Wants vs Needs? Dylan and the Stones Weigh in on Sales

Should you sell to someone’s wants, or to someone’s needs?

It’s a much-discussed topic in sales. Some say you should sell to wants, not needs.  Others say exactly the opposite. And some say you should sell to both.

 

Clearly the case cries out for a good definition. I checked in with the well-known sales consulting firm of Jagger, Richards & Dylan.

You Can’t Always Get What You Want

Never mind Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, let’s talk about Mick Jagger’s. After all, this was the 100th greatest song of all time; whereas Maslow, as far as I know, never even made the Billboard Charts.

The tagline is “but if you try sometimes you might find you get what you need.” In other words, wants are higher, deeper and often more unattainable than needs.

There’s more than one way to define the difference between wants and needs, but I’ll settle for the definition used by the Greatest Rock ‘n Roll Band in history. But if that’s not good enough for you – wait, there’s more!

Robert Zimmerman, Salesman

Bob Dylan, from Blonde on Blonde, also wrote about sales:

An’ she says, ‘Your debutante just knows what you need; but I know what you want!

Stuck Inside of Mobile, with the Memphis Blues Again

Dylan and Jagger are pouring from the same bottle of wine. Here too, the idea of one’s wants transcend that of one’s needs.

Needs are tangible things we’ve got to have, necessary conditions: toothpaste, bicycles, audits, CRM systems. Wants are aspirational: hopes, wishes, dreams, desires, visions.

The Roles of Wants and Needs

Which should you sell to? What do buyers relate to? The right answer (it’s remarkable how often this is the right answer to seeming quandaries) is “both, at different points.”

Here are a few hints.

1.    People buy with the heart, then rationalize it with the brain.

In other words, sell the wants and let everyone talk about the needs they resolved by making that decision. The wants are dealt with more personally, arm-around-shoulder; the needs are what you tell the purchasing committee after the fact about why you did the deal.

2.    People prefer to buy what they need from those who understand what they want.

In other words, if you’re going to sell stuff that people need, first tap into their wants. You don’t even have to give them what they want, you just have to be someone who can tap into it. That makes you a seller someone wants to buy from.  The greatest exponent of this idea, I find, was Bill Brooks (see my interview with his son Jeb).

Basically, you need to touch people on both fronts.

  • If you only sell to needs, you’re a features-only kind of person limited to competing on price.
  • If you sell only based on wants, you might do well in designer bricks or perfume, but forget about selling complex systems.

Be well-rounded. Listen to both the Stones and Dylan.  Until you do, you’re just Blowin’ in the Wind, and will get No Satisfaction in sales.

Sometimes the Best Marketing Looks Like Sales

I got an email. It was from a 50-ish owner of a small CPA firm – call him “Jose” – with three competing offers to buy his practice, and a few complicating life factors. He wanted advice, and wondered if we could talk.

I don’t do much coaching or consulting, and he almost surely couldn’t afford my rates. Nor am I an expert in life planning, or in valuations.

But I said sure, call me in the morning, we’ll talk – no charge.

We had a very good chat for about 45 minutes.

I think I helped him. I know it was useful for him to talk to a third party able to comprehend his situation. I believe he’ll make a better decision, and I’m sure he’ll feel better about it. Value was created for him in our talk.

But what about me? I knew going in there was no chance of a sale from him – not now, not in the future, not anytime. And my rate was zero. Was this a foolish, impetuous, soft-hearted, flakey thing to do?

No. I like doing nice things, but I’m not a saint. Nor did I consider Jose a pro bono case.

Yes, it was a nice thing to do. But, I would argue – it was also good business.

Sometimes a sales lead that we would otherwise screen out can be a good marketing investment. Sometimes you can do well by doing good. Sometimes we need to let sales leads bleed into marketing budgets.

“Jose” will never buy from me (though other Jose’s might). But he will remember what I did for him; even more, that I was willing to help.

Jose is someone who cared enough to identify alternatives, choose me, and seek me out. He spent time to find out who I was, what I did, whether and how I might be useful to him. He was probably willing to pay for consulting. He was an educated, willing buyer, a near-client with influence on other potential clients.

For me, he was not a qualified sales lead. But – he was one helluva marketing resource.

He now knows me – the sound of my voice, how well I think on the spot, the way I interact, my sense of humor. He knows me better than one of 200 people in an audience for a speech; much better than 500 people reading this blog, or an article of mine.

