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

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

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

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

Hey, it can’t hurt.

Two Fixes for Stupid Marketing and Sales

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bring a Risky Gift

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Why Is Stupid Marketing Endemic?

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

Technical Complexity.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Tyranny of Zero-cost.

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

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

An Impersonal View of Business

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

Sample A:

Hi Charles,

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

Dear Charles H.,

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

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

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

 

Sample C:

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

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

I can send You my photo attached have a good time

 

What do you think?

Here’s my grading of them.

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Don’t Hog the Trust

Bloated Pig Approaching Trough

If you’re in an advisory or sales role, you probably strive to be a trusted advisor to your customers. After all, if your customers trust you, tons of things start to go right, and you find yourself in a highly favored situation. But there’s a paradox: if you set out to be relatively favored by your customer – to be the most trusted – you can actually destroy your trust.  You can’t hog the trust.

Here are the two most common situations where trying to hog the trust turns out to bite you.

Trust-hogging with Co-workers

Let’s say you’ve been incredibly successful at becoming a trusted advisor with a particular customer – both individual customers, and the organization as a whole. They take your advice; they seek you out; they buy from you. 

Now let’s say the customer could benefit from another part of your organization. Or, that you’re getting a little over-loaded, what with all your success. Or, some of your firm’s people need development opportunities.  

In such cases, it’s only natural to fear the loss of our trusted advisor status. They might screw it up. They might not live up to your high standards. (Worse, they might exceed your high standards and make the customer think they are the better trusted advisor).  And fearing all kinds of loss, you’re tempted to keep the customer to yourself.

To hog the trust. 

Here the trust paradox comes around with a vengeance. Trust, like love, is one of those things that you get more of when you give it away. Trust thrives on reciprocity – it starves on selfishness. 

The trust your customer has placed in you is heavily rooted on their belief that you’ll do the right thing for them. If you’re honest, it’s extremely unlikely that Every Right Thing can be provided by you – at some point, other human beings may actually be able to provide help to your valued customer in ways that you cannot.

In such situations, you serve no one by blocking the channels – worse, you actually destroy the trust in yourself.  You have a meta-role – the trusted advisor role of watching over the relationship, assuring the customer they’ve got a safe back door channel to you, making sure the new person understands the customer situation.  Sharing your customer’s trust with others on your team doesn’t deprive you of your trusted advisor status – quite the opposite. It allows you to exercise your trustworthiness on a broader platform, and for the customer to benefit more from it. 

Just don’t hog the trust. 

Trust-hogging with Competitors

It might seem self-evident that you should be aim to be more trustworthy than your competitors. And to a point, that’s a valuable goal. The point gets crossed, however, when we start doing things with the objective of being more trusted – instead of with the objective of doing the right thing by our customer. 

Of course you should be credible, reliable, a safe haven – all those things that make a trusted advisor. But what happens if your customer would actually be best-served by a competitor on a given issue? Do you have the ethical gumption to do the right thing for your customer and actually recommend your competitor?  Or do you slide by the issue in any one of a dozen slippery ways?  

If you allow your goals to supersede what is good for your customer – even a noble goal such as being relatively trustworthy – then to that extent, you cannot be trusted; you have put your good over the good of the customer. Ding. Tilt. No good. 

This is a major-league trust paradox: you are trustworthy in direct proportion to the amount that you are willing to subordinate your own business goals to that of your customer.  And – paradox squared – in the slightly longer run, doing so will probably benefit you anyway.

Again – don’t hog the trust. It’ll just come around to bite you. 

 

The Perfect Pitch in Sales: 9 Rules

You’ve heard about “the dog and pony show,” the “beauty contest,” or perhaps “the shoot-out.”  Maybe you just call it “the pitch.” The term is more common in some industries – advertising, executive recruiting, some law firms – but we’re all familiar with it.

Typically it’s thought of as an event – a somewhat formal presentation by several professionals, made to several members of the client organization that typically lasts 30 to 90 minutes. Other common characteristics of a pitch include PowerPoint and a timeslot among a few other competitors who are pitching on the same day.

