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How Much Should Sales Approaches Vary by Industry?

An open letter to my readers:

Hi everyone. First, let me thank you for following TrustMatters. 

Now, let me tell you a bit about your fellow readers (and by extension, yourself). You are a disproportionately well-educated businessperson. You are most likely a professional—law, communications, accounting, consulting. Some of you are in financial services, some in software and technology; a lot of you follow new media heavily, some of you are curmudgeons. You’re more likely young than old, you’re pretty hip, and you’re pretty literate.

In the field of sales, there is a lot of range. More of you are in B2B than B2C. Some of you sell into government vs. selling into the private sector. Some of you sell to purchasing agents, others to ultimate users.  Many of you don’t like to think of yourselves as being in sales, though you know you have an impact on clients’ buying decisions.  And we all tend to look for that slice of life, those lessons, those situations that speak uniquely to our own little corner of experience—often dismissing the experiences of those who look different.  

Sometimes, though, we overstate the differences, and forget how much of great sales is fundamental, consistent, inviolable across nearly all sales situations.

I was reminded of this the other day by one of Jeffrey Gitomer’s weekly columns.

Jeffrey Gitomer: King of Sales

If you don’t know Jeffrey Gitomer, you’re missing something. He is bald, rumpled, given to 82-point powerpoint fonts, and looks disturbingly like late-night comic Dave Attell. He wears a red Staples-like shirt, and his normal volume level is a shout.

He grew up in rough-and-tumble sales, in central New Jersey. Cold-calling. Wearing out shoe-leather. Closing, handling objections, fighting for lead lists. Hard core.

I know what you’re thinking. I’ll say it for you. He looks like a hick. What could he possibly have to say to me, a successful (consultant / accountant / finance professional / commercial banker / software / technology) business developer?

Well, look again. By any measure of success and respect, he’s The Man. And if you go to his seminars, you’d be surprised at how much the crowd looks more like you than like him. So I’m very proud, by the way, to have a testimonial quote from Jeffrey Gitomer on the front page of my own Trust-based Selling.

Gitomer’s List of Smart and Dumb Sales

But don’t take my word for it. Take a look at Gitomer’s recent ezine article How to Sell Best: Ask Someone Who Buys. It’s a great collection of wisdom from a purchasing agent fan of his about how salespeople blow it, and how they succeed.

My point is not how bright the purchasing agent is (very), but the fact that Gitomer—with all his schticky-hicky presentation—chose to highlight it in his e-zine. Because he believes in it.

Here’s an abridged list of what Gitomer considers smart—and dumb. (For more detail, see his original piece).

smart 1. Honesty. Truth at all times and at all costs.

dumb 1. Telling an expedient lie.

smart 2. Give me valuable ideas.

dumb 2. Function only as an order-taker.

smart 3. Understand and be interested in my business.

dumb 3. Communicate non-sense.

smart 4. Treat me with respect.

dumb 4. Use bad manners.

smart 5. Be a decent human being, with some sense of ethics and morals.

dumb 5. Schmooze bad about the competition.

smart 6. Know your own business cold.

dumb 6. Assume that I know nothing about your business.

smart 7. Be friendly and personable.

dumb 7. Fail to attempt to form a relationship.

smart 8. Remember the details.

dumb 8. Make a presentation with no copy of your proposal or supporting materials to leave behind.

smart 9. Make good on your word.

smart 10. Take responsibility.

dumb 10. Refuse to take responsibility; shift blame to other people.

Single smartest. Don’t "sell" me. Let me "buy."

Single dumbest. Manipulate me.

Now, let me ask the accountants out there: is there any item on that list that is wrong for selling tax, attest or risk management work to your clients?

Systems consultants: which items don’t apply to you?

Financial planners: which items apply only to big box stores, but not to you?

And so on for the rest of us. 

For my part, I can’t think of one that doesn’t apply. More importantly, if I did my own Top Ten smart/dumb list, it wouldn’t add or subtract much, if anything. 

And if all that’s true—well, let’s explore some implications.

First, when it comes to the important things—sales is sales is sales.

Second, maybe it’s time for us “professionals” to stop looking down on sales, and recognize that great sales are great professionals in every relevant sense of the word. Sell is no longer a 4-letter word. (Note to self: send email to inform Webster’s).