Total investment: 45 minutes. Most sales people will tell you that’s an extravagant waste of sales time, an inefficiency that is off-scale. Just think of the waste in extrapolating such activities to scale!

But most salespeople would be wrong. This is not about efficiency in selling: this is about effectiveness in marketing.

The return is that Jose will tell X people about our discussion. That’s X people who will hear first-hand about a 1-to1 interaction. That’s a powerful testimonial.

The choice is not between being “good” or making money; they often go together.

Try, for just a few hours per month, shifting your sales practices to subsidize your marketing by investing in a lead.

Don’t get lost in charge-back accounting. The benefits will eventually accrue to your firm, and to you personally. Both.

 

The Traveling Salesman? Or the Prisoner’s Dilemma?

The Prisoner’s Dilemma is a classic conundrum in game theory. It purports to explain why two people might not cooperate, even if it is in both their best interests to do so.

It turns out that the solution to The Prisoner’s Dilemma is also the solution to a great many sales problems—those in which your customer doesn’t trust you. Are you living in the Dilemma? Or are you living in the solution?

The Dilemma of the Prisoner

Here is a classic version of The Prisoner’s Dilemma:

Two suspects are arrested by the police. The police have insufficient evidence for a conviction and, having separated the prisoners, visit each of them to offer the same deal:

  • If one testifies for the prosecution against the other (defects) and the other remains silent (cooperates), the defector goes free and the silent accomplice receives the full 10-year sentence.
  • If both remain silent, both prisoners are sentenced to only six months in jail for a minor charge.
  • If each betrays the other, each receives a five-year sentence.

Each prisoner must choose to betray the other or to remain silent. Each one is assured that the other would not know about the betrayal before the end of the investigation. How should the prisoners act?

What’s a poor prisoner to do?

If you analyze the situation rationally (the way a game theorist or economist defines that term), your odds are a lot worse if you remain silent – either you get 10 years or six months. But if you rat on your partner, you either get out free or, at worst, five years.

So, reasons the economist, Option A’s average “value” is five years and three months in prison. Option B’s average is two and a half years. “Ah ha,” says the economist’s rational player, “I’ll go for Option B.”

Of course, the other player does the same math and comes to the same conclusion. As a result, each gets five years in prison—a total of 10 prison-years between them.

The dilemma is that – if only the prisoners had cooperated with each other, they could have each gotten out with just six months in prison – a total of one prison-year between them.

The question is: why don’t they cooperate?

At least, that’s the economists’ question. In the real world, cooperation is quite common.

So the real question is: why do so many people listen to economists?

The Dilemma of the Salesperson

Before answering the Prisoner’s Dilemma, let’s note the similarity with The Salesperson’s Dilemma.

The salesperson has a similar series of trade-offs. For example:

  • “I could take some extra time to study up on tomorrow’s sales call, getting to know more about the prospect. That would improve the odds of my getting a sale tomorrow.”
  • “On the other hand, I could make another cold call with the time saved if I don’t spend it studying up for tomorrow’s call.”

Or, another example:

  • “I could tell them we have very little experience in this area, which would increase their sense of my honesty, which would help me in the long run.”
  • “On the other hand, experience might be the key in getting this job, so perhaps I should make the best case I can and fudge the rest.”

Still another:

  • “I could share a lot of my knowledge with them, which would really impress them and make them grateful to me.”
  • “On the other hand, if I give it all away in the sales call, they might just steal my knowledge and not pay me for it – perhaps I should wait until after we have a signed contract.”

And one more:

  • “I could go out on a limb and make some really far-sighted observations that would help them—it would go way beyond what they asked for.”
  • “On the other hand, we don’t have much trust built up yet. They might see that as presumptuous or unprofessional; I’ll just answer the questions they asked.”

Just as with The Prisoner’s Dilemma, if the salespersons continually choose Option B, they will sub-optimize. They will do cold calls, leading with no relationship, taking no risks, treating the customer like a competitive enemy, and offering no great help.

In other words, they’ll lose. Just like the prisoners.

In theory, the prisoners are identical, whereas the salesperson and the customer are distinct. But that’s theory. In the real world, sellers somehow tend to find buyers who are similar to them. Sellers who are fear-driven and guarded somehow often find buyers who justify their worst fears. (Or, what amounts to the same, sellers project fear, and buyers reciprocally return the same – as humans are wont to do).

