Trust-based Selling, the Advanced Course

Hand The Ball Over, See What HappensI had lunch the other day with Jack S., a client from 5 years ago. At the time, Jack managed a sales organization in the reinsurance business. (If you think insurance is complicated, try understanding reinsurance!).

Since then, the industry has consolidated; Jack works for one of the top three reinsurance brokerage firms. His job has evolved into a sort of senior advisor  to the 100 or so consultative salespersons. As we talked, I realized he is operating at the very top of the trusted advisory, trust-based selling world. See what you think.

Charlie: How do you get asked in to see customers?

Jack: Each salesperson has about 5 clients, and typically at least one is having problems. Since I’ve got deep expertise and experience, and the reps trust me, they invite me in to meet the client.

Charlie: So, you get invited in as an expert? What happens then?

Jack: Yes, the rep typically tells the client I’m some super-expert. They introduce me with a big pitch, my resume, all my qualifications and so forth.  Then they hand it over to me, and that’s when I surprise them.

Charlie: Yes?

Jack: I just ask the client to tell me what’s going on. I can always feel the rep beside me screaming inside his head, “What!? That’s all you’ve got? I pitched you as an expert, where’s your demonstration?”  But I’ve found this works much better.

They can tell pretty quickly that I’m totally paying attention, and that I’m nodding in all the right places. Just a short question or comment from time to time is all I really need to show that I know what I’m talking about, and I always make sure we turn the conversation right back to them.

Charlie: What a concept – open by letting the customer talk!  Any other best practices or tips about how to do that?

Jack: Yes. I frequently ask the rep before we go in to resist their temptation to fill empty spaces in the conversation – to just follow my lead. You know, when you’re trying to sell something, a lull of even half a second in a conversation can feel like an eternity, and you’re worried about filling that gap, keeping the momentum going.

But if you let the customer fill the silence, they almost always will. And they seem to interpret it as permission to go a little further, to tell a little more about the situation.  Which happens to be great – they’re sharing much more with us, and I haven’t said a word.  The rep is often amazed when we leave, “I can’t believe he said that, he’s never talked about that before.”

Charlie: Brilliant. Now, what about failures?  Aren’t there some times where you don’t have a major new insight, you can’t solve the problem?

Jack: You know, I’ve learned there really aren’t any “failures.” Maybe a quarter of the time it turns out that the client is already doing everything they can, I can suggest a tweak or two, but basically they have to just bear down and wait out the situation.

If that’s the case, I just say simply you’re doing the right thing, you’re not missing anything, there is no silver bullet you haven’t found, or at least I haven’t found it either.  And that actually makes them feel better. Because they’ve been fearful and guilty, and I’ve given them permission to feel OK. They could already handle waiting for things to clear up, but they really appreciate the relief that comes from knowing they’ve done what they can.


I’ve written quite a bit about trust-based selling. Besides the book itself by that title, here’s a good article from a few years ago called Three Strategies for Creating Customer Trust.  As I scanned it after writing Jack’s story, I realized he touches on all three of those strategies.  Jack is really teaching the advanced course.

When the Client Cuts Your Face Time in Half

Your progress update meeting with the client is scheduled for an hour, starting at 11AM. You’re hopeful it might extend to a lunch invitation.

11AM comes and goes, and the client is still in a meeting. Word comes from the client’s AA that the meeting has to move to 2PM. At 1:30, it gets kicked to 5:30 – and it’s cut to half an hour, as the client really has to leave no later than 6PM.

What do you do?

This came up in a large workshop the other day; the setting was such that only a 1-minute answer was appropriate.  I gave the 1-minute answer – and I’ll include the longer answer here.

Involve the Client in Problem Resolution 

The quick answer is you start the meeting by saying something like, “Listen, it’s late in the day, and it sounds like yours has been hectic. Ending up in a review session may not be your idea of a good time. Would you rather reschedule?”

And then go with the client’s answer, whatever it is. If the client prefers to push on, then do so. And you’d better be willing to trim your presentation to 30 minutes, rather than trying to double-time it, or passive-aggressively running out of time.

The principle here is to make the client part of the problem resolution.

Involve the Client in Problem Definition

The longer answer is to make the client part of the problem definition – not just problem resolution. Why is it that a previously scheduled meeting slipped so drastically?  That it got cut in half?  That’s a discussion worth having on occasion.

Is it because the client doesn’t particularly care about an update, and it’s really your need for approval that’s driving the meeting? Are you able to specify real decisions that are needed from the client? Is this a box-ticking meeting to fulfill your internal processes? Are you trying to cover your behind? Do you know what the meeting was bumped for, and are you satisfied with the decision? Is this a meeting that neither one of you really wants, resulting in joint procrastination – and if so, what’s that about?

The answers may be perfectly innocuous, or they may uncover a deeper issue – where there’s smoke, there might be fire. The point is not about the answers – it’s about having the vulnerability and courage to re-invite the client to visit the tough questions, to define the issues jointly.

