Pain, Brain, or Reframe: How Do Buyers Really Buy?

Sometimes when it comes to sales, we approach it as if there were some specific model or equation to follow in order to result in closed business. A + B must equal C. So, many of us tend to look for this equation over and over again. If we didn’t get it right – it must be because the equation is wrong. We’re missing something. So we take to the white board afresh as if we were Einstein moments away from solving the theory of relativity.

But, what it seems we have yet to admit to ourselves is – there isn’t a set equation. And that’s because there are always variables at play. And mostly, that always comes down to the players: who is doing the buying and who is doing the selling.

If you’re interested in selling, you might plausibly start with trying to understand how buyers buy. It’s a simple enough question. But then why are there so many answers?

Three of the most common answers to that question are:

  • People buy when they strongly feel a desire to alleviate a negative situation.
  • People buy as a response to a clear value proposition.
  • People buy most from those who offer differentiated, out-of-the box, creative solutions.

For short, let’s call those Pain, Brain, and Reframe, and examine them in turn.

The Pain Model

Many sales writers say things like these two quotes:

“The customers that are most likely to convert have a pain that they need to alleviate. Now.”

or

“Solid, smart sales are focused on our clients’ pain points, not on the tech demo.”

Within the Pain category, there is an internal debate about whether the prospect of a better situation can be as motivating as alleviating a painful situation. (One solution: reframe the gain as alleviating a potential pain.)

The Brain Model

Many other salespeople consider “value propositions” to be the key driver. Consider, for example, Investopedia’s definition of value proposition:

“A business or marketing statement that summarizes why a consumer should buy a product or use a service. This statement should convince a potential consumer that one particular product or service will add more value or better solve a problem than other similar offerings.”

Or consider this one from a sales training firm:

“Customer contact professionals must be engaged and expected to adapt a financially oriented value proposition to the customer or prospect.”

Many fans of value propositions suggest they are best used as conceptual maps for marketing and not as sales collateral. But this distinction is lost or ignored by a great number of salespeople.

Note that nearly the entire economics profession is built around the idea of rational economic choices. In my experience, greater exposure of salespeople to economics or MBA programs translates to greater reliance on the Brain model of selling.

The Reframe Model

One constant need among buyers is to de-commoditize their business. “What have you got that’s new?” is a powerful and relevant question for them, and sellers who have an answer will generally get a hearing.

The Challenger sales approach is a good example of this model:

They have “a deep understanding of the customer’s business and use that understanding to push the customer’s thinking and teach them something new about how their company can compete more effectively.”

This approach has some justification in business strategy, where the attempt to gain differentiation is an alternative to the low-cost producer strategy.

So, what is the truth? Are buyers motivated by the desire to remove pain? By a rational statement of value? By a compelling new way of articulating issues?

What’s best? To soothe the pain, appeal to the brain, or reframe the game?

Making the Buying Decision

If clients make buying decisions because of rational calculations, then the Brain model would appear to be the best. If buyers are looking for access to new, differentiated ideas—and the people who bring them—then the Game-reframe model looks best. And if buying is mainly motivated by emotional issues, then the Pain model is best. The question, therefore, becomes: which underlying psychological model best explains the process buyers undergo.

Of course, simple choices like A, B, or C often end up being solved only by rephrasing the question. This is no exception. For example, consider the buying decision as a multiple-step decision, or a multiple-psychology decision, rather than a single-step decision.

Different Buying Stages: In The Trusted Advisor (written by David Maister, Charles Green, and Rob Galford), we note that complex services buying decisions are typically two-step decisions. The first step is screening to identify plausible sellers. The second step is selection. Bill Leigh of the Leigh Speakers Bureau tells the story of one client’s decision process to hire a speaker for a major corporate event:

“They quickly narrowed it down to two—either Michael Porter, a major business strategist, or Lester Thurow, a prominent economist. They went back and forth until finally they agreed on a solution—ex-Chicago Bears football coach Mike Ditka.”

The first step is a relatively rational process of data-gathering. That process sounds very much like the Brain model.

But the selection step is taken much more emotionally, involving a complex set of cross-currents. That sounds more like the Pain model. (Or if you consider Ditka a redefinition of the problem, it’s more like the Frame model.)

Different Buying Psychologies: Another approach to splitting the A/B/C dichotomy comes from a large study by Bill Brooks and Tom Travesano, reported in You’re Working Too Hard to Make the Sale. Looking over thousands of sales across several B2B buyer types, their conclusion was summarized in one powerful sentence:

People buy what they need from those who understand what they want.

In other words, the identification of needs (systems, audits, legal advice) is fairly straightforward—the Brain model. But the actual choice is made on the basis of which seller most deeply taps into buyer wants—fears, hopes, aspirations, wishes, desires. It is not necessary that those wants be satisfied; it is enough that they are recognized, understood, and acknowledged. Doing that drives the decision to buy what, after all, has to be bought anyway.

Integrating Buying Psychologies: Neil Rackham, via his classic SPIN Selling, offers yet another insight, one that integrates the various models. SPIN (Situation, Problem, Implications, Needs-Payoff) operates at one level on a buyer’s emotional needs by forcing sellers to listen to the customer before they start offering solutions. At another level, it is a very rational model, methodically identifying both pain points and alternative, potentially breakthrough conclusions.

What’s the Answer?

Perhaps the last word may come from science fiction author Robert Heinlein, who is credited with saying, “Man is not a rational animal: man is an animal who rationalizes.” Putting it into sales terms, “People buy with their heart and rationalize it with their brains.”

