You Can Lead a Horse to Water, but You Can’t Make Him Buy

The biggest problem in sales? Violating the laws of human nature.

Exhibit A: one of those timeless folk-wisdom sayings, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” Not many of us have equine interactions these days, but we still get the metaphor: you can’t make people do what they don’t want to do.

Cue Bonnie Raitt’s achingly beautiful “I Can’t Make You Love Me – If You Don’t,” for a Top-40 version of the same wisdom.

Or, if you prefer, try telling a teenager what to do. The same law will present itself.

Seller vs. Human Nature

When you try to sell a client – or, if you prefer, to “persuade” them (or to get them to take your most excellent advice, it’s all the same) – what’s your attitude?

Probably you’re trying your best to add value, to listen, to come up with great ideas. You’re trying to frame issues sensibly, to identify pain points and to clarify objectives and outcomes. All great stuff, of course.

And all the while, inside, not very deep down, your inner voice is screaming:

     “Drink, you damn horse – drink!”

Detach from the Outcome

The problem is, all those linear sales models lied to you. Not the first part – it’s all good, the leading the horse to water part.  The problem comes in making the horse drink.  Because people don’t do what you want them to do.

No need to get all psychoanalytic here, you can test it on yourself. When someone tells you to do something, what’s your instinct? And if they try to dress it up, pretty please with candy, pretending they don’t actually care if you do the thing they want you to do – what’s your instinct?

Neeeiiiighhh!

The trick is simple, really.  Give it up.  Detach from the outcome. Stop being wedded to the horse drinking. Stop obsessing about the sale.

Seriously – let it go. The client will buy, or the client won’t buy.  If you’ve done everything you can to bring the horse to water, then stop at the water’s edge. Let the horse drink.

The amazing thing is, if you do that, the odds of getting the sale go up. Not down, up. To get results, give up control. If that sounds more like a Buddhist mantra than a Salesforce.com app, ask yourself which model has been around longer.

Try selling instead from the serenity prayer: change what you can, accept what you can’t, and be attuned to the difference.

Responding to RFPs – Joint Blogpost with Babette Ten Haken

[This jointly-written blogpost appears also on Babette Ten Haken’s blog, Sales Aerobics for Engineers]

Many Requests for Proposal (RFPs) are well written, and play an important role in the intelligent procurement processes of well-run companies. We both know that to be true, yet sometimes we have to wonder: Why is it that we see so many of the other kind? Is it lack of knowledge on the part of the RFP writer? An inability to alter processes that might have worked in the past?

You know the kind we’re talking about: RFP’s that are written to avoid talking to salespeople, that assume the only relevant variable is price, that are motivated by a fear that salespeople will gang up and collude against the buyer if it becomes known there’s a purchase afoot.  These types of RFPs are written from a defensive position, rather than as a confident and aggressive approach to creating mutually beneficial business relationships and outcomes.

We’ve both written about RFPs before (Charlie in Open Letter to Clients: Why You Should Drop RFPs; Babette in Do You Mean Business?  In this post we want to address how to respond to such RFPs.

Remember: There are good reasons for creating as well as responding to RFPs. Any hurt feelings you might have are irrelevant to your proper reaction. Strive for an objective, reasonable tone, devoid of blaming. That will help the central point you want to make.

A Sample Response

You might consider something like this as a starting draft:

Dear ___ :

I hope this finds you well, etc.

I wasn’t sure how to respond to your RFP regarding objectives, agenda and costs. Here’s why:

• In our initial call, I shared with you a list of objectives that past clients achieved through us.  I was trying to help you defineyour own objectives, rather than presume to tell you what your objective should be.

• We also discussed several alternative program designs, to help you craft your own agenda, rather than us simply proposing one for you.

Basically, I was trying to collaborate on a customized design rather than to sell a standardized product.

What I read into your RFP is that you’d prefer not to engage in a design discussion, but rather go straight to bid.  There is of course nothing wrong with that, and it’s completely your decision.  At the same time, I find that usually means one of two things:

1.     The customer really isn’t interested in customizing, preferring a standardized product; or

2.     The vendor decision has been pretty much made (and we’re not it).

Again, there’s nothing wrong with either one of those. But in either case, it’s hard on our end to justify investing the extra time. We have a mild preference for customized products; more importantly, we fear misunderstandings from purchases based on incomplete understandings.

Please don’t hear anything critical or complaining about this; nobody’s wrong, no feelings are hurt.  I just want to be clear and not leave conversations uncomfortable or unfinished.  I hope I’m not offending by being very candid and direct in this email; my intent is to make it OK for us to be truthful with each other.

Best wishes….

That was a real-life letter, by the way.

If you’re thinking, “that sounds way too direct,” ask yourself how many sales hours you spend requesting people to allow you to respond to one of these cattle-call documents, vs. the time you spend with prospective customers? Because that’s the price you’re paying for an inability to directly confront the issue.

