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Why Listening to Sales Experts May Be Hazardous to Your Sales

A sales expert, I’m not. A trust expert, I think I’ve become. And it turns out, there’s a big overlap.

One of the interesting points in Neil Rackham’s classic SPIN Selling is that certain techniques developed for small-item selling – notably closing – actually backfire when applied to larger, more complex sales. In other words, “sales expertise” of a certain kind may actually be hazardous to your sales health.

That may not seem like much of an insight more than 25 years after the book’s publication. Since then, we have seen major growth in thinking about B2B sales, as well as the transformative impact of the internet on the sales function. Nowadays no one would be caught dead trying an “assumptive close” in a modern B2B sales interaction.

But does that mean all sales expertise these days works more or less? I don’t think so. In fact, there’s a glaring assumption at the heart of almost all sales systems, which, if not properly understood, will actually decrease your sales effectiveness just as much as improper closing techniques.

It is the assumption that the point of selling is to get the sale.

What Is the Point of Selling?

That may seem like a stupid question, with an obvious answer. What else could the point of selling be except to get the sale? And I’m not talking about the difference between single transactions and repeat business either. I’m talking about the very purpose, the underlying goal, aim, and objective of the salesperson, sales process, and sales function. What else could the purpose be except to get the sale?

The alternative purpose, may I suggest, is to help the customer. That is not a trivial distinction; it’s a meaningful one. It’s also a powerful distinction, and it’s one easy to achieve. But if you do achieve it, you’ll do better on many dimensions – including sales.

To see why, let’s first explore what it would mean to have a different purpose for sales – a purpose other than to get the sale.

Design Implications of Helping the Customer as a Goal

Suppose your primary purpose was to help a customer.  Just suppose, just for a minute. What exactly would you do differently?

You’d be less concerned about whether you won or lost the sale. You’d spend a little more time on situations where you thought you could help – and a little less time where you thought you couldn’t. You’d take more time with leads to help them determine the best way for them to get help. You would often end up referring them out to other related-service providers where you thought they might get better help.

You’d seek out slightly different leads and targets than if you focused solely on where you thought you could sell. You’d view your competitors differently – as alternative offerings to help your customers get what they need. You’d give up your time and expertise on occasion if you felt it would help your customers advance a key cause. Conversely, you might be quicker to embrace value-billing in cases where you clearly bring value to the table.

You’d talk less about your own capabilities, and more about what would be good for your customer. You’d be naturally curious about what your customer needed and what would make their business better. Your curiosity would extend outside and beyond your company’s service offering to include those of other firms.

If your organization similarly supported a goal of helping the customer, then the metrics you operate under would be changed as well. Instead of an emphasis on quarterly sales results, progress against closing, and forecasted probabilized backlog rates, you’d see consumer-focused metrics that speak to customer performance and result of that performance. Noticeably absent would be much of the fine-toothed combing by lawyers enumerating the thou-shalt-nots of the relationship.

Operationalizing a Customer-Helping Goal

Looking at the above statements, you’re probably having one of three thoughts:

  • “Those aren’t that bad, actually. We could do with a bit more focus like that.”
  • “Yes, but you have to make money.”
  • “Yes, but you can’t let customers just take advantage of you.”

Note that thoughts two and three have an implicit assumption: that if you don’t focus on getting the sale, you probably won’t get the sale. And that’s where the miracle happens.  Because precisely the opposite is true.

People don’t like to be told what to do. People don’t like to feel controlled. People respond positively to a sense that they are being listened to, and to people whom they feel have their best interests at heart. We respond positively to generosity, and we respond negatively to greed. We tend to return favors and avoid those who have burned us.

In short, we reciprocate. The lessons of game theory, marriage therapy, and political organization all point in one direction: favors done, attention paid, and interest shown all beget the same in return. This simple truth is deeply embedded in our simplest human interactions (think handshakes and smiles) and our most complex ones as well (cultural affinities and political alliances).

The main result of reciprocation is – more reciprocation. If you listen to me, I will listen to you. If you treat me well, I will keep coming back. If I buy from you and you respond well, I’m likely to keep buying from you.

Unless, that is, the seller gets selfish. All bets are off to the extent that we perceive the seller as self-oriented, selfish, manipulative, and driven only by his own needs. If we as buyers feel objectified, treated solely as walking wallets by the seller, then we reciprocate. We coldly calculate the value of the seller to us and become willing to walk partly because we also feel insulted by such behavior.

