Integrity: What’s Up With That?

Like trust, integrity is something we all talk about, meaning many different things, but always assuming that everyone else means just what we do.  That leads to some vagueness and confusion. But a careful examination of how we use the words in common language is useful.

Integrity and the Dictionary

Merriam Webster says it’s “the quality of being honest and fair,” and/or “the state of being complete or whole.”

If you’re into derivations of words (as I am), then it’s the second of these definitions that rings true. The root of “integrity” is Latin, integer.  That suggests the heart of the matter (integral), and an entirety. “Integer” also has the sense of a non-fractional number, i.e. whole, not fragmented, complete.

In manufacturing, we have the idea of “surface integrity,” the effect that a machined surface has on the performance of the product in question: integrity here means keeping a package of specified performance levels intact. Similarly, a high-integrity steel beam is one that will not break or otherwise become compromised within certain parameters of stress.

Related also to this theme of wholeness is the idea of transparency, of things being whole, complete, not hidden – in this sense, we have high integrity to the extent we appear the same way to all people. Think of the phrase “two-faced” as an example of someone without integrity. (For a somewhat different and nuanced take on this issue in cyberspace, see @danahboyd on Mark Zuckerberg and multiple online identities).

Sometimes when we say someone has integrity, we mean they act consistently, in accord with principles. We say someone has high integrity when they stick to their guns, even in the face of resistance or difficulty.

Which raises an interesting question: where’s the line between integrity and obstinacy? For that matter, can a politician who believes passionately in the art of compromise ever be considered to have high integrity?

Then there’s that other common use of integrity that has a moral overtone – honorable, honest, upright, virtuous, and decent. Some of it has to do with truth-telling; but some of it has to do with pursuing a moral code.

Yet that raises another interesting question: can a gang member or a mafioso be considered to have integrity? Can an Occupy person ever consider a Wall Streeter to have integrity? Or vice versa? There may be honor among thieves, but can there be integrity?

Integrity – Your Choice?

So which is it?  Does integrity mean you tell the truth? Does it mean you operate from values? Does it mean you always keep your word? Does it mean you live a moral life? Does it mean your life is an open book?

Let’s be clear: there is no “right” answer. Words like “integrity” mean whatever we choose to make them mean; there is no objective “meaning” that exists in a way that can be arbitrated.

But that makes it even more important that we be clear about what we do mean. It just helps in communication.

For my part, I’m going to use “integrity” mainly to mean whole, complete, transparent, evident-to-all, untainted, what-you-see-is-what-you-get.

For other common meanings of “integrity,” I’m going to stick with synonyms like credible or honest; or moral and upright; or consistent.

What do you mean when you think of integrity?

This post first appeared on TrustMatters.

To Live Outside the Law You Must be Honest

Years ago, O best beloved, there lived a musician, both popular and influential. His name was Bob Dylan. Some of you may remember.

Dylan’s lyrics grace the lists of most popular lyrics of all time, including my favorite, “the ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face…” from Visions of Johanna.

But some lines were more than just poetically evocative – they also hinted at serious truths. One such line was today’s title: “To live outside the law, you must be honest.” The lyric is from Absolutely Sweet Marie, from (IMHO) his greatest album, Blonde on Blonde, recorded in New York and Nashville in 1966. As with all Dylan songs, who knows what the artist meant, he’s not talking – but here’s what I take it to mean.

It’s easy to color within the lines. It’s easy to paint by numbers, fill in the check boxes, meet the specs and follow the regulations. In short, to follow the law. But when it comes to issues like trust and ethics, balancing social responsibility and profits, navigating between government demands and consumer demands – it’s not enough.

It’s tempting, taunting, tantalizing, to look to the law (or corporate guidelines, or regulations) for guidance when faced with a difficult issue in client relationships, customer satisfaction, or ethical issues. It’s also a copout.

Issues of ethics and trust demand a higher order of resolution. When faced with a client demanding to know the truth about some matter, how much truth do you share? The ‘law’ will clearly tell you what truths not to tell; and if you want to argue from omission, what truths are therefore not restrained. But your client – or your constituencies, or your legacy – isn’t going to be satisfied, in part because all you’re doing is citing ‘the law;’ you’re not taking any responsibility.

