Best Practice for Opening a Sales Call: Bring a Risky Gift

How do you open a sales call?

Do you strive to establish credibility? Thought leadership? Make a positive first impression? Establish trust rapidly?

There are lots of answers to that question, and I’m going to suggest most of them are sub-optimal. And, I’m going to suggest, there is one single Best Practice way to do it. It’s called Bring a Risky Gift—BARG for short.

Why Your Opening Sales Conversation is Critical

First, let’s be clear. This question is more important than it used to be – not less important. Many sales authors are fond of noting that the sales process is becoming far more composed of pre-meeting interactions – collecting data from websites, emails, search engines and the like. They then draw the wrong conclusion – that the actual sales meeting itself is declining in importance.

The opposite is true. As long as complex B2B buying decisions are made by human beings – that is, protein-based entities who are the products of eons of emotional and social evolution – we require some kind of personal interaction before making a major decision. Let’s call that the sales meeting.

The fact that less total time is taken up by face to face meetings these days simply means that those meetings’ relative importance in the entire sales process has increased, not decreased.

A Metaphor

Let’s say you and your spouse or significant other are invited to dinner at the home of a business acquaintance. It’s your first time meeting them in a primarily social context. What must you do?

You know the answer to this one. On the way there, you stop at the liquor store and pick up a nice bottle of  wine. It’s what you do. The culture of gift giving in a thousand forms (including simple gestures of respect) is deeply embedded in every culture, including modern western business culture.

By doing so, you fulfill a minor cultural obligation. The host thanks you, and the evening begins on a fractionally higher note than before you walked in with the gift. But notice – this is more obligation than generous gesture. The downside of not bringing a bottle of wine is probably greater then the credit you get for doing so. You’re supposed to do this.

But imagine this. On the way to the liquor store, you say to your SO, “I think they went to northern Italy last year. What if we bought them a really nice bottle of Barolo, with an Italian looking gift card?“ and maybe you spend a few dollars more than you might have otherwise.

What happens when you present the gift? Notice – there is a risk here! It’s possible they are alcoholics. Or perhaps it was Spain they went to, not Italy. But here’s the magic: you actually get more credit for having taken that risk – even if you were wrong – than you get for buying the conventional, safe Napa cabernet.

What happens if your host really is an alcoholic? They are likely to say, “You know, we don’t drink, but that’s very thoughtful of you – we’ll save it for our next guests who do.“

And if it was Spain they went to? They are likely to say, “Ha ha, we used to confuse Spain with Italy too,“ or, “No, it was Spain, but with wines like this Barolo, we’re thinking Italy is our next destination – have you been?”

The point is: yes, you get credit for bringing any wine, but not much more than for fulfilling an obligation. You get serious extra credit for having been willing to take a risk – even if you’re wrong! It shows you are willing to be vulnerable in service to the client.

The act of showing vulnerability and taking a risk first means that you are playing the role of the trustor – the one who initiates a trust relationship – rather than waiting to passively play the lower-risk role of merely being trustworthy.

The possibility of being wrong is critical to that extra credit: it says to your host, “I may be wrong here, but I have put serious thought into this, and I’m willing to accept the gamble that I could conceivably be wrong; I trust that you will appreciate my well-intentioned gesture and the quality of thought that went into it.”

Now let’s see how that metaphor plays out in opening up a Sales conversation.

BARG to Open the Conversation

First, notice that you rarely get an opening sales conversation without already having established serious credibility. B2B buyers don’t waste their time, they’ve done their homework on you, and you have established enough credibility to get this meeting.

Do not waste their time by launching into a demonstration of how smart you are. It is annoying, and they’ve already acknowledged that point. Continuing to do so is all about you, not them. Worse, it’s rude. Any sales author who tells you you should open a sales conversation by establishing your credibility is oblivious to the serious emotional undercurrents happening in these moments.

That includes authors who suggest you should open with a breathtaking demonstration of how you are able to challenge their thinking. If that’s all you lead with, it is not only rude, it is insulting and arrogant.

Insights are great, but they must come well-packaged in the emotional wrapper of respect and etiquette. That’s where BARG comes in.

(It should go without saying that the wrong answer to, “so, tell us about yourself“ is to launch into your prepared deck about yourself. They were merely being polite by asking that question; you should not take it as any more than a pleasantry, which the rules of etiquette suggest requires only a 30-second answer.)

Here’s what you should say after the minimal pleasantries are complete:

Thanks for having us here. It is apparent to us, having looked through a lot of available information about you, that you are truly expert in [insert something] [insert something more]. It would be arrogant of us to claim that we know more about these areas than you do.

However— we do know a thing or two about similar situations, and one thought arose as we looked over your circumstance. It seems to us – please correct me if I’m wrong – that [X] might be a critical issue for you. Is that the case? And if so, could you tell us more about how X plays out in your business?

Two things: first, note that X had better be a meaningful, thoughtful insight.

But second, and frankly even more importantly, X had better be possibly wrong. If it is an absolutely 100% safe hypothesis, then you get no credit for having taken a risk. If you cannot be wrong in your hypothesis, then you are refusing to show any vulnerability. You are refusing to take the first step in creating trust. That is simply a variation on “I’m smarter than you are, and I’m going to start off by showing you why and how that’s true.”