Your goal is to reduce your responses to RFPs whose sole goal is price. That means you need to rethink your customer acquisition strategy too.

Understand whether your relationship with your customer merits strong consideration, or whether you feel you’ve already been placed in the “also-ran” category. If you believe your thought leadership and industry, product or platform expertise is genuinely of value to them, then this is why you give yourself permission to reply directly. Respond from a position of  confidence and knowledge.

What if It Doesn’t Work?

If you are right, they will see it your way and ask you to talk further. If they don’t ask you to talk further, it is because:

a.     It was price-driven anyway, in which case you just saved a lot of time, or

b.     You were wrong, and they actually don’t care about your expertise, in which case you saved a lot of time (and got something to think about), or

c.     You offended them.

If you’re concerned about the last possibility, then we urge you to write a better letter, because you’re still preparing to waste a lot of time.

Meantime, you might want to know the actual response to the real letter above:

LOL! The next steps are in our court.  We need to really look at the links you sent us and come up with a draft of what we would like to see and then get back to you.  I will certainly email/call you if we have any questions along the way. You are still very much in the running.

Was that a worthwhile letter? When was the last time you could have written such a letter? What will you do when the opportunity next presents itself?

 

Dear “| FIRSTNAM |” Personalization in an Age of Scale

Both Andrea Howe and I are experienced bloggers; 15 years and 1500 blogposts between the two of us.

We are far less experienced at newsletters and email marketing, but have been dipping our toes in that water. Yesterday we both stubbed those toes.

The Offers

Andrea wanted to announce a books-for-keynotes offer; I wanted to announce a sales event in Chicago. Each of us was very concerned to keep the personal quality we have tried to hard to develop over the years.

Rather than use an automated mailing program, Andrea went with her personal Outlook.  I chose the automated mailer route, but using a first name field where possible.

Murphy had a field day.

Andrea overdid the bcc capabilities of Outlook, generating error messages and returned emails in such a manner that she didn’t know who had actually received an email and who hadn’t.

My case was a little more blatant; not all the contacts in my database have been stored with first names, and the program, being the logical automaton that it is, addressed them by database field name. Thus some of you may have received an email addressing you as “Dear |FIRSTNAM|.”

Oops. I’m sorry.

The Minefields

We are all tip-toeing through minefields these days, attempting to keep deep links, while exploring weak links at the same time. Trying to keep things personal while looking for scale.  Figuring out how to be trusted, while trying to develop business online.

Sigh…sometimes it ain’t easy.

On top of it all, much of the market has become cynical. Not without justification! Note the headline in Time Magazine this week: LIBOR Scandal: The Crime of the Century?

I like to think I’m a little jaded, but I must confess I wasn’t expecting the following response from a now-former subscriber, who gave this reason for his desire to be taken off the mailing list:

“Because you started sending me emails with a fake person’s name as the sender. I guess not enough people are opening your emails so you think you have to fool us.”

Turns out he was used to receiving email from “Trusted Advisor Associates,” but when he saw mail from the same source with a person’s name, he figured it was a phony.

I guess the good news is, we’ve managed to create a trusted brand. But did it have to come at the price of my own name? (I can assure you, Andrea exists; I’ve met her. At least, that’s who she said she was…)

It’s an interesting problem. Andrea and I believe it’s not qualitatively different than at any other time, but the quantitative extent of things sure has ratcheted up.

The best solutions lie in transparency and collaboration.  That’s what we wrote about in The Trusted Advisor Fieldbook.

Steps

Since we both feel strongly about this, here are two things we can do.

  • If you’d like to get a free copy of our eBook Creating a Culture of Trust (taken from our new book) and be put on our mailing list, email me, personally, at cgreen@trustedadvisor.com

We do believe there are people out there, and we want to continue to find ways to help us all to remember it.

Awarding Sales

A few weeks ago, I was included on a list as a Top 50 Sales & Marketing Influencer for 2012.

I appreciate that. I’m going to put it on our website’s front page for a little while, and I want to thank the good people at TopSalesWorld.com who put together the list.

I also want to say a few things about awards, about who’s on awards lists – and about selling.

Who’s On the List

I’m not a full-time sales guy. There are folks on this list who have devoted their lives to furthering the cause of sales, and I’m a little sheepish about being included in their company.

I’m not just talking about heavyweights like Tony Alessandra, Mark Benioff, Jeffrey Gitomer, Seth Godin, and Neil Rackham (Neil gets my nod for uber-guru).

I’m also talking about some really talented thinkers and doers. Do not consider this list exhaustive, because I’m only going to mention some whom I personally know fairly well, and therefore can personally attest to being great:

Ian Brodie

John Doerr and Mike Schultz

Anthony Iannarino

Jill Konrath

Dave Stein

Paul McCord, a senior statesman also on the list, noted to me the conspicuous absence of Zig Ziglar. I myself note the equally curious absence of David A. Brock.