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

1. When the Best Pitch Isn’t a Pitch

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

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

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

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

2. The Pre-Pitch Warm-Up

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

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

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

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

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

3. Interact in the Pitch

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

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

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

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

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

4. Have a Point of View

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

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

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

5. Collaborate on Talking Price

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

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

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

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

6. PowerPoint Pointers

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

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

7. Handling Qualifications

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

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

8. Dissing the Competition

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

9. When to Ditch the Pitch

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

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

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

Is Selling Too Hard? Maybe You’re Doing It Wrong

The Financial Trust PuzzleMost salespeople love athletic metaphors. For example, consider these well-known maxims:

  • No pain, no gain
  • The harder you try to hit the ball, the worse you do.

Note – these two platitudes express precisely opposing points of view. So – which is the right answer? Is it effort – or form? Is it grit – or ease?

Many sales pundits will tell you that an essential ingredient in selling—perhaps the essential ingredient—is effort. Gumption, grit, hustle, sweat—whatever the word, the image it conveys is that success in selling is tough. No pain, no gain.

This view posits selling as being like football: the team that exerts the most effort is the team that wins.

And there is a lot of truth in that viewpoint.

But consider another truth. Think about hitting a golf ball. As anyone who’s tried can attest, the quality of your golf shot is in inverse proportion to your effort. That pleasing “thwock” of a well-struck iron almost never comes from trying hard.

Instead, the “trick” in golf is not how hard you swing—it’s how smooth, relaxed, and “at ease” your swing is. If you’re swinging too hard, you’re almost certainly doing it wrong.

And there’s a lot of truth in that viewpoint as well.

But here’s the thing – most dichotomies like this are false. Selling isn’t only like football, or like golf. It’s both – in different ways. But that’s a different article. This article is about just one side—the golf side, if you will, where if you’re working too hard at selling – you’re doing it wrong.

Adam Smith, Competition, and Selling

Blame it on Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, if you will. The Scottish moral philosopher and economist famously claimed that by the self-oriented struggling of the butcher and the baker, the “invisible hand” of the market makes itself known by balancing out all for the greater good. Out of individual selfishness grows the maximum collective good.

While Smith has been unfairly characterized as arguing against regulation and in favor of unfettered free markets, there’s no question that his powerful formulation rhymes with competition—individuals seeking their own betterment. Perhaps ever since, business has been full of metaphors from war and sports. And nowhere are those metaphors more prevalent than in sales.

Take just one sport alone: pitch, curve ball, hitting cleanup, bottom of the ninth, pinch hit, get our signals lined up, strike out, bases loaded, don’t swing at the first pitch, home field advantage, double play, we’re on the scoreboard, leaving men on base, pop-up, foul ball, home run hitter, shut-out, and so on.

Here’s the thing about sports metaphors: they’re all about competition. Real Madrid vs. Barca. Yankees vs. Red Sox. All Blacks vs. Wallabies. Seller vs. competitor.

And—most of all—seller vs. buyer.

Selling without Competition

It’s hard for most people to even conceive of selling without that competitive aspect between buyer and seller. Isn’t the point to get the sale? Isn’t closing the end of the sales process? If a competitor got the job, wouldn’t that be a loss? And why would you spend time on a “prospect” if the odds looked too low for a sale?

When we think this way, we spend an awful lot of energy. It’s hard work—particularly because much of it is spent trying to persuade customers to do what we (sellers) want them to do. And getting other people to do what we want them to do is never easy (if you have a teenager and/or a spouse, you know this well).

There is another way. It consists in simply and basically changing the entire approach to selling.

The first approach is the traditional, competitive, zero-sum-thinking, buyer vs. seller—the age-old dance that to this day gives selling a faint (or not-so-faint) bad name. It is one-sided, seller-driven, and greedy.

Social media haven’t made this approach to selling go away—they have empowered it. Just look at your inbox, spam filters, LinkedIn requests, Instagram feeds, Twitter hustles, and pop-up ads on the Internet.