That is not to minimize or discount the role of rational decision making. We all acknowledge rational analyses as important checks against the mistakes we might make if we rely solely on the emotions. At the same time, it recognizes the powerful role that emotions play in human decision making, of which the buying decision is just one.

The most useful answer is, “Develop a rich, insightful, trusting relationship with your client, and be prepared to offer them all the legitimate backup they’ll need to defend their decision to buy from you.”

Fear and Forgiveness

This week our very own Lisa McArthur tackles the weight of fear and the weightlessness of forgiveness.

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Reading the story of Dean Otto this week, it’s hard not to reflect on the power of forgiveness.  For those not familiar with his story, Dean was seriously injured when struck by a truck while riding his bike last September.  He had no feeling from the waist down.  Against the odds, last week Dean completed a half-marathon in under 2 hours.  But what makes this story so unique is that Dean ran that marathon alongside his surgeon and the young man who hit him.

Even while sitting on the side of the road, Dean forgave the driver.  “I accepted what had happened to me.  I forgave the guy that hit me so I wouldn’t harbor any resentment and being able to do that has really helped me throughout the whole process.”

WOW!

A poignant example of forgiveness overcoming fear.  Fear holds us back and restricts us from working together and accomplishing truly inspiring things.  The ability to be gracious, to forgive, to move forward past a challenging event benefits everyone involved.  If Dean can forgive the driver of the truck that hit him…what’s stopping me? What grievances do you have in your workplace and what’s stopping you from moving past them? In a word…FEAR.

Fear makes us hold back, avoid situations and do nothing. But doing nothing has a cost a well. How do we move past our fears, forgive and build trust?

Step 1: Name your fear

Start by being explicit about what is holding you back. Here are 4 common ones:

  • Execution fear – I might make a mistake
  • Competence fear – I don’t how to do it right
  • Outcome fear – Everything might not turn out the way I want it to
  • Shame-based fear – They might not like or respect me anymore

Step 2: Write it, Read it, Say it

Once you can identify your fear, write it down, read it and say it out-loud. Don’t be tempted to skip this step. By writing things down and saying them out-loud, we move past our fight-or-flight emotional impulses and diminish the power of the emotion. I’ve often been in contentious meetings and have scribbled many such “verbalizations” in the margin of my notebook. Trust me…it works!

Step 3:  What’s the worst that could happen?

Think about your next meeting or conversation? What will you say or do? What is the worst thing that could happen? Could you be challenged? Yes. Could you be embarrassed? Possibly. What else might happen?

For many of us, the outcomes will not be life-threatening. They may be unpleasant for the short-term but will be things we can overcome. Thinking about outcomes rationally can help us maintain perspective and take the fear out of the situation.

Step 4: Identify the other person’s fear

Put your fears aside and try to see things from the other person’s perspective. Dean Otto told the young driver to not let this define or haunt him. He recognized the fear and impact of the event on both of them. Think about your personal situation…what fears might be driving the other person’s behavior? How might you be able to help them overcome their own fears?

This serves two key purposes…it may help you find new win-win ways to deal with the situation…but most importantly, it changes the sound of that little voice inside your head and lets you move beyond your fear.

Step 5:  Act

Most importantly, you need to act.

Understanding both perspectives, take honest stock of the situation, define what you can and cannot do, then take action. Remember, the fear of doing something wrong often stops us from doing something right. Be confident in your intent. As Dean said he “forgave…so I wouldn’t harbor any resentment.”

Team performance in any organization starts with collaboration. We must learn how to hold ourselves accountable to each other, get past our own fears and resolve conflict quickly. Fear holds us back and prevents us from working together. By acknowledging our fears and taking the risk of forgiveness, we create teams that can accomplish great things. What fears are holding you back from forgiveness and what risks are you willing to take to run your own version of a half-marathon?

Dealing with the Honest Majority and the Dishonest Minority: Tales from the auto industry

This is a guest-post by Matti Kurvinen, a former Accenture partner, now an independent consultant focusing on service strategy and operations and warranty management. We welcome him to Trust Matters.

This blog has recently addressed what to do when someone abuses your trust. Of course, most of our business partners are fully honest and trustworthy. Still, if you don’t know which one is which – how can you trust your partners?

The issue is not hard to frame for individuals. But what about at scale? How can you establish systemic trust-based business relationships, when you can’t directly assess the trustworthiness of every relationship at all times?

The Case of Automotive Warranty Service

A case in point is manufacturers who outsource their warranty service to external service agents – for example, automotive dealers. An automotive OEM rightfully sees dealer productivity as a key route to effective end-customer service, and dealer satisfaction as a route to end-customer satisfaction. As the OEMs put it, “It is our role to support our dealers in serving our customers and not burden them with unnecessary controls.” (The same applies to white goods, IT, mobile devices and consumer electronics in relation with their authorized service vendors).

The problem is, an OEM with thousands of service agents globally will quite likely have tens – maybe even hundreds – who will take advantage of any holes the OEM has in its warranty control.

Hence the dilemma: how to enforce trust, positive incentives, support and frictionless procedures with the honest majority of your business partners, while at the same time having adequate control and discipline to deal with the few dishonest exceptions?

The Ugly Truth about Warranty Fraud

Warranty cost is a significant factor for manufacturing companies, typically ranging from 1 to 4 % of company sales, and 5 to 25 % of company profits (sometimes enough to make the difference between profit and loss).

Most companies see warranty costs as driven mainly by product quality, and secondarily by service network efficiency. However, there is another factor to be considered  – warranty fraud. This kind of fraud ranges from opportunistic small-scale overbilling to industrial-scale fraud perpetrated by organized crime. Estimates suggest that from 3 to 15% of warranty billing is fraudulent, making it a billion-dollar issue in the USA alone.