There are two possible answers to your risky gift, and they are both good:

  • The first answer is, “you’re totally right – anything you have to say about that critical issue, we are very interested in hearing.”
  • The second answer is even better. “You know, most people think of X as the big issue, but the fact is – it’s really Y.”

In which case, you respond with, “Oh my gosh, I see it now – of course you’re right. Please, tell us more about Y, and how that plays out for you.“

And of course they will be happy to tell you about Y: because you have demonstrated vulnerability, you are showing sincere interest in what they have to say, you are focusing on them not on you, and you are demonstrating the willingness to learn from them.  At that point, the polite thing for the client to do is to answer your question of them.

If you think these rules of social propriety are vague and imprecise, think about how you respond when someone extends a handshake to you: how often do you spurn them and turn away with a cold shoulder? Pretty much never. You can make serious book on the hard-wired social responses of human beings in these situations – we are extremely predictable.

Insight by itself is worse than useless if not wrapped in the package of social propriety. BARG is that wrapper. It triggers hard-wired responses of etiquette, respect and other-focus in an ever-ascending spiral of reciprocating exchanges between two trusting and trustworthy parties.

To close the loop: should you open a Sales conversation with credibility? With a first impression? With insight? With rapid trust creation?

The answer to all of those questions is Yes. What’s critical is how you do it. And how you do it is BARG—Bring a Risky Gift.


What Buyers Really Want

What do buyers really want?

In particular, what is the true role of expertise in evaluating the purchase of complex intangible services?

The head of marketing for a US East Coast major law firm was asked by 3 partners to help rehearse and prepare them for a key sales meeting at a major potential new client. “If only we can convince them that we are absolutely the best in this area, which we are,” the lead partner said, “then they’ll have to go with us.”

This point of view seemed so self-evident to the senior partner that it didn’t feel like an opinion; it seemed like an obvious truth. Unfortunately, not only is it just an opinion—it also is not particularly accurate.

Lawyers, accountants, bankers, actuaries, consultants—all behave more often than not as if the key to selling lies in a powerful display of expertise. Most complex intangible services sales are sold with the implicit, if not explicit, belief that expertise is the issue. But that doesn’t make it right. And if it’s not right, then we must answer three questions:

  • if expertise doesn’t sell best, then what does?
  • don’t buyers seem to want to buy expertise?
  • if selling expertise isn’t the best approach, why is it the dominant one?

Good questions all. The answers lie in the psychology of buyer and seller of complex intangible services, and in trust—which is what really lies at the heart of successful sales.


If buyers don’t primarily buy expertise, then what are they buying? The answer, in a word, is trust.

Take a simple case. Imagine you have recently moved to a new city, and must find a pediatrician for your 2-year old child. You have a list of 6 doctors, referrals from a combination of health plans, co-workers and neighbors. One doctor clearly has a slight edge in reputation of medical school; another has the most years’ experience; another is on staff at a teaching hospital and has written several articles.

But there is one who hits it off immediately with your 2-year old. This pediatrician connects with and seems genuinely focused on your interests as a parent and on those of your child, rather than on getting you as a new patient. In other technical respects, this physician is in the top half, but not number 1 in any category.

What do you do? Not everyone, but a majority nonetheless, will go for the pediatrician who seems to care, as long as he or she is within an acceptable range of expertise. And, they will use the word “trust” to describe their decision. There are exceptions, of course; a few people always buy purely on the basis of technical specifications, a few more buy only on price, and occasionally one seller is overwhelmingly dominant in the technical realm.

But the majority behave as if expertise has an acceptability threshold. Achieving that threshold is a necessary condition for getting hired—but even expertise beyond the threshold is not a sufficient condition. Given an acceptable level of expertise, people prefer—strongly—to buy from someone whom they trust. In other words, expertise serves as a first-order screen in the buying process—but not as a final decision-making criterion.

To put it simply: most buyers of complex intangible services prefer to find an expert they can trust, rather than to evaluate expertise across experts.


They do. They just don’t say so. There’s a difference.

First, buyers are a little intimidated by the role of buyer. Usually the seller has greater expertise. There is often a lot at stake, and the services are costly. It is often truly hard to choose between several very competent sellers. So, buyers feel a need to display some level of technical expertise themselves, partly out of natural human ego, and partly to keep the seller on his toes.

Second, corporate buyers of complex intangible services are usually professionals themselves—they worship at the same altar of expertise. And, they are particularly concerned to be able to justify their decision. Justification in business almost always consists of rational, mostly financial, arguments. Therefore buyers drive discussions in the technical direction, even while looking to assess their level of trust with the sellers.

How does this play out? Buyers look for rational reasons to justify what is finally an emotional decision, built heavily on trust. The most commonly accepted rational reasons are price and features. (Price is a very comfortable excuse for saying no—it is quantitative, impersonal, and only the buyer has all the numbers. However, price is rarely given as a positive reason for selection). Very few chief counsels will say to their CEO or board nothing more than, “I think we should go with XYZ because, basically, I think like them better and trust them more.” Yet that is how most of us do behave when buying complex intangible services.