The Paradox at the Heart of Great Selling

The best sales come from interactions where the sale is not the goal, but a byproduct – where the sale is a natural outcome of an attitude of other-focus, genuine concern, and focus on the other. Where the attitude is long-term, not transactional, and built on an assumption of win-win rather than of scarcity.

There’s a paradox here. You do your best selling when you stop trying to sell, when you simply focus on doing right by the customer. That doesn’t mean you turn into a non-profit charity. There is still a role for profitability metrics, CRM systems, and funnel statistics. But they must become subordinate to the broader goal: helping your customer. Dial them back 90%, lengthen their timeframe, and don’t think of them while interacting with customers.

Are there customers who’ll take advantage of you? Sure, though not nearly as many as you think. And those who act that way are the ones you gift to your competitors.

If you help your customers, they’ll help you. That’s a rule that doesn’t need your thumb on the scale to work. Don’t force it. Make customer help your goal.

 

Don’t Focus Just on Skillsets

It’s become a truism: you can’t manage what you can’t measure. (Actually, it’s quite a debatable proposition.) A corollary is that therefore what matters are observable behaviors, hence the essence of training is to develop skills that generate those behaviors. We’ve all seen, in the opening page of nearly every corporate training session’s objectives statement, “Participants will learn the skills associated with the behaviors of…”

But focusing on skills alone produces dangerously myopic results.  Let me use a sports analogy here – let’s go with golf.

Whether you’re stroking a 3-foot putt or hitting a long drive, two kinds of things can go wrong:

  • You may do something incorrectly, e.g. swing in a bad plane or aim the club face wrong. This will result in the ball going other than where you intended.
  • You may think incorrectly, e.g. correct some last-minute perceived error or try to set a course record. This too will result in the ball going other than where you intended.

If the results are the same, which error do you fix? Does it matter? Remember that mental errors manifest in physical ways. A desire to “kill the ball” may result in swinging in a wrong plane. Worrying about missing the putt is likely to cause you to over-control and flinch, thus aiming the club face wrongly at point of impact.

Fixing the “doing” is improving our skillsets. It includes things such as altering the grip or moving the ball forward in our stance. Fixing the “thinking” is improving our mindsets. It includes advice such as “swing through the ball” or “trust your swing.”

Mindsets and Skillsets

The metaphor for sales is clear, I hope, though it applies equally to other fields of advisory business relationships. Sometimes we do or say the wrong thing. More typically, we don’t do or say the right thing. But how do we know which issue-set to focus on in sales? Does the golf metaphor give us guidance, or does it just help define the problem?

It’s been my experience that when it comes to sales – here comes a gross generalization – we put too much emphasis on skillsets and not enough on mindsets. A couple of qualifications: my experience is mainly built around B2B sales, with a heavy focus on complex and/or intangible products or services, and a concentration in professional services. So, I have my biases, just to be clear, in what follows.

We Live In a Skillset World

In the Western world of business, the sub-world of sales has not been immune to some larger trends. Those include, first and foremost, a recent massive trend toward quantification.

Cloud computing is relatively new. iPhones are only 10 years old. Computer laptops are only a few decades old. The web didn’t exist before the 90s. The spreadsheet was invented only in the late 70s. And the 1981 IBM PC had one (big) floppy disc that held 64K (another optional drive doubled capacity all the way to 128K).

Two other phenomena are worth mentioning: the creation of Michael Hammer’s Business Process Re-engineering strategy and the invention (courtesy of the Boston Consulting Group and Michael Porter) of the quantitative approach to competitive strategy.

These big three—computing power, process perspective, and competitive calculation—changed the way business is done. In a nutshell, we began hearing that mantra about “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it” and “You get what you measure.” Business began to view organizations as processes, not hierarchies, with all the data that come with processes (not to mentions manuals and procedures). All this happened within recent times for Gen X managers (but feels ancient to millennials).

Sales Skillsets

These trends greatly influenced (led to?) CRM systems. Sales trainers (influenced by behaviorally trained organization trainers) began to phrase training in terms of measurable behaviors. And after all, isn’t sales the ultimately quantifiable function?

In a skillset world, two assumptions keep popping up: one is a linear approach to cause and effect, and the other is a belief in breaking things down into pieces. The first belief views sales as “a sale, repeated over and over.” You’ve all seen depictions of sales processes, typically rightward-moving arrow diagrams. They all boil down to, “If you do X, you’ll get Y.”