Third, about all that content expertise you’re in love with? It’s there all right: see items 2,3, and 6. But the other 7 items? They’re about relationships. 

Bottom line for me: there’s a conceit that exists in the professions, a deeply-embedded cleaner-hands-than-thou mentality, when it comes to selling. It’s unjustified, it’s wrong, it’s just another form of arrogance, and no one benefits from maintaining it. We all need to just get over it.

Great selling, above all, is about service to others: it requires great relationships.

What a metaphor for life.

     

A Story About the Power of Stories

The power of stories is well-described in the business literature.  Some of the most famous are stories about story-telling: 1001 Arabian Nights, Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, and its American version, It’s a Wonderful Life.
The why of stories is also well-explained. One author suggests that stories are powerful because they plow common ground, create meaning, build community, and are memorable.
There is, however, another reason why story-telling is so powerful. Let me illustrate by, of course, a story (thanks to Charlie Ortman).
A man was shipwrecked on a desert island. Years went by. A decade. Then another. 

One day a rescue ship arrived. The rescuers found the man healthy and happy. “Is this your house?” they asked, pointing to a comfortable dwelling the man had constructed. “Yes,” he said.

“And this lovely hut over here?” 
“That’s my church,” the man said.
“And what’s this?” the rescuers asked, pointing to a somewhat disheveled, faded hut.
“Ah,” said the man drily, “that’s the church I used to attend.” 

I’ll resist the temptation to say what my interpretation was. Later, I realized it could have been interpreted in another way–at least one other way.

Stories Permit Influence without Rejection

It’s my observation that generally the worst way to get someone to do something is to tell them that they should do it—and then try to justify the advice. There is a human built-in resistance to taking advice, unless accompanied by a serious attempt to first hear out the advisee.

Stories provide a powerful supplement to the critical role of listening in this reciprocal dance.

There is something Teflon- and Rorschach-like about stories. In their telling, the fingerprints of the story teller are removed. The listener hears largely what (s)he wants to hear, without the usual baggage of resistance against the advisor. This is often true even when the teller’s intended meaning is clear. 

Consider the story of the shipwrecked man. 
What meaning do you hear in that story? 
Please add your comment below—so we can all see how our own meanings differ.   
 

Why Saying ‘I Understand’ Is an Act of Arrogance

Empathy symbolIn an episode of Two and a Half Men (a high-ratings US television sitcom), the rakish cad character played by Charlie Sheen discovers that he can easily manipulate others by solemnly saying to them, “I understand.”

When he first says it, other people believe him, and begin to gush their feelings to him. Of course, his empathy is faux, and so the comedy begins.

Empathy is Cognition Plus Connection

The best way to influence (not manipulate) others is for them to feel that you understand them.

Yet the key word in the preceding sentence is not ‘understand,’ but ‘feel.’

It is one thing to understand someone; it is quite another for them to feel understood.

A seller might perfectly understand a buyer’s needs; often, in fact, even better than the buyer. That doesn’t mean, unfortunately, that the buyer feels understood.

A consultant might perfectly understand what a client is going through, on all levels—including the deeply emotional issues facing the client. But even understanding the emotional issues of the client doesn’t guarantee the client will feel understood.

A common sales truism says, “People don’t care what you know, until they know that you care.”

Just because it’s a truism doesn’t mean it isn’t true.  And it is, profoundly so.  The point of listening is not what you hear–it is the act of helping another feel heard.

Why Saying “I Understand” is Arrogant

On the face of it, the statement “I understand” is the perfect expression of empathy. Unlike Charlie Harper (Charlie Sheen’s character in the sitcom), we usually mean it. We are sincere when we say it, so for me to suggest that ‘I understand’ is arrogant may sound insulting.

But think of it this way. The feeling of being truly understood is, by definition, something that must come from the one who is understood—not from the one doing the understanding. To assert that you understand how someone feels about their situation is to usurp their very role as object of the understanding.

It is not our right as advisors or sellers to tell someone we understand them; it is only they who can inform us that they feel understood. For us to make the claim ourselves is arrogant.

A Better Way to Express Empathy

We can never truly know another. All we can do is to guess at how we might feel in similar circumstances—and assume that they might feel likewise. The source of much tragedy—and comedy—comes from mistaken assumptions that others are exactly like us.

