A Better New Year’s Resolution

Ten years have passed since I first wrote the following thoughts on New Years resolutions. Frankly, it was good. And frankly I haven’t been able to write a better one. Next year, maybe.
So, apologies to those who have read it year after year—though I suspect some of you won’t mind.

Happy New Year.
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My unscientific sampling says many people make New Years resolutions, and few follow through. Net result—unhappiness.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

You could, of course, just try harder, stiffen your resolve, etc. But you’ve been there, tried that.

You could also ditch the whole idea and just stop making resolutions. Avoid goal-failure by eliminating goal-setting. Effective, but at the cost of giving up on aspirations.

I heard another idea: replace the New Year’s Resolution List with a New Year’s Gratitude List. Here’s why it makes sense.

First, most resolutions are about self-improvement—this year I resolve to: quit smoking, lose weight, cut the gossip, drink less, exercise more, and so on. All those resolutions are rooted in a dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs—or with oneself.

In other words: resolutions often have a component of dissatisfaction with self. For many, it isn’t just dissatisfaction—it’s self-hatred. And the stronger the loathing of self, the stronger the resolutions—and the more they hurt when they go unfulfilled.  It can be a very vicious circle.

Second, happy people do better. This has some verification in science, and it’s a common point of view in religion and psychology—and in common sense. People who are slightly optimistic do better in life. People who are happy are more attractive to other people. In a very real sense, you empower what you fear—and attract what you put out.

Ergo, replace resolutions with gratitude. The best way to improve oneself is paradoxical—start by begin grateful for what you already have. That turns your aspirations from negative (fixing a bad situation) to positive (making a fine situation even better).

Gratitude forces our attention outwards, to others—a common recommendation of almost all spiritual programs.

Finally, gratitude calms us. We worry less. We don’t obsess. We attract others by our calm, which makes our lives connected and meaningful. And before long, we tend to smoke less, drink less, exercise more, gossip less, and so on. Which of course is what we thought we wanted in the first place.

But the real truth is—it wasn’t the resolutions we wanted in the first place.  It was the peace that comes with gratitude.  We mistook cause for effect.

Go for an attitude of gratitude. The rest are positive side-effects.

The Cost of Freedom, the Savings of Trust

We don’t usually think of trust and freedom as existing in a trade-off relationship. But in an important sense, they do. Thinking about the two factors this way allows us to view trust from an unusual perspective.

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Kathy Sierra has a great post on the degree to which software designers should design in user freedom – there are limits.

On the face of it, freedom is good. More freedom is better. In fact, if it doesn’t threaten us bodily harm, then more freedom is way better. Isn’t it?

Not so. Sierra offers a 2×2 matrix relating payoff to effort. The payoff is good for things like Amazon. But digital home thermostats and new stereo systems give us too much freedom for the payoff. They’re just a pain.

There is a limit beyond which freedom of choice generates shutdown. Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice explores it well. After a while, complexity overwhelms the desirability of choice.

Sierra and Schwartz happen to illustrate the economic relationship between freedom and trust. In a nutshell, we give up freedom of choice in return for more efficient use of our time. We do it with trust.

Branding is the corporate version of trust. Rather than analyze every brand of bottled water, every version of jeans, or every make and model of HD-TV, we abdicate our freedom to do so in return for the security of a brand name. We trust Sony, or Coke, or Amazon, to make acceptably acceptable selections for us—so are freed to make other decisions.

But trust is about more than branding.

The last two centuries of global economic development have been driven by the search for division of labor. Adam Smith’s pin-makers organized around 19 specialized operations; it was far cheaper to assign individuals to distinct operations than to have each operator do all operations.

The transaction cost of coordination was well below the benefits of specialization.

At a corporate level, transaction costs remained high at the turn of the 20th century; early US auto companies made their own tires rather than incur the cost and risk of buying tires from others.

As transaction costs declined, it became more feasible to contract work out – the history of the auto industry is one of moving from integrated manufacturers to contract assemblers.