Professionals over-emphasize expertise for three reasons.

First, that’s what they think (falsely) the buyer wants— and the buyer encourages them in that belief.

Second, expertise is what we professionals are most comfortable with. Very few lawyers went into law because they wanted to sell, or because they wanted to work with people. They went because they love the law, and the vast majority of their learning, development, evaluations and study consist of greater and greater mastery of content expertise. The same is true for consultants, commercial bankers, accountants and actuaries. Why would anyone want to sell on any other basis than what they’re good at and spend all their time and energy at?

Finally, professionals have an emotional vested interest in selling on expertise. It is not comfortable to believe that success in selling might depend on something other than what we spend almost all our time and energy focused on. Still, it’s the truth.

Most buyers of complex intangible services prefer to use technical expertise as a screening mechanism, and then make final decisions based on trust. Sellers who recognize this will listen more, talk less, and focus on the issues of the client at hand (rather than those of past clients). These simple client-focused behaviors are the ways buyers assess trust. Get yourself in the door by focusing on expertise; but once in, drop it and focus on the client, not on yourself.

Ditch the Elevator Pitch and Take the Escalator or the Stairs

As tech infiltrates every aspect of our personal and business lives, efficiency becomes an ever-more celebrated virtue. This is as true in communications as elsewhere. Think one-word book titles (Blink, Switch, Drive); think the obsession with CRM metrics; and think the Elevator Speech.

You know the “Elevator Speech.” It’s the hypothetical answer you would give if you were alone in a high-rise building elevator with the CEO of a potential client. Presumably the CEO says, “Tell me about your company,” or “Tell me why we should work with you.” Your presumed answer – sometimes called “the elevator pitch” – turns out to be a good solution in search of the right problem.

There are situations where a 30- to 60-second answer to those questions is exactly what’s called for. But there are other situations – far more, in fact – where different approaches are called for – let’s call them the Escalator Speech and the Stairs Speech.


Try searching “elevator speech.” Depending on whom you read your elevator speech should last 30 seconds – or maybe 120. It should answer the question, “What do you do?” or maybe it should just make an impression. It should – or shouldn’t – be a sales pitch. It is applicable to a job hunter, as well as to an entrepreneur in search of venture capital.

One size does not fit all, of course. But there is one simple question to help you craft your response speech, and it is this: What does the other person really want from you?

There are three possible answers, each requiring a different “speech”:

  1. Do I want to be involved with these people?
  2. What can these people do for me?
  3. Who are these people, and do I care?

Let’s examine each.


If you’re an entrepreneur pitching a venture capitalist, there is a definite frame of reference established simply by naming those two roles. A venture capitalist’s key question is, “Shall I invest more time, and ultimately more money, in developing an investor relationship with these people?”

Answering that question is part of what venture capitalists do. They deal in business models, competitive analyses, concept descriptions, and corporate story lines. A snappy 60-second comprehensive, high-talk, low-listen pitch is very right – if you’re an entrepreneur in an elevator with a venture capitalist.


That question rarely comes up in other corporate roles. A line executive doesn’t spend much of his time interviewing consulting firms or deciding on systems or communications vendors. Even an HR executive doesn’t spend a lot of time interviewing candidates.

If such clients are approached by someone in a captive audience situation and forced to endure a 60-second speech – no matter how insightful or clever – their reaction is likely to be one of resentment. They didn’t ask to be informed about the benefits of a relationship. If anything, it feels presumptuous if a consultant or vendor starts to talk about one. If they’re with you on a trip to the 46th floor, this is when they hit the 26th floor button and say, “Oh, I just remembered, I have to…”

And yet consultants and vendors are often encouraged to think about the “elevator speech” concept – to emulate the entrepreneur – and begin telling their “life story” to a stranger who hasn’t invited a relationship conversation.

Meanwhile, the client is stuck back at something like, “Relationship? Slow down – I don’t even know what you can do for me. Let’s not put the cart ahead of the horse.”

This is the question more commonly being asked in a happenstance business encounter. The client is not interested in an investment relationship, but they might be interested in a simple services relationship. It depends on what we can do for them. So, answer that question. Do it with what I’ll call the “Escalator Speech.”

The Escalator Speech should be limited to about 20 seconds and culminate in a question. The rest of the time is entirely up to the client—who can, after all, choose to invite you to continue the conversation on whatever building floor they choose.

Your “speech” needs to sound something like this:

Mr. Jones, I’m James Smith from XYZ Associates. We’ve worked with a customer of yours, ABC, and I’m acquainted with Janice Johnson of your firm. We work to improve trust levels in our clients’ sales processes. It’s always seemed to me there’s untapped potential for improved customer relationships in your insurance business by changing the way benefits payments are transmitted. Do you see it that way too? Why isn’t there more personal contact at that critical point in the industry’s business process models?