Being Honest, Being Principled

In this situation, I’m equating “be honest” with “be principled.” Principles apply to more than just honesty, but honesty will do fine as a stand-in for other principles. The point is – you’d better have something more than chapter and verse at hand to satisfy a demand for trust or fairness, whether from clients, employees or society at large. The statement “but it was legal” doesn’t cut any mustard in the higher courts of human interaction.

If you’re looking to be trusted, compliance is de minimis; by itself,  even inflammatory. “Sorry, that’s the law” is only slightly more satisfying than “Sorry, that’s our policy,” or, “Sorry, that’s not how we do things around here.”

Instead, you need principles – rooted in human nature and human relationships. Principles like service to others, or collaboration, or transparency, or don’t treat others as means to your ends. It’s principles like these that provide better guidance to tough decisions. (It’s also principles, that in the long run, must undergird the law itself for the law to be seen as legitimate.)

Your client wants to know what principles are driving you to be opaque and malleable about your pricing. Passat owners and VW dealers want to know what principles, if any, justify the slow drip of revelations about accountability. Apple shareholders and customers are very much vested in wanting to know the principles behind Tim Cook’s position on security – and the government makes its case best when it challenges Apple on principle grounds, e.g. arguing that the real motive is brand enhancement.

Living Outside the Law

To “live outside the law” doesn’t mean you’re a criminal – but in Dylan’s meaning, it does mean you’re an outlaw. You operate in part outside the narrow proscriptions of the law; you find affirmation by others of your actions by grounding them in broader principles.

That’s ultimately what makes others trust you. We live our daily lives by universal principles that others recognize as legitimate as well. We don’t trust people whose ‘ethics’ amount to rote checkbox compliance. We trust those who come from someplace deep, a place where connection to others and relationships with them are bedrock. People who feel their principles and are confident enough in them to re-compute them in every situation, as if for the first time.

If you’re going to live outside the law – and you should – you’d best be honest.

 

The Single Fastest Thing You Can Do to Increase Trust

Trust takes time.

Well, as I’ve said countless times – that’s the biggest myth out there. Trust can be built in a matter of moments. It’s all about how you go about it. And I can share with you how you can build trust…fast.

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That’s quite a claim. But I think I can back it up. (This thing also requires little time or money, meaning it’s also high ROI).

First, let’s define terms.

• By “increase trust,” I mean something Person A can do that increases their probability of being trusted by Person B;
• By “fastest,” I don’t mean easiest, nor most powerful. I mean least elapsed time between interaction and resultant trust.
• By “trust,” I mean legitimate trust, trustworthiness on the part of Person A. No fakery.

It’s simple, though not easy. Let me tell you what it is; then give you 11 reasons why it is indeed the single fastest way to increase trust.

It is simply this:

Return calls and emails really fast.

That’s it. Doesn’t sound like much, does it? But let’s explore further.

First, here’s the basic template for doing it:

Joe, I want to let you know I got your message. I may not get to it until Thursday, but I want to let you know I’m on it. I’ll be working it between now and then. It’s on my to-do list, it’s in my mind first thing in the morning and last at night. You can take it off your worry list, I’m on the case.

Now let’s explore what this does for you and your client.

1. It immediately removes FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt) from your client’s mind. All those concerns (did he get it? why hasn’t he answered me yet? was it something I said? Is he avoiding me? is he fighting me?) are gone. Cut off. Stopped cold. You have committed to engage.

2. It allows you to proactively schedule things out to Thursday. (Don’t worry—if they actuallydo need it Tuesday, they’ll be back to you about it).

3. By making a commitment to engage, you create a chance to improve your perceived reliability and integrity—by proceeding to do just what you said you’d do.

4. It demonstrates your attentiveness to the client’s issue.

5. It demonstrates your sensitivity to the client’s time needs.

6. It forces you to address an issue. The tougher and more difficult the issue, the more important this is. How many people have not returned your call in the last three days? The more uncomfortable an issue is, the more likely we are to delay, or avoid, facing it. Unfortunately, the other person knows it. They in turn silently accuse us of passive-aggressive avoidance. And they’re right.