In recent years, we’ve seen diverging trends: lower unit transaction costs, and higher volumes of transaction costs. The net effect has been driven more by volume than by unit cost. Transaction costs as a percent of GDP have been going up. By one estimate, they now exceed 50% in the US.

We are reminded constantly of the internet’s effect on lowering unit transaction costs; but we don’t notice that the total of such costs is rising.

Here’s what it means: for further economic efficiency, the ability to reduce transaction costs is going to become more critical than further division of labor.

The more technically and globally integrated we get, the more freedom of choice we get. But at some point, freedom of choice becomes overwhelming.

If I want to make and sell jeans, I probably have dozens (hundreds? thousands?) of ways to contract the work out. Past some point, I don’t want more options—I want someone I can trust to make that decision for me.

In other words, I’ll give up freedom in return for lower transaction costs. The currency of that exchange is trust.

In an economy where half the costs are transaction costs, the currency of trust is massively valuable. Think of the transaction costs between auto producers and their suppliers: lawyers, agreements, contracts, specifications, bonus systems, QC, compliance, etc. Suppose they were 100% obliterated by trust. What kind of marketplace cost reduction would that provide?

Trust is not soft stuff. In a world that is getting massively more connected, greater trust has a very real economic role to play.

Giving up freedom for trust can be, paradoxically, a very freeing thing.

Trusting: the Other Side of Trust

Much has been written about trust.  However, it’s often not clear in the writing whether the subject is trust, trustworthiness – or trusting.  If trust in the government is down, does that mean that the government is less trustworthy? Or does it mean that people are less inclined to trust?

Most of my work has been about trustworthiness (e.g. The Trusted Advisor). Other people write more overtly about trusting – a good example is the HBR article ReThinking Trust, by Stanford Professor Rod Kramer, which focuses on the danger of trusting.

Some people write about the big subject of trust itself – the end result of the interaction between trustor and trustee. A fine example is Francis Fukuyama’s classic Trust: the Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity.

Finally, many other sources end up talking about all three; think Covey’s Speed of Trust, or Bob Hurley’s The Decision to Trust.

The Power of Trusting

The sources above are largely academic. In the popular press, by far the most common topics are trustworthiness and the state of trust itself (trust as the result of an interaction between trustor and trustee). Throw a dart into a pile of 100 popular press articles on trust, and you’re likely to find Congress, investment bankers, and the Madoff-du-jour scandal as the subject.

This means most public policy debates focus on trustworthiness.  Most examples are negative; hence trusting is positioned as cautionary, i.e. watch out for car salesmen, lawyers, etc. The moral of the story is tut tut, another untrustworthy group, watch out.

And all this focus on negative examples of trustworthiness is having an effect on people’s inclination to trust. How could it not! And that is a terribly unfortunate thing. Because the scarce trust resource increasingly is not trustworthiness, but the willingness to trust.  We need to start focusing on the trustor, not just on the trustee.

The power of trusting is enormous. When it comes to trust, there is an answer to the chicken and egg dilemma of which comes first, the trustor or the trustee?  The answer is trustor.  Consider:

  • Until one party decides to take a risk and trust another, trust does not come into existence
  • Trusting has a profound impact on trustworthiness – think “the fastest way to make a man trustworthy is to trust him,” or “people live up or down to the expectations of them”
  • Trusting is inherently an act of optimism; a decline in trusting in the business world drives down innovation, and prevents collaboration and alliances.

 

Traveling Trust, Reciprocating Trust

I was in Munich for a one-day stopover en route to Bucharest. I left New York a day earlier than planned to avoid some weather. And I realized yet again – travel has a way of doing that – what an extraordinary level of trust we all take for granted in our modern world.

Yes, the news is full of the opposite. Doctors have a hard time trusting pharmaceutical manufacturers. Patients have a hard time trusting their doctors, and doctors have a hard time trusting their patients. Some patients trust the internet more than their doctors, often with bad results. And trust in most institutions is down over time (the military being a notable exception).

