In Complex Sales, Time Is on Your Side

What’s the relationship of time to sales?

Should we worry that “time’s a wasting?” Or pay more heed to “all good things in due time?”  It sounds like a trivial question, but it’s got some far-reaching implications.


In late 1964, an English group calling themselves The Rolling Stones got their first U.S. Top 10 record with a song called “Time Is On My Side.” It was a cover version of a song previously recorded by Irma Thomas, among others. The lyrics loosely proclaimed that “you’ll come running back” because “I’ll always be around,” and therefore “time is on my side.”

The Stones, it turns out, were talking about selling professional services – and more broadly, about consultative selling in general.

If you’re relatively new to business development (the preferred euphemism in services for selling), you’ve probably read several books or articles, seeking wisdom on how to better sell. And if you’re an old hand at selling (and have no time for euphemisms), you’ve probably read even more of the same.

Nearly all of those books and articles make one key assumption. It is an assumption so basic, so simple, that we don’t even notice it. It is baked into the studies, the definitions, and the very language we use to describe selling. And yet that one assumption is so profound that it affects nearly every aspect of how we approach selling.

It is the assumption that a sale is a transaction. It is a discrete event. It happens (or in any case is closed) at a point in time. It is singular. The plural of “sale” is a series of “sales,” where the whole is equal to the sum of the parts. Sales happen one at a time. And time, generally, is not on your side.

Sales as Events

Consider the implications of that viewpoint. It suggests that a sale is an event with a beginning and an end. It suggests that we can understand sales patterns by averaging the sales events. It suggests that someone who is good at selling is good at making transactions happen. And it suggests that processes for managing sales will track these events through a sales process, attaching probabilities and sizes to each sale as the leads pass through the process.

That’s pretty much every modern-day CRM program, most sales metrics and sales management processes. The defining characteristic of those systems is that they’re built around discrete, separate events. In fact, we’ve talked ourselves into a mode of thinking such that we can’t conceive of managing sales without conjuring up behavioral, trackable events. If you can’t list an action and put a date on it – it doesn’t exist.

The sale event begins with a lead event, an initial contact. It proceeds through various exchanges of questions and answers. At some point there is a more or less formal proposal made by the seller. The end of the event comes when the proposal is either accepted, rejected, or ignored. At that point, the event is considered “closed.” The buying company, unit, or person may show up again, and they may go on a contact list. But when they show up again as a buyer, the seller will consider it a separate event.

When we think of sales as events, time is generally not on your side. Time is money. Time is the denominator in measures of efficiency. Time is what’s a-wasting when you’re spending your time unproductively, i.e. not selling. Time is the unit that determines your bonus, and it is what your manager is talking about when he says, “What have you done for me lately?”

Viewed that way, the world of sales is a series of discrete events. To borrow a metaphor from subatomic physics, the modern view of sales sees sales particles, not waves.

And yet—as in physics—we don’t have a complete understanding of things unless we view things from the “wave” perspective, as well as the particle perspective.

Sales as Patterns

Sales as events may sound blindingly obvious, but consider an alternative. What if a sale didn’t describe a discrete event, but a pattern of events, or a state of relationship, or a condition? What if a sale happened over time, with no particular event being more significant than others? What if a sale were about a relationship, not a transaction? What if it were an adjective, not just a noun or a verb?

We would view selling not as about executing isolated, separate transactions, but as relationships.

We would talk mainly about the quality of the relationship with a customer. Individual sales transactions would be seen as indicators of relationship success, not as the sole driving purpose.
Relationships and transactions would trade places as ends and means. CRM systems would actually measure relationships, not just transactions, thus finally living up to their name. Sales managers would coach people on furthering customer relationships, not on check-boxing behavioral events and driving transactions through the customer organization.

Is Time On Your Side?

A critical difference between the transactional and the relationship view of sales is the role of time. Transactions happen at points in time; relationships wax and wane over time. How you spend your time varies:

  • If you view sales as transactional, then you’ll want to maximize transactions over time and view relationships as a means to that end.
  • If you view sales as relational, then you’ll want to maximize relationships over time and trust that transactions will come about as a byproduct.

Note: in the long run, the metrics converge. The longer the timeframe, the more relevant is aggregate dollar sales. The critical question is this: do you maximize long-term sales by focusing on short-term transactions, or by focusing on long-term relationships?

For some businesses, long-term revenue pretty much equals the sum of the short-term results. Possible examples are convenience stores, Wall Street trading businesses, and online ad revenue. Here the transactional view of sales works just fine.

But for many other businesses – especially professional and intangible services, and complex and high-ticket B2B sales – the reverse is true. You don’t succeed by micro-focusing on transactions, by relentlessly improving efficiency, or by scrimping on time.

Instead, you succeed by focusing on the qualitative – by improving relationships, by nurturing the conditions that lead to repeat business, loyalty, deep customer knowledge and intimacy. In the not-very-long run, that focus actually produces better results than focusing on the transactional.

The Stones were right: time is (largely) on your side. If you are prepared to be consistent, trustworthy, focused on the greater good of your client, and not blinded by the shiny object of the Next Transaction, time becomes your friend. Your customers will indeed come running back—at least as many and as often to make it a superior sales strategy.

Are You Worthy of Your Client’s Trust?

Have you ever stopped and asked yourself if you’re worthy of your client’s trust? It’s a big question, but one with an interesting twist.

It seems that trust, especially a client’s trust in us, is something that we too often take for granted. Just because a client signs on board with us – shouldn’t mark the end of building upon a trusted relationship. In fact, it should be just the beginning. Let’s dig in a bit further.

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Most salespeople will agree – there is no stronger sales driver than a client’s trust in the salesperson. Further, the most successful route to being trusted is to be trustworthy – worthy of trust. Faking trust is not easy – and the consequences of failing at it are large.

But is it possible to know if your client does trust you? Is there one predictor of client trust? Is there a single factor that amounts to an acid test of trust in selling?

I think there is. It’s contained in one single question. A “yes” answer will strongly suggest your clients trust you. A “no” answer will virtually guarantee they don’t.

The Acid Test Of Trust In Selling

The question to you is this:

Have you ever recommended a competitor to one of your better clients?

If the answer is “yes” – subject to the caveats below – then you have demonstrably put your client’s short-term interests ahead of your own. Assuming you sincerely did so, this indicates low self-orientation and a long-term perspective on your part, and is a good indicator of trustworthiness.