The second assumption is that we gain greater control over a process by breaking it down into finer and finer pieces. This assumption has been greatly enabled by the availability of data. (It’s also been only a few years since the word “analytic” was turned from an adjective to a plural noun).

Sales Mindsets

Of course, with data and behavioral skillsets come many advantages. But there are two advantages to focusing more on mindsets.

First is that the more complex the situation, the more difficult it is to map out all the appropriate skillsets. A level of generalization, an ability to deduce specifics from the general, allows not only more customization, but more speed. With skillsets alone, all we can generate is practiced behavior. With mindsets, we gain the ability to improvise.

Put another way – mindset scales; skillsets don’t.

The second benefit of mindsets is that the more human the buyer, the less likely they are to respond to mechanistic behaviors (or the perception thereof). Sometimes we just want to interact with a chatbot, and we want it to just plain work. But other times, we want to interact with a human. And when we do, we want the person to do more than just recite rules, try to manipulate us, or emulate a robot.

Mindsets don’t guarantee behavior. No golfer ever succeeded by simply envisioning a swing and never practicing.

But if all you do is increase your repertoire of behaviors, your customers won’t be able to tell you from an automaton. The really effective salespeople have internalized mindsets, and they can generate the appropriate behaviors “on demand.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wants vs Needs? Dylan and the Stones Weigh in on Sales

Should you sell to someone’s wants, or to someone’s needs?

It’s a much-discussed topic in sales. Some say you should sell to wants, not needs.  Others say exactly the opposite. And some say you should sell to both.

 

Clearly the case cries out for a good definition. I checked in with the well-known sales consulting firm of Jagger, Richards & Dylan.

You Can’t Always Get What You Want

Never mind Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, let’s talk about Mick Jagger’s. After all, this was the 100th greatest song of all time; whereas Maslow, as far as I know, never even made the Billboard Charts.

The tagline is “but if you try sometimes you might find you get what you need.” In other words, wants are higher, deeper and often more unattainable than needs.

There’s more than one way to define the difference between wants and needs, but I’ll settle for the definition used by the Greatest Rock ‘n Roll Band in history. But if that’s not good enough for you – wait, there’s more!

Robert Zimmerman, Salesman

Bob Dylan, from Blonde on Blonde, also wrote about sales:

An’ she says, ‘Your debutante just knows what you need; but I know what you want!

Stuck Inside of Mobile, with the Memphis Blues Again

Dylan and Jagger are pouring from the same bottle of wine. Here too, the idea of one’s wants transcend that of one’s needs.

Needs are tangible things we’ve got to have, necessary conditions: toothpaste, bicycles, audits, CRM systems. Wants are aspirational: hopes, wishes, dreams, desires, visions.

The Roles of Wants and Needs

Which should you sell to? What do buyers relate to? The right answer (it’s remarkable how often this is the right answer to seeming quandaries) is “both, at different points.”

Here are a few hints.

1.    People buy with the heart, then rationalize it with the brain.

In other words, sell the wants and let everyone talk about the needs they resolved by making that decision. The wants are dealt with more personally, arm-around-shoulder; the needs are what you tell the purchasing committee after the fact about why you did the deal.

2.    People prefer to buy what they need from those who understand what they want.

In other words, if you’re going to sell stuff that people need, first tap into their wants. You don’t even have to give them what they want, you just have to be someone who can tap into it. That makes you a seller someone wants to buy from.  The greatest exponent of this idea, I find, was Bill Brooks (see my interview with his son Jeb).

Basically, you need to touch people on both fronts.

  • If you only sell to needs, you’re a features-only kind of person limited to competing on price.
  • If you sell only based on wants, you might do well in designer bricks or perfume, but forget about selling complex systems.

Be well-rounded. Listen to both the Stones and Dylan.  Until you do, you’re just Blowin’ in the Wind, and will get No Satisfaction in sales.

The Traveling Salesman? Or the Prisoner’s Dilemma?

The Prisoner’s Dilemma is a classic conundrum in game theory. It purports to explain 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.

The dilemma is that – 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, so perhaps I should 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 might just steal my knowledge and not pay me for it – perhaps I should 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. (Or, what amounts to the same, sellers project fear, and buyers reciprocally return the same – as humans are wont to do).