So, what is a better way to express empathy? How do we communicate, across the divide of individuality, a sense of connection with another? Here are a few ideas.

  • That must feel…
  • I can only imagine how that must be…
  • I suppose if I were you I’d feel…
  • Is that (difficult, easy, complicated…) for you?
  • I think I might have a glimmer of what that means for you…

The particular words don’t matter as much as a combination of sincerity and a respect for the ineffable separateness of the other person.

Ironically, the way to convey connection is to acknowledge the impossibility of fully achieving it.
 

Consulting and the Art of Self-deprecation

According to Wikipedia, comedians use self-deprecating humor “to avoid seeming arrogant or pompous and to help the audience identify with them.” Sounds like a good strategy for anyone looking to build trust and rapport with another human being. Sounds like an especially good strategy for anyone in the consulting profession.

Ask any client who has worked with consultants over the years – they’ll have at least a few horror stories to tell about the Big Important Expert they hired. That creates messes we are all left to clean up.

Self-deprecation is an art that should be routinely practiced by anyone who claims the title “consultant.”

Here’s some material for your toolkit (original author unknown):

Top Ten Things You’ll Never Hear from a Consultant

1. You’re right; we’re billing way too much for this

2. Bet you I can go a week without saying “synergy” or “value-added”

3. How about paying us based on the success of the project?

4. This whole strategy is based on a Harvard business case I read

5. Actually, the only difference is that we charge more than they do

6. I don’t know enough to speak intelligently about that

7. Implementation? I only care about writing long reports

8. I can’t take the credit. It was Ed in your marketing department

9. The problem is, you have too much work for too few people

10. Everything looks okay to me

Share this with your clients. They’ll enjoy laughing at your expense. And they’ll appreciate your ability to laugh at yourself!

Is it Stupid to Be Trusting?

The ever-catchy Seth Godin  highlights an ad for the new super-exclusive Visa Black Card.  So rare it’s made of carbon.  So elite that it’s limited to just you, and 2,999,999 of your closest friends. It screams exclusivity right through the mass media it’s advertised in.  

Nicholas Kristof reported last month  on how reliably un-expert experts are.  Philip Tetlock, he reports, studied 82,000 predictions by 284 experts over two decades.  The results:

“It made virtually no difference whether participants had doctorates, whether they were economists, political scientists, journalists or historians, whether they had policy experience or access to classified information, or whether they had logged many or few years of experience,” Mr. Tetlock wrote. 

Indeed, the only consistent predictor was fame — and it was an inverse relationship. The more famous experts did worse than unknown ones.

Dr. Robert Cialdini, the reigning expert in the field of influence, has identified six basic drivers of influence in human beings.  The first is reciprocity—a mutual sense of obligation triggered by the actions or words of one. 

The second and fourth are scarcity (the Black Visa Card) and authority (Jim Cramer).  It is demonstrably stupid to believe that the Black Card is exclusive, and that Cramer is a better stockpicker than the next guy.  Demonstrably.  But we believe both anyway.  (Well, not you and me, of course.  But everyone else does.  The fools.)

In sales, any number of experts will tell you that people buy from people they like, or trust; that people buy with their heart, and rationalize it with their brains.

If you’re not buying any of this, review exhibit A, Bernard Madoff.  He masterfully combined all the triggers into one slick package.  An expert, likeable, you could get in on the deal if you were special (you and your 3 million closest friends), and so forth.

A lot of people I talk to about trust throw up their hands at all this and say, “Anyone who trusts is a fool and a sucker.”  I prefer to call it human.  Trusting is not going away anytime soon; it’s too deeply imbued in our genes and is, net net, too valuable.

We can, of course, get smarter.  But the most likely result of getting “smarter” is to stupidly avoid sensible risk-taking by following the "smart" advice of someone else. 

“Smart” is a vastly over-rated virtue in the human species.  I’ll bet my Black Card on it.
 

LL Bean: Urban Myth or Rural Superstition?

Over at The Consumerist, there’s a snappy bunch of stories about the legend of LL Bean, the Maine-based outfitter who just wants to make you happy. As one reader tells the story, they insisted on taking back monogrammed shirts that his wife had bought in entirely the wrong size.

