Bleeding Trust from Every Sales Interaction

Last week saw an impressive uptick in conversations about trust in companies. While United may be the strongest case for bleeding trust today, it’s not limited to them. It’s the massive PR mishaps that grab our attention – but that’s misleading. Trust can affect every business – including yours.

It’s not just about the big, egregious faux pas that loses our customers’ trust in an instant. It’s much more about the myriad little, every-day, seemingly trivial ways that add up – ending in a virtual hemorrhage of trust. In no particular order, let me identify a few.

Customer Tales of Woe

In Goodbye Avis, Hello Uber, danah boyd chronicled death by a thousand cuts at the hand of Avis Car Rental. Her rental car got a flat tire at 10 p.m. in Los Angeles, just seven miles from Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). A customer service phone rep said he didn’t know how long it would take to get an exchange. He said he’d text her. An hour later, she had not received a text, so she called again. They said it would take four hours. Outraged, she pushed back. OK, they said, 90 minutes.

They then suggested she leave the car with the keys in it and get a taxi. She left the car but got a ride from friends to her destination. Avis texted that they’d arrive at 4 a.m. They didn’t. She called again, and Avis blamed the towing company. They said it would take 30 minutes. Ninety minutes later a tow truck arrived.

At 4 p.m. the following day she called to make sure Avis had gotten the car. Nope. They said she was still liable. Roadside assistance told her to call customer service, who said to call the LAX counter directly, who passed her call on to the manager, whose call went to voice mail. He didn’t return the call. And, it went on.

The Avis tale may sound exceptional. But I bet you have your own horror stories to relate that are just as bad. And you probably reacted the same way danah did – by changing suppliers, even though she’d been a loyal customer for years.

One Cut at a Time

Not all customer horror stories have 15 fails in a row in a 24-hour period. But it doesn’t matter. Like little cuts, they can add up, and each one adds its own traumatic toll.

  • I went to trade in a car. We had a deal until the salesman noted a discrepancy on the CarFax report. I said I’d fix it. It took six weeks to fix, but I did get it fixed. However, the salesman never called to ask how things were coming along. Result: I bought my new car elsewhere.
  • A friend went to a store at 5:55 p.m. The manager was inside, locking up for the evening. When my friend pointed to the “Hours: 8AM – 6PM” stenciled on the door and pointed to her watch, the manager shrugged his shoulders and turned away.
  • At my daughter’s wedding, I asked if we could borrow a golf cart for 20 minutes to ferry the bride and groom across the wet lawn for photos so as not to get her wedding dress wet. “Sorry, we can’t afford the liability,” was the answer we received.
  • A friend who does small group communication training sessions is routinely asked by large companies to purchase liability insurance to indemnify MegaCo Inc. against any possible harm or claim of harm from anyone for any reason arising out of his delivering a half-day communication training session. (Many of you face the same exact extortionate policy of your customers offloading “risk” to you and having you pay for the privilege.)
  • Some years ago I had a great first sales discussion with a client about doing training to increase trust in their sales process. At the end of the call, he said, “This is great, we have a deal. Now, I presume you’ll grant us our customary 15% discount?” This after having discussed how to help his salespeople to stop cutting prices.
  • I’ll never forget the brokerage office head who, on hearing about my upcoming talk on being a trusted advisor, said, “Hey, anything that’ll increase my share of wallet, I’m all for it!”
  • I constantly receive offers to write articles for my blog in return for links. Ninety-nine percent of the time, they show no awareness of the subject matter of my blog, much less a sense for what quality levels of content might be expected.
  • Customer service scripts are increasingly being loaded with fake empathy and inappropriate apologies: “Oh, I know you feel,” “Oh, I do apologize for the power outage you experienced. …” No. Don’t pretend-feel. An acknowledgement is critical, but apologizing for things you didn’t do is phony.
  • A corporate online feedback site was generating error messages, sending me “not-deliverable” emails. Acting the good business citizen, I called the corporate 800 customer service number to tell them. The customer service rep told me, “The feedback page is not our department.” When at my suggestion she connected me to that department, they insisted on giving me an incident number so I could track my concern going forward. Wait – my concern?
  • On a United Airlines flight from Chicago to Charlotte, North Carolina, two aircraft were taken off the gate due to equipment problems. The third aircraft finally left three hours late. I emailed the airline. I got back a generic apology and a voucher redeemable against future miles—no acknowledgement of the particular issue, much less suggestions about dealing with it. (That reminds me of my cable company: after showing up three hours late, they’re trained to quickly offer you a $20 rebate – a fair deal only if your time is worth less than $7 per hour).

