and their family’s future with my guidance. That’s not pablum, that’s truth; it is the root of my answer to your question.

It’s easy to tell somebody about your experience and the benefits of your products and services. It’s harder to demonstrate that you “truly care.” That has always been a differentiator for me. You quote the late great George Burns as saying, “you can’t fake sincerity.” He’s right, and the continued attempt to do so is why there’s a pervasive view of salespeople being the proverbial “used car salesperson,” with their only concern being themselves and their company.

Charlie: Now, let me just get this straight. I ask you about selling to the C-suite, and your answer is “you have to care?” I don’t think that’s the typical canned response from most sales ‘experts,’ is it? Maybe you can give an example of how you showed a customer “you cared” in this manner?

Ken: Sure. I was blessed that the companies I worked for had world-class products. Even so, the reality is that not all products are always great – or even good.

I was working closely with the CTO and his staff at one of the largest Financial Services companies in the world. Our competitor’s product was 78% faster than our comparable product out of the box! That was the context in which I put together a several day meeting at our facility in Ireland, and had this company’s entire senior staff fly in from Europe and the US for a strategic update.

During the meeting, I asked them if our technical team could work with them to ensure that they implemented our solution properly so we could have a fair bake-off – and, I told them, if our competitor were to beat us, they should purchase their product and shame on us.

When I said that, you could hear an audible gasp come from my company’s execs. They had a look on their face of “Did Ken really just say what I think he said”?
The thought that my career was over suddenly crossed my mind.

However, my customer’s CTO noticed the ruckus I caused and immediately stood up. He said, “Thanks, Ken, for putting together this wonderful 3-day gathering; you’re a breath of fresh air in an industry that is polluted with unscrupulous salespeople.”

“You educated us to the fact that your next generation product, coming out in a few quarters, will have a new micro-architecture that will enable you to leap-frog the performance of your competitors. We believe you, and trust you, and are looking forward to testing your new platform ASAP. We want to work with you Ken.”

He basically told my executive management that my candor and “caring” should be applauded; and if anything were to happen to me, my company would lose their future business.

And…our next generation product did perform as promised, and has been the industry leader ever since.

Charlie: What I called the Acid Test of trust is whether you’re willing to recommend a competitor to a client. In effect, that’s what you did here.

Ken: It’s not that hard if you have a long-term perspective. If you want to build a long-term strategic relationship, and have faith that the next iteration of your product will fix your issues, you’d do what I did. If not, you might sell them your current product, but your reputation will be ruined forever.
Be honest and live to sell another day!

Charlie: Switching gears: I think when a lot of people find themselves in the C-suite, they get tongue-tied. Their pulse rate goes up, they get flustered, and they end up making any number of rookie mistakes. Advice?

Ken: Senior executives have no time for those who are in “awe” of whom they’re meeting.
Confidence – especially, confidence in yourself – is critical. You don’t have to be an expert in everything – but you’d better be expert in something, very clear about the boundary lines – and just as forthright about what you don’t know. Be prepared, and do your homework: then tell the truth. Honesty trumps ignorance.

You have to have great respect for them – but also remember they’re your equal! Deal with your insecurities and don’t psyche yourself out.

Talk about what’s important to the executive. Being STRATEGIC and not tactical is critical. Don’t discuss problems, just solutions. The higher up you go, the more you’ll find people who are surgically focused on growing revenue, innovation, and garnering a competitive advantage.

Charlie: Any additional tips?

Ken: Creating long-term relationships with senior executives is like shooting a good game of pool – you’re always shooting for the next shot!

As we discussed earlier, listen more than you talk, but be prepared based on your research to share some 30-second “nuggets” that will be of interest to them that also demonstrates your reputation as a known expert in your specialty.

Ultimately, if you want a trusted advisor relationship with executives, you have to make sure they see you as a “Player” that a) constantly educates them to things that they and their staff don’t know, and b) does so respectfully but in an insightful, direct manner that clearly shows you have the customer’s interest at heart.

Charlie: In your experience, what’s the single biggest obstacle to a salesperson building trust with their customers?

Ken: That’s an easy one! Sorry for my politically incorrect answer, but it’s imperative that salespeople learn to STFU and LISTEN!

So many salespeople are myopic – enamored with themselves and their voice when the conversation is not about them; it should be about their customers and helping them solve their business / OPEX problems and issues.

That’s why I feel the “Trust Equation” is the single most important sales theory ever created. With Self-Orientation in the denominator, the more you talk about yourself, the less trust you build! So in the words of the Kevin Spacey character from “Swimming with Sharks”, Shut-up, Listen and Learn!

Charlie: Thanks Ken for sharing with us your thoughts and ideas.

Ken: Thank you, as always, it’s been a pleasure!