The warranty chain is no different from any other field of life or business. For some small fraction of people and companies, the opportunity for financial gain, weighed against the likelihood and consequences of getting caught, is a calculus that leads them to take advantage of loopholes in warranty control.

Some companies take this very seriously; others are not even aware of it. Still others believe it may be an issue, but “not for us.”  Stanford professor and trust scholar Roderick Kramer states in his HBR Article Rethinking Trust: “… people underestimate the likelihood that bad things will happen to them, and detecting the cheaters among us is not as easy as one might think.”

I have witnessed this several times, with comments like, ”Yes, the numbers from this dealer look really peculiar – but I can’t just go and accuse them of being dishonest, now, can I?”

Most participants in the warranty chain are honest – but not all

The good news is that most participants in the warranty service chain are normal, honest people and companies. But this makes fraud control tricky; how to have control and discipline for the dishonest minority, while enhancing trust, positive incentives, support and frictionless procedures with the honest majority?

The same issue, of course, can be found in many other areas: think on-line commerce, credit cards, mobile payments. The challenge is to make processes fast and easy for the honest people, yet still have adequate controls and fraud prevention processes.

Both false positives and negatives are undesirable. It’s inconvenient to have your credit card refused because of a false alarm. But it’s at least as troublesome to see payments go through with stolen credit cards or identities.

Enforcing trust while managing the dishonest minority

In my experience, there is no single silver-bullet solution. However, by applying the following five principles to your business, you’ll improve the odds considerably.

  1. Trust your partners by default. The business relationship between the OEM and the service agent must be based on mutual trust. The OEM assumes that the service agent doesn’t do warranty fraud, and the OEM accepts that the service agent is entitled to earn a share of the profits for serving the end-customer. The alternative – a default assumption that the service agents are dishonest – is corrosive of all trust. Even good service agents can turn bad if you consistently suspect them of being so.
  2. Set a culture and expectation of high integrity and honest work. This should be enforced and communicated upfront – along with clear consequences of breaking the rules.

Some of our clients have been puzzled when catching fraudulent vendors – “What do we do now?” One leading automotive OEM sends a very clear message to their dealers: “We trust you, but if you violate that trust, you are out!”

This is consistent with Kramer’s advice of sending strong signals on willingness to trust others, coupled with strong promises to strike back if that trust is abused. This not only attracts other desirable trusters, but also deters potential predators, who can sniff out easy victims who send out weak and inconsistent cues.

  1. Keep core operations simple and effective. In daily operations and service vendor management activities there should be no excessive control points; the focus should be on smooth operations and minimal administrative burden for the service agent. You trust the service agent enough to let them be the interface with your end-customer – let that trust also be visible in the back-office, and help them to serve customers with maximal productivity.
  2. Use analytics and audits to support warranty control and rule-based claim validation. Use extensive analytics to detect service agents with suspicious or fraudulent behavior. But analytics alone are not enough; they should be augmented by regular operational reviews and more detailed audits – executed randomly, or as a follow-up based on the analytics findings.

It’s important to keep the human touch and judgment alongside the analytics. Beware of taking drastic actions before you are sure of the findings, and don’t settle for anomalies or suspicious cases where you don’t understand the underlying reasons. 

  1. When necessary, take determined action. Occasional sloppiness and over-charging is best dealt with directly with the service agent, with a clear expectation of corrective actions. In the case if direct fraud or several suspicious elements, take determined action according to the upfront stated policies, such as:
    • Enforcing tighter process controls. You might require additional process control points from service agents with suspicious cases or too many cases in the gray area. Be very clear about this.
    • Claiming back the over-charges. Typically, it is easier to prevent over-charges than claim them back. The circumstances and time-frames for that should be stated in the service contract.
    • Do you still feel you can trust your business partner in the future? What are your other options for warranty (and non-warranty) service? Consider having a case for contract termination or even going to court.
    • Companies are often reluctant to let others know they’ve been a victim of fraud. However, communicating the issue and the consequences enforces the message that your control processes work and you don’t tolerate wrongful behavior.

In many cases we hear clients say, “We don’t have warranty fraud, we know our service agents and we trust them,” or “We are the market leaders, our dealers don’t have the guts to cheat us.” Still, we have seen the whole spectrum from occasional sloppy procedures and over-charging to systemic criminal activities and truly large-scale fraud.

Those who dismiss this as a non-issue typically have a very expensive issue about which they are just wishfully ignorant. Those who have a clear approach without overly burdening their service agents can save a lot of money and simultaneously have a more satisfied and effective service network.

 

How You Use Your Smarts Is What Attracts Clients

You’ve heard, “It’s not what you know; it’s who you know.” You’ve also heard the reverse.

You’ve heard, “You’ve got a limited amount of time to impress them; use it.” But you’ve also heard, “Let the client do most of the talking.”

And you’ve probably heard, “You’ve got to be just a little smarter than your client.” But you’ve probably also heard, “Don’t think you know more about your client’s business than your client does.”

So, what’s the role of smarts? How important is it to be smart? And, by the way, what does that even mean?

Let’s be clear. I’m not talking about emotional intelligence, political savvy, or so-called street smarts. I’m talking about what we usually mean by “smart” in business, which generally boils down to three things:

  • Native intelligence, IQ-ish talent
  • Subject matter mastery
  • Industry knowledge

But let’s also be clear: being smart is less about what kind of smart you are and more about how you use your smarts. And usage, in turn, deconstructs into timing, amount, and context.