I could go on and on. And so could you. The cut-cut, drip-drip of such low-level, tedious violations of basic customer relationships adds up. It results in listless relationships at best and cynicism, surliness, and passive-aggressive hostility at worst. Finally, we customers jump ship when the opportunity presents itself.

This isn’t “just” about customer service. There is a steel cable linking all customer experiences – sales, service, whatever – with future sales. How everyone treats customers in all ways at all times is a big driver of trust and thus of revenue.

But you already get that point. The more urgent point is this: how can you be sure you’re not imposing such semi-conscious bloodletting on your customers? Here are two ideas.

1. Follow the 10% rule. At every customer interaction point, take 10% more time to close out the interaction in a trust-creating way.

  • If you couldn’t help someone after a five-minute call, then take 30 seconds to suggest an alternate vendor.
  • If you’re going to spend 15 minutes writing an exploratory letter, then spend another two minutes to find some value-add to include in it.
  • If a potential customer walks out the door after an inconclusive interaction, take a note about a content-specific way to follow up in two weeks with an email or phone call.

You think you don’t have 10% more time? Please. Consider how much you put at risk the other 90% of time you did spend by failing to leave a trust-based impression.

2. Personalize responses in some way. Buying is emotionally triggered, and that’s as true for B2B sales as it is for B2C. Don’t let your last impression be the customer seeing dollar signs in your eyeballs.

  • Responding immediately, or in some hugely fast way, is a powerful tool for showing you’re paying attention when someone reaches out to you. Just don’t automate the response. Fast and customized is a powerful combination.
  • If you are responding to an error, don’t minimize it – but also don’t over-accept responsibility for things beyond your control. Acknowledge, explain what must have happened, and – most important – say what you are going to do on your own to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

Sales don’t just happen during selling. They’re a predictable result of your entire mode of relationship with your customers at all times.

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?

Selling from Inside Your Client’s Shoes

You know the phrase, “Walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.” It’s short for empathy, understanding the Other so well you can intuit what it feels like to take a long walk—wearing their footwear, no less.

Let’s adapt that idea to selling. What if you could understand your client so well that you could intuit how it feels to be sitting in their seat in a sales meeting, sensing every nuance along the way?

Shall we give it a try?

Sales Meeting Time T-minus-10

It’s 10 minutes before meeting time. You arrive early, and the receptionist ushers you into the conference room and offers you coffee. You nervously drum your fingers on the laptop you brought to introduce yourself and your firm to Claudio and Taciana. They are CEO and COO, respectively, of the relatively new marketing automation firm C3PX. You spoke by phone with Taciana to set up this meeting. You’re optimistic, marshaling your nervous energy as you mentally rehearse your key points for the nth time.

Claudio. Meanwhile, Claudio wonders if he has time to call his 19-year-old daughter at college. Actually, whether to call her at all. Things are not well between the two of them—they haven’t been since he and his wife divorced last year. Teenage girls can be so—difficult. And it seemed like she so often took sides with her mother.

Meanwhile, C3PX is doing well—sometimes too well. Claudio just signed another line of credit extension. The good news was the firm’s credit was good. The bad news is he wants to pay down some debt, but there was always a need to invest in some new software or process. The meeting in 10 minutes may be another example—a necessary expense, but not welcome in terms of cash flow.

Claudio hopes Taciana can take the lead on this. He’s been leaning a lot on her lately. Is he holding up his end of the bargain? Or is it welcome to her—a chance to grow into the business? But what if she’s growing too fast and taking over some of Claudio’s roles as CEO?

Taciana. Taciana is running late. She’s just finished a meeting with HR, and she is concerned the experienced hire recruiting program is short of target. She wonders if she’ll need to postpone the ops team call this afternoon until tomorrow, though she did that last week as well. Is she getting a little overloaded? Does it show?

Taciana has mixed feelings about this meeting. On one hand, she genuinely liked the phone call she had with you. She felt you sounded sharp, competent, and confident. But she can’t help worrying about your service offering.

Does C3PX really need your kind of service at this point in its growth? You offer some great services, but with them comes another level of complexity. Are the benefits worth it? Should they get along for another 12 to 18 months? What if some new technology comes along and leap-frogs your offering?