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 what sales topics are hot these days: sales automation, lead screening, CRM, social media lead generation, predictive analytics, search-based prospecting, multi-channel messaging. Think about the last step in nearly every sales process model you’ve seen—closing.

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.

When to Offer a Lower Price

Few decisions in business have such dramatic effects on customer perception as how you handle your pricing – in particular, when and how you offer discounts.

People may evaluate your products, or your service offerings, by averaging out multiple experiences. But drop your price just once, and see how hard it is to recover. For a large-scale example, recall Bill Ackman’s painful failure to revamp the image of JC Penney—away from frequent discounts to everyday low prices as a strategy. For a more personal example, just ask yourself – how often are you able to recover your normal pricing rates after having given an initial discount?

Yet in professional services and complex businesses, we play with offering discounts all the time. We tell ourselves, ‘The client wants it.’  ‘We might lose without it.’  ‘The competitor is cutting rates.’ ‘We can’t look inflexible.’  ‘What’s the big deal, how often do we get full rate anyway?’

Yet you’re right to be suspicious about the effectiveness of random hip-shooting when it comes to offering a lower price.  Shouldn’t we have some kind of strategy?

Don’t Just Stand There: Stand for Something

There is no one “right” approach to offering discounts. Your approach will vary with your business, your objectives, and your markets. But there are some things every approach should do:

  • You should have a rule for when to discount
  • That rule should be easily explainable to clients
  • You should be willing to live by the rule.

That may sound obvious. But how often have you heard things like, “Don’t tell Bill that we gave XYZ got that price; it’ll only encourage him to want it,” or “Those guys’ll do anything to get the business.” Those statements indicate a lack of policy – which is death on your reputation.

What to Stand For

Again, your business will vary. Here’s what I decided for mine. I run a high-end professional services business, offering speaking, training, coaching, and related services. I want to be known for solid relationships, high quality, professionalism, and subject matter expertise. And in my case, because the subject matter is trust, I also need to be seen as completely above suspicion.

It’s clear, then, that I need to articulate and live by some rules about when to discount. Here’s what I came up with over the years.

1. Frequency. I want to be at the opposite end of the spectrum from a JC Penney strategy of frequent discounting. I don’t want clients looking for bargains. If they’re looking to price shop, I want to send a not-so-subtle message that they’re in the wrong place.

2. Exceptions. To help that message, I need to be very clear about when and where discounts are appropriate. In my business, I can clearly state three such situations:

Volume. In my business, perhaps the biggest cost is cost of sales (the time, expense, and investment it takes to generate professional fees). It stands to reason that if someone can reduce my cost of sales, I have room to pass some of those savings along in lower prices.

The biggest example of that is simply a volume discount. The economics of selling one training session to 10 clients vs. selling 10 training sessions to one client are pretty clear. I am happy to receive multiple orders, and I’m happy to offer volume discounts to reflect it.

For me, volume discounts are easy to explain and easy to justify.

Special SituationsFor Me. Sometimes I want to work in a new industry or with a novel offering.

Those situations are as important for me as they are for the client. In those cases, I will offer a significant discount. I don’t want to shave nickels; I want to send a message about what is important and what isn’t. And in those cases, it’s about the learning. Those kinds of discounts rarely happen.

Special Situations—For the Client. Non-profits never have the kind of money that corporations do; most associations are limited as well. I don’t say yes to all those requests, but when I do, it’s only reasonable to price “off-label.” (Government is a special case, and one I won’t go into here.) And yes, there are a few ‘friends’ discounts from time to time.

3. Non-Exceptions. That’s about it. That leaves a lot of other situations where I choose not to discount. It’s worth pointing them out:

Pleas for budget. Sorry, I have a list of charities I contribute to: corporations with a squeezed budget are not on the list. Make that ‘never on the list’ if you’re in the pharmaceutical or financial services industries, or if you have office space in midtown Manhattan.

Bargaining. I have a simple way of declaring that this is not a bazaar: transparency. I explain my business model, explain when and how I give discounts, and – that’s it. I recall one client who, after our initial phone call, said, “I assume that if we go ahead, you’ll grant us our customary 20% discount.” He assumed wrongly.

The Positive Alternative. “Just say no” may (or may not) be a good strategy for drug usage, but it’s not a satisfactory answer to a client on the receiving end. None of us like to be told no, even with a great explanation.