A Trusted Trip

With all that going on, it’s easy to forget some basic things. I can freely cross national borders with some mere papers. I can trust the exchange rate when I buy Euros. I can trust the flight controllers that govern the airspace, the airline handling companies that do catering, the bus and taxi systems I encounter.

But most of all, I know I can rely deeply on the basic human decency of people I run into to help with any simple issues – even though we may not speak the same language, and we’ll never see each other again. I can trust that people will give me directions, help me with travel issues, take a moment to help sort out a problem. And I’m almost never, ever wrong in that basic level of trust.

Which motivates me, of course, to try and return the favor whenever I can. And you do the same, I know.

What’s Really Amazing

What’s really amazing is not how often trust goes wrong, but how often it goes right.  Our modern life is unbelievably complex, and yet runs remarkably well.

I don’t want to be Pollyana-ish about this. The fact that trust is so pervasive is precisely the reason we notice and feel trust violations so deeply. We are all right to be deeply offended by untrustworthy behavior; if we lose our capacity to be outraged, we have lost our ability to recover.

Lots of things can be said about lost trust, but I want to highlight one. Trust is reciprocal. My trusting you causes you to trust me, and vice versa. An absence of trust starts with one party. The presence of trust starts with one party. The question facing all of us is, will you be the one to start?  Or will you always insist on the other party going first?

Do you insist on your vendors insuring you against all losses?  Then don’t be surprised when they don’t trust you.  Do you have all your employees sign cutting-edge non-compete clauses?  Then perhaps you can understand why they might seek ways around it.  Do you give lie detector tests to your employees? Then you might gain insight into why you have a shrinkage problem.

You can do your part as an individual too. To be trusted, be trustworthy.  And if you think others are not trustworthy as you – try trusting them first.

For starters, that’ll make your travel a lot easier.

Trust is Not Reputation

Four words can have a big impact: Trust is not reputation.

But what does that mean? This year especially it seems the two words have been thrown around interchangeably for some time.

I took a look back at the last time I addressed the difference of the two words and how their definitions got confused along the way.

I trust my dog with my life – but not with my ham sandwich.

That is but one of dozens of humorous ways to indicate the multiple meanings we attach to the word “trust.” It’s remarkable how good we are at understanding the word in context, given its definitional complexity.

One interesting aspect of trust is its relationship to the concept of reputation. This issue is coming to the fore in the so-called “sharing economy” or “collaborative consumption” movement.

Who can you trust on the Internet to deliver the goods they said they would deliver (think eBay), to leave your apartment in good shape if you lease it on Airbnb, to not be a creep if you call an Uber?

It’s tempting to look at the concept of reputation as the scalable, digital badge of trust that we might append to all kinds of transactions between strangers, rendering them all as trustworthy as your cousin. (Well, most cousins.)

Tempting, but not exactly right.  Because trust, it turns out, is not reputation.

Greenspan’s Folly

William K. Black has written about the dire consequences of Alan Greenspan confusing trust and reputation, saying:

Alan Greenspan touted ‘reputation’ as the characteristic that made possible trust and free markets. He was dead wrong.

Greenspan believed that Wall Streeters’ regard for their own reputation meant that markets were the best guarantor of trust – because they would perceive their own self-interest as aligned with being perceived as trustworthy.

Unfortunately, Greenspan’s belief was probably based more in ideology than in history or psychology, as the passion for reputation was overwhelmed by the passion for filthy lucre, immortalized in the acronym IBGYBG (“I’ll be gone, you’ll be gone – let’s do the deal”).

Early Social Reputation Metrics

Think back, way back, to November, 2006.  A company called RapLeaf was on to something.Here’s how they described their goal:

Rapleaf is a portable ratings system for commerce. Buyers, sellers and swappers can rate one another—thereby encouraging more trust and honesty. We hope Rapleaf can make it more profitable to be ethical.

You can immediately see the appeal of a reputation-based trust rating system. And with a nano-second more of thought, you can see how such a system could be easily abused. (“Hey, Joey – let’s get on this thing, you stuff the ballot box for me, I stuff it for you, bada-boom.”)