Then shut up and listen for the rest of the escalator ride. There are two possible outcomes to this conversation, and both are good:

  1. The client says, “You’re right, it’s a constant source of amazement to me that we don’t do a better job on that. Let’s talk some more about how you’ve gotten organizations to do that.” Good conversation ensues.
  2. The client says, “Ah, that’s what many people think, and it sounds right at first, but there’s a hidden reason it doesn’t happen this way, and I’ll let you in on it. The reason is….” Even better conversation ensues, because you learned something, and the client had the pleasant experience of giving a smart person an even better education. They get to look smart – always a fun thing. Your original insight doesn’t have to be right; it just has to be intelligent and thoughtful.

The Escalator Speech starts off by giving the bare minimum of information required for social comfort, then it offers a piece of free insight to the client, ending with a genuine question. This gives the client total control over whether to take the conversation further.


Both the elevator and escalator speeches happen in a business context – a semi-random event within a non-random environment. But other situations arise as well. You sit next to someone on an airplane who turns out to be a potential client. You go to a neighborhood cocktail party and run into someone who works at a potential client organization.

In such a situation, even an escalator speech is presumptive because the occasion is largely social. The impression you make here is based first on obeying the social roles that govern the situation. And rule number one is you don’t get deeply into business.

In this situation, if someone says, “What do you do?” they’re not inviting you to assess their business, much less pitch your own. And remember, they probably don’t care much about your answer. Their question was a social nicety; they didn’t come to this event looking for business contacts.

Here, you need to say something like this:

“I spent 12 years in consulting. I then joined a small healthcare client company as their CEO. Last year, I started my own consulting firm focused on the health industry. And you – what do you do?”

The rules of this dialogue are that it’s back and forth, and you shouldn’t spend more than 30 to 60 seconds on your side before tossing the conversational ball back to the other side. Your only business objective here is to give the client enough information to know if they care who you are. If they do care, then further discussions can be held later – exchange business cards or email addresses, and look for signs that the other party prefers to start talking about football. Follow their lead.

Let’s call this the Stairs Speech – so named because you take it one step at a time.

The next time someone says to you, “So, tell me, what is it that you do?” ask yourself what that questioner really wants to know.

  • Are they just being polite? Give the Stairs Speech.
  • Are they interested in what you might do for them? Use the Escalator Speech to escalate from monologue to dialogue.
  • Are they interested in investing serious time and money in you? Use the Elevator Speech to show you’re on top of your business and respectful of their time.

There are several ways to get up in a building, and only one involves an elevator.

Handling Sales Rejection Without Becoming a Narcissist

You know the age old saying, “It’s not personal, it’s business.” We’ve all heard it countless times, in office settings and in the movies. It may be something you try to tell yourself after a deal you worked for so hard for goes sour – yet you still have trouble believing it.

Yet, with all that wisdom awash in the atmosphere – why is it that we continue to take sales rejection so personally?

It’s one of the hardest parts of selling – that knife edge space where company revenue stream meets interior personal psychology. The fact is – it is business, and it is personal.

Most solutions share one problem; they are narcissistic, leading the salesperson to believe it’s all about them.

But it’s not all about you. And the sooner you build that insight into your selling, the better.

This is a topic I wish I had written more about in Trust-based Selling, so I’m glad to amplify it here.

Why Dealing with Rejection Messes You Up

Let’s start with the obvious. If you’re not getting some rejections, you’re probably not taking enough risks. So if you avoid rejection, you’re avoiding risk; which means you’re losing sales.

But that’s not all. If you’re avoiding rejection, on some level you know it. If you know you’re avoiding something, you know you’re not doing what you know you could do; you’re not living up to your own self-image. That soaks up a whole lot of energy; it makes you inward focused and unhappy. None of which helps you as a salesperson.

So avoiding rejection hurts your business, and it makes you feel unhappy. Inability to handle rejection hurts you everywhere it counts.

The Three Usual Solutions to Rejection—and Their Weaknesses

There are three common approaches to dealing with rejection. I’ve given them each distinctive names. They are:

1. Endure it. This approach suggests there is some natural relationship between the numbers of rejections you have to endure to get to the good stuff. If you spin the wheel long enough, your number will come up. Get out there and dial for dollars.

The problem: it’s hard to treat prospects as people if you’re just counting their no’s.

2. Shrink it. This approach says. “It’s not about you, it’s not personal, you shouldn’t feel hurt.” Bring in the shrinks; think your way into not feeling.

The problem: it really is personal. In fact, it’s about as personal as it gets – and you know it.

3. Motivate through it. This approach relies on getting you ‘motivated,’ which usually means pumped up, psyched, and able to just play through the pain.

The problem: prospects don’t appreciate being bulldozed.

Why “Handling Rejection” is Narcissistic

All those solutions have one defect: they’re all about managing your psychological response to an issue called “rejection.” But here’s the key: rejection is an imaginary concept – a fiction, a figment of your imagination.

“Rejection” is a belief that if something happened that affected you, then it must have happened to you – that it was about you, concerning you, because of you, etc. And that’s what I’ll refer to as narcissism – a tendency to view everything as being about you.

(Not-so-ancient societies used to believe that the sun and the planets revolved around the earth. There’s a very natural human tendency to believe that we are at the center of our own anthropomorphic universe, our own private Idaho. Much of growing up is getting over this idea, and most of us are only partially successful at it).