If you have never, ever, recommended a competitor to a good client, then either your service is always better than the competition for every client in every situation (puh-leeze), or, far more likely, you always shade your answers to suit your own advantage; which says you always put your interests ahead of your clients’; which says, frankly, you can’t be trusted.

Here are the caveats. Don’t count “yes” answers if:

  1. The client was trivially important to you;
  2. You were going to lose the client anyway;
  3. You don’t have a viable service offering in the category;
  4. You figured the competitor’s offering was terrible and you’d deep-six them by recommending them.

The only fair “yes” answer is one in which you honestly felt that an important client would be better served in an important case by going with a competitor’s offering.

If that describes what you did, and it is a fair reflection of how you think about client relationships in general, then I suspect your clients trust you.

This is the “acid test” of trust in selling. To understand why it’s so powerful, let’s consider the factors of trust.

Why This Is The Acid Test

My co-authors and I suggested in The Trusted Advisor that trust has four components, and we arrayed them in the “trust equation.” More precisely, it is an equation for trustworthiness, and it is written:

T = (C + R + I) / S
T = trustworthiness of the seller (as perceived by the buyer)
C = credibility
R = reliability
I = intimacy
S = self-orientation

Credibility is probably the most commonly thought-of trust component, but it is only one. Think of credibility and reliability as being the “rational” parts of trust. Believable, credentialed, dependable, having a track record – these are the traits we most consciously look for when screening vendors, doctors, and websites.

The third factor in the numerator – intimacy – is more emotional. It has to do with the sense of security we get in sharing information with someone. We say we “trust” someone when we open up to them, share parts of ourselves with them. We trust those to whom we entrust our secrets.

But all pale beside the power of the single factor in the denominator – self-orientation. If the seller – the one who would be trusted, who strives to be perceived as trustworthy – is perceived as being self-oriented, then we see him as someone who is in it for himself. And that’s the kiss of death for trust.

At its simplest, high self-orientation is selfishness; at its most complex, self-absorption. Neither gives the buyer a sense that the seller cares about any interests but his own.

Self-orientation speaks to motives. If one’s motives are suspect, then everything else is cast in a different light. What looked like credible credentials may be a forged resume and false testimonials. What looked like a reliable track record may be an assemblage of falsehoods. What looked like safe intimacy may be the tactics of a con man. Bad motives taint every other aspect of trust.

The acid test aims squarely at this issue of orientation. Whom are you serving? If the answer is, the client, then all is well. No client expects a professional to go out of business serving them — the need to make a good profit is easily accepted.

It’s when the need to run a profitable business is given primacy in every transaction, every quarter, and every sale, that clients call your motives into question. How can they trust someone who’s never willing to invest in the longer term, never willing to compromise, never willing to gracefully defer in the face of what is best for the client? They cannot, of course.

Passing the acid test suggests you know how to focus on relationships, not transactions; medium and long-term timeframes, not just short-term; and collaborative, not competitive, work patterns.

Flunking the acid test means clients doubt your motives. Whether you are selfish or self-obsessed makes little difference to them – the results are self-aggrandizing, not client-helpful.

The paradox is: in the long-run, self-focused behavior is less successful than is client-helpful behavior. Collaboration beats competition. Trust beats suspicion. Profits flow most not to those who crave them, but to those who accept them gracefully as an outcome of client service.

Don’t Be a Social Selling Lemming

I first wrote the below a few years ago – and it’s interesting how well the content, not to mention the message, still rings true today. While social media is probably the fastest evolving marketing and sales tool available, it’s interesting how much of it just hasn’t changed at all. Most of that is the root of it. The point behind it – which is to connect, engage with customers, consumers, fans – and build trust in an online world.

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You probably have a social media presence. You might even call it a social media strategy. But is it really strategic? Or is it just a lemming strategy—making you look like a thousand other firms rushing headlong together toward a cliff? There’s a chance your social selling strategy may not be very strategic at all.

Let’s review a few basics about strategy, then come back to the question.

Competitive Strategy Must Differentiate You

First, a strategy that doesn’t distinguish you from competitors’ strategies is not a strategy at all. The whole point of a competitive strategy is to point out why you, in some important way, are different from your competitors.

This is why the pursuit of “best practices” is not only un-strategic, but it’s anti-strategic. The more you adopt everyone else’s best practices, the more you look like everyone else. A “me-too” strategy isn’t a strategy at all.

Economist Mike Porter suggested years ago there are only two kinds of strategies: being a low-cost producer or being a differentiated producer. Differentiation, in turn, can be along product or industry lines. That makes for three distinctive, differentiable strategies. If you are not following one of the three, then you are in danger of being un-strategic.

What does it mean to be un-strategic? It means you present no compelling reason for anyone to hire you—unless you’re willing to cut your price (an act that often lowers your perceived quality anyway).

The Social Media Lemming Strategy

As the popular myth has it, lemmings throw themselves en masse into the waters in a collective undifferentiated rush toward oblivion. Clearly that’s not a metaphor you want your social media strategy associated with.

But there are two huge forces that drive us all in that direction. One is the zero-marginal cost of volume on the Internet. The other is an obsession with metrics in social media.

Zero-marginal cost: As direct marketers found out to their glee when they discovered Internet marketing, the marginal cost of adding another name to your email list is infinitesimal. The result: spam.

The zero-marginal cost feature has likewise encouraged people to build massive databases, expanded Twitter lists, turned “friend” into a verb, and so on. It all costs nothing. If X is good, then X + whatever must be even better, so why not go for it?

Obsession with metrics: The zero-marginal cost factor is a feature of Internet economics. By contrast, the obsession with metrics is a purely human creation. Encouraged by a tsunami of data supply and a desire to appear scientific on the part of dozens of management gurus, the field of business has been overwhelmed by a tendency to mistake a measurement for the thing that is being measured.

This mistake—basically confusing cause and effect—is evident in the ever-finer increments of activity to be found in CRM systems. It’s embedded in the formulaic insistence of learning and development managers that all training must be evidentially behavioral to be relevant. But nowhere has it become more endemic than in the field of social media.

Think Klout: a metric of metrics. Think Twitter: how many followers you have and how many people you follow. Think LinkedIn: how many “contacts” you have. Think about the incredibly complex mix of analytics put out by Google and a thousand website traffic consultants. All are aimed at improving your metrics. And what do they measure? Basically, more metrics. The ultimate substrate of reality (revenue, anyone?) is sorely missing.