Then there’s Edelman PR’s pioneering product, TweetLevel. It does one smart thing, which is to avoid a single definition of whatever-you-wanna-call it. Instead, it breaks your single TweetLevel score into four components: influence, popularity, engagement, and trust.

Edelman says:

having a high trust score is considered by many to be more important than any other category.  Trust can be measured by the number of times someone is happy to associate what you have said through them – in other words how often you are re-tweeted.

According to TweetLevel (back in 2012), here were my scores:

  •             Influence        73.4
  •             Popularity      70.1
  •             Engagement   56.4
  •             Trust               46.9

So much for my trustworthiness.

Guess who owned the number one trust score on TweetLevel that year? Justin Bieber. Now you know who to call for – well, for something.

The KLOUT Effect

It’s easy to poke fun at metrics like TweetLevel that purport to measure trust; but in fairness, because trust is such a complex phenomenon, there really can be no one definition. What TweetLevel measures is indeed something – it’s not a random collection of data – and they have as much right to call it ‘trust’ as anyone else does. Indeed, I respect their decision to stay vague about what to call the composite metric.

KLOUT raised a more specific question: it directly claimed to measure Influence, and is clear about its definition, at least at a high level:

The Klout Score measures influence [on a scale of 1 to 100] based on your ability to drive action. Every time you create content or engage you influence others. The Klout Score uses data from social networks in order to measure:

  • True Reach: How many people you influence
  • Amplification: How much you influence them
  • Network Impact: The influence of your network

I find that to be a coherent definition. If I’m a consumer marketer, I want to know who has high KLOUT scores in certain areas, because if they drive action, I want them driving my action.

Note that Klout doesn’t mention reputation at all – just influence. Where does trust come in?  Klout says, “Your customers don’t trust advertising, they trust their peers and influencers.”

Well, I wouldn’t go there. On TweetLevel, the top three influencers were Justin Bieber, Wyclef Jean, and Bella Thorne. Influencers – definitely. People to be trusted? What does that even mean?

Trust Metrics

One problem with linking trust to reputation is that it can be gamed. One problem with linking trust to influence is that notoriety and fame are cross-implicated. Bonny and Clyde were notorious, so was Bernie Madoff and the Notorious B.I.G. – that doesn’t make them trusted.

Take Kim Kardashian. Is she influential? You betcha: her Klout score was a whopping 92 (Back then! Juts think about today). Does she have a reputation? I bet her name recognition is higher than the President’s.

But – do you trust Kim Kardashian? Well, to do what? (By the way, TweetLevel gives her a 70.1 trust score – way higher than mine. Now you know who to ask when you need a trustworthy answer; I’m referring all queries to her).

So here are a few headlines on trust metrics.

  1. They’re contextual. You can’t say you trust someone without saying what you trust themfor. I trust an eBay seller to sell me books, but I’m not going to trust him with my daughter’s phone number.
  2. They’re multi-layered. Both Klout and TweetLevel correctly recognize that social metrics can’t be monotonic – a single headline number is useful, but it had better have nuances and deconstructive capability.
  3. Behavior trumps reputation. You can get lots of people to stuff the ballot boxes for you; it’s a lot harder to fake your own  behavioral history. Trust metrics based more on what you did, rather than just on what people say about you, are more solid.
  4. Good definitions are key. When people say ‘trust’ and don’t distinguish between trusting and being trusted, they’re not being clear. There’s social trust, transactional trust – it goes on and on. Good metrics start by being very clear.

So what’s the link between reputation, influence, and trust? There is no final arbiter of that question. Language is an evolving anthropological thing, and as Humpty Dumpty said, words mean what we choose to say they mean. So job one is to be clear about our intended meanings.

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Full disclosure: I have a small interest in a sharing economy company, TrustCloud. I have written more about the sharing economy and collaborative consumption in a White Paper: Trust and the Sharing Economy, a New Business Model.

