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Stop Worrying About Closing the Sale

You’ve heard the admonition “Always Be Closing.” Should you worry about it? For some of you, the answer may be ‘yes.’ But for many more – fuggedaboutit.

Here’s the truth: in some businesses, “closing” is a relevant art. Those businesses are typically highly transactional in nature (e.g. car sales), discretionary and small ticket price (cosmetics), or simple in nature (vegetable peelers). And even then (in the case of car sales), a great many of customers resent being “closed.”

But what about you? Does your business seek repeat customers? Are your benefits largely intangible? Do customer/client relationships matter? Is your ticket price higher? Is your product or service somewhat complex?

In those cases, “closing” is a dinosaur concept. You should distance yourself from it as far as possible.

Think about it. When was the last time you “closed a sale?” What’s your success rate in “closing” sales? Better yet, when was the last time someone tried to “close” you? Did it work? Was it a positive experience?

Here’s a guess at your answer. For a significant percentage of your sales, it’s hard to identify where “closing” happened – the decision just got made – or didn’t. When you do try to close, you often feel uncomfortable; worse yet, more often than not, it doesn’t work. When someone tries to “close” you, it generally doesn’t work–and when it does, you often buy despite the seller’s close, rather than because of it.

If that sounds familiar, you’re not alone. The business development role in those kinds of businesses is antithetical to “closing” as commonly understood.

You don’t need to get better at closing. You need to stop doing it.

The Cult of Closing

The concept of closing probably goes back centuries. Think of itinerant peddlers, carnival barkers, open-air markets. You can hear closing “lines” being practiced today on infomercials and in street fairs (not to mention automobile dealerships). Done well (think Ron Popeil), they’re part of the entertainment of buying.

By the early part of the twentieth century, the concept had gone mainstream. The concept of “always be closing” was taught in the well-regarded Xerox Sales approach and many others.

It lives on today. Here’s what Amazon’s search algorithm produces when the word “sales” is linked to a related term:

Sales 421,684

Sales price 80,996

Sales leads 26,337

Sales close 17,336

Sales meeting 15,201

Sales buyer 12,206

Sales pitch 11,688

Sales presentation 4,610

Clearly, the idea of “closing” is alive and well in sales. But that doesn’t mean it’s right for you. The higher your average sale price, the more complex the sale is, the more relationship-driven it is, and the longer it takes – the less “closing” is likely to help you.

What Closing Is

Did you ever notice that all sales approaches seem to use arrow diagrams? It’s because they conceive of sales as a process that is linear and rational.

Here is typical language, taken from an 8-step version of a product sales process model:

The sales person checks that, if they can meet the specification, then the customer will give them the sale (‘If I…would you…’ trial close). After dealing with any objections, the target solution is presented:

  • Show features that meet customer needs (in priority order).
  • Show additional advantages.
  • Describe benefits that the customer is really buying.
  • Explain how it works (but don’t over do it!).
  • Confirm that they are comfortable with all of this.

The customer now makes the final selection of the product to meet their specification and criteria and hence solve their problems.

The sales person summarizes benefits (Summary Close), asks for the sale (using their favorite close), discusses any logistics detail and reassures the customer that they have made a good decision.

There are two critical assumptions buried in this approach:

  1. The purpose is to get the transactional sale
  2. Buying is a sub-category of rational decision-making.

These assumptions are what make you as a professional squirm in your seat when trying to “close” a real-life professional services client.

Motives Matter

Why do (most) automobile salespeople try to close you?

  1. To qualify you as a lead, so they can focus on likely-to-buy customers.
  2. Because if you walk out the door, you probably won’t come back.
  3. Because they feel you need that little “push” to make a decision.

The first reason is all about them, not you; they come across as selfish and manipulative.

The second is only a disguised version of the first.

The third infantilizes you, the buyer; fine for the emotionally needy, but not for most competent buyers.

Of all the components of trust, the most important is low self-orientation. Think of low self-orientation as client focus for the sake of the client, not for the sake of the seller. Most client focus is the client focus of a vulture; when we find someone who actually seems to care about us as an end, not as a means, we are positively inclined to trust them.

This is the first major problem with closing: it is inherently seller-oriented. It is all about this transaction, here-now. It casts the buyer in the role of means to the seller’s ends. It makes the customer an object.

It’s bad enough when you’re buying a car. How much worse is self-orientation when you’re an accountant talking to a CFO? A publicist talking to an artist? A consultant talking to a CIO?

Motives matter. Closing is an inherently selfish perspective. To close is to put your needs ahead of the client’s. That doesn’t work.

How Clients Buy

The other assumption buried in “closing” is the belief that buying is about rational decision-making. (Ironically, the old-time closing techniques stay purely emotional–see infomercials for an example; the rational add-on is one from modern corporate sales models).

If they haven’t bought, so the logic goes, there must be a reason. If I can uncover the reason, I will remove the blockage to their buying. Repeated attempts to close (the ABC rule, Always Be Closing) make sense based on this logic.

But it’s not quite right. As Jeffrey Gitomer puts it, “the buying decision is made emotionally, and justified rationally.” Lawyers, consultants and accountants think this doesn’t apply to their clients, but it most often does.

In almost all cases, you know more about your service offering than the client does. That’s why they’re buying from you. But they don’t want to become experts in your area of expertise–instead, they want to find an expert they can trust. Their need is not to make a rational decision–their need is to feel comfortable with a rational decision they have to make.

Unfortunately, the “closing” model plays right into three of the largest problems professionals have:

  1. We talk too much about ourselves.
  2. We talk too much about our product or service offering.
  3. We push too fast to move to action steps.

When buyers buy, it isn’t because their objections have been met, or they have been persuaded by rational arguments. It’s because they’ve gotten comfortable with the decision. If they come to feel they trust you–that you have their interests at heart, you understand their concerns, you can be relied on, you will have a commitment to dealing rightly with the inevitable unforeseen circumstances–then they will hire you.

In Place of Closing

The very concept of “closing” is misplaced in professional services. It presumes a transactional, seller-centric, linear, rational model of decision-making about a product or service. Instead, what is needed is a client-centric model of arriving at a level of trust in the seller.