Four Anti-Strategic Social Strategies

  1. Promoting the Same Content: Consider one social media “strategy,” exemplified by Triberr but also evident in LinkedIn groups. Join a group, and the agreement is “we’ll all promote each other,” thereby driving up everyone’s numbers. Does the metric work? Sure, it works to drive up metrics. The cost, however, is strategic.

If you and 25 others all agree to auto-tweet everyone else’s blog post, you then have 25 people all tweeting the same content. Their twitter behavior becomes asymptotically identical to each other. The result: mass un-differentiation.

  1. Pumping Up the Numbers: Another social media “strategy” is to simply increase your number of followers. The direct approach is to announce to the world that “I follow.” Thus, any lemming-like-minded twitterer who follows you can automatically expect you to return “the favor,” thereby increasing each of your numbers.

Do the numbers work? Sure. They work to increase your numbers. Eventually, high numbers will get you onto lists—lists like “Top 50 sales bloggers” or similar. Finally, at that point, differences become grossly evident. There really are some true sales experts. And, there are others who got there solely on social media grade inflation. The difference becomes stark. In the sunlight, quality is evident.

  1. No-Value Content: Another social media “strategy” is a perversion of “content marketing.” Originally (and still, for some people), this meant offering high-quality content in an accessible way to help potential customers develop their thinking. But it rapidly succumbed to the “obsession with metrics” rule.

Today, I get at least one invitation a day from fly-by-night auto-emailing outfits asking if they can write “content” for my site or to embed a link in a post I might make available to them. In any real sense of the word, there is no “content” there.

  1. The Aggregation Delusion: Mimicking news sites, this delusion consists of writing zero-insight-added blog posts that have titles that begin with “Top 12 reasons why…” They amount to little more than clickbait, since they consist of regurgitated, even directly plagiarized, content from elsewhere. The purpose is to drive clicks and traffic so that the blogger can show up on lists of clicks and traffic. Again, there comes a point in the actual buying process where buyers easily note the difference between vapor-ware and real content.

Don’t Be a Lemming

When you set out to compete on volume alone, you’re up against some seriously tough competition. There is room for only one low-cost producer in any market, and it’s traditionally the one with the highest volume. In an Internet world of zero-marginal cost and a lemming-like belief that more metrics are better, there is no shortage of people willing to bankrupt you by leading the way to bankruptcy. Don’t go there unless you have deeper pockets than anyone else.

Competing on differentiation is inherently more attractive. But a lemming strategy is equally seductive here: just because you can “move the needle” doesn’t mean the needle is connected to anything real. It’s easy to get lost in the supposedly quantitative world of social media metrics and forget that there’s not necessarily any “there” there.

Ask yourself the tough strategic question: Why, really, am I different? And the equally tough follow-up question: How would a customer be able to really notice and appreciate that difference?

If you’re not seriously asking yourself those questions, why should anyone believe your answers? They may click, but they won’t buy.

Selling from Inside Your Client’s Shoes: Part 2, Execution

I recently wrote about Selling from Inside Your Client’s Shoes

The gist of it was to drill-down into the interior dialogues that we all engage in at the outset of a sales  conversation. (The subject is related to what famed sociologist Erving Goffman explored in the 20th century – we are all actors on varying stages). 

I suggested that much trust creation in sales happens precisely in the opening, small-talk interactions – “small-talk” really isn’t small.  Done right, we can break through our parallel internal rituals and make a trust connection.  Trust in sales is as much about courage and intimacy as it is about preparation and credibility.

But How Do You Do It?

One reader (thanks Rich) said he totally bought the analysis, but took me to task for leaving out the good part – namely how you do this connection thing. How do you make small-talk Big, and truly connect to the feeling of being in the other’s shoes? 

Fair enough. Here we go.

The problem is that we (both our client and ourselves) are acting out pre-rehearsed, pre-scripted dialogues. There may be some room for improvisation, but not much. 

And when we all operate on auto-pilot, everyone’s interior dialogues continue as well, even taking on greater importance (“when’s he going to be done?” “huh just as I suspected,” “gotta pick up milk on the way home” ).

Why We Destroy Real-Talk

What causes this navel-gazing in place? Ironically, it’s a direct result of planning and rehearsing.  That sales program you’ve been taking?  The one that tells you how to set objectives for the meeting, how to articulate your value proposition, and how to handle objections?  That sales program is not the solution (in this instance), it is the problem! 

If all your interactions are “successfully” scripted in advance, do not pat yourself on the back for good planning.  Instead, kick yourself for having turned a potential human interaction into a bloodless, robotic performance.  

Think about it: If a successful sales call can be programmed in advance according to if-then clauses and do-loops, then why not just send in Robo-Seller? Better yet, email it.  

Borrowing from Pogo, we have met the enemy, and it is us. Sales planning and sales training all conspire to render us impersonal, unconnected, and unable to be effective at creating trust. 

The spell needs breaking. The inner dialogue, on each side of the table, has to be exploded and exposed to the bright light of connection. And it has to start with us, the seller. 

How to Break the Spell

The enemy is planning. The cure is spontaneity. You can’t be “real” if you’re not reacting in the moment. 

And the time to ‘get real’ is right at the outset. Make the small talk real. Let the client know that you are showing up in person, right from the outset, fully present and ready to interact. 

Meaning – improvise. React. Be in the moment. Comment, observe, be curious – about something that occurred to you no earlier than 60 seconds ago. 

Yes, I’m serious. Do not script your opening lines. In fact, don’t even think about them. 

I can hear you – “Whoah, that is risky!”

Yes, it is – and that’s the whole point. Think about the message that taking a risk sends. It says:

  • I’m confident in myself, enough to be at ease and relaxed
  • I’m aware of my surroundings
  • I’m paying attention to and focused on the person I’m talking to 
  • I came to bring value by interacting, not by playing a pre-recorded tape.

And if you make a “mistake?” First of all, making a mistake proves you took a risk, which is the whole point. Secondly, the frequency of making ‘mistakes’ is vastly overrated (really, how likely are you to say, “Who’s that ugly girl in the photo? Oops, that’s your daughter?”)

Prepping for Improv

There’s a reason improv comedians are being hired more and more by consultative organizations – what they teach is what we need in this situation. Here are a few tips.