7. By dealing with tough issues—putting them squarely on the table—we show that we are not afraid to constructively engage. The work of John Gottman in marriages shows the enemy of relationships is not confrontation, but disengagement. Returning that difficult phone call forthrightly builds relationships.

8. By scheduling it for Thursday, you show that you’re in charge of your schedule, therefore an efficient server of clients.

9. By scheduling it forthrightly, you show confidence that you can deal with the issue, and confidence itself is confidence-inspiring (I’m assuming here you can back it up).

10. By responding quickly and directly, you validate the client’s sense of the issue as being accurate and timely.

11. You’re going to have to deal with this thing anyway. You can do it efficiently, effectively and confidently and gain all the above benefits; or you can put it off hoping either the issue will die, the muse will descend from the heavens, or the client will forget about it.

Do the right thing. Return that call or email really fast.

Four Principles of Organizational Trust: How to Make Your Company Trustworthy

Here’s a “Golden Oldie” post from 2011. Has anything changed in the passage of five years?

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iStock_000018524776XSmallTrust, in case you hadn’t noticed, has gotten “hot” lately. But much of it sounds very vague—soft, fluffy, nice-to-have, the buzzword du jour.

I’d like to do my part to make it real.

To me, that means breaking it down and making it sound; tapping into the strategy and mysticism, but also staying grounded in the tactical and the practical.

So let’s review some context; then talk about four specific operating principles a business can hone in on to improve its trustworthiness.

Putting Trust into a Workable Context

I’ve suggested elsewhere that “trust” is too vague a term to work with. To do something practical, we need first to identify the trust realm: are we talking about personal trust, or business/organizational trust, or social/institutional trust?

The next question is about the trust role: are we working on being more trusting? Or more trustworthy? They are not the same thing.  And “trust” is the result of them both interacting.

Building a Trustworthy Business

In the realm “personal” and the role “trustworthy,” we can point to personal beliefs and behaviors as indicated in the Trust Quotient. But in business, trustworthiness is built through a set of daily operating principles. Trustworthiness is built from habitually behaving in accordance with a set of commonly shared beliefs about how to do business.

I suggest they can be boiled down to four.

The Four Trust Principles

1. A focus on the Other (client, customer, internal co-worker, boss, partner, subordinate) for the Other’s sake, not just as a means to one’s own ends.  We often hear “client-focus,” or “customer-centric.” But these are terms all-too-often framed in terms of economic benefit to the person trying to be trusted.

2. A collaborative approach to relationships.  Collaboration here means a willingness to work together, creating both joint goals and joint approaches to getting there.

3. A medium to long term relationship perspective, not a short-term transactional focus. Focus on relationships nurtures transactions; but focus on transactions chokes off relationships. The most profitable relationships for both parties are those where multiple transactions over time are assumed in the approach to each transaction.

4. A habit of being transparent in all one’s dealings.  Transparency has the great virtue of helping recall who said what to whom. It also increases credibility, and lowers self-orientation, by its willingness to keep no secrets.

Executing on the Trust Principles

What are the tools an organization has at its disposal to make itself more trustworthy? Any good change management consultant can rattle off the usual suspects, but for trustworthiness, the emphasis has to shift somewhat.

The usual change mantra includes a heavy dose of behaviors, metrics and incentives. Some of that works here, but only to a point.

For example, Principle 1, focus on the Other, is contradicted by too much extrinsic incentive aimed at leveraging self-interest–it undercuts focus on the Other.  And Principle 3, relationship over transaction, forces metrics and rewards to a far longer timeframe than most change efforts employ.

Another great shibboleth of change is that it must be led from the CEO’s office. But with trust, it ain’t necessarily so.  Trustworthiness is a great candidate for infectious disease change strategies; guerrilla trust strategies can work at the individual level, and individual players can lead. Behavior in accord with these principles cannot be coerced; the flipside is, it can be unilaterally engaged in.