What does that look like? Probably a lot like what you do when you’re successful:

  1. A focus on the relationship, not the transaction
  2. Ample selling that applies competence to the problem itself, rather than talking about qualifications (I call it Selling by Doing, not Selling by Telling)
  3. A lot of listening–open-ended, plain old, paying attention for its own sake
  4. Envisioning–helping the client envision an alternative view of reality, in rich detail.

As always, with trust, there is a paradox. If you stop closing, you’ll close more deals. But only if you do it for the client’s sake. You actually have to care about the client.

 

An earlier version of this post appeared in RainToday 

Traveling Salesman Meets Prisoner’s Dilemma

You may know “The Prisoner’s Dilemma.” In game theory, it is a classic conundrum. As Wikipedia states, it “demonstrates why two people might not cooperate even if it is in both their best interests to do so.”

It turns out that the solution to The Prisoner’s Dilemma is also the solution to a great many sales problems—those in which your customer doesn’t trust you. Are you living in the Dilemma? Or are you living in the solution?

The Dilemma of the Prisoner

Here is a classic version of The Prisoner’s Dilemma:

Two suspects are arrested by the police. The police have insufficient evidence for a conviction and, having separated the prisoners, visit each of them to offer the same deal:

  • If one testifies for the prosecution against the other (defects) and the other remains silent (cooperates), the defector goes free and the silent accomplice receives the full 10-year sentence.
  • If both remain silent, both prisoners are sentenced to only six months in jail for a minor charge.
  • If each betrays the other, each receives a five-year sentence.

Each prisoner must choose to betray the other or to remain silent. Each one is assured that the other would not know about the betrayal before the end of the investigation. How should the prisoners act?

What’s a poor prisoner to do?

If you analyze the situation rationally (the way a game theorist or economist defines that term), your odds are a lot worse if you remain silent—either you get 10 years or six months. But if you rat on your partner, you either get out free or—at worst—five years.

So, reasons the economist, Option A’s average “value” is five years and three months in prison. Option B’s average is two and a half years. “Ah ha,” says the economist’s rational player, “I’ll go for Option B.”

Of course, the other player does the same math and comes to the same conclusion. As a result, each gets five years in prison—a total of 10 prison-years between them.

If only the prisoners had cooperated with each other; they could have each gotten out with just six months in prison—a total of one prison-year between them.

The question is: why don’t they cooperate?

At least, that’s the economists’ question. In the real world, cooperation is quite common.

So the real question is: why do so many people listen to economists?

The Dilemma of the Salesperson

Before answering the Prisoner’s Dilemma, let’s note the similarity with The Salesperson’s Dilemma.

The salesperson has a similar series of trade-offs. For example:

  • “I could take some extra time to study up on tomorrow’s sales call, getting to know more about the prospect. That would improve the odds of my getting a sale tomorrow.”
  • “On the other hand, I could make another cold call with the time saved if I don’t spend it studying up for tomorrow’s call.”

Or, another example:

  • “I could tell them we have very little experience in this area, which would increase their sense of my honesty, which would help me in the long run.”
  • “On the other hand, experience might be the key in getting this job, and I’d better make the best case I can and fudge the rest.”

Still another:

  • “I could share a lot of my knowledge with them, which would really impress them and make them grateful to me.”
  • “On the other hand, if I give it all away in the sales call, they’ll just steal my knowledge and not pay me for it—I’d better wait until after we have a signed contract.”

And one more:

  • “I could go out on a limb and make some really far-sighted observations that would help them—it would go way beyond what they asked for.”
  • “On the other hand, we don’t have much trust built up yet. They might see that as presumptuous or unprofessional; I’ll just answer the questions they asked.”

Just as with The Prisoner’s Dilemma, if the salespersons continually choose Option B, they will sub-optimize. They will do cold calls, leading with no relationship, taking no risks, treating the customer like a competitive enemy, and offering no great help.

In other words, they’ll lose. Just like the prisoners.

In theory, the prisoners are identical, whereas the salesperson and the customer are distinct. But that’s theory. In the real world, sellers somehow tend to find buyers who are similar to them. Sellers who are fear-driven and guarded somehow often find buyers who justify their worst fears.

Both seller and buyer often operate from the Prisoner’s script. And the result is just as sub-optimal.

The Prisoner’s Solution

As postulated by economists and game theorists, The Prisoner’s Dilemma is usually presented with two key assumptions:

  1. The game is played only once
  2. The players do not know each other

The solution lies in changing each of those assumptions. If you tell the players the game will be played 10 times, cooperative patterns begin to emerge. If it’s played 100 times, cooperative strategies take over.

If the players are given information about each other, they become less abstract to each other. If the information is personal, then the relationship changes tone as well.

These two dimensions—time and relationship—are critical. Without a sense of continuity over time, and without a sense of personal relationship, those playing the game will opt to “rat out” each other—even knowing that the result, system-wide, is negative for them on average. But given time and relationships—the optimal solution emerges. Everyone is better off.

In other words, the solution to behaving stupidly is to develop personal relationships over time. Now let’s see how that insight applies to selling.

The Sales Solution

The sales solution should look pretty obvious now. Suboptimal behavior is the result of short timeframes and shallow relationships. In a Prisoner’s Dilemma world, both buyer and seller fear each other, suspect the worst, don’t have relationships beyond the transaction, and are interested primarily in their own self-aggrandizement, without regard to cost to the other party.

If that sounds familiar, just look at this quick list of sales topics that are hot these days: sales automation, lead screening, CRM, social media lead generation, multi-channel messaging. Think about the last step in nearly every sales process model you’ve seen—closing. Think about some of the trends in procurement: online, blind auctions, and RFPs.

What all these subjects have in common is a view of selling that is a) transactional and b) impersonal. In other words, they have short timeframes and weak relationships—two things sure to hurt sales.

Selling benefits from longer timeframes and better personal relationships. If you can stop thinking like an economist and work to eliminate the fear you and your buyers have, you’ll benefit from the long-lasting trustworthy relationships that develop as a result.

 

An earlier version of this post appeared in RainToday

Riding the Shark: Vanquishing Fear in Selling, Part 4 of 4: Shark-proof Your Selling

Shark ProofingThis is the final post in a four-part series on Fear in Selling.  In the first part, I talked about the importance of dealing with fear in sales. In the second part, I wrote about the four types of fear.  In the third part I talked about fending off the sharks of fear. In this last part I talk about Shark-proofing your market – how to banish fear permanently.