The Crisis of Confidence in Selling: Dialogue with Ago Cluytens and Charlie Green

Crisis in Confidence in Selling(This post is written jointly with Ago Cluytens, and will appear jointly on both our sites.)

Ago: Recently, Charles H Green (I get to call him Charlie) and I had a heart-to-heart about three seismic shifts that are completely changing the way buyers and sellers relate. Even though we live on different continents and have had dramatically different careers we interestingly both saw the same things happening – albeit from slightly different perspectives.

Charlie: Well Ago, we’ve outlined this general topic of what’s different in sales. But that’s pretty broad. Let’s break it down, as you suggested, to several themes that may be easier to address.

Ago: Sure. Let’s start with the elephant in the room. Are we in a Crisis of Confidence, where “selling” no longer sells? What do you think?

CG: Of course it depends on what you mean by each of those terms, but basically – I agree with you. What I mean by that is that two things have changed fundamentally in just the last ten years.

– Buyers have become more suspicious of the intentions and motives of sellers;

– Buyers now have access to far, far more information.

The result is a more empowered, cynical customer base. The traditional observation is that “the balance of power has shifted” to the buyer. But to state it that way is to miss the great opportunity facing sellers and buyers alike – to move away from defining the sales relationship as one of competitive, zero-sum entities, and toward collaboration and mutuality. The one road that is not going to work is trying to regain the power in the old game.

AC: You know, I like the way you focus on collaboration and mutuality. As you know, I used to be a management consultant. The second I started realizing that what my clients were looking for was not for me to tell them what to do, but to jointly figure out the problem and develop a solution that solved it, that changed my entire outlook – as well as the results I was getting.

Similarly, when I became an entrepreneur, I instinctively realized that (sales) success would not come from desperately trying to “sell someone,” but instead from finding those people for whom my service offering could be a potential solution and working together to define the best way to move forward.

If we can get over the “me versus you,” winner-take-all mindset and get into a mood of collaboration and joint problem solving, both sides win. Better deals are made, better terms are negotiated and better outcomes are reached.

CG: In that vein, let’s talk about the changing role of the buyer, and then of the seller as well, shall we? I’ll start us off with the role of the buyer.

As I see it, a couple of things have changed. One, as noted above, is that the buyer has access to more information. But the information itself is only part of the story there. The information they now have access to used to be available only through interaction with the seller. And now they have access to it without having to talk to a seller.

Now, that is a change in dynamics. Because, think of it: when you’re a buyer starting out in a purchase process, you probably know less than the sellers about the sellers’ offerings. So you feel at effect of, trapped, suspicious, cautious, hesitant and careful; because the information you need is being doled out to you by the seller, whose interests have always been perceived as lying in selling you the product. You are at their mercy.

For a buyer these days, those chains are gone. The only seller interactions that are required are high-level, complex questions (e.g. “have you ever combined this with an existing CRM system?”); and when the interaction happens, the customer is already highly educated. All that power game stuff is gone. The buyer feels empowered.

AC: You know, in addition to what you mentioned, there’s something even more subtle at play. It is a well-known fact that as the amount of information and choice available increases it actually has an adverse effect on our ability to make decisions and move forward.

Everything from our mobile devices to billboards spews out “information” 24/7, meaning we are slowly but surely buried under an avalanche of data. According to Mashable, 571 new websites are created, 100,000 Tweets are sent and 204 million e-mails are sent every minute. I mean, every minute.

And the effect this has on buyers is simple: total, complete overload. They stay stuck. Don’t move. The most effortless, most comfortable and safest path is always the same: to do nothing.

AC: So let’s talk a little bit about what that means if you’re a seller. Our new role as sellers is no longer to push our wares to the top of the pile, but to help the buyer stand back and make sense of the pile in the first place. Put in slightly more intellectual terms, our job is to be curators and advisors to our clients – not product pushers.

Generally speaking, there are three major trends I am seeing that set apart those who will be successful in the future (of sales) versus those who have been so in the past.

1. They think buying first, selling second. Meaning they see things from the buyer’s perspective, can “step into their shoes” and can often define the problem better than their buyer can

2. They start adding value from the second they meet – they do not wait for someone to be “qualified” before they start helping them, but understand that relationships are built over time and the best way to make change happen is to lead the way

3. They produce clarity, not complexity – they use their experience and broader viewpoint to help the buyer make sense of reality, the various options available and develop a process for making decisions.

And, as is often the case, precisely because they do those three things, they win a disproportionate percentage of all the deals they go after. That’s what I mean when I say “Stop selling. Start helping your buyer buy.”

If you combine the three trends I outlined, an interesting picture of the seller starts to emerge. Not a sleazy “used car salesman”, but a highly valued, trusted confidant and advisor.