Instead of “dealing with rejection” let’s focus on what’s really going on in the real world – the world outside your head.

Curiosity is the Real Antidote to Rejection

Think of selling as a scavenger hunt. On a scavenger hunt, you go off into a relatively unstructured environment, looking for pre-defined items to collect. Of course, you’re interested in winning; but the game itself is fun as well.

In the game, you decide how and where to spend your time. You set priorities, and notice how and what your competitors are doing. There is skill involved in collecting the items. And you often end up in blind alleys when a particular path didn’t pan out for you.

What you don’t feel on a scavenger hunt is rejection. There simply is no such thing. It is not about you; it is just a process involving many people, of whom you are one.

All you need on a scavenger hunt is curiosity. And curiosity is a perfect emotion to bring to sales. Curiosity means you don’t have to ignore your emotions, or play through them, or convince yourself you’re immune to them. Instead, you’re just paying attention to a different set of issues. Let’s call those issues ‘reality.’

In the real world, nothing is being rejected; there are simply solutions and fits, or not-solutions and not-fits. It’s not a struggle – it’s a puzzle. If you’re a good solution to that puzzle and are curious enough, you might solve it. If you’re not a good solution for it, and/or aren’t curious, then you probably won’t.

So where’s ‘rejection’ in all this? In your head. So just stop it.

Three Steps You Can Take to Reject Rejection

1. Make a list of questions you’d like to know about each of your key prospects. Real questions, things you’d really like to learn.

2. Just as you would in a scavenger hunt, keep track of what you’ve learned at each blind alley. You don’t win scavenger hunts sitting back at the office; you learn by going out and finding blind ends.

3. Be alive. Have fun. Keep your ears open. There’s no point in blinding your senses in a scavenger hunt; why blind your emotions in the sales hunt? Just use them to figure out the puzzle.

Did the post-Copernican western world feel “rejected” by the sun when they found out it didn’t revolve around the earth? Of course not – though they probably did feel deflated. But that was just because they were cosmologically narcissistic. You don’t have to be that dumb or that narcissistic.

Nobody can reject you without your complicity in defining ‘rejection.’ Any time you hear ‘handling rejection,’ learn to laugh at yourself for thinking it’s about you – and go back to being curious.

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.


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.

The Consulting Industry: the Critical Role of Interpersonal Relationships

This is the first in an occasional series on trust in particular industry verticals. This post looks at the consulting industry.


In consulting, some things are changing. And some are not.

The biggest trend is, of course, the digitization of the firm’s service offerings. For example, nearly three quarters of one large consulting firm’s HR practice consists of moving processes into the digital age. Naturally, firms increasingly put more emphasis on technical qualifications of their consultants.

Another change, nearly as big, is the shift in business development practices (this one isn’t unique to consulting). Depending on who you talk to (Marketing BlenderGartner), something like 50-60% of the buying process is complete before the buyer meets a seller. This number is only going higher. Naturally, firms focus increasingly on managing that non-personal-contact front end of the business development process.

However, the critical role of interpersonal relationships is not going away. Paradoxically, the increasing role of technology and automation does not mean that the role of relationships is decreasing – in fact, it means exactly the opposite. Here’s why.

On the project side, expertise is a commodity. The markets for human capital are efficient, and widely accessible. On the business development side, virtually no client wants to buy a significant project without understanding, and meeting, the people who will staff it.

This is an important fact of human biology. Reducing the time spent on human interaction merely increases the leverage that such time has on final decisions. Those infrequent interactions take on geometrically more importance as their duration declines.

The implication for consultancies?  The ability to rapidly and genuinely create trust with clients is more critical than ever. You don’t have the luxury of schmooze time to establish comfortable relationships; it’s got to be done deeply and quickly, and done right.

Trusted Advisor and Trust-Based Selling workshops, are aimed at this need. 60% of our work is done in various professional services clients, with consulting a heavy component.

For a discussion about these issues, drop me (Charles Green, CEO, Trusted Advisor Associates) an email at cgreen-at-trustedadvisor-dot-com. You’ll not go onto an email list; there are no automated follow-ups; no cost, no obligation. Just let’s talk.

Don’t Confuse Your KPIs with Your CSFs

I spoke with BigCo, Inc. They wanted their B2B salespeople to become trusted advisors.

They felt (correctly) that greater trust levels with their customers would result in greater intra-customer market share and greater profitability. And they were right – as far as that goes.

But they then described to me their implementation plan. It consisted of breaking down the objectives into finer and finer components and matching them up with accountable business units – pretty standard practice.

As we dug deeper, a pattern emerged. The higher penetration levels, for example, were broken into more sales calls, more proactive ideas, and greater time spent up front. On the face of it, that sounds perfectly reasonable: if penetration were to increase, you’d probably see these changes in activities.

But there’s a causation/correlation problem here. Simply increasing the number of sales calls won’t do a thing; they have to be good calls. Simply offering more ideas won’t do a thing; they have to be decent ideas. Simply spending more time up front won’t do a thing; the time has to be well-spent. And simply assuming good calls, decent ideas, and well-spent time does not make it so.