Over the years, I developed another business practice that turns out to have a great side benefit: making people appreciate my saying “no” to discount requests. That practice is to simply take a few minutes extra to talk with them about their situation and refer them to someone else who can help them.

I am a very small player in all the markets I play in. I am far from the only one providing great service. If someone doesn’t happen to fit my business model, they may be caviar and champagne for someone else’s model.

It costs nothing to spend a little time thinking about alternatives for clients who don’t quite fit with my needs, and it generates huge amounts of goodwill. It’s a small investment with a big marketing return: they may come back when they have a need that is a fit with me, and they may speak well of me to others. Not to mention, they’re no longer complaining about how I don’t discount.

Again, my model is not the only one. You have to decide what’s right for you. But whatever it is, it should be clear, it has to be explainable, and you should be willing to live by it.

If Selling Is Too Hard, You’re Doing It Wrong

Many fine sales authors will tell you that an essential ingredient in selling—perhaps the essential ingredient—is effort. Gumption, grit, hustle, sweat—whatever the word, the image it conveys is that success in selling is tough. No pain, no gain.

Selling is a lot like football, this view says: the team that exerts the most effort is the team that wins. And there is a lot of truth in that viewpoint.

But consider another truth. Think about hitting a golf ball. As anyone who’s tried doing that can attest, the quality of your golf shot is in inverse proportion to your effort. That pleasing “thwock” of a well-struck iron almost never comes from trying hard.

Instead, the “trick” in golf is not how hard you swing—it’s how smooth, relaxed, and “at ease” your swing is. If you’re swinging too hard, you’re almost certainly doing it wrong. And there’s a lot of truth in that viewpoint as well.

I’ve learned that most dichotomies like this are false. Selling isn’t only like football or like golf. It’s both, in different aspects. But that’s a different article. This article is about just one side—the golf side, if you will, where if you’re working too hard at selling, you’re doing it wrong.

Adam Smith, Competition, and Selling

Blame it on Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, if you will. The Scottish moral philosopher and economist famously claimed that by the self-oriented struggling of the butcher and the baker, the “invisible hand” of the market makes itself known by balancing out all for the greater good. Out of individual selfishness grows the maximum collective good.

While Smith has been unfairly characterized as arguing against regulation and in favor of unfettered free markets, there’s no question that his powerful formulation rhymes with competition—individuals seeking their own betterment. Perhaps ever since, business has been full of metaphors from war and sports. And nowhere are those metaphors more prevalent than in sales.

Here’s a partial list for just one sport alone: pitch, curve ball, hitting cleanup, bottom of the ninth, pinch hit, get our signals lined up, strike out, bases loaded, don’t swing at the first pitch, home field advantage, double play, we’re on the scoreboard, leaving men on base, pop-up, foul ball, home run hitter, shut-out, and so on.

Here’s the thing about sports metaphors: they’re all about competition. Real Madrid vs. Barca. Yankees vs. Red Sox. All Blacks vs. Wallabies. Seller vs. competitor.

And—most of all—seller vs. buyer.

Selling without Competition

It’s hard for most people to even conceive of selling without that competitive aspect between buyer and seller. Isn’t the point to get the sale? Isn’t closing the end of the sales process? If a competitor got the job, wouldn’t that be a loss? And why would you spend time on a “prospect” if the odds looked too low for a sale?

When we think this way, we spend an awful lot of energy. It’s hard work—particularly because much of it is spent trying to persuade customers to do what we (sellers) want them to do. And getting other people to do what we want them to do is never easy (if you have a teenager and/or a spouse, you know this well).

There is another way. It consists in simply and basically changing the entire approach to selling.

The first approach is the traditional, competitive, zero-sum-thinking, buyer vs. seller—the age-old dance that to this day gives selling a faint (or not-so-faint) bad name. It is one-sided, seller-driven, and greedy.

The new social media capabilities have not made this approach to selling go away—they have empowered it. Just look at your inbox, spam filters, LinkedIn requests, Twitter hustles, and pop-up ads on the Internet.

And boy do you have to work hard to sell that way.

The second approach is different. The fundamental distinction is that you’re working with the buyer, not against the buyer. Your interests are 100% aligned, not 63%. If you do business by relentlessly helping your customers do what’s right for them, selling gets remarkably easier.

You don’t have to think about what to share and what not to. You don’t have to control others. You don’t have to white-knuckle meetings and phone calls because there are no bad outcomes.