CG: Wow, that’s interesting; I pretty much agree. I would only add that the seller has to change roles, given the shift in information availability, and in the dynamics of the interaction. The right way for the seller to interact today is to make it as easy as possible for the customer to get all the information they might want – without having to first talk to me.

That goes against every instinct of the seller; sellers have been taught to tightly control information, don’t discuss price until you’ve talked value, that sort of thing. It’s not easy to just give it away, with no trick strings attached, and then take on a very passive role, waiting for the buyer to come to you. But that’s part of the challenge.

I’d argue that the biggest role change for sellers is the need to change their objective. Big picture – as long as salespeople hold to the view that the objective of sales is to sell to the customer, they’ll have trouble. They have to change their objective, to that of “always be helpful” to the customer. Viewed way, sales become an effect, rather than the goal.

CG: Now Ago, that gets us to the next Big Category – changes in the shift of power. What’s your take on that?

AC: You know, Charlie, here’s what I am thinking. I believe that – to a certain degree – there has been a shift of power. Buyers are now more informed, more educated and more aware of their relative position of power than ever before.

But, in my experience, the most sophisticated buyers still approach the buyer-seller relationship from the same perspective as before. They don’t see sellers as predatory hunters who are out to “get them,” nor do they view them as subordinates who provide a commodity service and can be endlessly squeezed on price. And – just because they have more information – they understand that does not always mean they have more power.

If I were to make an analogy, most C-suite buyers I am in contact with view those selling to them as dance partners. Equal counterparts that provide a valuable and needed complement to what they see, know and understand. And with (the best of) whom, they are joined at the hip and need each another to produce the kind of results they want.

CG: We both agree that there has certainly been a shift of power, from the seller to the buyer. But that’s just what’s happened – that doesn’t tell us the answer. And the answer for sellers does not lie in regaining power. It lies in changing the game radically, for the benefit of both parties, to focusing on adding value and improving the customer’s business. There is an element of faith here – faith that if you consistently put client interests first, clients will tend to reciprocate, and become interested in buying from you.

If you as a seller just can’t handle that idea – if your feeling is “I can’t let them have that kind of control, they’ll abuse it and ruin me,” then you’re going to have a hard time. Because you have lost power already. And until you figure out how make one plus one equal to at least three, you haven’t got a replacement game.

AC: I think what we’re both saying is that this Big New Idea isn’t entirely new – this trend started many years ago – but it’s very, very Big. And at its core, that idea is simple: selling is about building trusted relationships.

The kind of relationships that allow you to view long-term, gain a common perspective, collaborate, share insights, and generally allow for the synergies that can only happen when working with people you trust.

And when done right, something magical happens. Like watching a pair of expert dancers whirl across the room in some Buenos Aires tango palace. They instinctively understand each other, know when to seamlessly transition from leading into following, when to move and when to pause. Not unlike a sales process, I might add.

The end result is something that goes way beyond “two people on a dance floor.” That’s how long-term, multi-million dollar relationships are built.

CG: Absolutely. The days of zero-sum competition are over; you have to add value, and the only way to add more value than others is to establish better relationships with the client. To do that, you have to build trust. And to build trust, you have to abandon the old sales objectives of gaining share of wallet, conquering competitors, maximizing price, and so forth; instead, you have to adopt one over-arching objective – to improve things for your client. And then believe that by so doing, you too will benefit.

Willful, Wishful Blindness: Trust and the Real Learning from the BBC Crisis

The UK press is screaming ‘blue murder’ about the recent turn of events in the BBC:

  • ‘How to restore trust in the BBC’
  • ‘You don’t trust us – and maybe you never will’
  • ‘Trust lost, hard to regain!’

A crisis for the BBC? Certainly. But a “complete loss of trust” is a wild exaggeration. Still, there is one troubling problem at the heart of things, and the BBC must get at it: a willful and wishful discomfort with facing truth.  Vital for any organization, truth-facing is especially so for a news outfit.

The Apparent Problem

The problem in recent weeks has been in one part of the vast BBC operation – its flagship current affairs programme, ‘Newsnight’. There has been real incompetence and mismanagement, and people are rightly angry and critical. But this is an organisation that has real pedigree and a brand that is deeply respected and trusted the world over for the quality and integrity of its daily product.

Deeply held trust, reinforced over many years, simply does not disappear in one moment with one incident.  The BBC will take the steps to right the ship around ‘Newsnight’ and move on.

To recap quickly:

It turns out that one of the BBC’s leading (and well loved, but now dead) entertainers in the last quarter of the 20th century, Sir (!) Jimmy Savile, was for many years a serial and horrific abuser of many young and vulnerable people who came under his influence. It was extensive. It went on a long time. He was never stopped.

Then, ‘Newsnight’ did a poor job of investigating and communicating about the Savile case.  Compounding the error, ‘Newsnight’ wrongly accused a senior politician of serious sexual abuse in another situation. The newly appointed Director General of the BBC – George Entwhistle – resigned after just a few months in the job. Indignation, blue murder – loss of trust! – pour forth through all the media channels.