  1. Don’t over-rehearse
  2. 10 minutes before the meeting, go clear your head. Take a walk; breathe deeply; meditate if you’re into it (count to a thousand if you’re not); notice what your senses are telling you (taste? smell? touch? sound? colors?)
  3. In the waiting room – notice stuff without judgment. What magazines are there? Is it cold? How old is this building? Chat up the receptionist about the weather, or how long they’ve been there with the organization.
  4. When you meet your prospect – focus on them. Pay attention to their voice, their pace, their emotional state. Make yourself wonder what’s going on with them?
  5. Say something. Better yet, ask something. Better still, make an observation and ask something.

At the risk of appearing to give instructions, here are some examples of what you might end up saying. These are only examples: you’re not allowed to use any of them :-).

  • Do you folks get fresh flowers in here every day?  Must be nice.
  • Driving in from the City, what a nice commute that must be every day – is that how you come in?
  • Your receptionist tells me you just moved in to this location last month – do you feel settled in yet? 
  • I’m picking up a sense here that you’re really busy today – anything special going on? Do we need to revisit our time contract?
  • Is that really a Rolls Royce I saw in the front parking lot? What’s the story behind that?
  • I confess, I thought the operation here would be somewhat smaller – then I walk in and I see you’ve got four whole floors here. 

The way you get inside your client’s shoes is to get out of your own. That in turn encourages the client to be present with you. When you do that, the ‘small talk’ actually becomes real. It becomes less a mechanical ‘business-only’ interaction, and a more personal one. 

After all – if you’re really interested in a potential relationship with someone, wouldn’t you want to be real with them from the start?

Credibility, Trust and Ignorance

Being right is vastly overrated.

Now, that doesn’t mean that lying is a good strategy. What it does mean is that in the business world, we all too easily conflate trust with credibility, and credibility with expertise.

You don’t have to look too far to find big-name sales trainers and gurus who insist that it is expertise and insights that drive sales success and trust.

I first heard this mantra back in the 70s (and if I were older, I’m sure I’d know of earlier instances).

Well, here’s some truth. People don’t trust you just because you’re smart. And they definitely don’t trust you because you’re a smart-aleck.

In fact, smart is not even a necessary condition for trust – much less a sufficient condition. Further, the role of expertise and insight doesn’t come temporally first in selling – it plays a role in marketing, and then later a role nearer the middle of the sales process.

Credibility, insight, expertise, smarts – all these things do have a role. It’s just not what you may think.

Let me explain a bit further…

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I long ago attended a sales call with my boss. When asked by the client, “What experience do you have doing this [narrowly defined] kind of work?” he shocked me by saying, “None that I can think of; what else would be useful for us to talk about?”

How is it that we come to influence other people’s ideas? How do we more effectively get others to take our advice? How do we sell more successfully?

The overwhelming answer in the corporate world seems to be, “By getting people to see that we have the right insights and answers.” But that response is very often wrong.

“Being right” turns out to be vastly overrated. Sometimes, even an admission of ignorance is actually a better strategy.

Misconceptions About Trust – How to Gain Credibility

Most of us think something along these lines: “They’ll take my advice (or buy from me, or be persuaded by me) if they think I’m credible. They’ll think I’m credible if I look smart, have great ideas, and have experience. Therefore I’ll tell them about myself, my bright ideas, and my track record at being smart.”

Clients contribute to this subornation by asking us to talk about precisely that (not because they care about the answer, but because they just don’t know what else to ask and don’t want to take the risk of looking foolish themselves).

But credibility isn’t the only element driving trust. And experience and smarts aren’t the only ways to get credibility. Think of the arrogance implicit in saying “let me tell you why I’m the best” before the customer feels you even know their situation. (This is a description of 98 out of 100 cold call emails you get from email “marketers”).

For example, consider humility. Being willing to acknowledge obvious ignorance creates rather than destroys credibility.  The ability to say, as my boss did, “I don’t know,” is an astonishing comment. It communicates ignorance, yes – but it also communicates radical honesty (who is about to doubt an admission of ignorance!).

  • It communicates a sense of self-confidence (“I am secure enough in my worth and my value to admit exactly what I do and don’t know”).
  • It communicates a clear customer-focus – it says, “You asked a good question, and you deserve a straight, no-spin-control answer. Here it is.”
  • It communicates a focus on the long-term – it says, “If this particular piece of knowledge is key, then I may not win this job; but by being always transparent about what I do know, clients will always know they can trust what I say.”

By contrast, leading with smarts alone just says, “I am a database with a protein user interface.”

The Role of Truth

The point is not to adopt a profession of ignorance as a tactic. Nor is it to pursue ignorance as policy. It’s to tell the truth. Your credibility is not just a function of expertise: it’s a result of a complex set of calculations made by someone when they decide whether to believe and trust you when you say something.

Even if people believe you—credibility—that isn’t enough to get you trusted. They must also trust your motives, your understanding of their situation, and your ability to empathize—as they see it.

True credibility comes from letting people see you as you are—not as you would wish they would see you. Transparency trumps expertise. The more you insist on how much you know, the less we believe you: “the lady doth protest too much.” The more willing you are to honestly admit your limitations, the more we believe you. It’s a paradox thing.

No one expects an advisor or salesperson to be perfect—we just want to know where their biases or blind spots lie, whether they know their own biases – and whether they’re capable of admitting them.

That way we can make up our own minds about how much to trust them.

Letting our clients make that decision is, itself, a driver of trust.

Don’t Treat Clients Like Competitors! The Four Principles Of Trust-Based Selling

The words “trust” and “selling” are rarely mentioned in the same sentence, and some people feel that “trust-based selling” is an oxymoron. That says something about the relationships between sellers and their clients.

And it’s one reason that professional services firms don’t like the “S” word. We prefer euphemisms like “business development,” itself phrased in the passive voice as if to distance ourselves as far as possible from the crassness of commerce.

Trust-based Selling® is a principled way of approaching the commercial relationship between two parties. It is not a methodology, or a process model; it can coexist with existing methodologies or processes, as long as they are not manipulative or selfish.

People—including sophisticated clients—are overwhelmingly disposed to buy what they need to buy anyway from someone they trust. They trust people who are trustworthy— worthy of trust. Trustworthiness can be defined as behavior in accord with certain principles.

There are four such principles. Trust-based Selling means applying these principles across all stages of the sales process, all aspects of selling, and all characteristics of the client/professional relationship. Those principles are:

  1. Client focus for the sake of the client;
  2. Medium to long-term perspective;
  3. A habit of collaboration with the client; and
  4. Transparency in all things with the client.