(This post was originally published on TrustMatters)

Was It Something I Said? The Trap of High Self-Orientation

Interesting thing happened this week. Even though I’ve been at this business game for some time now – there are still these little gaps, where I fall victim to a little thing that I like to call the “trap of high self-orientation.” I started to doubt, to question if I had said or done something that would cause a potential client to not respond as quickly as we had during an earlier email exchange. Turned out to be all in my head, a self-inflicted ‘trap’ – if you will.

It got me thinking about the last time I reflected on this subject matter. So, here it is – a little insight into the psychology and the spirituality of getting off your S.

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It happened again yesterday. It happens about once a week, though I don’t generally notice it until later.

I had a proposal phone call with a potential client. It went well, but they came back a few days later with a concern. I responded at length in an email. The day ended. Another day passed. By then, it had begun to happen.

I started thinking, “Was it something I said? I’ve probably blown it. I knew I should have done X, I shouldn’t have done Y. On the other hand, maybe I should have…” and so on. You probably know how it goes.

I once kept track of these episodes for a month. There were ten of them in that month. And in 9 out of the 10 cases, the result was: the other person was just busy, that’s all. They weren’t thinking those negative things about me, in fact quite the contrary.

9 out of 10 times I was wrong. And not just about what they were thinking, but about how much time they spent on it.

Self-Orientation in Trust

The denominator in the Trust Equation is self-orientation (the numerator factors are credibility, reliability and intimacy). The higher your self-orientation, the lower your trustworthiness. The logic is simple: if you’re paying attention to the other person (client, customer, friend, spouse, whatever), then you’re probably interested in them, care about them, and have some positive intent toward them.

By contrast, if your attention is devoted inward, you will not be trusted. Why should you be? You’re obsessed with yourself. We trust people who appear to care, and who demonstrate that caring by paying attention. He who pays attention largely to himself is not the stuff of trusted advisors. (Note: you can take your own Trust Quotient quiz at the upper right of this page.)

Get Off Your S

For those of us who need catch-phrases to remember (count me in), here’s one: Get Off Your S. That is, stop being so self-oriented.

Here’s the psychology of it. You’re not as good as you think you are, you’re not as bad as you think you are–you just think more about yourself than others think about you. To live between your ears is to live in enemy territory. You empower what you fear. If you have a foot in yesterday and one in tomorrow, you’re set to pee on today. Blame is captivity. It’s never too late to have a happy childhood.

Here’s the spirituality of it. To give is more blessed than to receive. To get what you want, focus on getting others what they want. Treat others as you’d wish they’d treat you. Pay it forward. Put change in a stranger’s parking meter. Do a good deed a day. Humility doesn’t mean thinking less of yourself, it means thinking of yourself less. Fear is lack of faith.

Here’s the business of it. Never Eat Alone. Listen before making recommendations. To get tweets, give tweets. Inbound marketing not outbound marketing. Customer focus. Customer service. Samples selling.

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Oh, and my potential client? They were just busy. They’re going to buy, they always were.

It’s not about you. It never is.

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 Twelve Steps of Business Relationships

Twelve-step programs are commonly known as ‘recovery’ programs – a structured approach to getting out of a problem situation.  But what if you turned that perspective on its head? What if you saw a program – particularly one with twelve steps – as something to advance you from an already-good situation to an even better, new level of life, thought, and – relationships?

Below are twelve steps to take when looking to grow strong, trust-based business relationships. Easy? Yes. Simple? Well, see for yourself.

With much respect and genuflection to the original source…

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Rarely will you see someone fail in business who has thoroughly followed these simple suggestions. Those who do fail are typically people who are incapable of being honest – with their colleagues, their customers and their partners.

Other problems may temporarily deflect you, but the ability to be rigorously honest will prove immeasurably beneficial in all your business relationships.

Twelve Steps of Business Relationships

Step 1. Accept that you have no power over people, that all your attempts at control have failed. Trying to get other people to do what you want them to do is doomed to failure, no matter how good your intentions, how right your cause, or how much benefit it would bring the other.

People just wanna be free. Go with it.