The Sharks of Fear: Beyond Shark Repellent

There are Four Sharks of Fear:

1. Execution Fear. “I might mess up in doing this sale; I might not do it right.”
2. Competence Fear. “I might not know how to do this sale right; I may not even know I don’t know.”
3. Outcome Fear. “I might not get the deal at all – everything I wanted to happen won’t happen.”
4. Shame-based Fear. “They’re not going to like me or respect me anymore; and they’re probably right.”

While each can be dealt with tactically (see part 3), fear is a classic case where an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure.  So – how do you conduct your selling life in ways that keep the Sharks of Fear permanently at bay?

It can be done.

Five Keys to Vanquishing the Sharks of Fear in Selling

First, let’s be clear where the solution does not lie. It is not in your sales process. You won’t find the key in sales management, and you won’t get there by tweaking your value proposition.

Instead, it consists of constantly applying five principles, or values, to every aspect of your selling life.  And here they are.

1. Always Sit on the Same Side of the Table. You are on the same team as your customer. Your interests are allied. There is no such thing as win-lose or lose-win, there is only win-win or part on friendly terms. You are not playing a zero-sum game, you are looking for a mutually beneficial relationship.

Don’t speak, write or think anything that posits you vs. your customer – your proper seat is on the same side of the table as your customer.

2. The Customer Gets Theirs First. The way to a successful partnership is not by insisting on 50-50 from the outset and at every step of the way. It comes from being gracious, putting the customer’s needs first, offering up some value, taking some risks, and listening before talking. The single best behavioral tool you can employ for this principle is – listen empathetically, long, and well. The result is that, when it’s your turn, you will be listened to in the same way.

Yes, a trust-based partnership has to work for both of you; but you get there by being willing to first focus on the customer’s needs, not your own.

3. Play the Long Game. The most powerful force in selling is the natural human tendency to return good for good, and bad for bad. Again – the most powerful force. Time, though of this way, is your friend, because time lets you develop relationships, not transactions. The more you develop relationships, the more your transactions will have context; and it’s a context of mutual courtesy, obligation and goodwill.

Don’t think of the sales process as a transaction, to be repeated. Think of it as a relationship, with ongoing interactions, but with a permanence all its own. And remember – the way you behave is the way you will be treated in turn. You empower what you fear; and you get back what you put out.

4. Keep No Secrets.  Transparency is to fear as a cross is to vampires. If you have no secrets, then there can be no surprises. If you don’t know something, say so. If you have information, share it. If you’re the best for the job, say so and say why. And if you’re not, say so as well – and that will be a lot more believable. Be the same person at all times to all people.

There are three exceptions, of course. Don’t give away trade secrets; don’t do anything illegal; and don’t hurt someone. Other than that, deal strictly in the Truth in all your affairs, and no one can or will fault you.  (And if you think giving away all your information will empower your competitors, think again – they can never replicate your relationships).

5. Lead With Your Chin. The thing that triggers trust, allows you to play the long game, and encourages collaborative reciprocal behavior is to be the one to take the first risk. Never mind what Ronald Reagan said – there is no trust without risk. If you want to create trust, you must lead with risk-taking.

Talk price early, not late. Admit your shortcomings up front. Give away samples – especially if you’re in an intangible services business. Have a point of view. Go out on a limb. Invest a little time, rather than checking your sales efficiency watch every minute. Dare to empathize.

 

That’s it. If you conduct your sales life by those principles, about 90% of customers will return your behavior in kind. The other 10%? Leave them to your competitors. Life is too short. And be assured, they won’t do as well as you and the 90% anyway.

Riding the Shark: Vanquishing Fear in Selling, part 2 of 4

4 Sharks Of Fear (photo via Iggy.)There are many ways to think about sales and selling. You can focus on value propositions, sales processes, sales management, motivation, techniques, and models. In this blogpost series,  I focus on something else that’s common in sales – fear.

In Part 1 I talked about the importance of dealing with fear in sales. Here I’d like to talk about how to recognize and categorize fear. In Part 3 I’ll talk about solutions, and in Part 4 I’ll talk about Shark-proofing your market – how to replace fear permanently.

The Four Sharks of Fear

There are many ways to categorize fears, just as there are ways to categorize sharks. I like to lump them in progressively more fearful categories, from relatively tame to terrifyingly fearful.

  1. Execution Fear. “I might mess up in doing this sale; I might not do it right.”
  2. Competence Fear. “I might not know how to do this sale right; I may not even know what I don’t know.”
  3. Outcome Fear. “I might not get the deal at all – everything I wanted to happen won’t happen.”
  4. Shame-based Fear. “They’re not going to like me or respect me anymore; and they’re probably right.”

The first thing you’ll notice about that list is that it gets “worse” as you go down the list – it starts off with incomplete education and ends up with self-loathing. All of us find it a lot easier to deal with the former than the latter.

But they all can drive equally negative impact on sales.

How Fear Affects Selling

Whether your fear is tactical, existential, or in between, it will keep you from doing something right.

  1. If you have execution fear, you are likely to not make the call, schedule the appointment, or send the email. You will be physically not present. You will miss opportunities and appear undependable.
  2. If you have competence fear, you are likely to appear ragged, unconfident, changeable and second-guessing.
  3. If you have outcome fear, you are likely to annoy everyone around you, because you try to over-control, micro-manage, obsess, and frequently blame others; you are in a bad mood because the world doesn’t obey your commands.
  4. If you have shame-based fear, you are mentally not present; you are probably chronically sick, or often busy elsewhere; you are probably inconsistent, moody, and often a poor listener. And in sales, the inability to listen is a major handicap.

Have you been mentally jotting notes?  Write them down. Which type of fears do you seem particularly prone to?

Negative Feedback Loops

One of the most pernicious aspects of fear is its self-fulfilling nature. If you don’t make the appointment for fear of making an error, you have made an error. If you’re afraid of appearing competent, almost anyone will perceive that fear and interpret it as – incompetence.

If you’re afraid of a bad outcome, some kind of karmic rule of life intervenes – you nurture what you fear. And if you are ashamed of yourself, nobody will be comfortable  being around you; which of course is more fish-food for the shark of shame.

This feeds-on-itself aspect of fear is powerful – picture a feeding frenzy when sharks congregate around some little piece of distress, compounding the terror.