Both seller and buyer often operate from the Prisoner’s script. And the result is just as sub-optimal.

The Prisoner’s Solution

As postulated by economists and game theorists, The Prisoner’s Dilemma is usually presented with two key assumptions:

  1. The game is played only once
  2. The players do not know each other

The solution lies in changing each of those assumptions. If you tell the players the game will be played 10 times, cooperative patterns begin to emerge. If it’s played 100 times, cooperative strategies take over.

If the players are given information about each other, they become less abstract to each other. If the information is personal, then the relationship changes tone as well.

These two dimensions – time and relationship – are critical. Without a sense of continuity over time, and without a sense of personal relationship, those playing the game will opt to “rat out” each other – even knowing that the result, system-wide, is negative for them on average. But given time and relationships—the optimal solution emerges. Everyone is better off.

In other words, the solution to behaving stupidly is to develop personal relationships over time. Now let’s see how that insight applies to selling.

The Sales Solution

The sales solution should look pretty obvious now. Suboptimal behavior is the result of short timeframes and shallow relationships. In a Prisoner’s Dilemma world, both buyer and seller fear each other, suspect the worst, don’t have relationships beyond the transaction, and are interested primarily in their own self-aggrandizement, without regard to cost to the other party.

If that sounds familiar, just look at what sales topics are hot these days: sales automation, lead screening, CRM, social media lead generation, predictive analytics, search-based prospecting, multi-channel messaging. Think about the last step in nearly every sales process model you’ve seen—closing.

What all these subjects have in common is a view of selling that is a) transactional and b) impersonal. In other words, they have short timeframes and weak relationships—two things sure to hurt sales.

Selling benefits from longer timeframes and better personal relationships. If you can stop thinking like an economist and work to eliminate the fear you and your buyers have, you’ll benefit from the long-lasting trustworthy relationships that develop as a result.

When to Offer a Lower Price

Few decisions in business have such dramatic effects on customer perception as how you handle your pricing – in particular, when and how you offer discounts.

People may evaluate your products, or your service offerings, by averaging out multiple experiences. But drop your price just once, and see how hard it is to recover. For a large-scale example, recall Bill Ackman’s painful failure to revamp the image of JC Penney—away from frequent discounts to everyday low prices as a strategy. For a more personal example, just ask yourself – how often are you able to recover your normal pricing rates after having given an initial discount?

Yet in professional services and complex businesses, we play with offering discounts all the time. We tell ourselves, ‘The client wants it.’  ‘We might lose without it.’  ‘The competitor is cutting rates.’ ‘We can’t look inflexible.’  ‘What’s the big deal, how often do we get full rate anyway?’

Yet you’re right to be suspicious about the effectiveness of random hip-shooting when it comes to offering a lower price.  Shouldn’t we have some kind of strategy?

Don’t Just Stand There: Stand for Something

There is no one “right” approach to offering discounts. Your approach will vary with your business, your objectives, and your markets. But there are some things every approach should do:

  • You should have a rule for when to discount
  • That rule should be easily explainable to clients
  • You should be willing to live by the rule.

That may sound obvious. But how often have you heard things like, “Don’t tell Bill that we gave XYZ got that price; it’ll only encourage him to want it,” or “Those guys’ll do anything to get the business.” Those statements indicate a lack of policy – which is death on your reputation.

What to Stand For

Again, your business will vary. Here’s what I decided for mine. I run a high-end professional services business, offering speaking, training, coaching, and related services. I want to be known for solid relationships, high quality, professionalism, and subject matter expertise. And in my case, because the subject matter is trust, I also need to be seen as completely above suspicion.

It’s clear, then, that I need to articulate and live by some rules about when to discount. Here’s what I came up with over the years.

1. Frequency. I want to be at the opposite end of the spectrum from a JC Penney strategy of frequent discounting. I don’t want clients looking for bargains. If they’re looking to price shop, I want to send a not-so-subtle message that they’re in the wrong place.

2. Exceptions. To help that message, I need to be very clear about when and where discounts are appropriate. In my business, I can clearly state three such situations:

Volume. In my business, perhaps the biggest cost is cost of sales (the time, expense, and investment it takes to generate professional fees). It stands to reason that if someone can reduce my cost of sales, I have room to pass some of those savings along in lower prices.