Step 2. Recognize that by yourself, you can’t succeed. Your success will inevitably be tied up in the success of other people. Not only are you not driving the bus, you are in fact just another passenger.

Step 3. Resolve that you’re going to stop trying to drive the bus – that you’ll start doing things to help other people – that you’ll focus on getting the group to succeed. When things don’t go your way, remember “your way” is what got you into this mess. Repeat steps 1 and 2.

Step 4. Make a list of all the stupid, controlling, selfish things you do to others. Be specific about whom you do them to, and what harm it does to them. Stop at ten people.

Now add to the list a few good things you do. You are, after all, worthwhile.

Step 5. Go share your list with someone you trust. Listen to what they have to say about it and learn from what they have to say. Don’t waste time arguing with them.

Step 6. Get yourself ready to stop behaving in those old ways. Think about it for a while. Make a list of the new things you’ll do. Envision yourself responding in new ways; rehearse new “lines.”

Hint: your list should probably include listening. Also, listening.

Step 7. Pick a time of your own choosing to begin the change. It could be right now, it could be next week, but not next summer. Write that date in your calendar. When it comes, step out of your old ways and start working the new.

Step 8. Think about the customers, co-workers, peers and partners you might have tried to control and what you did to them. Think of what you might have done better and plan to do better next time.

Step 9. Go back to the customers, co-workers and partners you’ve tried to control, and tell them you realize what you have done. Acknowledge your responsibility in those situations, and tell them specifically how you plan to behave differently in future.

Hint: Don’t do this if it causes upset or harm to the other person. Also:  don’t confuse this with trying to get them to forgive you – see Step 1, above.

Step 10. At each day’s end, do a mental run-through of how you did in your new approach. Note where you fell short and what you could have done better.

Then let it go and get a good night’s sleep.

Step 11. Create a little mantra for yourself, to remind you that your job is to help others, not yourself. Get out of the transaction, secure in the idea that better relationships will float all transaction boats.

Step 12. Having recognized how to apply these principles to your business affairs, give it a shot at home and in the rest of your life.  You saw that one coming, right?

Escaping the Grinding Wheels of Sales

The plaintive question suddenly took me back a few decades. I remember feeling exactly as the person described it:

What am I supposed to do? On the one hand, I genuinely want to do right by my client. At the same time, my firm is depending on me to drive revenue there. They’re not asking me to do anything wrong, of course, but the pressure is there nonetheless; it’s on me to figure out how to do it, how to ring the bell. And I’ve got to make it happen; it’s my job.

I feel caught between two grinding wheels: everyone’s nice about it, but that just makes it worse.  I don’t know how to make both sides happy, and it’s just grinding me down.

Exactly. Boy do I remember that. And if you sell systems, or professional services, or complex B2B services, I bet you can relate too.

So here’s what I’ve learned that’s kept me away from the grinding wheels for a long time now.

What You Must Remember

Here’s the thing. Three things, actually.

Thing 1. You can’t make people do what they don’t want. Trying to do so just makes it worse. And much ‘selling’ rhymes with trying to do just that. (One of my favorite findings in Neil Rackham’s great work SPIN Selling is that attempts to teach ‘closing’ actually made students worse at closing).

Thing 2. If you help other people, it predisposes them to help you. And “help” comes in many flavors, including – very much including – just plain old listening. Listening to people predisposes them to listen to  you. And listening to you tends to increase the odds of their buying.

Thing 3. Principle-based behavior beats tactical behavior. If your actions are always based on short-term self-interest, others will not trust you. If your actions are based on principles, others will see it and trust you, including in the buying process.

If you accept Thing 1, you’ll lose less. If you start doing Things 2 and 3, you’ll win more.

If you think rightly about these three ideas, and act on them – you can escape that feeling of being ground down.  Here’s how.

Putting the Basic Things Together

In the happy event that your offering is better than your competitor’s, don’t blow it by over-reaching. Be calm, open, and natural. Be forthright, but confident that your offering can speak for itself.