Kinds of Smart

I’ll use “IQ” as shorthand for some measure of native intelligence, mindful that there’s a lot of debate about its validity. IQ is seen as an innate form of smarts—you’re supposed to be born with it.

People with high IQs tend to think highly of high IQs, but that doesn’t mean everyone else does. In fact, if clients perceive someone as more clever, sharper, quicker, adept than them, it can be perceived as a negative—particularly if you’re selling.

“Watch out for this one,” the client thinks. “He might pull the wool over my eyes and outwit me.”

Subject matter mastery is different. It’s not an innate kind of smart; it’s derived from experience.

“I could be as smart as him,” thinks the client, “if I had chosen to work in that area.”

In fact, it’s that mastery that clients seek. A client hires a lawyer who knows the law precisely because the client doesn’t know it as well. A subject matter expert with a slightly lower (perceived) IQ than the buyer is even better. They are seen as knowledgeable but unthreatening.

Like subject matter mastery, industry smart is derived, not innate. But unlike subject matter mastery, its presence isn’t a plus so much as its absence is a minus. Clients, particularly those in professional and financial businesses, look down on “generalist” subject matter experts and functional specialists. There’s a general feeling that “our people won’t accept advice coming from you unless you have industry smarts” (though the speaker usually refers to ‘our people’ and not to himself).

In general industries, it is believed that management is management and sales is sales, that the know-how is transferable across industries. That isn’t the case in the professions—rightly or wrongly. You won’t win fighting that feeling; it runs deep.

Timing: When to be Smart

The time to show your IQ smarts is before you meet. Show it in your resume, qualifying documents, and your website’s “About Us” section. That’s because IQ smarts are the only kind of smarts that are potentially embarrassing to the client. The client doesn’t want to be over- or under-estimating you in real time; they’d prefer to know what kind of person they’re dealing with up front, in advance of meeting you. That way they feel much more in control, which is a good thing.

Once you’re in a meeting or interacting with the client, never mention IQ smarts again. Don’t bring up your resume, your degrees, your globe-hopping upbringing, or the brilliant circles in which you travel unless, of course, you’re asked a direct question.

You also want to show a little bit of subject matter smarts and industry smarts in advance of a first meeting or interaction—enough to assure the client they won’t be wasting their time and that they might well benefit from meeting you.

In short: be IQ-smart before you meet. And in face-to-face meetings, be subject-matter and industry-smart.

Amount: How Smart Should You Be?

No one likes to feel condescended to. Fortunately, it’s easy to avoid being condescending in subject matter and industry smarts. The main place to worry is in IQ smarts. If you really think your IQ is so much higher than your client’s, remember that your client is likely to resent or fear you if you make a point of it. Go work on your emotional quotient.

For subject matter and industry smarts, there is no natural upper bound. You’re being hired in part for your expertise, and your client will respect high levels of knowledge of your industry without fearing it. Your biggest challenge here is to be gracious in revealing how smart you are.

Context: Being Gracious about Your Smarts

The single most common sales error regarding smarts that professionals make is to think they have to show how smart they are. They somehow believe that a goal of client interaction is to demonstrate how smart they are. This is almost always unfounded, and frequently it accomplishes the very opposite of what’s desired. It makes the client feel you are self-centered and ego-driven and that you’re only out to make the sale.

Instead, the rule should be to use your smarts as necessary in support of the right thing for the client:

  • If it’s useful to mention that a particular recommendation has been followed successfully by three other clients, then say so. But if you say so just to demonstrate your clout, it’s better to leave it unsaid.
  • If it might be useful to the client that you know so-and-so, a big industry player, then mention it. If you do it only to prove your industry smarts, don’t.
  • If a question is asked to which you clearly know the answer, answer it. But if it’s another question that was asked, and you’re piling on to that question to answer another one, unasked, stifle yourself.

Following that simple rule demonstrates that your driving motivation is client service, not the pursuit of the sale and not your search for ego gratification. And if you’re worried about not knowing the answer to an occasional question, remember a client would rather hear an honest “I don’t know” than a transparent struggle to fake your way through an answer.

The smart call is to use your smarts only in service to your client.

Don’t Confuse Your KPIs with Your CSFs

I spoke with BigCo, Inc. They wanted their B2B salespeople to become trusted advisors.

They felt (correctly) that greater trust levels with their customers would result in greater intra-customer market share and greater profitability. And they were right – as far as that goes.

But they then described to me their implementation plan. It consisted of breaking down the objectives into finer and finer components and matching them up with accountable business units – pretty standard practice.

As we dug deeper, a pattern emerged. The higher penetration levels, for example, were broken into more sales calls, more proactive ideas, and greater time spent up front. On the face of it, that sounds perfectly reasonable: if penetration were to increase, you’d probably see these changes in activities.

But there’s a causation/correlation problem here. Simply increasing the number of sales calls won’t do a thing; they have to be good calls. Simply offering more ideas won’t do a thing; they have to be decent ideas. Simply spending more time up front won’t do a thing; the time has to be well-spent. And simply assuming good calls, decent ideas, and well-spent time does not make it so.

This sounds perfectly obvious in the telling, but I have found that BigCo’s story (which is a composite of several clients) is common. It may even be the norm.

BigCo confused key performance indicators (KPIs) with critical success factors (CSFs). They confused correlation with causation. They confused measurements with the things being measured. And since we live in a management world that uncritically worships metrics (“if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it”), this confusion has critical and strategic implications.

That’s especially true when you’re trying to implement a values-driven strategy – such as becoming trusted advisors.