The most powerful tools to create a trustworthy organization are things like language, recognition, story-telling, simply paying attention to the arenas where the principles apply—and the will to apply them.  Role-modeling helps; some skill-building helps.  But most of all, it is the willingness to notice the pervasive opportunities to work in accordance with this simple set of four principles.

Trustworthiness breeds trusting (the reverse is true too); the combination is what leads to trust. Which, by the way, is quite measurable in its impact on the bottom line.

The Problem With Lying

We learned in grade school not to lie (probably just a bit after we’d already learned how to lie – sometimes you have to know a vice before you can see the virtue that counteracts it).

But even if we learned it – the lesson didn’t seem to stick. (Check daily newspaper headlines). As we see headlines about LIBOR, Volkswagen, drug pricing and you name it, are we losing the ability to be shocked by lying?

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When in doubt, look to humor – particularly sarcasm.   Here’s Dilbert on trust and lying:

dilbert

Scott Adams nails it.  And with a surgical sledgehammer, as usual. The pointy-haired boss is ethically clueless, and blatantly so.

We all get the joke, much the way we get the old George Burns line, “the most important thing in life is sincerity – if you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”

But sometimes it’s worth deconstructing the obvious to see just what makes it tick.  So at the risk of stepping on the laugh line, let’s have a go at it.

Lying and Credibility

The most obvious problem with lying is that it makes you wrong. Anyone who knows the truth then immediately knows, at a bare minimum, that you said something that is not the truth, aka wrong.

The shock to credibility extends even to denials. Think Nixon’s “I am not a crook,”  or Clinton’s “I did not have sex…” or the granddaddy of them all, the apocryphal Lyndon  Johnson story about getting an opponent to deny having had sexual relations with a pig. In each case, the denial forces us to consider the possibility of an alternate truth – and the damage is done.

But credibility is the least of it. There are two other corrosive aspects of lying: evasiveness and motives.

Lying and Evasiveness

When you think someone is lying to you, you likely think, “Why is he saying that?” Evasive lying is rarely as direct as the Dilbert case; more often it shows up in white lies, lies of omission, or lies of deflection. “You know, you can’t really trust those damage reports anyway,” “I wouldn’t be too concerned about the service guarantee if I were you,” and so forth.

If the first response to a lie is to doubt that what is stated is the truth, then the second response is to wonder what the truth really is. And we sense evasiveness as we run down the list of alternate truths, each more negative than the last.

Lying and Motive

But the most damning aspect of lying is probably the doubt it casts on the liar’s motives. We move from “that’s not true!” to “I wonder what really is true,” to “why would he be saying such a thing?”

To doubt someone’s motives is to add an infinite loop to our concerns about the lie. First of all, motive goes beyond the lie, to the person telling the lie – who is now incontrovertibly a liar.

Second, the rarest of all motives for lying is an attempt to do a  greater good for another. Despite frequent claims that “I did it for (the kids / the parents / justice), almost all motives for lying turn out to be self-serving at root.  (Including the lies we tell ourselves about why we’re telling lies). Why would he do such a thing? Because there was something in it for him, that’s why! It’s almost always true.

And if people act toward us from selfish motives, then we know we have been treated as objects – as means to an end and not as ends in ourselves. This is unethical in the Kantian sense.

Worst of all, bad motives call everything else into question. “If he lied about this, then how can I know he was telling the truth about that? Or about anything else?” This is why perjury is a crime, and why casting doubt on someone’s character is a common way to counter their statements.

Recovering from Lies

We’ve all told lies. At least, everyone I know has. Okay, I have. We can often be forgiven, just as we can forgive others their lies to us. To forgive and to be forgiven, the liar must express recognition and contrition around the full extent of the lie, and then some.

This can be done more easily for the wounds of credibility and evasiveness. “I was wrong to do that, I know it, and I am sorry.” It is harder to forgive the part about motive, because it goes to something much deeper. How can someone be believed about changing their motives?  How easily can you change your own?

This post first appeared on TrustMatters.

And the Winner Is Low Price. Wait – No…

It’s a time-honored business strategy – low prices. Michael Porter codified Low Price as one of three generic competitive strategies, but it’s not like it wasn’t already commonsense in  every business culture. Still, it’s remarkable to see the over-reliance on this particular strategy in our “modern” times.