Also, is this going to be yet another Taciana-solo project? “Sure, I’m the COO,” she thinks, “but that doesn’t mean I have to do everything. Am I leveraged enough? Will Claudio think I’m empire-building if I try to delegate? But if I don’t, how am I going to get time to spend with my husband? We’ve been trying to get more time together; he has a demanding job, too. I hope Claudio takes the lead in this meeting.”

Sales Meeting Time T = 0

It’s time. You take a last look at your phone just as the door opens. In walk Claudio and Taciana.

You all smile and shake hands, then pass out business cards. You each reject offers of more coffee and strategically settle into your chairs, all the while smiling and uttering meaningless phrases in non-committal tones.

The meeting commences.

Like all meetings, it commences on multiple levels. There is the overt agenda to be discussed. There are first impressions, flooding each of you as you quickly take into account the others’ appearance, sound, bearing, and manner. Are you who they expected? What’s different? What does that mean?

And are they who you expected? What did you misjudge? What did you get right? Can you afford to focus on that and pay attention to what’s being said? Do they seem a little rushed? What does that mean? Are they going to sit through your deck, or should you skip it? When should you bring up price?

You can ask them to tell you a bit about their situation, but you can’t do too much of that. These days no one has time for someone who hasn’t done their homework. Yet neither can you waste time proving you’ve done your homework. What does it mean that they placed their iPhone next to them? And so on.

Behind the Scenes

The internal dialogue is endless—and that’s just yours! What about the dialogue inside Taciana’s and Claudio’s heads? How important is this inner cacophony? And what should you do about it? Ignore it? Address it? If you choose to address it, how do you do it?

The truth is those internal dialogues are not trivial. They are important. You need to address them. Most of all this is a great opportunity cleverly disguised as an awkward social moment. You can dramatically affect the whole sale, and the whole relationship, by how you conduct yourself in the first few minutes regarding these internal dialogues.

Small Talk Isn’t Small

The idle chit-chat we engage in is a potent social ritual. The point is not to find out that you both went to Ohio State or love basketball or have kids. Those are proxies.

The real issue at stake is whether they can trust you—in a very specific sense of that word. It’s what we call “intimacy” in the trust equation. Do they feel safe being who they are in your presence? Do you laugh at the right moments—with the right kind of laugh? Do you wince at the right statements—like when Taciana mentions meeting overload? When they say, “Tell us about yourself,” do you remember that mostly they’re just being nice and then turn the conversation to them?

Do you have the emotional courage to raise your eyebrows when Claudio says, “Teenagers—am I right?” and invite further comment should he choose to go there? When one of them raises price concerns, do you respond with curiosity and say, “Tell me what’s behind that concern?” Or do you reply with a canned defense of your value-for-price? Do you have the nerve to say, “I’m sensing a little bit of stress from each of you. Is this decision a source of concern to you?”

This isn’t about your value proposition. It isn’t about proposing challenging questions or asserting your qualifications. But it’s critical. The buyer/seller interaction is many things, but it’s first and foremost human. First impressions matter, and not just about clothes and looks.

What buyers want is to feel at ease, trusting, and confident they can be authentically themselves with you and not have to look over their shoulders when dealing with you.

Buyers make up their mind about this subconsciously, and they do it very quickly. Trust in this sense doesn’t take time; it takes courage, connection, and empathy. Don’t be afraid to let your guard down. Doing so shows others that can do the same with you from the get-go.

This article first appeared on RainToday.

Read Part Two of this post, here. 

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.

 

Competing with Colleagues

When I co-wrote The Trusted Advisor with David Maister and Rob Galford a few years back, it became reasonably successful within several months. (Amazingly, it still ranks #5,252 – as of last night – on the list of all books on Amazon. That’s all books, including Harry Potter, Malcolm Gladwell, etc. I’ll take long-sellers over best-sellers any day of the week).

With its success came a happy problem: how to parcel out the leads between the three of us? Let me be clear, the book wasn’t drowning us in leads; any one of the three of us could have happily fielded all inquiries. And while we wanted to be fair to each other, we were also all of us very clearly in competition with each other.

So the question: how do you compete with colleagues?

Competing with Colleagues

What if one of us got a lead based on the book? Did we have any obligation to pass it along to the other two? If so, how?  Should we establish a quota system, whereby each of us would get every third lead?

Should we let the market dictate things, and let whomever the client had reached out to handle the response? What if the client had written to all three of us?  Should we all respond confidentially, or in some sense share our responses?