Measurement and Management

Just because something sounds obvious in the retelling, it doesn’t mean it’s obvious when you’re in the middle of it. Case in point: BigCo’s flawed logic in their approach to trust-based selling.

Increasing penetration requires more sales calls, they thought, and they’re probably right. Their mistake lay in thinking that “more sales calls” was a cause. It’s not – it’s an effect.

“More sales calls” may be a KPI, but it’s not a CSF. It may be an outcome, but it’s not a driver. “More sales calls” is a metric. It is not the thing that “more sales calls” is intended to measure. That “thing” is something like “more high-quality interactions driven by mutual curiosity.”

This confusion between actions and measurements, causes and effects, and KPIs and CSFs is not just common – it’s becoming rampant. It’s a real issue for digital age businesses in some ways even more than old-line businesses. Let’s look at some examples.

Gaming the Numbers

We’re all familiar with the salesperson who knows how to tweak an imperfect system to maximize his commissions at the expense of, say, the company’s gross margins. “Hey, I’m just following the incentives you built in,” he might say. That salesperson seized on a metric that imperfectly measured the company’s intended sales behaviors. (The proper management response would be not to change the metric, but to insist on a higher set of principles that overrule one misguided number.)

The next time you get a customer service operator on the line, check to see whether they conclude by saying something like, “May we say that I gave you excellent customer service today?” You are experiencing a system that is driven by metrics to the point where operators shamelessly beg for ratings. The metrics have been pimped out to serve a goal other than the customer service they were meant to measure.

See for yourself. Go to Amazon, and search for books under any significant topic you like (e.g., sales). Make sure you sort on relevance. It’s amazing how many books are rated over four stars (out of five). The reason is simple: we have been taught to look for ratings. Of course, the emphasis on ratings suborns all kind of perjury, misleading comments, and even outright falsehoods.

It’s not just books. Look at the flood of “recommendations” on LinkedIn. Look at the massive follow-me-I-follow-you dynamic on Twitter and other media. Or just look at your own behavior. What do you do when a friend asks you to rate a book, promote a blog post, or recommend them? There is monstrous grade inflation in most customer-rated aspects of business today.

Much of this comes down to our obsession in business with metrics. It goes back to the invention of the spreadsheet and the success of books such as Reengineering the Corporation. Numbers-all-the-time is today’s secular business religion.

The Wages of Confusion

The “so what” is big indeed. Assume any metric, almost by definition, has to be a pale reflection of the “thing” that is to be measured. We accept anniversary gifts as tokens of our love, market share as an indicator of competitive success, and, in the case of BigCo, numbers of sales calls as indicators of trusted advisor relationships. But we all know an anniversary gift does not a marriage make.

The only way to become trusted advisors to your customers is to gain the trust of your customers. You do not cause trust by increasing the number of sales calls; rather, greater trust causes more invitations for you to call on prospects. Doing the dishes doesn’t cause a great marriage; instead, a great marriage results in your doing the dishes willingly.

Confusing KPIs with CSFs causes KPIs to be artificially inflated. We know this intuitively, and so we discount them – while still trying to get higher scores on more of those discounted-value KPI metrics. We all know the game is rigged, but we keep playing it faster and faster.

What’s at stake is nothing less than how we implement things like “better client relationships.” You don’t get there by measuring metrics and deluding yourself that you’re addressing root causes. You get there only by understanding what it takes to interact with your very human customers—and then doing it.

Do that, and the numbers will take care of themselves.

When Others Abuse Your Trust

What happens when someone violates your trust? What should you do? What can you do? What works?

Has your trust ever been violated? Did someone, once upon a time, abuse your trust? Have you ever placed your trust in someone or something, only to discover – painfully – that your trust had been misplaced?

Yes, almost certainly, you’ve had experiences like that. And they are unsettling – to say the least. The bottom drops out of something. You feel betrayed. Having been fooled, you feel foolish. You’re left with a pain, a void, a bitterness – and a resolve to do something differently going forward.

But what?

It turns out there are two strategies for dealing with broken trust. And one of them is far worse than the other.

Broken Trust: the Dynamics

Let’s remember what’s going on when trust is broken.

Trust is an asynchronous bilateral relationship. That’s a fancy way of saying that trust consists of a trustor and a trustee. What defines the trustor is the willingness to be vulnerable by taking a risk. What defines the trustee is the response to that vulnerability and that risk.

If the trustee chooses to take advantage of the trustor’s vulnerability by seizing on the risk and turning it to his advantage, then trust is broken, or stalled. If the trustee not only does not take advantage, but also then responds in a similarly vulnerable way (i.e. adopting the role of trustor), then the trust relationship is established, or advanced.

Trust relationships are built by continuous iterations of this risk-taken, risk-respected reciprocal behavior. And trust is broken, or stalled, when one party fails to reciprocate.

Setting up the dynamics of broken trust this way is important, because it allows us to see two ways that trust fails.

  • One is that the trustee abuses the vulnerability of the trustor.
  • The other is that the trustor stops taking risks.

Those Untrustworthy %$#!’s

What do we call those who abuse our trust? Vile, conniving, two-timing hustlers. Lying, two-faced, deceiving charlatans. Con artists, heartbreakers, depraved and immoral cowards. Essentially, we characterize them as lacking in character or virtue.

The implicit problem statement becomes, “How to protect myself from The Untrustworthy?” And the implicit answer is a two-parter:

1. Identify the untrustworthy in advance; and to the extent that is infeasible,

2. Take fewer risks in general.

It’s one thing say, “Never trust Joe again to make the restaurant reservations.” But as humans, we generalize.