In total, the principles of Trust-based Selling define an alternative to the heavily competition-based paradigm that defines most approaches to selling.

Let’s look first at each principle and its applications.

Client Focus For The Client’s Sake

A lot of what goes by the name “client focus” or “customer-centric” these days is a bit misleading. It is client-focused, all right—but in the same sense that a vulture is client-focused. The focus benefits the seller, not the buyer.

For example, loyalty programs are designed by paying very close attention to exactly what clients are looking for. CRM systems are designed (and sold) to allow very fine analyses of client behaviors and preferences. But in each case, their ultimate purpose is to enhance the bottom line of the seller – not the client.

The more refined and the more pervasive those measurements become, the more obvious it becomes to the client that “having his needs met” isn’t really about him at all. Instead, it’s about getting a greater share of his wallet. When we treat clients like we treat supply chains, they will feel like supply chains. They become means to the seller’s ends, rather than valued as ends in themselves.

Client vulture focus comes from the competitive paradigm: a semi-conscious belief that selling is a zero-sum game in which we compete with our clients.

In Trust-based Selling, client focus is practiced for the sake of the client. This doesn’t mean we are oblivious to the impact on us as sellers, but it does mean we approach clients in fundamentally different ways.

Medium to Long-Term Perspective

A lot of firms feel that their time perspective is reasonable—a bit short-term, perhaps, but not out of line. But look at behaviors.

Most approaches to professional selling are derived from industrial process models; they all have a few things in common. For one, they all have arrows, going from left to right. For another, the last step is almost always “closing,” followed by a feedback loop that says “go back to start and repeat.” That is a short-term model. It’s a transaction model whose end is closing. How much reward does your firm give to maintaining the relationship and how much to the sum of the year’s transactions?

Trust-based Selling focuses on the relationship, not the transaction. This longer-term focus takes care of much of the concern that some people have over the client focus principle. They need not worry that the client will take advantage of free services and bleed the provider dry.

In the long term, it is not just unfair but infeasible for the provider to lose money and the client to make money. In the long term, unequal relationships are simply unsustainable. The discipline of thinking long-term forces provider and client alike to think in terms of win-win or lose-lose, rather than the competitive paradigm of win-lose or lose-win.

A Habit of Collaboration

In most approaches to selling, the firm and client spend most of their time apart from each other. Firms spend the majority of their time imagining what the client might be thinking, how the client might react to our guess about what they might be thinking, and even more time developing elaborate “what-if” scenarios about how to respond to and control the client’s reactions to our guesses. What an elaborate substitute for simply asking clients what they think and talking about it!

Again, the paradigm underlying the usual belief is competition. We act like face time must be “managed,” as if client interactions are theatrical events which require staging and rehearsal.

Trust-based Selling demands collaboration. Significant selling acts are undertaken together. The next time you write a proposal, instead of doing it back at the office and emailing them files, what if you were to book the conference room or set up a videocon and actually write the proposal with the client – with each of you bringing to the process all the information needed to prepare the best proposal possible?

That is collaboration. It doesn’t guarantee you get the job. That’s not the point. The point is to help the client get the best possible proposal while you are secure in the belief that, if you behave consistently in a trustworthy manner, you will get more than your fair share of the business—in truth, much more.

Again, the resistance to collaboration comes from our internalized beliefs that somehow we are in competition with our clients.

Transparency in All Things

Being trustworthy means, above all else, having the client’s best interests at heart. One way to demonstrate this is to be open with them in all our affairs. Conversely, the biggest reason a client might suspect we don’t have their best interests at heart is a sense that we are hiding something. So – make sure your policies are right and then don’t hide anything.

In particular, be willing to discuss sensitive issues like pricing policies, reasons for discounts, leverage models, overhead models, staff assignment models, even billing rates. And be prepared to insist that if you share such information, the client will give you adequate time to do a good job of putting that information in its proper context.

Most firms find transparency the most radical principle of all: “There’s no way we’d tell them our billing rates. They’d freak out!” But they already know you have billing rates and make their own guesses without any context to understand them. Remember your feelings when you first heard your billing rate? Most likely initially you were overwhelmed with responsibility. Later, you started wondering where all that money went.

It’s the same with clients. The solution isn’t to keep secrets from them; it’s to explain reality to them. You gain three benefits by being transparent:

  1. You show you’ve got nothing to hide;
  2. You distinguish yourself by so doing;
  3. If your policies are weak, wrong or inconsistent, you’ll find out fast and have to fix them so they’re stronger—in which case, repeat the first two benefits.

Why do we resist transparency? Again, the culprit is the competitive mindset we bring to bear in selling. In this case, we’re afraid that if we share certain information, the “other party”—in this case, a potential client—will use that information against us, or we will lose advantage. That is the language of competition, not of trusted relationships.

We have to stop viewing our clients as our competitors. What we fear, we empower. If we treat our potential clients as competitors during the sales process, we will end up with competitors.

The cycle has to stop with us. We need to sell from principles of trust, rather than from principles that create more competitors in the very process of gaining clients. Trust begins in the sales process, if we have the courage to put it there.

 

Are You Talking Your Way Out of a Sale?

We’ve all done it. Talked ourselves just a little too far back into a corner. Often – and especially in a sales meeting – it’s because we feel a need to fill that conversational void. But rather than being helpful, rattling on can be detrimental to your getting the sale.

Read on to find out more about the biggest source of that evil temptation – and how to avoid it.

——-

The evil temptation is the well-known question, “So, tell us a little bit about your company?”

If you’re like most salespeople, you view this as a sincere invitation to rattle off all those key points you’ve rehearsed, all those selling points and value propositions you’ve developed, tweaked and improved with each pitch. You hear this question as a godsend, an opening that you can do with as you like.

My, how wrong. All that glitters is far from gold – and this is Case Study Number One.  When customers ask you that question, they are not, in fact, all that interested in hearing about you. In fact, just the opposite.

It’s not that they’re lying to you – their intentions are good. The problem is they never went to buying school, and frankly they just don’t know what else to ask you. They don’t know what to say that will, in a socially acceptable manner, get you to talk about them. Because that’s what they really want.

Unfortunately, they use the words “tell us about yourself” – and we, wishfully, hear those words literally. But they’re not really interested in your story, despite what their words sound like – they want to hear you talk about their story. This is often the fork in the road that can send you down the path of literally talking your way out of the sale.