Selling this way works very well for one fundamental reason: all people (including buyers) want to deal with sellers they can trust—sellers who are honest, forthright, long-term driven, and customer-focused. All people (including buyers) prefer not to deal with sellers who are in it for themselves, and constantly in denial about it.

This is the golf part of selling: the part where if you lighten up, relax the muscles, let it flow, you end up with superior results. And there’s a whole lot of truth to that view. If you’re working too hard, you’re not getting the sale.

 

 

3 Principles to Positively Measure Sales Training Effectiveness

It’s an article of faith in business that “if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” The alternative phrasing is, “What gets measured gets managed.”

Nowhere are those mantras more repeated than in the fields of corporate sales and training. And at the intersection—the field of sales training—it’s beyond an article of faith; it’s more like The Book.

And yet, in my admittedly limited experience (serving mainly high-end, intangible, B2B businesses), I’ve noticed very curious things:

  • Learning and development organizations want to see precise, detailed performance metrics in their sales training programs, and they request evidence of such metrics from vendors’ past client engagements.
  • Those same companies do not themselves have such metrics for past training programs – and they balk at the opportunity to create them when offered.
  • Those companies feel guilty about this disparity.

They shouldn’t feel guilty. There’s a reason none of them actually produces the metrics they claim to want—because the metrics they want are the wrong metrics. Furthermore, the act of measuring them is harmful.

Companies for the most part end up doing the right thing despite their “best thinking.” Like Huckleberry Finn, who felt himself a sinner for having helped the slave Jim escape to freedom, learning and development departments are not sinners at all—they’re actually doing the right thing.

In this article, I’d like to congratulate them for their “failure” and point out an alternative to the wrong thinking they’ve been holding themselves accountable to.

The Heisenberg Principle of Training

In physics, the Heisenberg Principle says that at the sub-atomic level, the act of measuring either mass or velocity actually changes either the velocity or the mass. In other words, measuring affects measurement.

What’s true at the micro-level in physics is true at the higher-order level in business training—the training of skills in areas such as engagement, vulnerability, listening, trust, empathy, or constructive confrontation. In those areas, the act of measurement affects the thing being measured. That effect can be positive or negative.

It does matter that you measure. What also matters, however, is what you measure and how you measure it – and we think wrongly about each.

It goes wrong when we approach these higher-level human functions as if they were lower-level behavioral skills. We apply the same mindset to them that we successfully apply to learning a golf swing, developing a spreadsheet, or creating a daily exercise habit.

These higher-level arenas evaporate when we subject them to the relentless behavioral decomposition appropriate for lower-level skills. Consider an example:

You declare to your spouse your commitment to improving your marriage. Your spouse is happy to hear of this decision until, that is, you declare that “obviously” you need a baseline and a set of metrics to regularly track your improvement. Still, your spouse is a team player and grudgingly agrees to go along. You jointly assign a 79.0 basis (on a 100 scale) for your baseline quality of marriage.

All goes well the first week: you are mindful of taking out the garbage, looking away from your email when your spouse speaks to you, and asking “how are you?” at least once a day—until measurement time. You then ask your spouse to rate your progress at the end of week 1: “Do you think I’ve moved the needle from 79.0? Maybe up into the 80s, huh?”

At this point, your spouse declares the experiment over, suggesting that you don’t “get” the whole concept. Oops. And by the way, you just slipped below 79.

What went wrong? On one level, it trivializes marriage to describe it solely in terms of behavioral tics like taking the garbage out, even though in the long run there is clearly a correlation. Further, focusing on taking the garbage out suggests it’s a cause rather than an effect. Finally, the frequency of focus on such things forces attention away from the true causes and drivers—a mindful attitude.

And on a deeper level, treating measurement this way confuses ends and means. A good marriage should be rewarding on its own terms. The overlay of a report card raises ugly questions: From whom are you seeking approval? And approval of what? Why, after all, are you doing this in the first place? What does “success” at the scorecard add to success in the marriage?

Gamification, so useful in more plebeian aspects of life, is trivializing, even insulting, when applied to the game of life.

Want proof? Ask your spouse.

Errors in Training Measurement

Such measurement is also trivial when applied to higher-level sales training. It’s true that to be successfully trusted as a salesperson, you need to do a great job of listening, empathizing, telling the truth, collaborating, and focusing on client needs. And if you do all of those things, you will sell more.