He tried to insist it was his fault, not LL Bean’s, but Bean wouldn’t take no for an answer. They just had to make sure that his monogrammed shirts would fit him by accepting the old ones for return. (The comments alone are worth reading for a thorough exploration of the pros and cons of having such a liberal policy. Plus they’re fun.)

But let’s talk about the larger issue. LL Bean is not the only firm behaving this way. Every time I teach an exercise on customer satisfaction, someone has a Nordstrom’s tale to tell. There’s a lunch counter in Lincoln Nebraska that uses an honor box to sell sandwiches on the sidewalk for a buck each in the summertime. And so on.

In discussing the dynamics of such policies, I’m bemused to find how many people insist, “it won’t work.” If you point out that it has worked for over a hundred years for LL Bean, they repeat, “it won’t work.” Endless loop.

Sure, it can be abused, and sometimes it is. What’s interesting is, why isn’t it abused more often? In Lincoln, reportedly the homeless people monitor each other to be sure no one takes undue advantage. (I know, I know, it’d never happen in New York. Except I bet it does).

There is an innate sense among people that will keep anthropologists, bio-ethicists, animal intelligence students and other social researchers busy for years to come trying to “explain” it. Meanwhile, it clearly “is.”

And you can make book on it. This is the principle that underlies trust-based selling: if people trust you, they will strongly prefer to give you the business. There’s no better way to get people to trust you than to trust them, by putting yourself at risk.

David Maister always put an explicit guarantee on his work: 100% satisfaction or just pay him what you thought it was worth, including nothing.

Takers? None.

The act of the offer ensures it will rarely be taken up–as long as the offer is genuine.

This is reciprocity in the sense that academic Robert Cialdini writes about as the number one source of influence. If you treat me right, I’ll treat you right. If you listen to me, I’ll listen to you. If you trust me, I’ll trust you.

The wonder is not how often our trust gets abused; it’s how few Bernie Madoffs there are.

I remember hearing of a pizza chain that offered a satisfaction guarantee—if you didn’t like the pizza, you’d get one free. One nasty customer kept saying he wasn’t satisfied, and demanding another new one each time he ordered.

Finally the owner went to the customer and said, “I’m really sorry, but it appears we have failed consistently to meet your high standards. It frustrates me no end, but I have to confess, we just don’t seem to be able to make a good enough pizza. I wish we could, but we have no choice but to reluctantly stop selling you our inferior pizza. Please accept our apologies.”

Selling Problem Solving by Solving Problems

One thing about accountants I really like. They learn awfully fast.

I had breakfast the other day with an old friend, a forensic accountant—call him Joe the Accountant. He’s a bit of a loner, motivated by achieving results, and impatient with what he sees as bureaucratic and procedural focus. And he is very sharp.

He’s a bit like a bloodhound; don’t point him toward the scent and expect him to back off. Perhaps that’s why he tends to rotate employers every 6 – 8 years.

“Maybe I should just do free-lance work,” he mused to me. “I don’t mind selling. I just don’t know how to do it well. I could get appointments with several well-positioned past clients. I could just ask them if there’s some work I could do for them, I suppose.”

“No,” I said. “Talk to them about what problems need solving.”

Joe: Of course, silly me. Then I can pitch how I might be able to solve them.

Me: Congrats, you just went from weak salesman to average salesman in ten seconds.

Joe: So–how do I get to the next step? (Joe’s pretty impatient too).

Me: Pick one problem and solve it in that meeting.

Joe: Hmmm. I like that. But will the client do anything if I just give him the advice?

Me: You just went from pretty good to almost really good. So answer your own question.

Joe: I see, he’s got to be involved in getting the right answer in order to act on it it. So—you’re saying just do the work right there in the meeting?

Me: Pretty much.

Joe: So when do you make the sale?

Me: After you solve the problem together, you say, “This is great fun. We ought to do more of this. Though after one more session, you need to pay me. I can’t just be having fun for free. So how shall we set this thing up?”

Joe: Hmmm. Yes, that works, doesn’t it? Give ‘em a taste of your wares, so to speak. Just do it–then ask for the sale. Right?

Me: That’s about it.

Joe: Great, thanks. Gotta run; this breakfast is now interfering with scheduling my first sales call.

One thing about accountants I really like. They learn awfully fast.