Here’s what caused the hullaballoo:

  •  Sheer incompetence – “ Newsnight’s journalism would have disgraced a student newspaper,” wrote one commenter
  • Over-bureaucratic, over-layered management, with diffuse accountability
  • Poor crisis management
  • A public primed to be cynical because of other recent scandals (not just NewsCorp)
  • A tone-deaf full year ‘pay-off’ of £495k to the resigning DG who had only been in the job for a few months
  • Hugely toxic ‘hatred’ of the BBC in some political and media circles that is easily stirred and spoiling for any fight
  • A shift in the dynamics of trust regarding media output. Restraint, rigour, caution, consideration of consequences – these apparently no longer engender trust. With the impact of the social media, trust today means sharing everything you know; transparency replaces judgment.

If that’s all there were, this would be just another scandal, albeit very public. But there is another, deeper level of concern.

Willful, Wishful Denial

What is much less certain is whether the BBC can change a culture that was willfully – perhaps wishfully? – blind to the horrible sexual abuse that took place around some of its programmes for young people. In one of the hospitals where Savile got away with all this, one interlocutor has recently said, ‘ We did wonder whether something was going wrong. But Savile simply pulled in too many funds for anyone to want to do something about it.’

This is a culture that suborns, induces, and nurtures moral blindness.

Margaret Heffernan talks about this in her recent book Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril’ (Walker and Company, 2011). She says:

We are all susceptible to willful blindness, ignoring truths about ourselves, each other and the way we live, that threaten our sense of identity and security…We all succumb to the human tendency to prefer people like ourselves, to readily accept information that confirms our sense of ourselves, and discredit data that doesn’t fit our dominant ideologies. And when people are tired, busy and distracted, it’s clear that the mind falls back on stereotypes and received wisdom.

Think News Corporation, Enron, Lehman Brothers (‘The CEO, Richard Fuld, organised his life to ensure that he never encountered employees unexpectedly’), Bear Stearns (‘The CEO chose not to implement a form of risk analysis that might have revealed how much debt the bank actually carried’) and the Catholic Church (‘When first confronted with the fact of child-abusing priests, the Church chose first of all to take out insurance’).

Heffernan argues that the root cause of our willful blindness is our human instinct to obey authority. ‘Research into conformity shows that most of us would rather give a wrong answer than jeopardise belonging to a group.’

It’s the Culture, Stupid

This is where the really fundamental work lies for the BBC – reshaping a culture that is less prone to willful blindness, and more driven by its values of independence and integrity. This kind of work is not easy.  So perhaps some of Heffernan’s prescriptions might come in handy along the way:

  • Become more aware of our biases
  • Overturn corporate cultures that reward long working hours
  • Actively seek out dissenters in our circle of friends and colleagues
  • Ensure that the powerful surround themselves with independent thinkers and critical allies who have the freedom and moral courage to tell them the truth
  • Re-examine the role of obedience and compliance
  • Teach critical thinking.

This is not the stuff of MBA programs. These are not issues to be solved by technocrats, or lawyers, or business process experts. They are the simple stuff of creating an ethics-friendly culture. Simple, of course, doesn’t mean easy.  But it is – let’s not forget – still simple. Seek the right thing, talk about it, and walk the talk.

How Not to Get a Guest BlogPost Spot

Guest blogging is a valid and potentially powerful strategy for getting your message out and increasing your audience. Danny Iny, for example, teaches people very well how to do it.

But as night follows day, a good social media idea will be jumped on immediately by those seeking low cost high volume.  To wit, a recent example:

Hi There,

I am sure you get pitched on guest posts on a daily basis so I’ll keep this short. I am a long time reader of your blog and have been meaning to contribute – but I held back because I didn’t have a great idea that I think you’ll love.

Well, now I do. I stumbled upon an interesting topic on [topic which I can’t imagine readers of this blog wanting to read].  The article will help your readers become better equipped when dealing with such scenarios. Would you be interested in a guest post about the topic?

Well, at least he capitalized “There,” as in “Hi There.” I hate it when I get lower-cased. (And by the way, this letter was better than most; and, it’s clear his intentions were good. But, that’s not good enough).

People, people, people. How many times must it be said? Fake is fake, and real is real. Stop faking it.

A long-time reader of my blog would have known my name – and taken the time to use it.  (Also, he would have sent it to my email address, readily enough available, rather than to my info@ address).

A long-time reader of my blog would also have some kind of clue about what sort of material is of interest to my readers.

If you want to read someone intelligent about guest-blogging, go read Danny Iny on the subject. He’s good.  And one of the things he’ll tell you is to start with an honest list of names you’d like to guest-post on, and a list of topics you might address.

Only – you have to think about it!

You Actually Have to Think About It

This is where so many fall down. They think blogging, and writing, and thinking, and work in general, consists of punching one shiny object button after another. But it doesn’t – not when it comes to content.