The Wrong Shark Repellent 

Unfortunately, people are almost hard-wired to respond badly to the Sharks of Sales. In the real world, if we see a shark in the water – we run.  Good call; avoiding the shark is the right thing to do.

But with Sales Sharks, that’s exactly wrong. In almost all cases, fear of doing something wrong drives us to not do something that is right. Think sins of commission and sins of omission.

We are so afraid of saying the wrong thing that we say nothing. We may not lose what we have (dignity), but we create a much bigger failure to get something we wanted (the sale).

Imagine a lifeguard who sees someone drowning. If the guard dives in to save the person, and it turns out the person was just playing, the lifeguard may be slightly embarrassed, and feel put out.

But what if the person really was drowning and the lifeguard thought, “Well, I’d look stupid if I dove in after them and it was a false alarm, let me wait a bit longer and see.” Wrong answer!  Yet that is the mistake that fear drives us to make in sales.

The pattern is clear: fear drives us to avoidance, which ensures failure. You can probably envision some of the solutions to fear in sales, but in any case, that’s the next post. Stay tuned.

Half of What You’ve Learned About Sales is Wrong

Maybe you’ve heard the old line, “Half of advertising dollars are wasted – you just don’t know which half.” Something like that is true in sales – except that you’ve got a much better chance of telling which part to keep.

(Many thanks to Chris Downing and Anthony Iannarino for helping develop this thought).

The Challenge

Take this quiz, based on your own business:

1. I think closing is:

  1. obviously critical to selling
  2. one of the more harmful concepts in sales

2. I think cold-calling is:

  1. a tough, but necessary, and improvable process
  2. to be avoided like the plague

3. I think the customer wants:

  1. a clear value proposition
  2. a relationship
  3. a fast, cheap transaction

4. The critical job of sales management is:

  1. motivation
  2. training
  3. supervision

5. Price should be:

  1. mentioned up front
  2. not mentioned until value is established
  3. not talked about between sophisticated people

Now total your scores: Give 1 point for each a), 2 points for b) and 3 points for c). Now add them up. What does it all mean?

Pretty much nothing, I’m afraid.

It. Simply. Depends.

One Size Doesn’t Fit All

We all know this, of course.  B2B is not like B2C. Internal customers are not like external customers. Inside sales is not like external sales. High-ticket items are sold differently than low-price point items. Intangible services are not the same as tangible goods.

We know that.  And yet – an enormous amount of sales advice out there doesn’t make the distinctions.  Here are some examples from page 1 results of Google searches on some terms:

15 Ways to Improve your Closing Ratios.  Probably great advice. For someone. Is it great advice for you? Darned if you can tell by reading the article, because it’s addressed universally.

How to Write a Value Proposition. An excellent article, by an excellent organization. But where does it rank in the scale of importance to your business?

When to Quote Price: Useful information in dealing with “be-backs” (i.e. “We’re just not sure, we’ll be back”). But how important are be-backs if you’re selling systems integration projects?

How to Turn a Relationship Into a Sale. Great advice for an industrial paper business; but do I want the counter guy at Dunkin’ Donuts establishing a relationship with me?

And I could go on; and so could you. I didn’t pick bad articles – those are pretty good ones, some of them excellent. But – they don’t explicitly deal with the relevance of the advice to you.

Fitting Your Size

How, then, to figure out what advice to take?  You might start by characterizing your business across several continuums (continua, if you prefer):

For example, draw five lines (one for each characteristic), connecting the two endpoints:

     a. from frequent to infrequent purchases

     b. from high to low price point

     c. from tangible to intangible goods

     d. from high margins to low margins

     e. from transactional to continuing revenue relationships

Then mark the midpoint for each continuum.

Now – for each issue – on which side of the middle does your business fall?

Now ask yourself – what’s the right answer for the other side of the spectrum? And what’s the right answer for my side? How and why do they differ?

========

A little reflection can go a long way.  If you’re a law firm, and you’ve figured out you need sales training (which you probably do), don’t go hiring sales experts from retail B2C businesses. If you’re selling web-hosting services, you may not need the world’s best advice on building deep relationships.

Another way to put this might be: if something doesn’t feel right to you – your gut may be telling you something valid. Have enough courage to at least ask questions about it.

Don’t just do what someone who wrote about selling tells you. Their advice might be in the “other half” of sales advice – the wrong half for you.

It depends. On you.

Warning: Don’t Read This Blogpost

Well, well. You saw the title, right?  And yet here you are, reading this blogpost.

Worse yet – you’re probably here reading this blogpost because you saw the title warning you not to. What does that say about you?

We Are All Teenagers

You’re hardly alone. People don’t really ever grow out of our rebellious teenage phase.  You know, the phase where whatever someone tells you to do just drives you in the other direction?

Partly that’s about finding our wings. But mostly, I suspect, it’s about wanting respect from the Others – in teen-hood that’s parents; in adulthood, it’s Everyone Else.

Whatever the reason, I suggest to you: we are all teenagers.  We all do not like being told what to do. In fact, we are sorely tempted to do the opposite of what we are told to do.

Teenage Buying

The implications for sales are profound. Permanent teen-hood means a continual state of resisting being told what to do. It would seem obvious that the worst way to sell someone, the worst way to get your advice taken, the worst way to persuade another to your worldview, is to tell them what they should do/think/believe/buy.

And yet – salespeople everywhere insist on trying to sell us.

The best way to persuade someone turns out to be paradoxical – you mainly listen to them.

That’s right – to best persuade, first stop trying to persuade.  In fact, stop talking. Listen. The natural reaction of our species is then to return tit for tat, listen for listening.

As proof, here are some time-tested samples of folk-wisdom that express the same point more eloquently than I can.

You might even try it on a teenager. It worked for me, and on me.

Why People Take Your Advice – Or Don’t: Webinar

Your client asks you for advice. You know the answer.

Further – let’s assume you’re absolutely right.

You give your client the answer.  And then – your client doesn’t take your advice.

What’s Up with That?

How is it that people come to take your advice? Or don’t?  How is that you take other people’s advice; or don’t?

Variations on the theme:

  • Why don’t my customers buy from me?
  • Why won’t my teenager do what I tell them to do?
  • Why doesn’t my spouse appreciate my well-intended suggestions?