How Do You Make Your Story Their Story?

First, if the client asks you to tell them about yourself, you shouldn’t embarrass them by refusing to do so. But you can quickly turn the conversation back to them. And once they start talking about themselves you have an opening to weave your story lines into theirs.

It’s not unlike going out on a first date. If your date says, “So, tell me about yourself?” you should, of course, have a few things to say. Key words – “a few.” Because very shortly the rules of etiquette and romance dictate that you should return the favor by saying, “But enough about me – let’s talk about you.”

You may also recognize this as a form of samples selling. Product salespeople know it well—instead of talking about the product’s features, give the customer a sample. If you’re selling cars, offer a test drive, if you’re selling ice cream, hand out little wooden spoons.

The way you do samples selling in complex, intangible services is to actively engage the client in a discussion about their situation. Now, in the context of their situation, you can demonstrate your capabilities in a meaningful and relevant way.

You don’t want to be a name-dropper or a show off (that’s just annoying), but if you’re having a serious conversation with the customer you’ll easily find places to say things like:

  1. “Ah yes, that’s just what Intel did in a similar situation,”
  2. “So, doesn’t that leave you with just choice a and choice b?
  3. “Most of the time, that ratio is less than half, isn’t it?”
  4. “The majority of my clients choose to do X rather than Y; which way did you go on that issue?”
  5. “Have you ever thought of outsourcing that process?”

Think of selling this way as showing, not telling. You are actively engaged in showing the customer how you fit into their story—and you’re helping them tell that story going forward.

Let your competitors sell by telling their story. It won’t work very well because the only story the clients are interested in is their own. You be the one to work your way into their story. Work your way into their story—don’t talk your way out of it a sale.

Enabling Stupid Marketing (and #Sales) at the Speed of Light: Part 3 of 3

This is the third part of a three-blogpost series.

  • In the first, I argued that “stupid marketing and sales” – defined as “a stultifying obsession with one’s own product features, to the exclusion of any meaningful focus on customer needs, much less wants” – has become endemic.
  • In the second, I stated three reasons for the endemic status of this sad situation: the complexity of technology, the tyranny of zero-cost marketing, and a pervasive view of business as impersonal and mechanistic.
  • In this third and final post, I want to outline two generic solutions to the problem.

If you want to contribute to a general improvement in the state of sales and marketing, may I suggest that the next time you spot an offender, send them a link to this series.

Hey, it can’t hurt.

Two Fixes for Stupid Marketing and Sales

If the problem is an obsession with features and an absence of other-focus, two solutions present themselves.

  • One is to offer a rich, compelling narrative – a story – that allows the customer to deeply appreciate one set of possible benefits of the product or service, triggering a series of ‘ah-ha’s’ in the customer’s imagination. I offer two great examples of marketers who use this technique.
  • The other is to go straight at the particular customer, suggesting a uniquely relevant scenario for them – and to do so in the familiar-as-etiquette form of a gift. This is an approach I call BARG, for Bring a Risky Gift.

Story-telling as an Antidote to Stupid Marketing (and sales)

I am far from the first to point out the power of stories. Something there is that we all love about stories. Stories offer meaning, but in a way that is not preaching.

Even if the ‘moral’ of a story is blindingly obvious, the form allows us to indulge the conceit that we, ourselves, have done the lesson-drawing.

Ian Brodie. @Ianbrodie is an ex-management consultant turned email marketer. He writes an insightful blog – and an even more brilliant newsletter. It’s the latter I want to talk about.

I look forward to reading each newsletter. In the kindest, gentlest way, Ian always manages to appreciate just how a particular email marketing technique, or a turn of phrase, or an approach to marketing, might work. Usually he tells it in the form of a wry, self-deprecating story about himself; occasionally, in the form of a triumphant story about a client.

He doesn’t write directly about me: but in writing insightfully and artfully about himself and others, he tells a story that unlocks my own imagination, and makes me interested in what he’s selling.

Ramit Sethi. @ramit also writes a blog, a newsletter, and various other missives. Some people are put off by the in-your-face title of his website – I Will Teach You To Be Rich.

First of all, he actually can. Secondly, he is a cornucopia of ideas of how to improve your life. But for present purposes, it’s how he does it on which I want to focus: Ramit tells in-your-face stories that rivet the attention and supercharge the imagination.

Like Ian, Ramit is a story-teller. Also like Ian, some of his best stories are about what he himself was, and what he managed to become. He’s also loaded with real life examples of others. Unlike a lot of happy-talk writers, Ramit doesn’t hesitate to describe failure: if you can’t stand the occasional ‘ouch’ of self-recognition, better not risk reading him. But if you can take it, this is great marketing.

Bring a Risky Gift

One of the most powerful forms of marketing – really, of influence in general – is the principle of reciprocity. If I do X for you, you’ll be inclined to return the favor. It’s as basic as a hand-shake.

Think about what you do when a friend invites you to dinner. You bring a gift – maybe a bottle of wine. But if you take a risk, you give some thought to that wine. You spend a little more; but especially, you spend some time thinking about it. Maybe you buy a bottle from Piemonte, because your friend recently returned from a foodie tour of Italy.

Critically, you could be wrong. Maybe they hated Italian wines. Maybe they quit drinking. But that’s the point. If you actually take a risk, you make yourself vulnerable.

Vulnerability and risk-taking are the drivers of trust. There is no trust without risk. Waiting for the other party to take the first risk is like aggressively waiting for the phone to ring. You need to create your own luck, and BARG – Bring a Risky Gift – is how you do it.

The best marketing is not shotgunning features lists into dead, cold email lists, but digging into those lists and doing just a bit of research to actually do something personal – and to offer a gift.

I don’t mean a bribe, or an illegal offering. I mean a sample of your wares. An insight; a tool; a white paper. Something that is valuable, that is clearly aimed uniquely at the target client in a transparent and intentional way, and that entails some risk.

That is what BARG is about. It triggers the reciprocity process. It triggers the trust process by taking a risk. It gives a humble sample of what you can do.

Who does this?  Really good consultants do it all the time. In the larger world of marketing, this is some of what Hubspot Marketing became famous for doing.

The point is, it’s another antidote to the impersonal, features-only approach to “marketing” that has come to plague the field in our time.