This sounds perfectly obvious in the telling, but I have found that BigCo’s story (which is a composite of several clients) is common. It may even be the norm.

BigCo confused key performance indicators (KPIs) with critical success factors (CSFs). They confused correlation with causation. They confused measurements with the things being measured. And since we live in a management world that uncritically worships metrics (“if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it”), this confusion has critical and strategic implications.

That’s especially true when you’re trying to implement a values-driven strategy – such as becoming trusted advisors.

Measurement and Management

Just because something sounds obvious in the retelling, it doesn’t mean it’s obvious when you’re in the middle of it. Case in point: BigCo’s flawed logic in their approach to trust-based selling.

Increasing penetration requires more sales calls, they thought, and they’re probably right. Their mistake lay in thinking that “more sales calls” was a cause. It’s not – it’s an effect.

“More sales calls” may be a KPI, but it’s not a CSF. It may be an outcome, but it’s not a driver. “More sales calls” is a metric. It is not the thing that “more sales calls” is intended to measure. That “thing” is something like “more high-quality interactions driven by mutual curiosity.”

This confusion between actions and measurements, causes and effects, and KPIs and CSFs is not just common – it’s becoming rampant. It’s a real issue for digital age businesses in some ways even more than old-line businesses. Let’s look at some examples.

Gaming the Numbers

We’re all familiar with the salesperson who knows how to tweak an imperfect system to maximize his commissions at the expense of, say, the company’s gross margins. “Hey, I’m just following the incentives you built in,” he might say. That salesperson seized on a metric that imperfectly measured the company’s intended sales behaviors. (The proper management response would be not to change the metric, but to insist on a higher set of principles that overrule one misguided number.)

The next time you get a customer service operator on the line, check to see whether they conclude by saying something like, “May we say that I gave you excellent customer service today?” You are experiencing a system that is driven by metrics to the point where operators shamelessly beg for ratings. The metrics have been pimped out to serve a goal other than the customer service they were meant to measure.

See for yourself. Go to Amazon, and search for books under any significant topic you like (e.g., sales). Make sure you sort on relevance. It’s amazing how many books are rated over four stars (out of five). The reason is simple: we have been taught to look for ratings. Of course, the emphasis on ratings suborns all kind of perjury, misleading comments, and even outright falsehoods.

It’s not just books. Look at the flood of “recommendations” on LinkedIn. Look at the massive follow-me-I-follow-you dynamic on Twitter and other media. Or just look at your own behavior. What do you do when a friend asks you to rate a book, promote a blog post, or recommend them? There is monstrous grade inflation in most customer-rated aspects of business today.

Much of this comes down to our obsession in business with metrics. It goes back to the invention of the spreadsheet and the success of books such as Reengineering the Corporation. Numbers-all-the-time is today’s secular business religion.

The Wages of Confusion

The “so what” is big indeed. Assume any metric, almost by definition, has to be a pale reflection of the “thing” that is to be measured. We accept anniversary gifts as tokens of our love, market share as an indicator of competitive success, and, in the case of BigCo, numbers of sales calls as indicators of trusted advisor relationships. But we all know an anniversary gift does not a marriage make.

The only way to become trusted advisors to your customers is to gain the trust of your customers. You do not cause trust by increasing the number of sales calls; rather, greater trust causes more invitations for you to call on prospects. Doing the dishes doesn’t cause a great marriage; instead, a great marriage results in your doing the dishes willingly.

Confusing KPIs with CSFs causes KPIs to be artificially inflated. We know this intuitively, and so we discount them – while still trying to get higher scores on more of those discounted-value KPI metrics. We all know the game is rigged, but we keep playing it faster and faster.

What’s at stake is nothing less than how we implement things like “better client relationships.” You don’t get there by measuring metrics and deluding yourself that you’re addressing root causes. You get there only by understanding what it takes to interact with your very human customers—and then doing it.

Do that, and the numbers will take care of themselves.

Buddhist Capitalism: Why Trust and Collaboration Outperform Competitive Selling

When we think of capitalism, we typically think of competition as a central, driving force. At a macro-level, we have enshrined the value of competition in our antitrust laws. We think of competition between providers as a way to increase innovation and reduce costs. Adam Smith is frequently (and somewhat inaccurately) cited as the prophet of competition in his concept of the “invisible hand.”

At a micro-level, we have also glorified competition. Athletic competition is seen as a metaphor, as well as a proving ground, for competition in business. Businesses line up to sponsor major athletic events and athletes. And nowhere in business is competition more revered than in sales.

The truth is much of what we think about competition is dysfunctional, suboptimal, and actually destroys value. By contrast, what I’ll whimsically call Buddhist Capitalism shows another way that adds more value. I’ll explore this theme first at the business world level, then at the sales level.

Business Competition in the Real World

In the real world, pure competition leads directly to monopoly. Competition is inherently unstable, resolving to dominance of one more powerful firm over all the others. What we call “competition” in the modern Western world is a finely tuned mix of rules and regulations, as well as a few customs, that serve to keep behavior within socially acceptable bounds.