If this interests you, join my webinar TODAY on

Why People Take Your Advice – Or Don’t

It is  TODAY, Wednesday August 8, at 11AM US East Coast Time

Major corporate clients pay me quite nicely to hear what I’ll share in this targeted webinar: you can get it for under $50, and I promise you it’ll be fun and entertaining as well.

The event is today, Wednesday August 8, at 11AM US EST.

I’ll talk about the drivers of trust, and how they relate to reciprocity and soft skills. I’ll tell you which gender and which profession is the most trustworthy, and why – and how that reason drives the influence triggers.

I’d love to see you there. Sign up quickly, the event is

TODAY, Wednesday August 8, at 11AM US EST.

Thank you.

Still Afraid of the Sales Monster Under the Bed?

I was still afraid of the Sales Monster Under the Bed when I was 32.

I was 6 years into my career in management consulting.  It was becoming clear that the road to advancement no longer lay in more expertise. Instead, it lay in what was euphemistically called “business development.”

I was no dummy. I knew what “business development” meant: the dreaded Sales Monster.

Business Development, the Euphemism

You know something’s wrong when people cloak a supposedly reputable activity in the passive voice. If they couldn’t even look you in the face when they said “business development,” it proved they really meant “sales.”  Blech.

I knew I had to do business development.  But what was it?  And what was the least horrific way to go about it?

You know the list:

  • Write white papers
  • Write articles
  • Network
  • Go to industry association meetings
  • Make cold calls
  • Explore existing client relationships
  • Do mailings
  • Send holiday cards.

Holiday cards felt a little intrusive. At least white papers relied on expertise. The other steps were too horrible to contemplate.

The Sales Monster

In retrospect, my fear of sales was self-fear, aided by the intangible nature of professional services.  Lawyers, accountants and actuaries, I later found, all suffered from the same malaise.

It just all felt so personal. I had joined consulting because it seemed a meritocratic society of the intellect. The implied promise was I’d get rewarded for being smart.

That promise was being broken. Suddenly it was personal. Clients weren’t just buying expertise, they were buying me. Or not. That wasn’t just unfair, it violated my belief that content mattered.

Worst of all, of course, was if they didn’t buy. It was hard to rationalize a loss; it meant, ineluctably that They Didn’t Like Me. I understood Sally Fields’ Oscar acceptance speech very well.

Vanquishing the Sales Monster

It took me 15 more years to realize that every thought I’d had about sales was wrong. And it was more a process than an epiphany.  There were a few books along the way that helped:

But it was more life experiences than books that changed my view.  If you come right down to it—I had to grow up.  I had to develop and change as a person in order to understand the keys to sales.

I had to recognize the ultimately paradoxical nature of sales: the best way to sell is to stop trying to sell, and to focus instead on helping others get what they wanted.

Learning the Truth

You cannot learn this truth by reading this blog. Or by reading any book or article. You probably won’t learn it from anyone telling you.  It seems to me that we all learn things the hard way—from our own experience.  And my experience is that hard lessons, negative examples, bad experiences, are better teachers than good ones. Sad but true.

But sometimes, someone can say something in a way that makes it click for you.  It can pull together your own learnings and make a light bulb a little brighter. And that can help a lot.

So, here’s my own Top Twelve list of ways that I found to say something that I found meaningful. I hope one of them can turn on a little light bulb for you.

12 Insights on Trust-Based Selling
    1. Closing the Book on Closing
    2. Handling Sales Rejection Without Becoming a Narcissist
    3. How Sales Contests Kill Sales
    4. I Can’t Make You Love Me If You Don’t
    5. Sales, Narcissism and Therapists
    6. Selling Professional Services
    7. 10 Myths About Selling Professional Services [pdf]
    8. What Clients Really Want
    9. What to Say When the Client Says Your Price is Too High [pdf]
    10. When to Ditch the Elevator Speech and Take the Escalator or the Stairs
    11. Why Nobody Cares About You (and You Should be Glad They Don’t!)
    12. Why Should We Buy From You?  Good Question! [pdf]

If you’d like more help in vanquishing your own sales monster, you can also consult my book Trust-Based Selling (as the Trust-Based Selling print edition or the  Trust-Based Selling ebook for Kindle).

If the Sales Monster still lives under your bed, remember: it doesn’t have to be that way.

Trust, Sales and Getting Real: Interview with Author Mahan Khalsa

Mahan Khalsa is one of the more respected names in the field of complex sales. When I set out to write Trust-based Selling, there were three books foremost in my mind; Let’s Get Real or Let’s Not Play, Khalsa’s 1999 book, was one of them.

FranklinCovey bought his business, and he went on to head their Sales Performance Group. More recently, he has become the head of Ninety Five 5, which combines sales techniques with change management and the science of expert performance.

A Harvard MBA, he splits his time these days between Colorado and Hawaii.

CHG: First of all, Mahan, thank you very much for speaking with us here today. I have long admired your work from afar, and I’m personally delighted to make the connection.

I want to focus mainly on trust as it relates to sales and business change, but let’s start more broadly. I did not start off in sales, and neither did you, if I’m correct? How did you come to be involved in the field of selling?

MK: My first encounters with selling were painful. I was working my way through college and needed a job, and took a position as a door-to-door salesman. I’ve written about it at greater length but I’ll summarize it by saying one of the happiest days of my life was when I got a job in a factory. I promised myself that I’d never be involved in sales again.

What I had experienced was abusive to both buyer and seller. Both were sullied. I don’t project my personal history on others who have had great experience in sales right from the beginning – or overcame early negative experiences in route to great success. That was just my experience.

I actually made it through college, and found myself the director of a residential yoga and meditation community. We arose at 3:30 a.m. each day, took a cold shower, and did two-and-a-half hours of yoga and meditation. I would have been happy doing yoga and meditating all day long.

However, part of the lifestyle was to take what you gained from your morning discipline and apply it in the everyday world. We had a lot of energy and motivation but lacked knowledge of how to run businesses. To remedy that, I was fortunate enough to get accepted at Harvard Business School, which was nearby.

Following my MBA, I founded a computer systems company. When it came to the moment when we actually had to sell something, that was a crisis and a conundrum. On one hand, it was my company, I felt it was up to me to bring revenue in. On the other hand, my experience in sales had led me to believe that you could be either a salesperson or a spiritual person but not both.