 

So, take your pick. Tell rich stories about yourself and your clients; or dig in to real life target clients, and BARG.  Either way, the point is to re-personalize marketing and sales, reconnecting with the human aspect of buying.

Let’s make sales smart again. Sell the hole, not the drill. Make it personal. You don’t have to put up with stupid marketing and sales as a customer; and you surely shouldn’t practice it yourself.

Enabling Stupid Marketing (and Sales) at the Speed of Light. Part 2 of 3.

This is the second of a three-part blog series. In the first, I argued that Stupid Marketing (and sales) has become endemic. Briefly, I defined “stupid” as “a stultifying obsession with one’s own product features, to the exclusion of any meaningful focus on customer needs, much less wants.”

In this second part, I want to explore how we got there: why is there so much of this kind of 101-level marketing and sales confusion going on?  In the third part, I’ll explore the two solutions to Stupid Marketing (and sales).

Why Is Stupid Marketing Endemic?

There are three basic reasons for this plague; the third one is the biggest.

Technical Complexity.

Marketing and sales have become so transformed (taken over?) by technology that complexity has gone way up. Previous generations of Willy Lomans were flummoxed by IBM 360s, yesterday’s marketers stand in awe as today’s generation navigates between content creators, media vendors, execution technologies, and automated ad buys.

That (mostly marketing) complexity has kept sales at a low level of sophistication. Because we have so recently become able to do so many things so much more cheaply and more quickly and more effectively, we have all gotten seduced into thinking that pouring old wine into new bottles changes the wine. It doesn’t. Features are still features – they’re not needs. And they’re miles away from wants.

In the early days of business process re-engineering, we heard about “paving the cowpath.” Automating a process doesn’t change that process per se. Putting features online, making them pop up through a thousand triggers, and linking them to highly targeted audiences doesn’t change the fact that they’re still features.

Technology makes us better at identifying customer needs. But too many marketers draw the inference that, having done so, all we have to do is throw a product-and-features advertisement their way at the right moment in the right medium, and sales will magically go up by a metric-measurable tick.

This leads to a semi-conscious belief that everything is marketing, and that marketing will absorb sales. Not going to happen.

If all you do with profound market intelligence is to throw digital darts with more and more precision, you’re still not selling – you’re just enabling creepiness.  People still crave engagement. The need for personal sales has not diminished, it’s simply shifted.

Search engines, AI, and CRM have not repealed a few laws of human nature – that people like to feel understood before they seek to understand. That they still want you to feel the problem they’re trying to solve. They still want to know that you care before they care what you know. Even an automated buying process is automated by someone who is responding to those laws.

Technology-based marketing enables sales – it doesn’t trigger them except incrementally.  Detailed descriptions of features are still just features.

The Tyranny of Zero-cost.

The second reason for endemic stupid marketing and sales is the zero marginal cost nature of information. Closely related to the tragedy of the commons, this speaks to the perverse incentive that makes almost any trivial sale profitable in the face of massive, destructive-of-relationships, spam-like emails.

When coupled with the short-termism of our times (remember IBGYBG from the recent recession? remember when startups aimed to become profitable, rather than to cash out?), this is toxic. Zero incremental marketing cost plus a disregard for long-term (heck, even medium-term) social or customer costs, leads to cynical, impersonal marketing and sales alike.

An Impersonal View of Business

The biggest reason, I believe, for endemic Stupid Marketing is the view that business itself is best described as impersonal, logical, deductive, sequential, behavioral, and self-serving.

By this view – dominant in the US since the 1970s – business decisions are made through cognitive and impersonal processes. Without going much deeper, let me just say this is at best a gross over-simplification, and in large part is simply wrong.

People, with all their protein-based emotional behaviors, still have a critical role to play in business. (The great philosopher Sidney Morgenbesser once told BF Skinner, “Let me get this straight – you’re saying we shouldn’t anthropomorphize people?”). Sidney was right to cock an eyebrow.

Many trends merged to create this impersonal view of business:  competitive strategy, the spreadsheet, business process re-engineering, the Internet, hyperlink technology, AI, cell phones. We can all see why modern marketers might think that sales and marketing can be reduced to incentives, chips, and bits and bytes.

But it can’t. People do behave rationally – just not according to the simple rules of economic self-optimization that marketers have adopted.

Instead, they behave according to rules of relationships, emotions and the heart – and then rationalize their decisions with the brain. And those rules transcend the basic features descriptions and simplistic “solutions” that so dominate the field today.

Why is stupid marketing and sales endemic? Because we mistake complexity for substance, because it costs nothing, and because we have come to believe the false gospel of People as Rational Self-Aggrandizers.

In the last part in this series, I’ll talk about the two generic solutions to the problem of stupid marketing – two strategies that are tried and true, and that incorporate the human part of business.

 

 

 

Enabling Stupid Marketing (and sales) at the Speed of Light. Part 1 of 3

How would you rate the quality of the following three unsolicited emails? What letter grade would you assign to each?

Sample A:

Hi Charles,

I have emailed you a few times now regarding your business cards. Let me know if you are not the correct person, also please tell me who I should be contacting?
We – ABC – are the leaders in online business card management for large organizations. We will save you money and make ordering business cards very easy.
Here is a link with more information and a demo – _____.
Sample B:

Dear Charles H.,

If you’re like most companies today, you spend tons of time and effort tracking all the sales tax rates, rules and processes required for compliance everywhere you do business. But are you 100% confident in the result? Are you confident you’re audit proof?

We’re called XYZ. Our cloud-based solution not only eliminates all of those unproductive hours, but it solves all the sales and use tax compliance guesswork for good. In fact, we guarantee the accuracy of every rate you use, rendering you audit-proof in the process.

Charles H., if you’re willing to give us just 15 minutes on the phone, we can show you how we automate all the sales tax rates, rules, and processes required for compliance. We even address consumer use and seller use tax, too.

 

Sample C:

Good Day how are they getting on? It’s Irina! I’m from Russia.

I’am very ripe person and for now looking dependable Man) If You want to date me;) response me;)

I can send You my photo attached have a good time

 

What do you think?

Here’s my grading of them.

They’re all about the same. I would grade them F, F and D respectively (yes, sample C is fractionally better – I’ll explain).

Worse yet – not only is that kind of effort by far the dominant quality of email marketing I see today – it is not all that much different from the supposedly sophisticated B2B sales and marketing initiatives we see major firms putting forth. Stupid marketing (and sales), I suggest, have become endemic.