And boy do you have to work hard to sell that way.

The second approach is different. The fundamental distinction is that you’re working with the buyer, not against the buyer. Your interests are 100% aligned, not 63%. If you do business by relentlessly helping your customers do what’s right for them, selling gets remarkably easier.

You don’t have to think about what to share and what not to. You don’t have to control others. You don’t have to white-knuckle meetings and phone calls because there are no bad outcomes.

Selling this way works very well for one fundamental reason: all people (including buyers) want to deal with sellers they can trust—sellers who are honest, forthright, long-term driven, and customer-focused. All people (including buyers) prefer not to deal with sellers who are in it for themselves, and constantly in denial about it.

This is the golf part of selling: the part where if you lighten up, relax the muscles, let it flow, you end up with superior results. And there’s a whole lot of truth to that view. If you’re working too hard, you’re not doing it right.

The Dirty Little Secret about Subject Matter Expertise in Sales

It may be the dirtiest little secret in professional sales. The lie we all love to tell ourselves. The truth we just hate to face up to. What secret/lie/truth is that?

The myth of the subject matter expert as key to sales success.

Sources of Mythology about Subject Matter Experts

There is no shortage of prognosticators about the increasing importance of subject matter expertise. You’ve probably seen a lot of it:

  • You may have heard from The Challenger Sale folks that if you’re not coming up with new insights about your customers’ business, then you’re a relationship wimp.
  • You may have seen the article Top Ten Trends in Sales and Business Development, which lists the rise of the subject matter expert as number one on the list.
  • You may have read the Canadian Professional Sales Association article The Rise of the Subject Matter Expert, which says B2B organizations are increasingly turning to subject matter experts.

What all of those pieces have in common is an underlying view of the buying decision as rational, calculating, value-based, and economically driven. And that’s Just. Not. True. That’s the dirty little secret.

To be precise, it’s not that buyers are irrational. Nor are economics or rational thought irrelevant. But the role we ascribe to such thinking is profoundly mislabeled by an awful lot of sales “experts.”

So, let’s get it right.

There are two types of thinking, there are two stages in B2B buying (which largely correspond to those types), and there are two logical roles in the buying process (necessity and sufficiency). When we get it right, those all drop into place, including the role of subject matter expertise.

Two Types of Thinking

Daniel Kahneman, in his book Thinking Fast and Slow, outlines two types of cognition. The first, System 1, is fast, is intuitive, and jumps to instinctive reactions or conclusions. System 2 is the slower, logically deduced, careful check. His book (and his life’s work) consists of showing over and over how much our lives are controlled by System 1, contrary to popular belief.

A similar point is made by Jonathan Haidt in his brilliant book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Religion and Politics. He uses the metaphor of the elephant and the elephant driver. The latter thinks he is in charge, but in fact the elephant pretty much does what the elephant wants.

If you prefer the same idea in a far more accessible and practical manner, read Josh Waitzkin’s The Art of Learning, in which he explains how he became a junior globally ranked chess champion and then a world champion in the martial art Tai Chi Chuan.

How’d he do it? He learned the link between thinking fast and slow thinking; he learned when and how to use the elephant and when to use the elephant driver. He drilled over and over the most minute movements, strategies, and counters until they became subconscious and he could trust them with “fast thinking”—thereby reserving his “slow thinking” to focus on that one, single differentiating move.

The point is not that one is right and the other wrong. They are both necessary to human functioning, but they play different roles.

Two Stages in B2B Buying

David Maister originally observed that most B2B buying processes proceed in two stages: screening and selection. In the screening process, staff people typically “round up the usual suspects,” putting criteria on spreadsheets and evaluating who should be in the “final four.” That is a prototypical rational process—think spreadsheets, analysis, and quantitative tools—which is why it’s delegated to junior staff.