The combination was tricky. There were times I felt very honorable—and failed miserably. There were times I was successful in getting immediate revenue—and compromised my values and probably my long-term relationship with the customer. There were times I thought I had it all together—and still fell flat on my face. Yet eventually, everything started to come together. Not only was I successful at that which I once feared and hated, it became what I most enjoyed.

I thought others might benefit from what I had learned. I designed and taught a course for Arthur Andersen partners, which was successful and over time became the firm’s worldwide model for face-to-face selling.

Luckily, one of my later clients was FranklinCovey. They valued what I brought to the table enough to purchase my company in 1999. It has been an excellent relationship for all concerned. My Sales Performance Group colleagues and I have worked with tens of thousands of salespeople and consultants from some of the world’s most successful companies. The Helping Clients Succeed coursework has been taught in over forty countries in nine different languages. We have coached and consulted on initiatives involving many billions of dollars of sales.

Despite our success something important was missing. Companies weren’t getting as much of the sustained improvement we all hoped for. As it turns out, training, by itself, no matter how good it is, starts fading the moment the trainer leaves. Several of us formed Ninety Five 5 LLC. Ninety Five 5 concentrates on execution and measurable results, using training as only one part of a systemic improvement initiative. We’ve been able to build on the well received content developed with FranklinCovey and produce impressive results with companies willing to move beyond sales training to get serious about real world sales transformation.

CHG: The subtitle of your book originally was, “The Demise of Dysfunctional Selling, and the Advent of Helping Clients Succeed.” What did you mean by ‘dysfunctional selling?’

MK:. I count as dysfunctional those actions and behaviors that ultimately serve neither seller nor buyer. Since most people are both sellers and buyers in their lives, most can fill in their stories of what this means. Put in all the things you hate when sellers try to manipulate rather than serve your interests. Put in all the things you hate when buyers ask you to do things that don’t seem to make sense to either party or that aren’t likely to result in them deciding in your favor or even deciding at all. Put in all the things that detract from rather than aid in producing both the results and relationships to which both parties aspire. Unfortunately, the lists can be long.

Most professional sellers have good intent. They know manipulation and deceit hurt rather than build long-term sales success. They know that building trust is essential to both creating and capturing value. So they eliminate a lot of what would otherwise be dysfunctional—no surprise there. Yet most also consistently engage in actions that are not value adding–for them or for their customers. Even when great intent is present, there is a lot of room for improvement in eliminating dysfunctional behaviors.

CHG: I notice your recent editions changed the subtitle to “Transforming the Buyer/Seller Relationship.” Anything noteworthy behind that change?

MK: The new title goes to the essence of what we are about – creating a substantial improvement in the mutual success and satisfaction of both buyers and sellers. We feel there are ways of interacting that better benefit both parties and that doing so is a good contribution to the kind of world we want to live in.

CHG: I asked Neil Rackham if there was one, over-arching biggest single problem in the field of selling, and he said yes—for him it was the tendency to jump to solutions before having completed the questioning process. Do you yourself find an over-arching ‘missing link’ in the field of sales?

MK: I would certainly rank “pre-mature solutions” at or near the top of my missing links list. Almost all of us have room for big improvements in our ability to “seek first to understand” before we “seek to be understood.” And the challenge is being able to gain access to and skillfully develop that understanding with the key decision makers and influencers, many of whom seem to be hidden away from those who are trying to understand them.

Looking a little more holistically we could say the missing link is the ability to successfully blend excellent inquiry with excellent advocacy – to do a superb job of matching our story to the client’s story. Good inquiry is essential and most often the more undeveloped portion of the balance – and it is still only part of the equation. I’ve seen people get good at inquiry and still not be able to convert on advocacy.

I’ve also changed my view a little bit on what the true missing link is. I now feel the biggest over-arching problem is that 80% or so of all salespeople fail to get substantially better, year after year. They may get more comfortable; they may make the minor improvements they need to make just to stay even. However, as Geoff Colvin states in Talent is Overrated,

“Extensive research in a wide range of fields shows that many people not only fail to become outstandingly good at what they do, no matter how many years they spend doing it, they frequently don’t even get any better than they were when they started.”

The need for growth in most companies never stops; unfortunately, the growth of sales people does. That creates a “growth gap” that most companies try to fill with quantity (more salespeople) rather than quality (better salespeople). The missing link is not more good stuff, it is getting good at good stuff.

CHG: A fascinating insight. To that point, you have talked about how you integrated sales with change management and the science of expert performance. How did you come to make that connection? And what is the link with sales and change management?

MK: We hold two beliefs that happen to be backed by considerable data, research, and direct experience:

1. Deliberate practice is the key to improvement.

2. A supportive environment is the key to deliberate practice.

Deliberate practice, while not a particularly sexy phrase, is the term commonly used in the science of expert performance to describe the single most common and powerful attribute of top-flight performance in almost any field. It contends that the quality and quantity of mindful practice and application is what separates star performers from the decent, average, and poor performers. (Geoff Colvin’s aforementioned Talent is Overrated is a good read on this topic).

Deliberate practice is not ordinary practice. As Edward Deming once said, “It is not enough to do your best. You need to know what to do and then do your best.” So the quality of the practice and application is as important as the quantity of practice – and the quantity is essential.

What I find liberating and motivating about the research is that everything, repeat everything, we need to do in order to get really good at sales is learnable – if we are willing to practice. It doesn’t have to do with our DNA, our native IQ, our personality type or social style, our years of experience. If we are willing to engage in a high number of repetitions of quality practice we can become as great as we want to be. That’s powerful.

CHG: That really is powerful. I’ve always felt that people’s capacity for change is grossly under-estimated, but I confess I like hearing your scientific tone in expressing that truth. Reminds me of Gladwell’s 10,000-hour rule. How can companies encourage it?

MK: If an organization feels a strong need for its salespeople to keep growing their performance, and they see deliberate practice as a key lever to realizing that growth, the next issue is how to align the organization to make deliberate practice a way of life that is encouraged, expected, and rewarded.

That’s where the field of change management or “systemic alignment” comes into play. Leaders in organizations have many levers they can pull that will influence what behaviors their people adopt and apply. Coordinating how and when those levers are pulled is a key to moving a sales force rather than just the top 10 – 20% who will make sure they will grow no matter what is happening around them.