If your offering is worse than your competitor’s, don’t blunt your sword. Admit it. Do what you can to help your client, including – yes, I’m serious – recommending your competitor (you’ll gain hugely in credibility). Then go back to your product people and convince them you’ve got a product problem, not a sales problem.

In the most usual case – your offering is comparable – you do not win by clever pricing, sexy presentations, or ingenious politics. And frankly, winning by adding more value or being cleverer at content is over-rated. Because let’s be honest: your competitors are more or less as smart or clever as you are. Expertise these days is a commodity.

Where you can win is by playing the long game, and the principles game. If you consistently aim to help your clients, being forthright at all times about what is in their best interest, they will notice. And you will get more than your “fair share” of business, i.e. more than just the share you might expect based solely on quality of service offering.

Because buyers prefer to deal with principled sellers who have their long-term interests at heart, rather than with serially selfish tacticians. For proof, just ask yourself and your firm how you behave as buyers.

Escaping the Grinding Wheels of Sales

Back to my workshop participant, caught between the grinding wheel of sales. How to escape it?

The answer is an inside job. It requires recognizing that all the tension comes from an inability to accept the Three Things:

  • We feel tension when we try to get people to do something we know they don’t really want
  • We feel tension when we try for what we want, rather than what helps the client
  • We feel tension when we try for the transaction, not the relationship.

So – don’t do that.

You must believe in and act on those principles. If you decide the principles need a little nudge, that somehow they’re not strong enough on their own, then you are simply willing yourself back into that space between the grinding wheels. If you can’t live your principles, you will not benefit from them. Nor would you deserve to.

But if you can believe and act on them, you no longer have to worry. Just do the next right thing. Be client-helpful in the long term. Don’t Always Be Closing: instead, Always Be Helping.

Work hard, but don’t spend an ounce of your effort on trying to get others to do your short-term selfish bidding. Let your competitors play that game, because it simply helps you play yours.

Answering Objections

What if your boss doesn’t buy it, you ask? Tell them you need 9 months to prove it. If they refuse to have anything to do with your view, then you must either come to peace with the grinding wheels, or accept that you’ll be happier in another place. The good news is, many managers are quite educable in this regard, particularly if you begin to deliver the numbers, and 9 months give or take is about enough time.

What if your clients don’t buy it, you ask? In my experience, about 80% of clients react the way I’ve described above. The others are either nasty people or monopolists, and they are the ones you should willingly cede to your competitors.

You can stop feeling ground down any time you choose to, starting now. Just choose to Always Be Helping.

Are Your Clients Lying to You?

Have you ever had that sinking feeling that your client—or your hopefully prospective client—is being less than honest with you?

Maybe they haven’t returned that call. The last three email exchanges have been one-way. They haven’t mentioned that meeting they were so eager about just last month. They’re talking constrained budgets. Is it possible your client is lying to you?

There Is Lying, and There Is Lying

I’m not talking about flat-out lies like, “We’re going to give you the project,” when they already signed an agreement with another firm. But consider a few other situations from your daily life:

How often do you answer “How are you?” with “Fine, thanks,” when you’re not fine?

How often do you answer, “No problem,” when, in fact, it is a problem?

How do you answer the classic, “Does this dress make me look fat?”

How often do you say, “Let’s do lunch,” meaning this is goodbye?

How about, “Oh, I’m sorry, I’m booked on Friday?” Or, “Yes, let’s definitely stay in touch.”

I’m not trying to draw a sharp moral distinction (or to blur one). I’m not trying to justify or excuse any type or level of truth-telling or its absence. I’m simply pointing out the ubiquity of situations in which we, on a daily basis, are Less Than Fully Transparent. Let’s call it LTFT. And let’s recognize that it happens—a lot.

What You Mean When You Are LTFT

What about when you are LTFT? Do you have evil intentions? Are you attempting to hoodwink someone? Are you a swindler? A thief? A con artist?

Almost certainly not. Your motives are probably to be careful of and solicitous toward the other person. You are trying not to hurt their feelings. You want to spare them the embarrassment of being contradicted, rejected, or humiliated.