  • “If you want something done right, do it yourself.” Ergo, don’t trust anyone to make reservations.  Or,
  • “Once burned, shame on you; twice burned, shame on me.” Ergo, don’t trust Joe to do anything.

If you’re a human being, that gets translated into things like, “Don’t trust emails from Nigeria offering inheritances,” or “Beware of strangers who give you candy,” or “Cross the street if you see black teens in hoodies approaching.”

If you’re a company, that translates into things like, “Show me your ID,” or “Sign this non-compete agreement before we hire you,” or “Click here to acknowledge you’ve read the Terms of Service agreement.”

What has happened here?

  • We’ve gone from identifying untrustworthy agents to a wholesale reduction in risk-taking.
  • To prevent bad things from happening, we’ve cut down on the possibility of good things happening.
  • While blaming others for being bad trustees, we cut back on our role as trustors.
  • In the name of increasing the probability of trust (by screening the untrustworthy), we guarantee the reduction of trust (by refusing to play the trustor role).

In fact, this all-too-human response is all-too-common. Ebola? Close the Mexican border. Significant other cheated on you? “I don’t know if I can ever trust again.” Somebody sued you? Demand an indemnification clause in all future supplier contracts.

At a national level, this is why the TSA is what it is: far better we distrust everyone than try to identify the untrustworthy. At a personal level, this is why Twitter and country music are full of ‘done me wrong’ themes – and why they are so popular.

Three-Step Strategy for Dealing with The Untrustworthy

Yes, Virginia, there really is evil in the world, and just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you. But it’s also true that we systematically over-estimate the level of danger, and over-react by taking fewer risks.  So here’s the three part solution.

1. Soberly Assess the Risk. So she broke up with you. Get. Over. It. So your pride was hurt; how much is that in dollars and cents? So a customer burned you; what will it cost to bring in the SWAT team to deal with a mosquito?

Pain is inevitable – suffering is optional. Tough cases make bad law. The perfect is the enemy of the good. If it didn’t break your bones, or break your bank account – then really, how much harm was done? And we almost always over-estimate the damage.

It takes thoughtful maturity to not over-react. But trust is a thoughtful, mature relationship; if that were not so, every Neanderthal would be doing it.

2. Name It and Claim It, Then Trust Again. Don’t boil in the juices of your own resentment – explain to the other party what it felt like, and offer them another shot. Remember, the fastest way to make someone trustworthy is to trust them.

The highest customer satisfaction ratings come from customer dissatisfaction turned around. The winning strategies in game theory consist of giving people two chances, not one.

Trustworthiness is not solely a static quality, a matter of virtue alone. It is also situational, the result of interactions with a trustor. If you withdraw from the trustor side of the game, you guarantee lower levels of trustworthiness on the other side of the relationship.  (This alone explains much of the dysfunction in the financial services sector).

3. Be Proportional in Your Response. Of course there are bad apples, Bernie Madoffs, and chronic hustlers. But don’t stop dating because of one bad date. Don’t enact protectionist tariff policies to halt one abuse. Don’t put all your employees through lie detector tests because one stole from you.

The tendency to overreact is natural; but the ability to fine-tune our initial instincts is what makes us human. It doesn’t take much in the way of brains or moral courage to shut the barn door after the animals have escaped; it takes both to intelligently assess the situation, and to think it through.

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It’s tempting to view this as just a personal issue, but it’s one of the major trust issues facing corporations. In most Fortune 100 companies, the implicit belief is that the only good risk is a dead risk.  When you hear “risk,” you immediately hear “risk mitigation” and “risk management.” Risk departments are given enormous veto power, and virtually no one challenges corporate lawyers when they pronounce why the company can’t do this or that.

This inability to see risk-taking as the critical, essential role in trust creation is a major reason we don’t trust companies. It belongs right up there with the selfish, zero-sum, Hobbesian, shareholder-value-driven model of the company. If you hear a manager (I’m talking to you, condo association board members) say, “If we did it for you, we’d have to do it for everyone,” you’re talking to someone who not only doesn’t understand trust, they don’t understand management.

If a company doesn’t trust you and me, then we all have very good reason to say, in return – why the hell should we trust you?

Relationships or Metrics? I Haven’t Got Time for Both

Why is it that, in today’s age of instant gratification, we feel like we never have enough time? Emails fly across our inboxes – we get instant responses. Someone reaches out via text, and we expect a reply so fast that we are caught watching the tiny ellipses flash about as we wait.

Life and technology go much faster now. Why is it then that we keep saying there’s not enough time? We connect faster; shouldnt there be more time to create trust?

The truth is – there’s still plenty of time. And it doesn’t take much.

I heard it again today. I hear it in almost every workshop I do, and in every – bar none – big company sales organization I work with. It sounds like this:

I believe in trust and relationships, but it’s a luxury problem. Here in the real world, the pressure’s on. I don’t have time to do all that nicey-nice stuff, I’ve got to hit my numbers. And even if I did have that kind of time, my clients don’t. The days of easy-going ‘what’s keeping you up at night’ conversations are over – they’ve got as much pressure as I do, and maybe more.

I just don’t have time to build trust-based relationships. Hopefully, someday I will.

But with that attitude, that day will never come. Because trust-based relationships don’t come when you’ve got plenty of time – they’re forged when you don’t have time, and have to trust someone. The whole relationships-vs.-metrics debate is based on four false beliefs. When will you get rid of them?

Myth Number One: You Don’t Have the Time

Maybe you’re old enough to remember an old ad for Fram Oil Filters: “You can pay me now – or you can pay me later.” It stuck because it rang very true – if you refused to pay for a cheap oil filter, you’d end up paying for much more expensive engine repairs later.