 

This is part 1 of a 3-part blogpost series I’m calling “Enabling Stupid Marketing (and sales) at the Speed of Light.”

  • In this first part, I want to describe the problem – to point out how widespread it has become, to define the problem, to describe just what kind of “stupid” we’re talking about.
  • In part 2, I’ll talk about why this problem has become so endemic.
  • In part 3, I’ll talk about the two generic solutions to the problem.

Speed of Light Stupid Marketing (and sales): How to Spot It 

There have, of course, been amazing advances in recent years in the fields of sales and marketing. CRM and Salesforce have upended sales processes. Technology has enabled almost frighteningly good tools for identifying and targeting customer behavior. And amazing software tools are helping automate and micro-tune all kinds of sales and marketing functions.

But the sales and marketing folk of today – very much driven by the increased role of technology – have confused process with substance, features with benefits, and even sales with marketing.

The core, basic, Stupidity-101 mistake of our time is the same mistake that was made back in the Stone Age of business, when I came of age – a stultifying obsession with one’s own product features, to the exclusion of any meaningful focus on customer needs.

Let’s look first at how my three examples stack up:

  • What does ABC from Sample A have to tell me? That they’re the leaders in business cards. 100% features. Zero benefits. And don’t even look for a hint of connection with me. Do I care? Not one bit.
  • What does XYZ from Sample B tell me? That I’m indistinguishable from half the companies out there (it’s not easy to insult your customer in the first sentence), spending “tons of time” tracking sales tax rates. Not true for me (and I doubt for others); they want more time from me on the phone than I’ve spent in the last 5 years thinking about it. So now not only do I not care, but I peg the writer for a liar and/or a fool.
  • Irina, in Sample C, asks if I want to date her and have a good time.  To her credit, at least she leaves something to my imagination, which offers a chance of escaping the no-man’s land of ‘features and price’ that traps the other two.

This is 101 stuff. These days you can’t just put out a sign saying, “Stuff for sale here; and it’s really good stuff – let me tell you all about it.” You never could get away with just that, truth be told. Yet that’s what the majority of sales and marketing these days boils down to.

As a client/customer, I don’t care if it’s the latest AI-based PE Round Two-financed new app from Israel/Hyderabad/Silicon Valley that does blood tests while pre-emptively snuffing out Russian hackers and getting me Uber-delivered lunch. The only thing I care about is – what problem does this solve for me? Reciting your product’s nifty features does not, repeat not, constitute effective sales, or even marketing.

Drills vs. Holes.  The still-sentient among us with long memories will recall Ted Levitt’s old bit about “people don’t buy drills, they buy holes.” They also don’t buy business cards, they buy impressions. They don’t buy tax compliance software, they buy peace of mind. And they don’t buy Russian girls, they buy – well, to Irina’s credit, she at least engages her customers’ imagination to fill in the blank.

Listing features is simply describing the drill, not the hole.

As my friend @davidabrock points out, this obsession with description is a failing especially noteworthy in the tech industry. This leads to some delicious irony; I’m sure I’m not the only one who gets emails from tech companies telling me about their ability to increase my sales and bottom line via their powerful software, which enables micro-targeting, lead generation, personalization, and the like. Meanwhile, it is clearly aimed at businesses not like mine, clearly the product of a mass emailing, shows no evidence of having micro-defined me in any terms, and clearly impersonal.

If their own dog food is so great, how come they’re not eating it themselves?

The Collateral Damage of Drill-bit Marketing. If you think of your brilliant product as the scarce resource, then you probably think of the customer as the commodity part of the supply/demand equation. The focus becomes on how good we can get at describing ourselves to as many people as possible.

This is of course dead wrong. Properly thought of, the scarce resource is customers, and the commodity is what we’re selling. The right focus is to jointly define a problem, and then help solve it for the customer.

I remember a college acquaintance who claimed to use this approach with women: “Just ask enough of them to have sex, someone is bound to say ‘yes.'” Maybe, maybe not. More important is the impression you leave on all those you interact with.  A well known CRM vendor with a 3-syllable name used to be renowned for such scorched-earth sales approaches.

If you believe your job is to pitch as many leads as possible about your features, you devalue the customer. Conversely, if you believe your job is to understand a few customers as deeply as possible, your product features will take on new levels of meaning. But you have to view sales and marketing as about customers, not about your product.

Metaphors – Jobs and Dates. Here’s a metaphor. Imagine you’re looking for a job. You list your resume on all the job sites, email it in to employers, etc. You get an invitation to interview. You go in for the interview. Now – what do you do?

If your response to any question is to cite your resume, you lose the job. Because your features – the resume, in this case – are what got you the interview. What got you the interview won’t get you the offer. At that stage in the ‘sale’ (the sale of you), you need to go beyond features, and make a connection.

Another metaphor: you go out on a first date. Your date says, “So, tell me about yourself.”  If your response goes on for more than a couple of minutes, you’ll not get a second date. Your features are what got you in the door – they won’t get you to the other side.

Doing email marketing based solely on features is like getting a job solely on resumes. Doing B2B marketing based solely on putting features in front of people is like dating based solely on picking the right app.

And It’s Not Just Email Marketing. I’ve used email marketing examples, but I see the same tendency in sophisticated B2B clients – and not just tech clients, either. There is so much complexity out there that sellers in complex B2B businesses don’t know how to achieve escape velocity from the black hole of features. They make the same mistake their B2C email marketing brethren do – they fall back on describing features.

And don’t tell me “solutions” are different. What passes for “solutions,” all too often, are just slightly altered versions of descriptions. The “problems” they are set up to solve are simply descriptions of one level up the business process or IT chain. They are still far from what classic marketers would call ‘needs,’ and miles away from ‘wants.’

In some ways, the problem is not that new. For 40 years now I’ve heard clients tell me that, “You have to talk technically with them, they really want to know features, you don’t know my client, they’re content freaks.” After 40 years, I suspect a pattern. And the pattern is not about the customer, it’s about the seller.

We are in love with our products, our features, our hard-fought expertise. And if we’re in love with it, how could our customers not be? Besides, that customer focus stuff feels un-scientific, soft, and – above all – risky. Far safer to stay in the safe world of features and price, features and price, features and price. New bottles – old wine.

 

Next Blogpost: Part 2 of 3 – Why Has Stupid Marketing (and Sales) at the Speed of Light Become Endemic?