CHG: I like the idea that you focus heavily on beliefs: you highlight five (my favorites: ‘move off the solution,’ and ‘world-class inquiry precedes world-class advocacy’). This focus on beliefs, and on relationships—your subtitle is “Transforming the Buyer/Seller Relationship”—seems to me to have, for lack of a better term, a spiritual bent to it. Am I right?

MK: I would say the focus on beliefs is practical, powerful, sometimes transformational, and for most people, under developed. I might go as far to say that sales is the process of understanding and influencing beliefs, our own and those of others. I’ve not thought of it as spiritual per se, though depending on how someone defined “spiritual” it may have a fit.

Most of us have heard the phrase, ‘people buy based on emotion and justify with facts (or rationale).’ Various neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists have given scientific support for this conventional wisdom.

I would modify the statement a bit and say people decide based on beliefs – what they believe to be good or bad, right or wrong, useful or not, meaningful or not important, high ROI or low, and so on. How they see the world through their beliefs determines what they do–which in turn determines the results they get. Those beliefs could be emotional, or based on what a person believes to be fact – whether those beliefs are corroborated by empirical data or not.

For many people, the beliefs that underlie their actions and decisions are unconscious or at least not clearly articulated. And when selling to multiple people, the beliefs may be conflicting as well as unclear. So the better job we do of understanding, articulating the key beliefs the client needs to resolve, both intellectually and emotionally, the better job we are likely to do demonstrating how we and our solution can address those beliefs. Understanding and clarifying beliefs goes to the heart of inquiry and addressing them goes to the heart of advocacy.

Too often both our inquiry and advocacy deal with the so-called ‘facts.’ However, as a University of Michigan study claims, “facts often do not determine our beliefs, but rather our beliefs (usually non-rational beliefs) determine the facts that we accept.”

Or as Annette Simmons claims in The Story Factor, “People make their decisions based on what the facts mean to them–not on the facts themselves. The meaning they add to facts depends on their current story [their beliefs]. Facts don’t have the power to change someone’s story. Your goal is to introduce a new story that will let your facts in.”

So yes; I believe the focus on understanding and addressing key beliefs is critical to helping clients succeed.

CHG: Stephen MR Covey, Jr., author of The Speed of Trust, is a colleague of yours. What do you think is the most powerful point he makes about trust?

MK: I think his most powerful point is that trust can be built on purpose. It doesn’t have to be an accident of circumstance or personality mesh. Trust with others – and in ourselves, for that matter–can be exercised like a muscle. When you apply Deliberate Practice to consciously build trust, trust becomes a reality with more and more people in more and more situations – to the benefit of all concerned.

CHG: Let’s focus on trust. It’s easy to get lost in various permutations of trust, but how do you see trust’s role in selling? In change?

MK: It’s hard to come up with something more original than the obvious – when you have trust everything goes faster, costs less, and produces superior results (usually). Typically, we find that three things flow together, up or down: trust, value, and the flow of meaningful information. If you have two you can usually get the third. Trust is hard to measure, and value is a lagging indicator. However, the flow of meaningful information (beliefs and facts) from the right people (decision makers and influencers) is a good leading indicator of whether trust exists and value will follow.

CHG: Let me just interrupt there, sorry. In my jargon, what I hear you saying is that transparency is a driver for increasing the odds that a would-be trustor will perceive a would-be trustee as trustworthy—thus creating trust. Yes?

MK: A little complex, but yes. As you say, there are many definitions, permutations, elements to trust – it has multiple and complex equivalents. Your trustworthiness equation is certainly a good, well-tested definition. People have to trust that what you will do will really get them the results and relationships they want, they have to trust that you will actually do what you say you will do, and trust that what you do will be performed in their best interests – or that your best interests are best served by helping them get their best interest met, which indeed certainly seems to be the case. Blinding flash of the obvious – to gain trust, you have to be trustworthy.

I think that in inquiry, a key skill is to consciously, with our words and behavior, create a container of safety where people can freely express what they think, feel, believe to be true. And if the container is really strong and expansive, they will allow us to question, examine, and offer alternatives to those beliefs. Most only are willing to do that if they feel the information they share will be used for them rather than against them – they have to trust our intent, our purpose in asking questions.

I sometimes say intent is more important than technique – perhaps another way to express the old axiom that people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. The good news is that you can get crystal clear on your intent and how it is mutually beneficial, and you can practice becoming completely congruent with that intent before picking up the phone or walking into a room.

CHG: I find people first want to know the ‘magic phrases’ to use, and it’s really not a matter of words only.

MK: You can communicate your intent without even saying a word. When people can sense that your intent serves their best interests, they are willing to open the trust valve at least a little. If that little bit is rewarded, they can risk a little more, and so on. If the risk is continually rewarded, trust grows. Of course, as you well know, all the hard earned work can vanish suddenly if the bond is broken. So constant attention to language and behaviors is critical – and learnable, and improvable.

As far as the role of trust in change, I feel the key is that if everyone in the organization feels the best way of improving our numbers is to focus first on improving our client’s numbers, the basis of trust will be institutionalized. Jack Welch once said,

One thing we’ve discovered with certainty is that anything we do that makes the customer more successful inevitably results in a financial return for us.”

To create a trust based organization everyone has to believe that our self-interests are served by helping our customers reach their self-interests. When that belief permeates an organization and is backed by action, process, and rewards–not just value statements–trust can become a competitive advantage.

Often, in large organizations, the further away executives are from the customers, the more they focus on salesperson activity or quantity based leading indicators (numbers of calls, number of proposals) versus quality based leading indicators (flow of meaningful information). Perhaps they don’t trust the quality can be improved and that pulling the quantity lever is their best choice. They concentrate on improving the seller’s numbers (high self-orientation) rather than the buyer’s numbers (high other-orientation) and they put into place reward and reinforcement systems to reflect that emphasis. As buyers we can feel where that focus is placed, and ironically, when it is on the seller’s numbers rather than our own, we are less likely to take action to improve their numbers.

Customer focus is not just a tag line. It is a passionate, all consuming orientation that can guide everything we do. Importantly, it helps us stay away from what I called “dysfunctional” selling and push back with both courage and consideration when customers ask us to do–or to not do–things which would help the client succeed.

CHG: You have the ear of a lot of people—some of whom even read this blog! What would you suggest are the top few things people can do as individuals to increase trust in the workplace?