It’s the same here. Every phone call, conversation and meeting that you cut short to “save time” puts a label on your head. The label says, “I’m a transactional sales guy; I will never invest in my customer, and I’ll blame you for being the busy one.”

As Aristotle said, you become what you practice. If you never take time for relationships, if all you do is transact, then you become a transactor. And nobody suddenly decides one day out of the blue that they really want to have a trust-based relationship with someone who’s been transacting with them since forever.

The truth is, a little time taken now, up front, results in far more efficient use of time down the road – even just next month. Trust-based relationships aren’t just more effective, they’re more timely and less costly.

You do have the time; you’re just constantly refusing to invest it for returns in future time.

Myth Number Two: Your Client Doesn’t Have the Time

How do you know? Because they told you so? Get real. What client is about to tell you they’re not busy? They want to control their time with you, not give control over to you.

And the same logic applies: our customers are as short-sighted as we are, constantly failing to invest a bit of time up front for future gains of time. So they tell you they don’t have the time, and you believe it, and the two of you race off so as to cut the elapsed time of your transaction. And then do it all over again the next time you meet.

They have as much time or as little time as you do; and if neither of you breaks the vicious cycle, the cycle will stay unbroken.

Who should break it? That’s easy – you should.

Myth Number Three: Trusted Relationships Take Time to Create

The truth is, people form strong impressions of trust and relationship very, very quickly. Initial impressions get formed in much less than a second.

Think about someone you trust. If asked why, your first thought is not, “our trust has grown over the last 6 years.” It’s far more likely something like, “One day we were talking about XYZ and he said an amazing thing…ever since…”

Because trusted relationships are step functions, not continuous curves. They are based on events, moments, instances. Trust gets created in those moments. If you never let yourself be open to those moments, it will never happen.

Trust doesn’t take time. The only sense in which it does is the creation of a track record. All qualitative aspects of trust take virtually no time at all.

Myth Number Four: Relationships are Built on Quantity of Time

Wrong. Relationships are built on quality, not quantity. It’s true with your dog.  It’s true with your five-year old child. And it’s equally true with your client.

The quality of your time matters far more than the quantity. An hour on the golf course or hoisting a beer doesn’t hold a candle to sincerely asking a difficult question, and conveying to your client that you care about the answer, and that you’re a safe haven in discussing it.

A lot of the “I don’t have time for relationships” line is frankly a cover-up for fear of customer intimacy. Invariably, the workshop participants who tell me they haven’t got time are the same workshop participants who tell me that customer intimacy is too risky, and potentially unprofessional. Meanwhile, their compatriots who understand the qualitative basis for relationships are selling circles around them.

Haven’t got time to form relationships and still meet your metrics? If that’s what you’re saying, you don’t understand how to meet your metrics. In any medium timeframe, the person with the relationships will outperform on all business metrics the person without the relationships.

And being busy’s got little to do with it.

Trust is Down? Wait – What Does That Even Mean?

Today, it seems nine out of ten stories in the general media are variations on one theme: trust is down. Whether it’s trust in the media, trust in politics, trust in business – it all seems to be heading in one direction.

But wait – what does that even mean?

We hear it all the time. Trust in banking is down. Trust in Congress is down. Trust in the educational system is down. We hear these statements, we say, ‘tut-tut what’s the world coming to,’ and we go on about our business – in large part, because we don’t know what to do about them.

Well, no wonder.  These seemingly obvious statements mask a fundamental confusion about the nature of trust – a confusion that prevents us coming up with basic solutions.

The problem is this. When trust in banking is down, does that mean:

a. that banks are less trustworthy than they used to be?  Or,

b. that people are less inclined to trust than they used to be?

Those are very different problems. Typical solutions to the problem of trustworthiness have to do with ensuring the behavior of the trustee.  Think regulations, penalties, enforcement, behavioral incentives and the like.

We too often neglect the other side of the equation – the propensity to trust. The problem is simple enough to state: you may be the most trustworthy partner in the world, but if the other party is unwilling to trust you, nothing will happen.

The propensity to trust is critical. It amounts to risk taking. Despite Ronald Reagan’s famous quote to the contrary, there is no trust without risk. The dictum to “trust but verify” in fact destroys trust by sanctioning acting on suspicion.

The Hitchhiking Problem

In the 60s, hitch-hiking flourished. By the late 1980s, it was dead.  Partly, hitchhikers were afraid to hitch; but mainly, drivers were afraid of hitchhikers. And it wasn’t due to an epidemic of violence; it was due to a fear of violence.  We lost a great deal when we lost hitchhiking – economically and culturally.  (The move to collaborative consumption, interestingly, is a contemporary resurrection of that idea).

Why is hitchhiking relevant to trust in banking?  Because one common response to low trustworthiness – perceived or otherwise – is a reduced propensity to trust. Which will kill trust just as surely as will low trustworthiness.

There is a huge cost to low propensity to trust; look at The Cost of Fearing Strangers by the Freakonomics folks. We are great at articulating the risk of doing something; we are awful at noticing the cost of doing nothing.

Want a really Big Example? Next time you’re in an airport, look at the social cost of us not being able to trust grandmothers from Des Moines on their flight to Fargo.

The Laws of Trust

To people schooled in free-market economics ways of thinking, trust is hard to make sense of. If the propensity to trust declines, you’d think the market would respond by creating more trustworthy offerings. In fact, just the opposite happens. Suspicious people tend to attract con artists; skeptics get sucked in by fakes.