When it comes to content, content matters.  Not fake lame-oh quasi-content, I mean something that is meaningful to the blogger you want to write for.  You can’t just mail it in.

It reminds me of an alleged dating strategy back in college: “Hi, nice to meet you – wanna have sex?”  The theory went, your odds were pretty low, but if you propositioned enough women, you were bound to get lucky.

The problem being, the odds were really, really, really low. And since time and any given college campus are finite, you run the risk of alienating a lot of future interactions by deploying it.  All in all, probably not a great dating strategy.

Nor is this approach to guest posting. If you’re going to offer to guest-post on someone’s blog, for heaven’s sake find out their name, for starters; and do them the simple dignity of thinking through what might actually be useful.

Your odds might get a lot better. And you wouldn’t trash the market on your way through it either.

Financial Advisory Services: Interview with Mark Barnicutt, CEO Highview Financial Group

The term “financial advisor” covers a wide range of activity, from insurance sales to asset manager to broker to financial planner, and many more. Both providers and consumers of financial advisory services are well advised to get some perspective about this business.

To help, I chose to interview Mark Barnicutt, a well-respected member of the industry in Canada. I first heard Mark speak last year, and was impressed with the breadth and common sense nature of his perspective.  With no shortage of issues, I tried to keep it big picture focused.


Charlie Green: Mark, give us just a bit of background. How do you come by your viewpoint?

Mark Barnicutt: I was the COO for the High Net Worth business of one of Canada’s Banks. I have also been a private banker, an investment counsellor, ran a US SEC-regulated advisory business, and now run Canada’s second largest family wealth/fiduciary management firm. I have an MBA and a CFA.

Charlie: For the non-Canadian readership, how does your experience in Canada compare with that of the US, the UK, and Australia?

Mark: I think that the issues in Canada are the same as those around the world today. With the growing concern amongst many investors about meeting their future funding obligations, many clients are seeking truly independent and objective advice in which client interests are truly placed first and the costing of all services are made fully transparent.

Charlie: Mark, what are the biggest issues facing your business today?

Mark: The biggest is the movement toward fiduciary management, for which we’ve prepared ourselves. It’s happening globally.

Charlie: OK, we can’t avoid definitions. Help us out?

Mark: A Fiduciary Manager (also known as an Outsourced Chief Investment Officer) is a securities registered investment professional who typically has no proprietary investment product to offer clients; instead, their sole focus is on being the architect of client portfolios in order that they truly match each client’s investment objectives and tolerances for risk. The implementation of each portfolio is done through the research & due diligence of specialized money managers, who are contracted through the Fiduciary Manager, for the benefit of clients.  As a result, there is complete objectivity and transparency of advice.

Charlie: Who has been governed by fiduciary standards and who hasn’t? How big a deal is it to change, culturally, for firms who haven’t been?

Mark: As in the United States, the issue of ‘who is’ an investment fiduciary exists in Canada. Typically, those investment professionals who have ‘discretion’ over client portfolios are recognized as investment fiduciaries, while those who do not have discretion – i.e. brokers – are not considered investment fiduciaries and are typically held to a lower standard of care (i.e. Duty of Care).

The cultural issues for firms that have operated under a Duty of Care Standard to move to a Fiduciary one are huge.  It’s a monumental shift – especially for firms who simply ‘sell products’ to clients – as it is a cultural shift that impacts the whole organization when one decides to become an investment fiduciary.

Charlie: You say this is happening globally; is it more evident, or does it have a stronger momentum, in some countries more than others?

Mark:  I understand from studies in recent years (Casey Quirk) that the Outsourced CIO industry is almost a $500 billion industry.  In Canada, it’s much more niche, but those few firms in Canada who are fiduciary managers are experiencing solid growth (according to our anecdotal information) given the ongoing challenges that so many investors are facing today.

Charlie: What’s driving this move? What’s been the customer experience of the financial advisory business over the past 30 years? The past 10?

Mark:  For investors…it’s all about working with someone who will truly place their interests first. They are tired of having ‘investment product’ pitched at them and then watching as the many promises rarely materialize. They are also tired of being gouged for excessive fees, which so many times are not transparent, but often times are embedded in various financial products.

Charlie: What do you see as salient now?

Mark: The objectivity and transparency of advice and services.

Charlie: Let’s stay with customers: what are the biggest misconceptions that customers have about the financial advisory business?

Mark:  They think that just because someone is licensed that they have a legal obligation to place client interests first…say, like a doctor or accountant.  As I mentioned earlier, this is not the case unless they are licensed as a discretionary portfolio manager.

Charlie: Similarly, what are the biggest mistakes you see customers making?

Mark: Because there are so many different types of advisors in the marketplace today, clients really need to do their homework and find advisors who truly want to place their interests first. This is unfortunately easier said than done, but I have met several clients over my career who have developed a deep assessment approach for finding the right advisor for them.  As part of their search process, they’ve spent time researching how a potential advisor would actually manage their assets to meet their unique needs, as well as service them.