Zen and the Art of Trusted Advisorship

In our Trusted Advisor workshops and coaching engagements, we spend a lot of time on listening. Why? Because not listening is one of the top two causes of trust breakdown. (The other — accelerating too quickly to a solution – is another form of not listening.)

Listening is critical to advice-giving because it’s through listening that we earn the right to offer advice.

There are many reasons we humans do a crappy job of listening. One of my favorites: the little internal voice that clogs our brain with incessant chatter.

(Don’t have a little voice in your head? Your little voice is the one that says, “What little voice? I don’t have a little voice.”)

A 30-second snippet from a typical internal dialogue:

Client: [insert reasonable work-related comments here]

Your little voice: “Uh oh. I should have spent more time preparing for this meeting. You know, I’m not sure I like this guy.”

Client: [insert reasonable work-related comments here]

LV: “I do like his tie. The suit, not so much.”

LV: “Did I remember to take my black suit to the drycleaner?”

Client: [insert reasonable work-related comments here]

LV: “I wish he’d hurry up and finish so I can re-focus this conversation. He’s taken us way off course.”

And so it goes. Like static on a radio station, the little voice interferes with our ability to tune in.

Which begs the question: How to reduce the static to improve our listening so that we, in turn, will be listened to?

Unfortunately, that little voice will never go away – it comes with being human. But there are ways to minimize it. Here are my Top Three:

1. Prepare your mind. This suggestion comes directly from The Trusted Advisor (page 200, if you must know). Train your brain to notice random chatter, and substitute some wry wisdom of your own choosing. Examples:

“I am not the center of the universe.

"It’s a ‘we’ game, not a ‘me’ game.”

“A point of view doesn’t commit you for life.”

“Knowing the truth is better than not knowing it.”

You can also make this part of your pre-flight checklist before your next big client meeting.

2. Get a little Zen. When the chatter arises, notice and observe it; raise your consciousness about it in the moment and gently but swiftly return your focus to the real conversation at-hand. This is similar to the practice that experienced meditators use of returning to the breath when “monkey mind” (a mind that jumps from thought to thought like a monkey jumps from tree to tree) takes over.

3. Think out loud. Get the chatter out of your head and into the conversation. This is especially valuable when your little voice is expressing a concern. Here are some examples:

LV: “He seems distracted.”

What you might say: “Let’s take a time out to be sure we’re going in the right direction with this conversation.”

LV: “I’m not sure she understands what I’m getting at.”

What you might say: “At the risk of appearing a little assertive here, may I be blunt?”

LV: “I am doing a lot of talking; someone shut me up!”

What you might say: “I’m hearing myself doing a lot of the talking here. What haven’t I asked about that’s important for me to know?”

This one requires some risk-taking. As does all trust.

You’re not crazy for having the little voice; you’re human. Do your clients – and yourself – a favor by training your brain to tune chatter out, client in. By listening, you earn the right to be listened to.

Do People Trust Rationally?

In the Q&A session of the webinar I gave yesterday, someone asked an interesting question: do people come to trust in rational ways? He didn’t mean “is it rational for people to trust the things they trust?” His question was about the ways in which we come to trust, not the choice we end up trusting.

The answer at first blush seems “clearly not.” After all, look at the success of con men, the concept of love at first sight, and, for that matter, the charisma of some politicians. Rational? Hardly.

And yet—if the way we come to trust isn’t logical, careful, thoughtful, cognitive and evaluative—then why do we act otherwise? Why do lawyers focus so much on briefs, consultants on proposals, and politicians on platforms? For many in business—particularly the professions—the belief that trust comes from rational argument is so deeply held that it’s enough to prove the opposite.

From a bastion of rational argument—Science Daily—comes more fuel for the non-rational side. In Extreme Appeal: Voters Trust Extreme Positions More Than Moderate Ones, Study Finds
we read:

Trying to appear moderate is not always the best strategy for capturing votes during an election, reveals a new study. Extreme positions can build trust among an electorate, who value ideological commitment in times of uncertainty.

[this is a] challenge to the widely accepted median voter theorem…in which voters who are fully informed will…choose the platform that is closest to their own beliefs. Thus…to attract the majority of votes, parties should try to appeal to the majority of voters.
The researchers argue that in the real world, few voters are “fully informed” or anywhere near it—thus the real persuasion happens not through individual voter policy analyses but through a comparison of the relative attractiveness of competing ideologies.