Then there’s selection. Selection is heavily instinctive, intuitive, and non-rational. Selection is done by senior people who are experienced, have confidence in their judgment, and have the track record to back it up. But of course they don’t claim clairvoyance or rely on gut feeling. No, they rationalize their instincts. To put it prosaically, people decide with their hearts, then rationalize the decision with their brains.

Two Logical Roles: Necessity and Sufficiency

Some things you must have in order to get other things. On the other hand, some things are all you need. Writing a term paper may be necessary to get an A in the course, but writing a paper alone isn’t sufficient to get that A. We often mistake necessity for sufficiency. And subject matter mastery is a classic example.

In B2B sales, it is pretty much necessary to have and demonstrate subject matter expertise. In fact, such expertise is specifically looked for in the screening process assigned to junior staff. The absence of subject matter expertise is often justification for being removed from the final list of firms invited to present.

But subject matter expertise is far from sufficient (the same is true of low price). You’ve seen plenty of cases where neither the lowest price nor the highest technical ability got the job. Instead, the job frequently goes to the seller who is “good enough” on technical (and price) terms, but who clearly has a better trusting relationship with the client.

Interestingly, often this is not stated. In fact, it’s even denied. Selection decisions, which are made with the intuitive, “fast thinking” mind are often rationalized by referring back to the “slow thinking” rational criteria that were employed during the screening phase.

Putting It Together: Revealing the Dirty Little Secret

The dirty little secret is that subject matter expertise plays two important, but precise and limited roles. The first is to screen out uncompetitive offerings up front, so that time is not wasted on providers that are least likely to win. This role is finished once the finalists are selected.

The second role is to rationalize the decisions that are made by the “fast thinking” mind, the “elephant” mind, the subconsciously competent mind that has absorbed experience and can trust its own intuition. Here the rational mind is the handmaiden of instinct and experience.

The buyer may tell you and everyone else that you won the job because of your expertise and credentials and that competitor B lost it because they weren’t as brilliant as you. But don’t you believe it.

You won because you were good enough on the expertise side of things and the client loved you. That means they felt you had integrity, they could get along with you, they could be honest with you, you’d be straight with them, and that if there were problems, they could work them out with you—and not with those other folks.

The dirty little secret is the same thing that popular girl told you in high school when you invited her out and she said, “Oh, I’m so sorry, I’m busy Friday night.” She wasn’t busy; she just didn’t want to go out with you. “Busy” was the socially acceptable excuse of high school dating. “Expertise” is the socially acceptable excuse of B2B buyers.

You gotta have it, but don’t kid yourself that it’s enough.

Trust Between Seller and Client Must Be Mutual

Would you like your clients to trust you? Presumably you would. And in order to trust you, they must feel that trusting you is a low-risk proposition. They must feel you are trustworthy. Most firms get that.

So, most firms go about trying to appear trustworthy. (The better ones, of course, actually try to be trustworthy, since trust is a hard thing to fake.) This often translates into things such as values statements, corporate social responsibility, efforts at transparency, and programs to enhance customer focus.

All of that is well and good, but those efforts are missing a critical element. Because if all you focus on is trustworthiness—cosmetic or real—then you are forcing your client to take all the risks. And if your client is the one always taking the risks, after a while your client will notice and say, “Wait a minute. I appreciate all of the Boy Scout virtues and so forth, but I notice you never take any risks. And that’s not fair. And so I don’t think I trust you.”

You can be trustworthy to the max, but if you never trust your client, then before too long, your client won’t trust you. And as goes their trust, so goes their business with you.

Trust Is Reciprocally Risky

“The fastest way to make a man trustworthy is to trust him.” That statement is credited to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Secretary of State, Henry Stimson, and he expressed a powerful concept: trust is a reciprocating exercise in risk-taking. First one party takes a risk, and the other reciprocates. Then the roles reverse, and the exercise is repeated.

Take the simplest of all trust gestures: the handshake. Smiling I extend my hand to you and say hello, signifying good intentions. You almost certainly return my handshake, smile, and greeting. But you don’t have to.