MK: Well, of course before I’d want to give someone any advice, I’d want to make sure they wanted it and would want to understand their specific situation. And I’d want to make sure I was following my own advice before I’d advance it to others. So here are three things I tell myself – and we at Ninety Five 5 tell each other.

1. No Guessing. If people are going to trust you to help them get what they want, need, and value, you have the obligation and right to understand their beliefs as to what that really means. Remember, beliefs are often unclear or not well articulated. If you guess about what they want, don’t have mutual clarity on the outcomes and rewards, don’t understand what has or will stop them, don’t know how they will make a decision, or what resources they will apply to getting a solution that meets their needs, you will likely miss the (undefined) target and trust will suffer.

2. Say it, Do it. Build the power of your word. You don’t have to say, “I promise.” If you say it, it is your Word, and your Word is your bond. If you say it, do it. Period. If you find it is going to be a challenge to meet your word, communicate the difficulty to the other person. Let them agree to a change or say they need you to meet your word. If you need to meet your word, meet it. Period.

3. Be Clear. Be crystal clear on your intent and how it serves the interests of the other person(s)–even as it serves your own. Before any interaction, clear out any internal or external pressures that might cause you to be incongruent with that intent. Let your intent manifest with clarity and congruency through what you say, how you say it, what you look like, and what you do. Be so clear that it becomes easy and natural to be fearless, be flexible, and have fun.

Or maybe just be the kind of seller you would love to have if you were the buyer. One you could really trust.

CHG: A perfect note to end on. Thanks so much, Mahan, it’s been very enlightening.

Handling Sales Rejection Without Becoming a Narcissist

It’s one of the hardest parts of selling—that knife edge space where company revenue stream meets interior personal psychology. It is business, and it is personal.

Most solutions share one problem; they are narcissistic, leading the salesperson to believe it’s all about them.

But it’s not all about you. And the sooner you build that insight into your selling, the better.

This is a topic I wish I had written more about in Trust-based Selling, so I’m glad to amplify it here.

Why Dealing with Rejection Messes You Up

Let’s start with the obvious. If you’re not getting some rejections, you’re probably not taking enough risks. So if you avoid rejection, you’re avoiding risk; which means you’re losing sales.

But that’s not all. If you’re avoiding rejection, on some level you know it. If you know you’re avoiding something, you know you’re not doing what you know you could do; you’re not living up to your own self-image. That soaks up a whole lot of energy; it makes you inward focused and unhappy. None of which helps you as a salesperson.

So avoiding rejection hurts your business, and it makes you feel unhappy. Inability to handle rejection hurts you everywhere it counts.

The Three Usual Solutions to Rejection—and Their Weaknesses

There are three common approaches to dealing with rejection. I’ve given them each distinctive names. They are:

1. Endure it. This approach suggests there is some natural relationship between the numbers of rejections you have to endure to get to the good stuff. If you spin the wheel long enough, your number will come up. Get out there and dial for dollars.

The problem: it’s hard to treat prospects as people if you’re just counting their no’s.

2. Shrink it. This approach says. “It’s not about you, it’s not personal, you shouldn’t feel hurt.” Bring in the shrinks; think your way into not feeling.

The problem: it really is personal, it’s about as personal as it gets–and you know it.

3. Motivate through it. This approach relies on getting you ‘motivated,’ which usually means pumped up, psyched, and able to just play through the pain.

The problem: prospects don’t appreciate being bulldozed.

Why “Handling Rejection” is Narcissistic

All those solutions have one defect: they’re all about managing your psychological response to an issue called “rejection.” But rejection is an imaginary concept—a fiction, a figment of your imagination.

“Rejection” is a belief that if something happened that affected you, then it must have happened to you—that it was about you, concerning you, because of you, etc. And that’s what I’ll refer to as narcissism—a tendency to view everything as being about you.

(Not-so-ancient societies used to believe that the sun and the planets revolved around the earth. There’s a very natural human tendency to believe that we are at the center of our own anthropomorphic universe, our own private Idaho. Much of growing up is getting over this idea, and most of us are only partially successful at it).

Instead of “dealing with rejection” let’s focus on what’s really going on in the real world—the world outside your head.

Curiosity is the Real Antidote to Rejection

Think of selling as a scavenger hunt. On a scavenger hunt, you go off into a relatively unstructured environment, looking for pre-defined items to collect. Of course, you’re interested in winning; but the game itself is fun as well.

In the game, you decide how and where to spend your time. You set priorities, and notice how and what your competitors are doing. There is skill involved in collecting the items. And you often end up in blind alleys when a particular path didn’t pan out for you.

What you don’t feel on a scavenger hunt is rejection. There simply is no such thing. It is not about you; it is just a process involving many people, of whom you are one.

All you need on a scavenger hunt is curiosity. And curiosity is a perfect emotion to bring to sales. Curiosity means you don’t have to ignore your emotions, or play through them, or convince yourself you’re immune to them. Instead, you’re just paying attention to a different set of issues. Let’s call those issues ‘reality.’

In the real world, nothing is being rejected; there are simply solutions and fits, or no-solutions and no-fits. It’s not a struggle–it’s a puzzle. If you’re a good solution to that puzzle and are curious enough, you might solve it. If you’re not a good solution for it, and/or aren’t curious, then you probably won’t.

So where’s ‘rejection’ in all this? In your head. So just stop it.

Three Steps You Can Take to Reject Rejection

1. Make a list of questions you’d like to know about each of your key prospects. Real questions, things you’d really like to learn.

2. Just as you would in a scavenger hunt, keep track of what you’ve learned at each blind alley. You don’t win scavenger hunts sitting back at the office; you learn it going out and finding blind ends.

3. Be alive. Have fun. Keep your ears open. There’s no point in blinding your senses in a scavenger hunt; why blind your emotions in the sales hunt? Just use them to figure out the puzzle.

Did the post-Copernican western world feel “rejected” by the sun when they found out it didn’t revolve around the earth? Of course not–though they probably did feel deflated. But that was just because they were cosmologically narcissistic. You don’t have to be that dumb or that narcissistic.

Nobody can reject you without your complicity in defining ‘rejection.’ Any time you hear ‘handling rejection,’ learn to laugh at yourself for thinking it’s about you–and go back to being curious.