Which leads me to ask: Just what is it with low prices?

You see products and services being sold on the basis of low price every day, all around you. Yet you’re also well aware that you shouldn’t compete on just price—that price competition is ruinous and that low prices suggest the absence of larger value.

But just what does that mean for your business? Don’t take my word for it; find out for yourself. Are you in a vicious, cut-throat, price-gouging business? Or are you in one of those cushy, big-margin, fat, dumb and happy businesses that doesn’t have to worry about price competition?

You may be surprised at where you fall on the continuum.

The 3-Question Price Competition Quiz

First, make a subjective estimation of where your business stands on a price sensitivity scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being “price ranks very low on the scale of our customers’ concerns” and 10 being “low price is just about the only item our customers care about in this business.” On which side of 5 does your business lie? And how far over toward the end?

Second, make a list of the last 25 competitive bid jobs your company bid on—and lost.

Third, make a list of the last 25 competitive bid jobs your company bid on—and won.

Now, for the “lost” list: in how many of the 25 cases where you lost the competitive bid did the client say something like, “Nice job. Thanks for bidding, but, well, you were just a little too far out of line on price.” In other words, how many jobs did you lose on price? What percent is that of the 25?

And finally, for the “won” list: in how many of the 25 cases where you won the competitive bid did the client say to you, in effect, “Congratulations, you won the job; looking forward to working with you. By the way, the reason you won was you were the low bidder.” In other words, how many jobs did you win on price? What percent is that of the 25?

And the Winner Is …

Let me guess: your percentage lost on price is larger than your percentage won on price.

Let me guess again: your percentage won on price is closer to zero than it is to 25%.

Another guess: your percentage lost on price is less than half.

Another: the ratio of your percentage lost on price to your percentage won on price is 2.5:1 or more.

And finally: looking at your subjectively estimated ranking of your business’s level of price competition, does it fall on the same side of 5 as your estimated wins and losses based on price?

Now, if those guesses are wrong, please write me. I want to know what business you are in! Because for most B2B businesses, particularly those with larger, more complex sales and services offerings, those guesses are well-based on historical data (my data, that is, from giving the quiz in classes).

The Pricing Conundrum

Assuming your results look like my guesses, that raises several conundrums.

One conundrum is this: “If we’re such a price-competitive business, why do both wins and losses appear to be less often based on price than on something else?”

The other is this: “Why do we seem to lose on price more often than we win?”

The answer to both conundrums is that price is overrated as a factor in buying decisions. The real question is why? The answer has mostly to do with buyer psychology.

How Buyers Think about Price

One level of buyer psychology is available to us simply by asking, or by envisioning, what goes on in client organizations. Many consultants and accountants I talk to (and nearly all lawyers) have a tale about how the client’s procurement process is destroying quality—”all they care about is price.”

That is not what the procurement people will tell you, however. Procurement specialists have little interest in incurring the wrath of internal clients with legitimate quality concerns just to be able to say they got the lowest bidder. Value and quality are hardly irrelevant to their concerns.

And assuming your data is like I suggested above, the low bidder doesn’t always win. In fact, the low bidder, it would appear, wins considerably less than half the time, even judging from the higher of the two numbers you estimated (percentage of time you lost on price). And considering the number of times you won on price, one has to wonder how the myth of price competition arose in the first place.

The answer goes deeper into buyer psychology. Suppose you worked for a client and were charged with telling the losing bidders the bad news. How would you deliver the message?

Perhaps you’d prefer to do nothing and just skip the unpleasant task. But you know someone has to do it, and you owe it to the bidders to give a decent explanation.

You don’t want to share too much about the decision process, however, for a variety of reasons—chief among which is you chose the winning firm because, frankly, “we just feel more right about working with them.” You can’t saythat, for heavens’ sake!

So, you end up with several generalizations. Your team wasn’t quite as qualified, the winner had a really strong track record, and that game-ending no-appeals-allowed reason—your price was just a little too high.