If you doubt this, think of what the U.S. economy would look like in the absence of the FTA, the FDA, the FAA, the SEC, or the FDIC. Or just look back a few decades in the history books. Maintenance of a state of competition depends enormously on the power of the referees.

Pure competition, even where regulatory regimes are strict, rarely exists. There are imbalances of labor, education, geography, and a hundred other variables. The point is in nearly every industry, there is an imbalance of power, exploited by one party at the expense of the weaker parties. “Competition” in the real world is more or less about zero-sum games, with one party holding the stronger hand.

The definitions of “capitalism” have been hijacked by extremist theoreticians in recent years: people such as Milton Friedman, Ayn Rand, and Alan Greenspan, who believe in a moral purity produced by competition. (Never mind that an ethics built on selfishness isn’t worthy of being called ethics in the first place.)

Buddhist Capitalism

By contrast: imagine an economy relatively unencumbered by laws and regulations, but where trust and custom abounded. An economy with not nearly as many lawyers, but with fewer legal battles. An economy where the frictional costs of competition (and the regulation of competition) are lower, and innovation is higher.

You get such an economy when you introduce the concept of trust and collaboration. Zero-sum games shift to 1+1=3 games. Stephen MR Covey Jr.’s book The Speed of Trust is all about this: when trust is present, speed goes up and cost goes down.

If my Buddhist friends will forgive me the crude colloquial language, I’ll call this Buddhist Capitalism. What I mean is that it focuses on collaboration, not competition; on getting along harmoniously rather than vanquishing; on letting go attachment to outcome rather than obsessing over goal achievement.

It’s far from crazy. The lesson of the Prisoner’s Dilemma work in game theory is that a collaborative strategy always, always beats a competitive strategy if played long term. Research shows that collaboration produces more innovation than solitary introversion. Collaboration and trust build on each other, increasing knowledge of both parties to the point where they can jointly add value, cut costs, and reduce risks.

It may sound like a Beatles song—the more you give, the more you get—but it’s true.

Buddhist Selling

What does all this have to do with sales? Selling is just the micro-version of the same thing. We as human beings have a primal desire for survival, which can easily revert to competition. But we have an equally strong desire for connection, collaboration, and cohesion.

Except for pure commodities (and not even water or electricity is a pure commodity), buyers prefer to buy from sellers they trust. Trusted sellers have their customers’ interests at heart, ahead of their own. They play the long game because they know that the best way to long-term success is through their customers’ success, and, therefore, no particular sale is worth sacrificing the long-term relationship.

Trusted sellers are also not attached to a particular outcome. They don’t keep meticulous score at a detailed level, and they are willing to let their agenda be influenced by client needs. Finally, they keep no secrets from their customers because they see their interests and their customers’ interests as one and the same, and the value of shared information to both parties exceeds the value of secret information privy to just one party.

Of course, these attitudes are hard to come by in a world that prizes competition. Sellers everywhere are taught to compete not only with their competitors, but also with their own customers. Not getting a sale is considered bad form, if not unacceptable. Metrics in sales are short-term, incentives are largely extrinsic, and motivation basically consists of war chants.

But a seller who can “think Buddhist” will outperform a competitive seller over time because customers prefer to deal with sellers they trust. And they do not trust people who are in it for themselves.

The ultimate irony: by being willing to forego a sale and do the right thing, the “Buddhist seller” will end up selling more than the competitive seller.







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.

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!

Perfect Pitch in Sales: 9 Rules

You may know it as the dog and pony show, the beauty contest, the shoot-out. Or you may just call it “the pitch.” The term is especially common in some industries—advertising, executive recruiting, some law firms—but we all know it.

We typically think of it as an event – a rather formal presentation by several professionals made to several members of the client organization that typically lasts 30 to 90 minutes. Secondary characteristics of a pitch often include PowerPoint and a time-slot among a few other competitors who are pitching on the same day.

Let’s be clear: there is no single perfect pitch, since the winning pitch is situational to you and your client. Still, there are some guidelines that hold true. Here are nine rules for perfecting your pitch.

1. When the Best Pitch Isn’t a Pitch

Sometimes the best pitch is one that never happens – because both parties choose an alternative.

Think of a pitch as a blind date where each party is cautious. The quietly cautious buyer wants control and seeks it in an impersonal, formal event. The seller also wants control but expresses it by being assertive. One fears being “sold;” the other fears losing. When both parties are fearful, decisions get made on process, features, and price.

Both parties are often better off starting from a strong relationship. Though both know this, they engage in denial, not wanting to admit it. Sellers may try to go around pitch events. The trick – not really a trick at all – is to explore the possibility of meetings before the pitch during which personal relationships can be established. It’s critical that this be done from a position of respect and honest concern for what’s right for the client.

Sometimes the client then abandons the pitch idea altogether because they find one competitor that seems to understand them uniquely. That’s generally a good outcome for both parties. But do NOT try to force this outcome—you’ll jinx if it you do.

2. The Pre-Pitch Warm-Up

Your objective shouldn’t be to avoid the pitch, but to produce a good outcome for both parties. Any pitch will be improved by prior conversations with as many client people as possible.