You could, after all, spurn my gesture, refuse to extend your hand, frown, and turn away from me. I would feel embarrassed, upset, and dismissed. And that would be the end of our budding trust relationship. You probably wouldn’t do that, though. Instead, you would meet my risk-taking gesture with trustworthiness, and our relationship would be off to the races.

Corporate Risk Mitigation

This is not an exercise in corporate anthropology. Think about the context in which you hear “risk” in modern-day business. It is almost always in a negative sense.

Risk is seen mainly as something to be mitigated. Post 2008, financial institutions have laid off layers of employees—except in risk management. The contracting process in nearly all companies has added layers of risk indemnification to its documentation. Lawyers are on hand to ensure not just compliance, but even the appearance of anything that could be considered risky. Insurance businesses are inventing new products to mitigate risk in contracts of all sorts. The last few decades have seen the creation of risk management institutes and certificates in risk management programs.

Despite the protestation that some risk is good (think “risk appetite” or “calculated risk” in the financial world), the emphasis is overwhelmingly on the “calculated” part, not the “risk” part. And once one gets outside of the financial world, it’s hard to find examples of thinking that suggest risk is good.

Execution Risk and Dereliction Risk

The management world is obsessed with avoiding execution risk—the risk of doing the wrong thing. Unfortunately, it makes a pact with the trust devil when it embraces dereliction risk—the risk of not doing the right thing.

We want lifeguards to eschew dereliction risk. If they think someone is drowning, we don’t want them second-guessing themselves. We want them in the water immediately. In basketball, Kobe Bryant is the NBA’s leader in most missed shots. He would rather shoot 4 for 20 than 2 for 5. Another athlete, hockey great Wayne Gretzky, says you’ll never miss a shot you never take—but neither will you make any shots. In all of those cases, they understand the importance of taking execution risks and avoiding dereliction risk.

Yet in business, we are afraid of a hundred execution risks. We fear having the wrong answer, giving offense, looking ignorant, looking foolish, or speaking out of turn. So, we do nothing. And because of our penchant for avoiding execution risk, we absorb dereliction risk, which guarantees failure in the long run.

Trustworthy but Untrusting Does Not Compute

You may be proud of your organization’s record on trustworthiness. But ask yourself these questions to see if you may have some work to do on trusting:

  • Do you have onerous non-compete clauses for your employees?
  • Do your sales pitches hedge their bets or lead with strong hypotheses?
  • Do you make your subcontractors insure you against general liability with no limits?
  • Do your salespeople refuse to answer direct questions about price?
  • Do you ever admit you don’t know something when asked a straight question?
  • Do you insist on client non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) beyond your industry’s norm?
  • How many ex-employee lawsuits has your firm been involved in in the past five years?
  • Are your tardy account collections handled by accounting or by account managers?
  • Would you ever recommend a competitor to a client if the competitor were clearly the better candidate for the job?
  • Do you use lie detector tests for employees?
  • Do you encourage your salespeople to comment on their own and others’ feelings?
  • Do you share your cost information with clients?
  • Do you share your supply-chain information with suppliers or clients/customers?
  • How many paragraphs of fine print are in your client agreements? And how fine is the print?
  • Are your standard client agreements longer or shorter than your biggest competitor’s?
  • How do you handle overruns by you with your clients? How do you handle overruns by your suppliers with you? Which is more onerous?

You can be as trustworthy as a Boy Scout, but if you force your clients to take all of the risks, then before too long, they won’t trust you.

 

Beyond the Sales Process: Interview with authors Dave Stein, Steve Andersen

BSPangleI have known Dave Stein for many years. He’s an expert in the sales field, particularly in evaluating sales training. He has always been a clear and incisive thinker, with opinions as well-grounded in data as they are in thoughtfulness.

His new book, with Steve Andersen, is called Beyond the Sales Process: 12 Proven Strategies for a Customer-Driven World.

Dave and Steve shared some thoughts with me about the book, and about the state of selling.

———————–

Charlie: B2B selling and buying have been transformed during the past 8 years—what changes have you seen regarding the role of trust in selling? And as salespeople seek to adapt to those changes, how are they doing?