Price is an enormously appealing excuse. It’s quantitative (and we all know numbers are good, right?). It’s completely opaque—the proposer has no way of knowing anyone else’s price and would never ask (and only partly because of legal issues).

But most important of all, the bidder wants to believe price was the reason they lost. Because the alternatives are unpalatable: they don’t have good people, they don’t have a good reputation, they don’t appear trustworthy, and so on. No selling team, particularly a team that would be involved in delivering the work, is interested in a message like that!

So, price becomes their refuge. “Darn! If we just could have priced it a little lower. I knew it. The market is tough out there; next time we can’t afford to be so choosy. We need to get in there and fight. And if we have to lower prices to get the work, well maybe we need to do just that.”

And that’s how the myth of low prices gets perpetuated. The moral of the story: if you think you lost on price, think again. Price is just the most convenient excuse for something more fundamental.

 

This post originally appeared on RainToday. 

DON’T Always Exceed Expectations

Like most people, I enjoy a good positive surprise. Whether that’s something as simple as getting an unexpected discount at the grocery store, snagging a last-minute table at a popular restaurant, or being surprised by having the driver in front of me pay for my toll – it’s all good.

But when it comes to business – good old fashioned straight-forward honesty can do more for building your reliability than can exceeding expectations. How’s that? Read on.

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Many of us go around repeating a mantra that we think is self-evidently correct: Under-promise and over-deliver, we say. Always exceed expectations.

There is a website ExceedAllExpectations. Another website, HowTo.gov, tells governmental agencies they ought to incent (suborn?) performance beyond expectations. And as you well know, it’s a common mantra in business.

Well – not so fast.

Why Always Exceeding Expectations is a Bad Idea

Think this through. If you intentionally exceed a customer’s expectations, then you intentionally misled your customer about what to expect in the first place. In plain English – you lied. And if you make that a habit – as in “consistently exceed expectations” – then you’re a habitual liar.

Think that’s too strong? Think it through the next step. When a customer habitually gets more than they were promised, what’s such a customer to think?  That’s easy – they’ll think that you’re constantly sandbagging the quote to make yourself look good. And they will naturally start to bargain with you about the expected results and/or the price.

When you make a habit of exceeding expectations, you are training your customers. You are training them to expect you to under-promise and over-deliver. And they are not dumb, they learn quickly.

You have trained them to doubt you, to suspect your motives, and to disbelieve what you tell them in the future.

Proof from the Market

In a recent issue of my newsletter TrustedAdvice, I included a link to a video clip about this idea. (By the way, if you’d like to get TrustedAdvice via email, click here to subscribe).

Within minutes, I heard from two readers, with very interesting comments.

From Reader 1
I have learned this time and time again, but I want to please my clients, so I repeatedly try to exceed client expectations – only to find the clients coming back and demanding more and more.  The fact is, I set myself up for failure, as you cannot give more than 100%. I end up getting frustrated because then clients generally speaking don’t appreciate it when you do give them 100%, they just expect more and more of you and your time.

and Reader 2 adds another wrinkle
My company has exceeding expectations built into its DNA, a by-product of yours truly (though I am so much better now than I used to be). It has created more damage than you’d ever think. Not just in terms of clients expecting more for less, but in a shop that can never truly feel good about itself just for doing a good job, always feeling we could/should have done more.

“Always exceed expectations,” despite frequently coming from good motives, actually succeeds in destroying trust, with customers and employees alike.

So – don’t do that.

Instead, do what builds trust. Tell people exactly what to expect, and then deliver that. Period. After all, that’s how you develop a track record or being credible and reliable. That way your motives are never in doubt. That way you get known for being not only a straight shooter, but a particularly good estimator.

Basically, tell the truth. It’s always a better policy.

This post first appeared in Trust Matters. 

The Art of Listening: Establishing Trust without Saying a Thing

Buyer Psychology

Ask a client what they want, and they’ll tell you “expertise; credentials; someone who’ll meet my needs.” Ask them what their needs are, and they’ll tell you.

But ask really successful salespeople (or honest clients with experience in buying), and they’ll tell you how it really works. Clients only ask for credentials and expertise because they’re not really sure what else to do. In truth, they’d rather get in range with expertise, and then decide based on their trust in the seller.