And oddly enough, the less you know them, the more you are likely to feel a need to protect them. After all, if you knew them well, you’d feel more comfortable having a heart-to-heart.

But from another perspective, this isn’t odd at all. The fact that you don’t know them well is precisely why you don’t want to get into uncomfortably specific details. You can afford to think “out of sight, out of mind” because you won’t see them much more—if ever—but you don’t want them to speak ill of you either.

And so we choose a strategy for handling difficult situations with not-deep acquaintances we don’t want to hurt—to be polite and give no offense.

And so, you are LTFT. Or, if you prefer, you lie to them.

What They Mean When They Are LTFT

Be honest: why should other people’s motives be any different, or any worse, than yours? Unless you’re a candidate for sainthood, odds are your motives are the same as theirs.

What, then, to make of the girl in high school who, when you asked her out, said, “Oh, I’m so sorry. I’m busy Friday night,” before turning away? Do you really wish she had said, “Look, I just don’t want to go out with you at all?”

What to make of the prospective client you met at a networking event who said, “Yes, let’s do lunch one of these days.” Would you prefer he said, “Look, I’m just not interested in you or your offering, and I don’t want to waste any more time talking about it?”

What did your client really mean when they said you lost the bid on price? Would you really prefer they said, “Frankly, you were fourth out of five on most dimensions, and fifth on the rest, and we don’t want to invest more time in explaining it to you?”

Like you, your clients are trying to be polite, to spare your feelings, and to disengage without hurt feelings—or, at least, with the ability to say to themselves that there were no hurt feelings. They’re not “lying” to you; they’re just being LTFT with you.

The Solution to LTFT

If you don’t like being in an LTFT situation as a seller, you have two options.

The first option is appropriate when you really don’t have a viable proposition to bring to the table—when you know in your bones that you got solidly beat by a competitor or you just don’t have game. In those cases, your strategy should be simply to accept it.

In fact, be grateful for it. At least they liked you enough not to be “brutally honest.” Stop obsessing, stop feeling angry, and stop the self-pity. Resolve to either change your proposition for the next time you face this situation or not to get into that situation again.

The second option is preventive and prophylactic: drive sharply past the “friend zone,” and create a personal connection of trust. Use the “Name It and Claim It” approach and speak out loud the issue that everyone is dancing around. Give them an off-ramp, but be sure to put the issue on the table.

You don’t have to be a full-blown trusted advisor to have a trust-based connection. Nor does it have to take a long time. What you must do is speak a direct, unvarnished little piece of The Truth. Here’s what some “truth-bits” might look like:

  • Don’t send that third email pretending nothing is wrong. Say something like this: “If I don’t hear back from you, I’ll assume things have shifted or changed, which of course does happen.” Then if you don’t hear back, move along.
  • Instead of saying, “Let’s do lunch,” lean in while you shake the person’s hand and say, “Look, would you like to have lunch a week from Wednesday, or would you prefer to just get back to me at some later point of your choosing?” Then if you don’t hear back, move along.
  • Instead of meekly accepting that you “lost on price,” say, “Look, Joe, I just want to ask you one favor, just one yes-or-no question with no follow-up. I know we did several things wrong—was it really just price that determined your decision? Or was it several other things, too? I just want to know where we should focus our efforts going forward, and that yes/no would be a huge help to us.”
  • Better yet, before the bidding results are announced, say, “Look, Joe, I know we may win, and we may lose. I’d like to ask you one favor. If we were to lose, could I ask you to be honest with me about the main reason we lost? So often people give just a nice ‘So sorry’ and then we go off and make the same mistake again. You could really help us learn going forward. If you’d be so kind, I’d really appreciate it.”

Instead of meekly submitting to the LTFT ritual, be the one to break out of it. You can’t force other people to break out of it with you—you always need to give them the LTFT off-ramp—but you can lead by example.

You can show them that you’re willing to speak directly and truthfully, and you’ll appreciate the company—if they’re up to it.