If you are meeting the client representatives for the first time at the pitch, your odds are even less than one divided by the number of competitors. It’s less because with total strangers meeting each other, the “none of the above” option frequently appears on the table.

Of course, not every client wants to meet you in advance. Often the intent of the pitch is to prevent such meetings in the first place in pursuit of an “independent, fair” competition. Pushing too hard for meetings can appear distasteful.

How do you know how far to push the suggestion for prior meetings? Simple – ask the client. Point out the advantages of offering all competitors a chance to talk with them in advance, then gracefully yield if the resistance is too strong. You get a few points for offering if you do it respectfully – just don’t push your luck.

If you can talk to people in advance of a pitch, you’ll improve the quality of the pitch for both you and client. Of course, you learn valuable information, and you get to call people by name. But it goes much further than that because the next key to a great pitch is interaction.

3. Interact in the Pitch

Nearly always the client says, “Tell us about yourself.” And nearly all sellers assume that’s what the client wants – after all, they said so!

But the truth is, listening to someone – anyone – talk about themselves for 30 minutes is incredibly boring. Even more important, listening to others does not persuade human beings—they become persuaded by listening to others who have previously listened to them.

Letting clients be heard is critical to successful pitches. If you can’t do it before the pitch, then dare to be great and engineer listening into the pitch. Here are several approaches:

  • Tell the client ahead of time you’d like to ask for reactions
  • Build in “and what about you?” questions into your pitch
  • Offer data about similar situations and ask for comment
  • Ask the client if they’d consider a “first-meeting” approach. Instead of a standard pitch, offer to treat the pitch like a first meeting, as if you’d already been hired, and allow five minutes at the end to talk about how it felt. (This is not a crazy idea; I know of two success stories using it.)
  • If you’ve had any prior-to-pitch conversations, refer to them.

Remember: what you say in the pitch matters less than whether you have listened to them first.

4. Have a Point of View

Your qualifications, credentials, and references are worth absolutely nothing if you can’t show relevance to the client. To walk in without a point of view on the client and the issues facing them is arrogant, disrespectful, and selfish. Those are strong words; let me back them up.

If you want this job, you’ve (hopefully) thought about what you’d do if you got it. If so, why wouldn’t you share it? The probable answer is because you’re afraid you might have gotten it wrong.

But that fear is all about you. Now is precisely the time when not to take a risk is risky. The client wants to see if you’ll do some homework on spec and if you’re willing to engage in real-time thinking about it. They want some sample selling. Showing up with nothing but a track record is like going on a blind date with just a list of past dates. It’s no better as a pitch strategy than as a dating strategy.

5. Collaborate on Talking Price

Conventional wisdom says don’t quote price until the client has heard benefits so that they can properly calculate value. This makes theoretical sense, but it ignores human psychology; price is the elephant in the room during the pitch.

While everyone listens (or pretends to listen) to your pitch, they are all mildly pre-occupied with what your price is going to be. That pre-occupation is death to their ability to listen to you, so air it.

When you walk in, place a five-page pile of paper on the table, saying, “This is the price part of our proposal—the bottom line and four pages of backup explaining it. We don’t want to focus on it, nor do we want to keep it from you. At any point in the conversation today, you can ask us to turn the page over, and we’ll talk about it. Wheneveryou want.”

The point is not when you talk price; it’s about who makes that decision.

6. PowerPoint Pointers

There seems to be an emerging consensus among presentation professionals that looks like this:

  • Most presentations are written as leave-behinds: build your pitch on the presentation, not the leave-behind
  • Less is more: limit yourself to several bullets
  • Don’t read aloud what’s written: get a picture and talk from that
  • Visuals are great, great, great: use photos, not clipart
  • Except for the title page, lose the logos and backgrounds

7. Handling Qualifications

Most big sales these days follow a two-step process: screening and selection. Most screening is done on credentials. That means if you’re in the pitch, your credentials got you there. The pitch is the sale you already got; stop selling it.

If the client specifically requested a section on credentials, don’t embarrass them by fighting it. But you can touch briefly on credentials, with a large leave-behind set of documents. Go through them only if the client insists.

8. Dissing the Competition

This is an easy one. Don’t. Don’t do it, don’t go there, don’t even think about it. If asked, demur, with, “We respect our competitors. You should talk with them. But they can speak well enough for themselves without our help.” Taking the high road never hurts, and it usually helps.

9. When to Ditch the Pitch

Imagine a pitch where an obstreperous client takes you off script away from the PowerPoint or raises a point well in advance of when you had intended to address it.

Disaster? Not at all. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. This is client engagement – exactly what you want – cleverly disguised as an objection. Greet it with open arms. Ask the client for permission to go off script and deal directly with the issue raised for as long as the client wants.

Remember: despite what the client said, it’s not your PowerPoint they want to see – they want to feel how it will be for you to interact with them. If you respect their wishes, move your agenda to fit theirs, and respond directly with relevant content, you will address precisely that desire. And you will more likely win the pitch than someone who stayed on (Power)Point.