Charlie: What is the ultimate, best-case, customer value that a great financial advisor can provide? What does a client gain from a really great financial advisor?

Mark:  Becoming a true advisor/partner with clients in helping them actually reach their various investment goals (which are typically some form of current and/or future consumption) but within each client’s capacity and willingness for risk.

Charlie: Thanks very much for taking time with us to help clarify this emerging issue.

Mark: My pleasure.


The Tyranny of Low Cost Strategies and the Gospel of Walmart

High Frequency Trading is in the news again. HFT is highly computerized stock trading, which secures faster execution for bigger computers located physically closer to the stock exchange. It now amounts to over half the daily flow on the stock exchanges.  Critics argue it amounts to legalized front-running, is unethical, and should be illegal.

The issue was raised starkly in a July 24 2009 CNBC interview  wherein a critic of HFT (Joe Saluzzi) accuses a proponent (Irene Aldridge) of defending unethical behavior. Aldridge’s reply:

“How dare you accuse us being unethical! We are the ones cutting margins, you are the ones being unethical.”

Ms. Aldridge’s response captures perfectly the moral flip-flop that business has achieved in the past few decades. Never mind whether HFT amounts to front-running, involves collusive behavior by the exchanges, or is unfair to retail investors, says Ms. Aldridge – the moral high ground, the Ethical Trump Card, is Low Cost. In the name of lower prices, even fractions of pennies, all is justified.

The Gospel of Walmart

Let’s leave Wall Street for Main Street. We all know the Walmart story – low prices all the time. But as a Fast Company article wrote, back in 2007:

The giant retailer’s low prices often come with a high cost. Wal-Mart’s relentless pressure can crush the companies it does business with and force them to send jobs overseas. Are we shopping our way straight to the unemployment line?

If revenue were GDP, Walmart would be the world’s 25th largest economy. That is pretty big market power.

Walmart’s benefits are clear: lower prices, all the time, for millions of consumers. But along with those costs come trade-offs. The reduction of brand power. The exporting of jobs. The reduction of pay and benefits for workers in the name of lower costs to consumers.

More insidiously, what we get in the Walmart deal is lowest-common-denominator consuming. We get buyers who aren’t presented with quality alternatives, can’t recognize them if they are presented, and are trained to view low price as the primary Pavlovian trigger for purchasing.

That’s how we get tramplings at 5AM holiday store openings; that’s how the US produces twice the garbage per capita of Sweden; and I suspect (though can’t prove it) it helps us move toward becoming a nation of hoarders.

Is it all worth it?

The Tyranny of Low-Cost Strategies: Linking Wall Street and Main Street

What links high frequency trading to Walmart?  There is a common ancestor in the family tree of business thinking.

In the 1970s, thinking about business strategy took an abrupt turn – from CUS to COM.  That is, from being about the company’s relationship to its customers, to being about the company’s relationship to its competitors. (If you’re interested, the leading thinkers were Bruce Henderson, Michael Porter, and the Boston Consulting Group).

By 1980, the conversion was complete: anytime anyone said “strategy,” you knew it meant “competitive strategy.”

One of the most powerful points Porter made in his classic Competitive Strategy was that there were two successful generic strategies, and the first of them was Low Cost Producer. He who got the lowest cost got the greatest volume, which led to higher market share and higher profits, which led to lower costs, and so on. It was a road toward legal monopoly, insofar as laws permitted.

Porter’s rules were learned very well: by Jack Welch at GE, by Walmart, by the mortgage business, by Wall Street traders, and by every exec ed program in every business school in the world. It became – and I do not use the word lightly – gospel truth that the highest business good was to lower costs.

The root purpose of lower costs was to gain sustainable competitive advantage for the company. But the collateral benefit, the offshoot which could be spun for great PR, was that the consumer benefited as well. Allegedly.

This insight took only a little bit of tweaking (let’s revise Adam Smith and Milton Friedman, season with a dose of Ayn Rand and a dash of Alan Greenspan, and voila!) to come up with an ideology that said not only is low cost a successful business strategy, it is also the Key to Capitalism, which in a capitalist society is also the source of ethics. Allegedly.

This is how we get to Ms. Aldridge’s high dudgeon at being accused of unethical behavior (“Moi?!”) In this all-too-common alternative view of the world,  profit underlies ethics, business success is the root of morality, and low cost is the Ur-explanation that requires no further referent point for ethical discussion.

“We are the ones cutting margins – you are the ones being unethical.” In that statement, the transformation is complete: low cost is the new moral high ground.

Be careful what you wish for.


Story Time: Want a Relationship Breakthrough? Role-Play Your Client.

Our Story Time series brings you real, personal examples from business life that shed light on specific ways to lead with trust. Our last story proved that good intentions won’t keep you from screwing up. Today’s story highlights the business value of taking time to see the world from another’s perspective.