The biggest example of that is simply a volume discount. The economics of selling one training session to 10 clients vs. selling 10 training sessions to one client are pretty clear. I am happy to receive multiple orders, and I’m happy to offer volume discounts to reflect it.

For me, volume discounts are easy to explain and easy to justify.

Special SituationsFor Me. Sometimes I want to work in a new industry or with a novel offering.

Those situations are as important for me as they are for the client. In those cases, I will offer a significant discount. I don’t want to shave nickels; I want to send a message about what is important and what isn’t. And in those cases, it’s about the learning. Those kinds of discounts rarely happen.

Special Situations—For the Client. Non-profits never have the kind of money that corporations do; most associations are limited as well. I don’t say yes to all those requests, but when I do, it’s only reasonable to price “off-label.” (Government is a special case, and one I won’t go into here.) And yes, there are a few ‘friends’ discounts from time to time.

3. Non-Exceptions. That’s about it. That leaves a lot of other situations where I choose not to discount. It’s worth pointing them out:

Pleas for budget. Sorry, I have a list of charities I contribute to: corporations with a squeezed budget are not on the list. Make that ‘never on the list’ if you’re in the pharmaceutical or financial services industries, or if you have office space in midtown Manhattan.

Bargaining. I have a simple way of declaring that this is not a bazaar: transparency. I explain my business model, explain when and how I give discounts, and – that’s it. I recall one client who, after our initial phone call, said, “I assume that if we go ahead, you’ll grant us our customary 20% discount.” He assumed wrongly.

The Positive Alternative. “Just say no” may (or may not) be a good strategy for drug usage, but it’s not a satisfactory answer to a client on the receiving end. None of us like to be told no, even with a great explanation.

Over the years, I developed another business practice that turns out to have a great side benefit: making people appreciate my saying “no” to discount requests. That practice is to simply take a few minutes extra to talk with them about their situation and refer them to someone else who can help them.

I am a very small player in all the markets I play in. I am far from the only one providing great service. If someone doesn’t happen to fit my business model, they may be caviar and champagne for someone else’s model.

It costs nothing to spend a little time thinking about alternatives for clients who don’t quite fit with my needs, and it generates huge amounts of goodwill. It’s a small investment with a big marketing return: they may come back when they have a need that is a fit with me, and they may speak well of me to others. Not to mention, they’re no longer complaining about how I don’t discount.

Again, my model is not the only one. You have to decide what’s right for you. But whatever it is, it should be clear, it has to be explainable, and you should be willing to live by it.

The Biggest Trust Myth of All Time

A lot of casual bloggers out there – and a few not-so-casual writers, even some famous people – are fond of quipping about trust in ways that at first blush sound wise. 

But often, these aphoristic musings turn out on closer inspection to be untrue.  They are pop wisdom, bubble gum sayings, reflecting a failure to apply critical thinking to the subject of trust.  They belong more to the genre of inspirational wallpaper postings on Pinterest

Case in point: the common claim that “trust takes years to build, and only minutes to destroy.”  It may be the Biggest Trust Myth of All Time. 

First, let’s point out some of the myth-purveyors – then we’ll get to why it’s a myth. 

The Ubiquity of the Biggest Trust Myth

A simple Google search finds the following:

“It can take years to create trust and only a day to lose it.”Angus Jenkinson,  From Stress to Serenity: Gaining Strength in the Trials of Life    

“It’s [sic] takes years to build trust and minutes to lose it.” @Relationsmentor, with 66,000 Twitter followers

“Trust takes years to build, seconds to break, and forever to repair.”Amy Rees Anderson, Balancing Work and Family Life Blog

“It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.”Warren Buffett, America’s favorite billionaire

“Trust is not something you can take for granted. It takes months – sometimes years – to build. Unfortunately, you can lose it overnight.”...Michael Hyatt, author, virtual mentor, online leadership platforms

“Although [trust] takes a long time to develop, it can be destroyed by a single action.”…Frank Sonnenberg, author, leadership expert

“It takes time to build trust and just seconds to blow it away.”Dunham+Company, strategic marketing and fundraising services provider

“It takes years to build trust and minutes to lose it.”Vontae Davis, 2X Pro Bowl cornerback for the Indianapolis Colts

“It takes time to earn [trust in leadership] but it takes no time to lose it.”Building Blocks of Agency Development: a Handbook of Life Insurance

“It takes years to build trust and a single moment to lose it.”Steve Adams, Children’s Ministry on Purpose: a Purpose-driven Approach to Lead Kids Towards Spiritual Health

All right, you get the idea. Note there are a few respected names on there, along with all the casual opiners. Now let’s see what’s wrong with it. 