Steve and Dave: Beginning in 2008, when the last financial crisis hit, the concept of increasing revenues as a business objective was forced onto the back burner in many companies and replaced, or at least supplemented, with a scramble to reduce costs. In the process, the procurement function in many organizations gained unprecedented power, became more strategic, and began reaching further into daily operations.

Mostly unprepared for this fundamental transformation in their customers’ business practices, many salespeople found themselves in over their heads, often floundering in their negotiations with “the new procurement.” Under pressure to produce, they responded by upping the ante, throwing more products and services at their customers, despite supply being greater than demand in most cases, and – most importantly – despite the fact that many of their customers simply weren’t interested in these additional offerings.

The result has been a dismaying drop in the degree of trust that many contemporary buyers are able to place in their suppliers.

Charlie: Shocking – who could’ve seen that coming!

Steve and Dave: Right! Anyway, throughout this challenging period we observed consistently that sales professionals and account managers who truly understood their customer’s world—their wants and needs, the potential impact of external drivers on their business objectives, and the internal challenges they faced in meeting those objectives—continued to collaborate with and create value for their customers. For those top performers, earning credibility and focusing on the customer is an approach that continued to pay off.

Charlie: Makes total sense. So, what precipitated the two of you collaborating on a book?

Steve and Dave: After meeting and working together years ago at a software company we became friends and kept in touch as our careers continued on what might be considered parallel but related trajectories. Steve eventually leveraged his experience and expertise in B2B sales to establish Performance Methods Inc. (PMI), an industry-leading sales best practices consulting organization, and Dave authored his first book, “How Winners Sell” and went on to found ES Research Group, Inc. (ESR), an independent advisory firm that focused on B2B sales training.

When Dave closed ESR several years back, Steve seized the moment and proposed that we join forces and share what we have learned and experienced with other B2B sales professionals. A co-authorship was born and it was based on a common perspective—that sales needs to evolve in order to keep up with the changes that buyers have adopted. We also share a real concern that the sales training industry all-too-often leaves the “guest of honor” off the guest lists at the sales training parties: the customer!

Charlie: Indeed – seller-centric sales training is not the right idea. In the face of that drift away from the customer, what impact do you hope this book will have on the reader?

Steve and Dave: In the past eight years, and frankly even in the period leading up to the recession, the idea of a strong, enduring customer relationship has withered and commoditization has reigned. In the fierce competition for customers, value, trust, and credibility have been pushed onto the sales “back seat,” while features, benefits, pricing, and a willingness to discount in order to win business sit up front. Overall, our observation is that this hasn’t been a period of growth for the B2B sales profession, and for that matter, for business in general.

We wrote Beyond the Sales Process because we firmly believe that it’s time to rethink what has become accepted as the new norm—that in business, relationships and trust don’t matter so much any more. We disagree: not only do they matter, but we provide evidence in the book that relationships matter now more than ever.

Charlie: As you might imagine, I couldn’t agree more.

Steve and Dave: As salespeople ourselves, we also know that it’s not enough to simply urge our B2B colleagues (who face these challenges on a daily basis) to change their approach; they must be equipped with how to make those changes. They need to know why it’s crucial to rethink their approach, and they need to know how to implement strategies that will lead to more wins and greater success for themselves, as well as for their customers.

Beyond the Sales Process provides what we refer to in the book as “actionable awareness”—proven strategies and tactics for developing, offering, and creating unique differentiable value that will directly address the customer’s external drivers, business objectives, and internal challenges, as well as their individual wants and needs. And we substantiate this by providing examples of industry-leading companies, their customers, and the actual people that are creating and co-creating this value together.

Charlie: Companies don’t focus enough on developing new business from existing clients. What do you recommend for salespeople, account managers, and sales leaders seeking to build their trustworthiness and grow their relationships with their customers?