The reason is simple: trust is not a market transaction, it’s a human transaction. People don’t work by supply and demand, they work by karmic reciprocity. In markets, if I trust you, I’m a sucker and you take advantage of me. In relationships, if I trust you, you trust me, and we get along. We live up or down to others expectations of us.

We have been teaching and practicing business according to the wrong Laws of Trust. The solution for low trustworthiness is not necessarily to trust less, but to trust more, and more intelligently. Maybe you’ve heard, “The best way to make someone trustworthy is to trust them.”

We’re Teaching the Wrong Laws

Our public education and culture is loaded with the free-market versions of trust. We teach, “If you’re not careful they will screw you.” We passcode-protect everything. We are taught to suspect the worst of everyone, be wary of every open bottle of soda, watch out for ingredients on any box.

Then in business school, we are taught that if customers don’t trust you, you need to convince them you are trustworthy – partly by insisting on our trustworthiness.  You can’t protest enough for that to work: in fact, guess the Two Most Trust-Destroying Words You Can Say.

By teaching distrust and confusing trust recovery with messaging, we are teaching entire generations to be suspicious of anyone and everything. By teaching suspicion and distrust, you can make book on it: what we’ll get is a reduction in trustworthiness. Read the Tale of the Thieving Convenience Store Managers.

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t teach trustworthiness; much of my career has been built heavily around that. But by itself it’s not enough.

We need also to be teaching risk-taking, relationships, and the values of being connected to other human beings –not just than calibrating the dangers of hitchhiking.

Don’t tell me there’s no data.  The General Social Survey has been collecting data on the propensity to trust since 1972. One interesting finding: the propensity to trust is strongly correlated with educational attainment.  What does that say about the social and economic costs of cutting educational investment in the name of lowering taxes?

And don’t tell me I’m naive. I recall a trip to Denmark a few years ago. I left my wallet in a taxi. By the time I discovered it, my client had left me a message to say the taxi driver had returned it to their offices, and they’d paid him to bring it to my hotel. Which he did.

I expressed amazement at how well it had all worked out. My client said, “Nothing to be surprised at. Anything less would have been surprising.”

And I bet the Danes hitch, too.

The 4-minute Mile of Personal Change

Bad things happen to good people. Some of those people live the rest of their lives defined by those bad things.

Most people would agree that it’s better to overcome those bad experiences, and move on (not to say it’s easy to do so). A life fueled by resentment is a life wasted.

The question I want to raise is not whether to recover, but when.  Just how long does it take to recover from a low point and move forward? How fast can a human being recover from grief, betrayal, and anger?  I’m not talking about short-cutting by means of denial; I’m talking about genuine recovery from emotional disaster.

Is there a four-minute mile barrier of recovery? What are the natural limits to human change?

Julie’s Story

I know Julie. She was estranged from her alcoholic father, reconciling only on his deathbed. A few years later, her mother, with whom she was very close, died as well. Julie was grief-stricken, worn down with sadness at work and with her children; she was barely functioning on autopilot.

After a year, she visited a psychologist. “I spent the entire first meeting crying,” she told me. At the second meeting, the counsellor asked her, “What do you admire in both your parents that you’d wish to perpetuate?”

“I was dumbstruck,” she said. “I sat there for 3 full minutes, thinking about the implications for my life. Everything fell into place. I thanked the shrink profusely, left before my time was up, and never went back.”

That was five years ago. Julie is upbeat, strong, productive and a huge positive force for good in all those she meets.

Rachel’s Story

I know Rachel, an extremely successful woman. She told me her husband had cheated on her some years ago, but that they had reconciled and were now very happy.

“You look fine now,” I said, “but that must have been hard. How long did it take you to get over it?”

“It was awful,” she said. “It must have taken me a week.”

“A week?” I asked incredulously.

She explained that she had let work get in the way of their sex life, but that she enjoyed sex too and why let the past get in the way of a great and full life going forward?

“And if he cheated again?” I asked.

“Oh, it’d be all over,” she laughed. “You only get one second chance with me.”

Jill’s Story

I don’t know Jill Bolte Taylor, but she has given one of the more powerful TED talks of all time, as well as having written a powerful book. A brain scientist who had a stroke, she was uniquely qualified to observe what was happening to her – and, it turns out, to learn from the experience.

To over-simplify, she already knew the profoundly different perspectives of the right and left hemispheres of our brains. One is logical, cognitive, ego-protecting and fearful. The other is universal, joyful, connected and without fear.

But through her stroke, Jill discovered we have enormous control over which part of our brain we choose to live through. In her words:

“Before my stroke, I thought I was a product of my brain and had no idea that I had some say about how I responded to the emotions surging through me. On an intellectual level, I realized that I could monitor and shift my cognitive thoughts, but it never dawned on me that I had some say in how I perceived my emotions.

“No one told me that it only took 90 seconds for my biochemistry to capture, and then release me.”

My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey

How long does it take to achieve escape velocity from our responses? How long is the emotional 4-minute mile?

A brain scientist tells us: 90 seconds. You are a slave to your neuro-chemistry – for 90 seconds.

After that – it’s all on you. If you stay there, it begins to be your own doing.

Making It Work

Jill Bolte’s recommendations are along the lines of meditation.

For others, the serenity prayer works powerfully.

And if sweetness and light is not your cup of tea, there’s the in-your-face-cold-shower-with-obscenities approach embodied in Julien Smith’s excellent eBook The Flinch.

I can’t tell you how – you must work with what you’ve got. But I can tell you – or rather, Julie, Rachel and Jill can tell you – that the four-minute mile of emotional jiu-jitsu is 90 seconds.

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? 

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