Clients will tell you their needs because they think they’re supposed to, and because they’re afraid if they don’t, you’ll take advantage of them. But if you can engage them in honest discussion, they’ll admit their uncertainties and discuss, engage in, and evolve their views of what their needs are.

It all depends on why you’re listening.

If you’re listening to hear an answer to a predetermined question, then you will hear the “canned” definitions of needs that clients have prepared for you. You’ll hear their request for credentials and expertise at face value, and not hear the undertone in the question, or in the bored way they listen to your answer.

Because what clients really want to talk about is what everyone wants to talk about: Themselves. When someone says, “Tell me about yourself,” they’re just being polite – whether it’s on a date, at a social event, or in a sales call. The right answer is not to tell them about your vast experience with other clients – it is to get them talking about themselves. And to listen as they do so.

The Quality Of Listening

The usual form of listening is conditioned by sales models looking for answers and by flawed views of buyer psychology focused on surface dialogue. What is required is a different quality of listening.

The main reason for listening to prospects is to allow the prospect to be heard. Really heard. As in, actually being paid attention to by another human being.

This kind of listening is listening for the sake of listening. Listening to understand, period. No strings attached. No links back to your product. No refined problem statements. Because that’s what people in relationships, at their best, really do. They listen because they want to know what the other person thinks about whatever the other person is interested in talking about.

This kind of listening validates other people. It connects us to them. It provides meaning. And, among other things, it sets the stage for sellers and buyers to interact – if that is the right thing to happen next.

Authors Bill Brooks and Tom Travesano, in You’re Working Too Hard To Make The Sale, note that people greatly prefer to buy what they need from those who understand what it is that they want.

Read that over again, carefully. People prefer to buy what they need (stuff they’re going to buy anyway), from those who understand them on the basis of what they want (things in life they’d love to have – wishes, hopes, desires).

You don’t even have to give them what they want; it’s enough to understand them.

To bring it full circle back to listening: Relationships are the context for successful selling. Relationships are based on trust; they predispose us to engage in qualitatively different kinds of sales conversations. And listening – unrestricted, unbounded, listening for its own sake – is the way we develop such relationships.

And therein lies the paradox. The most powerful way to sell depends on unlinking listening from selling – and instead, just listening. Listening not as a step in a sales process, and not as a search for answers to questions. Listening not as a means to an end, but as an end in itself.

The point of listening is not what you hear, but the act of listening itself.

Making It Work

Here are 5 tips to listening this way. Number five is the most powerful.

  1. Ditch the distractions. You cannot multitask undiscovered. Being multitasked feels insulting. Close the door. Face away from the window. Blank the computer screen. Turn the iPhone over. Now, pay attention.
  2. Use your whole body. Lean toward the speaker – even on the phone. Use facial expressions. Use hands and arms, shake your head, and use “non-verbal” verbalisms. This improves your listening – and indicates you are listening.
  3. Keep it about them – not you. Use open-ended, not closed, questions. Let them tell their own story – don’t use them as foils for your hypotheses.
  4. Acknowledge frequently. Paraphrase their data, empathize with their emotions. Make sure you are hearing both correctly; make sure they know you are.
  5. Think out loud. The biggest obstacle to listening is your own thinking. Be courageous – postpone your thinking until they’re done talking. Be willing to think out loud – with the client. Doing so role-models collaboration and transparency, and that reinforces trust. I hear you. I value you. I respond to you, with no hidden agenda. I trust you. You can trust me.

That’s the message of listening.

This article was first published on RainToday.com

Caught Between the Grinding Wheels of Sales

A workshop participant recently said something that instantly took me back a few decades. I remember feeling exactly as he 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.

Grow Trust with Delegation and Boundaries

Taking Care of The Horses

We often think of ‘management’ as black and white. It’s not. I’m delighted to welcome Jurgen Appelo, one of Europe’s finest management writers, to Trust Matters, to finely articulate some shades of gray. Check out Jurgen’s new book, Management 3.0 Workout, as well.”