Myth Busting: The Relationship of Trust and Time

Let’s chip away at this myth a piece at a time.

First, a lot of trust doesn’t take time at all. Most trust gets created in step-functions, in moments-that-matter, in our instantaneous reactions to what someone says or how they comport themselves. We humans are exquisitely tuned relationship detectors, finely honed over eons of evolution to rapidly assess a host of factors revealing others’ good or bad intentions toward us. We make snap judgments because we’re built to do so (and we generally do them well).

Second, the kind of trust that does take time is just one very particular subset of trust: the kind of trust that depends on reliability, dependability, predictability. Almost by definition, the assessment of reliability requires the passage of time, because it requires repetition – and repetition only happens in time. 

But reliability is far from the only, or even most powerful, form of trustworthiness. There is credibility, the sense that the other party is smart, capable, expert, competent – an expert. There is intimacy, the sense that the other party understands us deeply, respects our innermost feelings, and is a safe haven for personal issues. There is other-orientation, the sense that the other party has our best interests at heart, rather than just being focused on themselves. 

When time-based trust is up against the other types of trust, it is a weak force. When Bernie Madoff’s clients saw a brief hiccup in results, they didn’t lose all trust in him: after all, he had credentials. He understood them (or so they felt). And he donated to their charities. What’s a little blip in his track record, with all that to  fall back on?

When a West Virginia lab reported that Volkswagen’s on-the-road emissions results varied massively from those in the lab, Volkswagen didn’t “lose trust in an instant.” On the contrary: the Great Volkswagen successfully denied the obvious (credibility), and had a long-standing positive consumer image. It took years for that fatal data to be acknowledged. 

Third, time-based trust is relatively thin trust. I trust Amazon in large part because they have a great track record of delivering my packages correctly and on time. But if my trust is solely based on reliability, it can be overwhelmed – one way or the other – by other factors.  Suppose I have a wonderful customer service experience with Amazon: I’m likely to trust them even more, even if they miss a few deliveries. Suppose I have a terrible customer experience with Amazon: my trust will go way down, even if they continue excellent delivery. Time is not the factor it’s cracked up to be.

The Heart of the Matter: It’s Not Time, It’s Quality

The heart of the matter is this: comparing trust gained and lost isn’t a function of time, it’s a function of quality. 

If I have a deep level of trust in you, and you screw up a little bit – I’m likely to forgive you, give you another chance, cut you a break. Of course, if you screw up a lot – enough to use up the reservoir of trust we’ve developed – then that’s another matter entirely. 

Think about your friends. If you screw up a little bit – forget to bring the salad for the picnic, show up late for the movies, do that annoying thing they asked you not to – do you instantly lose all their trust? Of course not. Only if you betray a deep confidence, or gossip about them behind their back, or conspire to keep them from getting that promotion, will you lose their trust in an instant.  

Because it’s the quality of trust gained and trust lost that matters – not the passage of time.

Think Volkswagen; BP; Wells Fargo. Was trust lost “in an instant?”  First of all, the ‘instant’ was more like months or longer, but never mind – that’s a pretty short time if you’d previously had years of good reputation. So how do we describe that?

First of all, reputation is not trust. Having a “good reputation” doesn’t say much about trust. For most of us, ‘trusting’ a company just means we like their products, or ‘trust’ them not to violate laws. That’s a pretty low bar. 

When a scandal emerges, we lose trust in those companies quickly – not because trust loss is quick, but because there wasn’t much trust there to begin with. 

• If I trust you deeply, you’re going to have to do a lot to lose my trust. 

• If I trust you shallowly, you can easily lose my trust. 

• Whether trust loss happens quickly or slowly is a function of how much trust we had, and how bad was the violation: it is not a function of the calendar. 

The next time someone tosses that platitude about ‘trust takes a long time…” at you, try this:

Tell them they’re dead wrong – but that you still trust them. It’s a great counter-example: because if they’re so wrong about trust itself, then shouldn’t their error mean you’d instantly lose trust in them? 

——-

By the way, Barbara Kimmel has a similar take on this issue: see The Quote that Does Trust a Disservice.

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.

——–

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

 

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?