A New Anthology

When it comes to trust-building, stories are a powerful tool for both learning and change. Our new book, The Trusted Advisor Fieldbook: A Comprehensive Toolkit for Leading with Trust (Wiley, October 2011), contains a multitude of stories. Told by and about people we know, these stories illustrate the fundamental attitudes, truths, and principles of trustworthiness.

Today’s story is excerpted from our chapter on training for trustworthiness. It vividly demonstrates how a little role-playing—walking in your clients’ shoes—goes a long way.

From the Front Lines: Role-Playing Pays Off

The value of role-playing couldn’t be highlighted any better than the example that one of our course participants experienced in real time at one of my (Charlie’s) sessions. The exercise asked a group of business leaders to play the role of one of their most challenging clients while a colleague held a typical meet-and-greet.

One male partner chose a woman who was then a presidential appointee at one of Washington’s largest government agencies. The partner was flummoxed by two aspects of the relationship. One, a number of her direct reports were using the services of his organization, so he had to be careful of jumping the chain of command. Two, she kept asking for feedback, and what others inside and outside the organization were saying about her, a question he didn’t feel he could answer without jeopardizing the firm’s relationship.

The exercise got off to a good start, but then the ‘client’ asked over and over: ‘How are we doing?’

The other executive in the role play finally said: ‘Why do you keep asking that?’

The ‘client,’ the senior partner, answered quickly: ‘I’m just looking for information.’

A light bulb went off: she hadn’t been asking about how her staff felt about her; she was looking for information outside her own glass bubble as a senior official.

The senior partner immediately shot off an e-mail asking his client to have coffee and catch up. She answered right away with: ‘I’ll buy.’

—Charles H. Green, about Greg Pellegrino (Global Industry Leader for the Public Sector Industry, Deloitte)

Connect with Greg on LinkedIn or read his blog.


Read more stories about trust:

Carpet Bombing Content Marketing and Trusted Advisors

Let me connect a few dots. I’ll start with content marketing, and end up with entry-level minimum wage trusted advisors being advertised on

Always Be Publishing

Let’s start with an article about content marketing called “Always Be Publishing.

The idea is simple enough; instead of talking about yourself, start a conversation. Don’t pitch yourself; instead, “Create a story that looks and feels like a real news story.” The article promises, “The more you share with others and the more often you invite others to participate and converse with you, the more likely your content will be shared.”

Fine, but note that if everyone followed this advice, we’d be inundated with posts on LinkedIn, Quora, Facebook et al, with everyone positioning themselves as a discussion-leading expert, whose objective is to drive more and more traffic, until we drown in traffic.

Oh wait, that’s pretty much what’s happening.

Carpet-Bombing Content

There are two problems with this carpet-bombing approach to content.

First, it is desensitizing. The pharmaceutical industry embarked on something like this for a decade or two, called “reach and frequency.” It meant blitzing doctors’ offices with come-hither wink-nod ex-cheerleader reps whose job it was to perform a canned script, get the doctors to sign a statement, and then leave them free drug samples.

I’m sure content-marketers would insist that this is not a valid analogy, but it’s not all that invalid either. The carpet-bombing of message is common to both. Just as with kids’ advertising on TV, the mind numbs after a while, and all that remains is the dull lizard-brain throbbing at the ghost of the memory of meaning.

The other problem with the “always be publishing” mantra is that it inevitably degrades quality. I remember during the “empowerment” craze, someone pointed out that if you empowered stupid people, you’d get powerful stupidity.  And unless you believe all content is created equal, this brings up the same conundrum.

The Word Formerly Know as Content

“Content” has become a word whose connotation has become content-neutral. Here’s what I mean by that.  Once upon a time, it was an epithet to say, “He’s all sizzle, but no content,” “that was zero-content consulting,” or, “the cover looked great, but the content didn’t live up to the promise.”

Nowadays, “content” too often means nothing more than the bits and bytes that take up space under a headline. (I want to take a moment to note an important exception, Valuable Content, whose very title insists on a value judgment; kudos to them. But they are all too rare).

All too common is SuperSpun Articles, from Jonathan Leger, who promises:

“Never write another article again! Generate thousands of highly unique [sic] top-quality articles at the push of a button!” …We GUARANTEE that no two generated articles will EVER have more than 25% duplicated content (usually far less than that). The odds are one in ten million that two articles will be 20% the same…”

He can do this because he’s generated “spinner” software that looks up synonyms and the like and generates nearly infinite variations on “content,” all of which are “unique” in the search engine optimization game driven by Google. And we have come to refer to this as “content.”

In this world, even the old line about a thousand monkeys typing for a thousand years and writing Shakespeare is no longer funny!  Because the “point” of “content” is no longer literature, or even meaning – content has become the pink slime of words.

The point of “content” is to push our reptilian buttons, increase our SEO ratings, and raise our Klout scores.