The problem was not unique to us, though it seemed so at the time.  You may face a similar problem within your organization – who gets the lead? Who gets to present?

Or, you may come face to face with an  old friend who has changed uniforms and now works for a competitor. In any case, the tension is much the same – the sensation of being a colleague feels intensely in conflict with the sensation of being a competitor.

How do you resolve it?

The Solution

The answer to the problem came to us fairly quickly, on reflection, and I documented it as part of the Four Trust Principles in my later books. The answer lies in true focus on client needs.

In our case: we agreed that we should all respond similarly to all client inquiries, regardless of to whom they were addressed. In all cases, we would say words to the effect of:

The Trusted Advisor was written by the three of us. I suspect that each of us could do an excellent job in response to your query, and each of us would handle the work slightly differently. You would be best served by having discussions with each of us, and making up your mind on that basis.

We will each be candid with respect to our own strengths and weaknesses, and answer questions to the best of our ability about the others. Each of us will respect your decision, and we are each committed to you making the best decision possible for you.

The best decision for you is what all three of us seek, and each of us will do our best to help you reach it, regardless of your choice.

This solution made everything easier. It kept our relationship collegial. It removed any awkwardness about responding to clients. It removed any awkwardness that clients might experience in choosing whom to talk to.

And, of course, it resulted in the best decision for clients, as each of us have our own particular skills and drawbacks.

So what’s the answer?  Grindingly relentless focus on client service, and the willingness to pursue that logic wherever it leads.

Top Ten Reasons Organizations Don’t Teach Trust

A little while back I was asked a simple yet profound question by Tom Hines from the Monitor Group. It’s a question that over the years, I continue to get from clients – and clients from all over the globe, no less.

It seems no matter where you are from or what services your organization offers, there is a focus on closing the sale through the official “sales process.” And yet, everywhere, people are either already aware or starting to take notice that its the softer side of sales that pushes the “sale” towards establishing a lasting client relationship.

So – why don’t more organizations teach trust? Well – here’s my top ten list that may shed a little light on the subject.

———-

This recently from Tom Hines of the Monitor Group.

“My question to you, Charlie, is simple, but something that I’ve been struggling with for some time now. If every CEO or other senior leader (or at least the great majority) seems to agree that success in selling is in some part attributable to trust based selling concepts, then why do they spend virtually all of their training $$ on sales process, closing techniques, etc. It seems like a dirty little secret that this is nothing but a waste of money.”

“I have worked with literally hundreds of sales people over my career and no process, qualification questions or closing technique ever works without establishing trust as the foundation of any client relationship. So the question then is why don’t organizations prioritize and invest in helping their organization understand the dynamics of trust and use that as the foundation of any other program they try to implement? It seems to me that they spend a great deal of money on “quick fix” programs that do nothing to change behaviors and belief systems about the importance of trust and how it is the only way to improve performance.”

Well, Tom, no surprise, you’re preaching to the choir. But I know you mean the question seriously too, and I too take it as a serious question.

Why is it that things are that way?

Here’s my Top Ten list for why organizations, especially sales organizations, don’t invest more in trust.

10. Fear–of looking wussy, as in Real Men Don’t Play Trust Games.

9. Thinking that business is about competition. It’s not. It’s about commerce.

8. Fear—of someone taking advantage of us; hence do unto others before they do unto you.

7. Bad long-term logic. We are dominated by financial logic, internal rates of return and present-value discount rates. That belief outlaws any investment beyond about 25 years. The parent of a child operates on a longer timeframe, not to mention entire nations in Asia.

6. Inability to defer gratification.

5. A Hobbesian hangover. The continued belief, fostered by ideologue economists and politicians, that the world is an evil place—life is nasty, brutish and short–and therefore the best defense is a good offense. Even if the premise were true (I have no position on it), the conclusion certainly is not.

4. The cult of rationality. Belief that only “scientific” management works; forget passion, belief, relationships—and trust.

3. Over-emphasis on measurement. The belief that “if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” Just think about that. False on the face of it.

2. The cult of short-termism. Here-now, bird-in-hand, payback time, fees-not-interest, outsource, monetize—it all adds up to transactions, not relationships. Not good for trust.

1. Fear—that someone will find out who you really are if you don’t manage your image. So tighten up, spin everything, and get out of Dodge before they can spot you for who you really are.

What’s your answer to Tom’s question?

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.