However, I think even this understates the non-“rational” approach to voting. Sure, to some extent we think “I’m more of a lib-social-democrat-cum-conservative-economics.”

But there’s more. There’s the power we all feel in the face of someone with certainty. Like confidence, it’s catching. It’s compelling. We may deplore sound bites, but they work—the war on poverty; government’s not the answer, government’s the problem. The Big Lie works because it’s simple: Saddam was behind 9/11, Obama is a Muslim. The less we know, the more awed we are by those who do know—or seem to.

Want to win an election? A (very) few voters swill tudy platform planks. A few more will “vote Democratic.” But more yet, I suspect, will vote for the guy who sounds like he’s got a simple answer to a complicated question.

From the same article:

"The current political advantage of the Republican Party stems from the ability of its candidates to develop ‘signature ideas.’ This strategy is rewarded even when the electorate has ideological reservations," says University of Southern California economist Juan Carrillo, adding that this poses a challenge for the Democrats.

 

Years ago, Herman Kahn of the Hudson Institute articulated the role of hypocrisy in social situations. A father in a small town, he said, doesn’t want his daughter to have access to pornography. And—if she finds it anyway—he wants to be able to say he didn’t know about it.

How can you talk about rational decision-making in a species that lies to itself?

The human mind is certainly complex. We like simple answers, but for complicated reasons. Sales author Jeffrey Gitomer says, “people buy from the heart, and then rationalize their decisions with the brain.” Often our brain arrives at rational decisions by bypassing “rational” thinking.

Do we come to trust rationally? No. It’s far more complicated than that. To describe human decision-making in purely rational terms is to under-estimate human nature.

Which means—if you want to be trusted, you won’t get there on powerpoint slides alone. Unless it’s just one slide. And real simple.

And you read it like it’s Revealed Truth that only you have access to.

Misconceptions about Trust-based Selling: It Doesn’t Work

This is the third in a series of three about misconceptions regarding Trust-based Selling™. The first was about naievete; the second, about time.

The third misconception is that it doesn’t make sense, it just doesn’t work.

Not unreasonable, since trust-based selling rests on some apparent paradoxes. For example:

a. managing your sales with short term metrics will drive your short term metrics down;
b. the best way to be credible is to admit where you’re not;
c. you have the most influence over customers when you stop trying to influence them;
d. the best way to improve your closure rate is to stop trying to improve your closure rate;
e. to gain control, give up control.

This shouldn’t be surprising. For an elegant statement of how this paradox plays out—nominally in golf—see Phil McGee’s post The Putt.

The thing is, buying is still a very human phenomenon—and we humans are obstinately perverse. We do not like being hustled. We do not like being told what to do by those who we don’t think understand us. And we do not buy from people we think are using us for their own ends.

That’s the heart of the paradox. A salesperson who puts his sale ahead of his customer will lose both. A salesperson who puts his customer ahead of his sale will win both. You have to care about the customer—for the sake of the customer, not for what the customer can do for you.

The language of paradox is alien to modern sales. Big corporate sales is all about linear process management: break it down into ever-finer pieces, and micro-manage each one. Fine-tune the sales pitch; tweak the yield rates by tighter lead qualification; get the close in this quarter; and measure everything by the effect it has on sale and the cost to get there.

That’s all about the sale—not the customer. The term “customer focus” itself is turned inside out when we evaluate “focus” by whether or not it produces the sale.
Trust-based Selling is not a process—it’s a set of principles consistently applied. They are:

1. customer focus—for the sake of the customer
2. an instinct for collaboration
3. a default toward transparency except where injurious or illegal
4. a medium-to-long term focus on the relationship, not a short-term focus on the transaction.

If you had to put it into one word, it would be “care.” The more complex, long, and specialized the sale, the more we buy from those who care about us more than they care about getting the sale.

Doesn’t make sense? On the contrary, it makes all the sense in the world.

——

If you’d like to learn more about Trust-based Selling™, why not join me for a Webinar tomorrow, Thursday, August 21, titled How to Build Trust in Sales Conversations. It is from 2PM to 3:30PM, Eastern time. See you there.