I can live with art for art’s sake having been lost; even education for education’s sake.  But when meaning for the sake of meaning is lost, I don’t know what to do.

What do words mean when words aren’t intended to have meaning?

Pink Slime Trusted Advisor

Here’s the other dot to connect (the first one was Always Be Publishing).

Exhibit 1. A ad for Michigan Farm Bureau Insurance headlined Trusted Advisor / Insurance Agent. The ad says,

    • “We have over 400 trusted advisors across Michigan who markets [sic]  the products and services we offer.”

Exhibit 2. Trusted Advisor Account Service Management Sr. Advisor for Dell SecureWorks. Here is the first of seven “job responsibilities:”

    • Proactively monitor support distribution lists/customer service ticket delegations for potential escalated issues with customer accounts in order to curb potential dissatisfaction issues which may include responding to customer “how to” questions; Update customer delegate Helpdesk, Trending, and Incident tickets requesting update and closure
    • Knowledge requirements include MOAM1, LIAM1, and DCAM1

When Maister, Galford and I wrote The Trusted Advisor in 2000, we started by saying, “While none of us begin our career as a trusted advisor, that is the status to which most of us aspire.”

At the time, it seemed an unremarkable comment. Imagine our astonishment if someone had told us, “Hey, in only 12 years, there will be over 400 trusted advisors in just one insurance company – and in their Michigan operations alone!” Not to mention they’d be required to know MOAM1.

Words in a Meaningless Environment

Just because I’m paranoid doesn’t mean there’s nothing to be afraid of. I happen to believe that if we are subjected to a campaign of verbal carpet-bombing and told it’s marketing, and that if all of us are taught that the road to success is to always be publishing more content than our neighbors, then there are certain predictable outcomes:

  1. Words will progress asymptotically toward meaninglessness
  2. “Content” will become the verbal equivalent of beige, no longer requiring a qualifying adjective
  3. Writing will become mechanized

Oh wait, we already established that’s what happening.

4. The abuses of language outlined above will cross over. In addition to losing connotative meaning, they will cause us to lose denotative meaning. We will no longer be able to tell a trusted advisor from a transactional subject matter expert.

That means the first exhibit in our book, which portrayed a 4-step progression from subject matter expert to trusted advisor, will be rendered not just meaningless, but incomprehensible to many.

Apparently that’s already happened to the people who write employment ads.

Dear “| FIRSTNAM |” Personalization in an Age of Scale

Both Andrea Howe and I are experienced bloggers; 15 years and 1500 blogposts between the two of us.

We are far less experienced at newsletters and email marketing, but have been dipping our toes in that water. Yesterday we both stubbed those toes.

The Offers

Andrea wanted to announce a books-for-keynotes offer; I wanted to announce a sales event in Chicago. Each of us was very concerned to keep the personal quality we have tried to hard to develop over the years.

Rather than use an automated mailing program, Andrea went with her personal Outlook.  I chose the automated mailer route, but using a first name field where possible.

Murphy had a field day.

Andrea overdid the bcc capabilities of Outlook, generating error messages and returned emails in such a manner that she didn’t know who had actually received an email and who hadn’t.

My case was a little more blatant; not all the contacts in my database have been stored with first names, and the program, being the logical automaton that it is, addressed them by database field name. Thus some of you may have received an email addressing you as “Dear |FIRSTNAM|.”

Oops. I’m sorry.

The Minefields

We are all tip-toeing through minefields these days, attempting to keep deep links, while exploring weak links at the same time. Trying to keep things personal while looking for scale.  Figuring out how to be trusted, while trying to develop business online.

Sigh…sometimes it ain’t easy.

On top of it all, much of the market has become cynical. Not without justification! Note the headline in Time Magazine this week: LIBOR Scandal: The Crime of the Century?

I like to think I’m a little jaded, but I must confess I wasn’t expecting the following response from a now-former subscriber, who gave this reason for his desire to be taken off the mailing list:

“Because you started sending me emails with a fake person’s name as the sender. I guess not enough people are opening your emails so you think you have to fool us.”

Turns out he was used to receiving email from “Trusted Advisor Associates,” but when he saw mail from the same source with a person’s name, he figured it was a phony.

I guess the good news is, we’ve managed to create a trusted brand. But did it have to come at the price of my own name? (I can assure you, Andrea exists; I’ve met her. At least, that’s who she said she was…)

It’s an interesting problem. Andrea and I believe it’s not qualitatively different than at any other time, but the quantitative extent of things sure has ratcheted up.

The best solutions lie in transparency and collaboration.  That’s what we wrote about in The Trusted Advisor Fieldbook.


Since we both feel strongly about this, here are two things we can do.

  • If you’d like to get a free copy of our eBook Creating a Culture of Trust (taken from our new book) and be put on our mailing list, email me, personally, at

We do believe there are people out there, and we want to continue to find ways to help us all to remember it.