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I once tried to figure out what the difference is between the words responsible and accountable. I honestly didn’t know. The words are often used interchangeably. And in Dutch, German, Swedish, Finnish, and other European languages, they even translate to the same word! This makes the use of the two words confusing for readers and annoying for translators. The Wikipedia entry on Delegation tries to clarify it like this:

“Delegation (or passing down) is the assignment of authority and responsibility to another person (normally from a manager to a subordinate) to carry out specific activities (…) However the person who delegated the work remains accountable for the outcome of the delegated work.”

Wikipedia, “Delegation”

In my own words:

You are responsible for your own agreement to be held accountable by someone else.

Beware the accountability trap

It is crucial that you understand that this works in both directions. In any value exchange between two people, each is responsible for his own actions, and for agreeing that he can be held accountable by the other. Sadly, this is often misunderstood. In management 1.0 and management 2.0 organizations, “superiors” seek fulfillment of their own goals over the fulfillment of others, and they hold their “subordinates” accountable without acknowledging that they themselves should be held accountable for the well-being of the workers. Some call it the accountability trap. [Mayer, “The Accountability Trap”] This one-sided view of accountability leads down the path to compliance, compulsion, and complicacy and probably some complaints. You can escape this trap by not only ignoring the difference between the words (as we do in some European languages), but also by acknowledging that empowerment is a reflexive relationship between two equal partners.

Defining Boundaries

The word “management” is derived from the Italian word “manneggiare,” which means “taking care of horses.” I often compare teams and organizations—not people!—with horses, and I believe in mutually respectful relationships between horses and their caretakers. The caretaking of horses includes giving direction and setting boundaries. Quite often, when managers delegate work to teams, they don’t give them clear boundaries of authority [Vozza, “How to Set Healthy Boundaries in Your Workplace”]. By trial and error, teams need to find out what they can and cannot do usually incurring some emotional damage along the way. This was described by Donald Reinertsen as the “discovery of invisible electric fences,” [Reinertsen, Managing the Design Factory pag:107]. Repeatedly running into an electric fence is not only a waste of time and resources but it also kills motivation. And it ruins the coat of the horse. With no idea of what the invisible boundaries are around it, the horse will prefer to stand still or kick another in the head.

Reinertsen suggests creating a list of key decision areas to address the problem of not setting boundaries. The list can include things like working hours, key technologies, product design, and team membership. A manager should make it perfectly clear what the team’s authority level is for each key decision area in this list. When the horse can actually see the fence, there will be less fear and pain. And the farther away the fence, the more the horse will enjoy its territory.

It also works the other way around because of the reflexive relationship of responsibility and accountability. A team usually delegates work to management, such as rewards and remuneration, business partnerships, market strategy, and parking space. The horse is not required to simply accept any kind of boundaries, constraints, and abuse. Nature gave the horse strong teeth and hind legs for this very reason.

Balancing Authority

There’s nothing that scares an inexperienced rider more than the loss of control over the horse. Indeed, a well-managed horse will heed the instructions of its rider, while at the same time the rider will understand the needs and desires of the horse. When we consider a manager and a team, is there an equivalent of the bridle and the reins? Delegation is not a binary thing; there are shades of grey between a dictator and an anarchist. Managers can hand over responsibilities to teams in a controlled and gradual way. The art of management is in finding the right balance. You want to delegate as much as possible in order to decrease bureaucracy and increase power. But if you go too far, self-organization might lead to an undesirable and costly outcome, maybe even chaos. How much you can delegate depends on the maturity of the team, the status of its work, and the impact of decisions on the organization.

Delegation is context-dependent and reflexive. Teams are responsible for their agreement to be held accountable by their managers, and vice versa. Trust between the horse and the rider should always work both ways.

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References
Mayer, Tobias. “The Accountability Trap” <http://bit.ly/YLhZsS> Business Craftsmanship, 20 December 2012. Web.
Reinertsen, Donald G. Managing the Design Factory: A Product Developer’s Toolkit. New York: Free Press, 1997. Print.
Vozza, Stephanie. “How to Set Healthy Boundaries in Your Workplace” <http://bit.ly/1l9NgRs> Entrepreneur, 30 December 2013. Web