Still, let’s not get all tizzied up. No list will suit all preferences, else there’d be no need for a list.  But what’s interesting is the idea of sales as a topic for a list.

Being Great at Sales

Selling is a fascinating application of human social behavior. It can be done in an anti-social manner (which is where we get our universal negative stereotypes about pushy, greedy, hard-sell salespeople).

But sales is also the locus of some of the best of human behavior. Sales, done rightly, is the art of improving other people’s lives, while getting paid a living for doing so.

I’m aware that this definition also includes therapists (potentially), as well as lawyers, accountants and consultants (again with the caveat). Rightly so.

Human beings interact with each other both well, and badly. Most of us manage many examples of each in the course of a day.

  • Bad interactions are usually based on fear and blame, and manifest as attempts to get others to do our bidding
  • Good interactions are usually based on beneficence and curiosity, and manifest as attempts to help others.

Because we interact on the basis of reciprocity, bad behavior begets more bad behavior, and good begets good. (Anyone detecting a parallel with spirituality here goes to the head of the class).

Which means: the best sales result from motivations that are the opposite of self-interest. I ask you: is that not a fascinating paradox?

Why Sales is Fascinating

Many salespeople are fond of saying, “Nothing happens until someone sells something.” This I find mundane.

Much more interesting is that sales is the theater where we act out our most human roles in the business world. Not finance, not manufacturing, not administration: sales. Sales is quintessentially human in its struggle to overcome our own limitations, and to become better people.

The really great authors know this. Neil Rackham wrote The Book about the necessity of listening before suggesting solutions. Jill Konrath writes about respecting the pressures on our customers’ lives. Ian Brodie lives the principles of the curious and gracious salesperson.

I really am honored to be included on this list, and that’s no sales pitch.

 

 

 

The Two Times You Should Refer a Customer to a Competitor

You may be thinking, “Wait—why would I ever want to refer a customer, potential or otherwise, to a competitor?” Good—this article’s for you.

In fact, there are two such situations. One won’t surprise you. The other is even more obvious—but even easier to miss.

Why We Don’t Give Referrals to Competitors

It’s not as dumb a question as it sounds. Competitors are those we compete against; what we win, they lose, what they win, we lose.

That certainly means we don’t want to lose direct competition. But as the idea of competition has become like mother’s milk in business, we tend to take it one step further: we want to prevent competitors from winning, even if we’re not directly involved.

So: we hate to lose, and we hate to see them win. Two distinct reasons we don’t give referrals to competitors.

The Competitive Gospel Applied to Selling

The Gospel of Competition says that the whole point of business, including selling, is to win.

The business strategists tell us that key to being successful is being number one or number two in your business.

The football strategists tell us winning is not the main thing, it’s the only thing.

The military theorists tell us the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

The problem with the Gospel of Competition is that, taken to extremes, it competes with the Gospel of the Customer.

The Gospel of the Customer Applied to Selling

The Gospel of the Customer says that the whole point of business, including selling, is to help the customer. If you succeed in doing that, then most likely you will also ‘win’ in the competitive market place.

Though if those two goals come in conflict, you’ve got a serious problem. What if the right thing for the customer involves helping your competitor? That turns out to be a serious question of business identity.

Competitive Referral Number One

The most obvious referral to send to a competitor is a very difficult customer. If you worship the Gospel of Competition, you can justify this on the grounds that it gets rid of a problem for you, and causes a problem for your competitor. Machiavelli would be proud.

But there’s a better reason for doing this—if you believe in the Customer Gospel.

If you believe the Customer Gospel, then you believe in relationships and trust, and the economic benefits for all that come about through collaboration and transparency.

A difficult customer for you, then, is likely to be a customer that doesn’t believe in those things. And a competitor for you is probably a competitor who also doesn’t believe in those virtues, at least not as much.

In that scenario, you do all three parties a bit of a favor, though you perhaps the most. You align transactional sellers and buyers, while focusing on relationship customers yourself. You gain competitive advantage—but everyone’s at least a little better off. That’s good.

Competitive Referral Number Two

The more—or less—obvious situation is when your competitor actually is better suited to serve the customer than you are. Then what do you do?

In this case, not only do you lose a sale (maybe), but you lose one to your competitor. If it’s an existing customer, you risk giving your customer exposure to a competitor—risking them leaving you forever.

Why would you ever do such a thing?

Because if you would never, on principle, give a lead to a competitor—even if they are better suited than you—then you cannot be trusted; you have just said, in principle, that you would always put your own selfish interests ahead of those of your customer.

I once heard a physician make this point directly:

“In my 25 years as a doctor, I have never heard a pharmaceutical rep from any company ever recommend a drug from any other company. Consequently, I don’t trust any of them.”

What’s at stake is your trustworthiness. It depends heavily on your willingness to take the long view, and focus on your customers’ needs ahead of your own—rather than continually trying to gain competitive advantage at every transaction.

And–paradoxically—in the long run, you probably end up getting the competitive advantage as a collateral effect anyway.