Steve and Dave: Most sales book focus primarily on that small period of time when there’s a specific sales opportunity on the table, and that’s absolutely an important topic. But there’s another area that is too-often neglected—“after the sale,” you have an existing customer that has experienced your value. Will they want to work with you again? Did they realize the value that you and your organization promised to deliver? As the salesperson, are you going to stick around to measure and validate the impact you delivered? Are you willing to apply the lessons learned and adapt your approach?

Your past proven value can and should be leveraged to build and strengthen your future relationship with your customer and provide you with momentum for the future potential value that you will create and co-create together. The strategies we lay out in the third section of Beyond the Sales Process provide a clear roadmap for how to make this happen.

Charlie: In your book, you frequently use the word “trust.” Since you know trust is near and dear to my heart, how do you respond to those who believe that relationships in sales don’t matter much anymore? How can you make time for trust in our high-pressure, fast-paced B2B world?

Steve and Dave: We’ve interviewed hundreds of customers over dozens of years, and not a single one has ever told either of us that relationships don’t matter. Credibility is a critical success factor for the contemporary salesperson—so as far as we’re concerned, the real question to ask yourself is this: how can I expect to be successful if I don’t make time to build trust?

This is not just a theory or a philosophical argument. Over and over again, the numbers show that it is considerably more costly to pursue and acquire a new customer than it is to grow your relationship with an existing one. And, when a customer trusts that you have their best interests at heart, there’s a good chance that they’ll want to talk to you, to consult with you, and to hear what you have to say before they start developing requirements for their next specific opportunity. If you haven’t developed a relationship with your customer based on trust, you can expect to hear about their next opportunity at the same time that your competitors do, or worse, you’ll realize that your competitor may have been able to influence your customer’s thinking and view of success while you were waiting for the RFP to arrive.

Before there’s a sales opportunity, the savvy salesperson realizes that they have an opportunity to build trust and credibility by understanding the customer’s world, how they define success, and by visioning value creation together. On the other hand, once the customer is in buying mode, they’re under a great deal of pressure, they’re stressed, and the opportunity to engage differently, explore possibilities, and vision success is lost. If you haven’t already taken the time to establish customer mindshare, you are just one of many providers clamoring for your customer’s attention, and you’ve missed a golden opportunity to build trust.

Charlie: You obviously put considerable work into creating, vetting, and getting approval for your case studies. How were you able to get companies such as these to contribute with such depth? What was it was like working with these industry leaders to capture their successes and best practices?

Steve and Dave: We’ve built trust with these companies over the years, and it’s reflected not only by their full participation in the case studies but also in their willingness to have their own customers to take part. They demonstrate that the twelve proven strategies actually work by using them to create trust-based relationships with their customers themselves. They have embraced the idea that it’s not about control or manipulation, or a methodology that every reader or company has to follow in lockstep, but instead an approach that puts the customer first and creates value for everyone involved. It was an absolute pleasure to work closely with these smart and successful industry leaders, their people, and their customers to give our readers insights and actionable awareness that they can use to ensure their success with their own customers.

Charlie: The market is responding favorably to the concepts in your book, including the notion of engage, win, and grow with your customers. How is this idea more inclusive, holistic, and customer-oriented than traditional sales approaches that have been around for a while?

Steve and Dave: Focusing on benefits rather than features has long been accepted as the “right” way to peddle one’s offerings, but we think it’s an approach doesn’t go nearly far enough. How can you sell on benefits to the customer if you don’t know what they value? How do you establish credibility when it’s obvious you haven’t taken the time to understand the world in which they live? How can you build on the value you’ve created after the sale closes to grow trust and credibility, and to expand your relationship with the customer? In Beyond the Sales Process, we look at all of this, and we equip the reader to implement a new, more contemporary approach for engaging, winning, and growing your customer relationships, and for selling in the customer-driven world in which we live today.

Charlie: That’s a great statement of the value of relationships in selling, and its linkage to some of the more traditional aspects of selling. Thanks guys for taking the time with us today, and best of luck with this excellent new book.

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 them 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 post first appeared on RainToday.com