But the higher sales come about because you focus on the relationship.  The sale should be a byproduct of a relationshipnot the purpose or goal in itself, with the relationship solely a means to the sale. Focusing solely on the byproducts sends exactly the wrong message.

There are two errors you can make:

  • Measuring those improved sales every week (or very frequently). Doing so proves to everyone that you really don’t care about all of that empathy and trust stuff except insofar as it improves sales. Which means you’re a hypocrite. Which means they won’t trust you and won’t buy from you. Hello Heisenberg.
  • Measuring the constituent behaviors. If you break down “empathy” into various behaviors (looks deeply into client’s eyes, pauses 0.4 seconds before answering questions, uses phrases like ‘that’s got to be difficult’ at least once per paragraph, etc.), it proves to everyone that you don’t “get” empathy. You are just a mimic, and not a terribly good one at that. Which means they won’t trust you, and won’t buy from you. Hello Heisenberg, again.

Using Measurement Positively

Up until now I’ve been negative about the ways measurement is used—actually, the way we talk about it being used—because in fact, our better instincts take over and we don’t actually do these things often. But there are positive ways to measure. There are three principles:

  1. Pick long-term, big picture metrics. The best one for sales training is, of course, revenue—but measured over time. The right timeframe varies with the business, but less than quarterly is too much.

Other things you could measure—and there shouldn’t be too many—include account penetration, share of wallet, or cost of sales. Again, these should be looked at as trailing indicators of performance, avoiding any suggestion that they are short-term causal drivers to be tweaked. You don’t cause mindsets like trust by practicing tiny behaviors; you cause tiny behaviors by focusing on mindsets like trust.

  1. Substitute discussion for reports. If your only reason for metrics is to “manage” them, then everyone will intuit your bad faith—that you don’t really care about empathy, you care about winning the battle for being empathetic as soon and as profitably as possible, and you will ding anyone for not being empathetic.

Instead, have irregular but frequent open-ended discussions about the numbers. There’s nothing wrong with discussing listening techniques or examining pipeline status. Doing so is how we get better and should be the purpose of sales coaching. But by discussing rather than “reporting” and “evaluating,” you show that your purpose is indeed on the end game (engagement, trust, etc.) and not on scorecards.

  1. Publicize discussions as motivation, not metrics. If someone has a breakthrough in listening, use the process to celebrate and educate the organization. (Look at what Joe did, and how he did it!) This is using Heisenberg in a positive way—to publicize insights and to encourage.

The alternative—defining smaller and smaller behavioral details—whether you publicize it or not, sends the message that salespeople are being evaluated, not coached. It also says that the metrics matter, not the end purpose they’re intended to serve.

Learning and development people: stop thinking you need detailed behavioral metrics. Give yourself a break, give your vendors a break, and give your salespeople a break. Coach your staff, demand principled behavior from them, and hold them accountable. Don’t track them minutely and with an hourglass. Coach on details to get better, measure end results to show it’s all working, and communicate what’s important.

In Complex Sales, Time Is on Your Side

What’s the relationship of time to sales?

Should we worry that “time’s a wasting?” Or pay more heed to “all good things in due time?”  It sounds like a trivial question, but it’s got some far-reaching implications.


In late 1964, an English group calling themselves The Rolling Stones got their first U.S. Top 10 record with a song called “Time Is On My Side.” It was a cover version of a song previously recorded by Irma Thomas, among others. The lyrics loosely proclaimed that “you’ll come running back” because “I’ll always be around,” and therefore “time is on my side.”

The Stones, it turns out, were talking about selling professional services – and more broadly, about consultative selling in general.

If you’re relatively new to business development (the preferred euphemism in services for selling), you’ve probably read several books or articles, seeking wisdom on how to better sell. And if you’re an old hand at selling (and have no time for euphemisms), you’ve probably read even more of the same.

Nearly all of those books and articles make one key assumption. It is an assumption so basic, so simple, that we don’t even notice it. It is baked into the studies, the definitions, and the very language we use to describe selling. And yet that one assumption is so profound that it affects nearly every aspect of how we approach selling.

It is the assumption that a sale is a transaction. It is a discrete event. It happens (or in any case is closed) at a point in time. It is singular. The plural of “sale” is a series of “sales,” where the whole is equal to the sum of the parts. Sales happen one at a time. And time, generally, is not on your side.

Sales as Events

Consider the implications of that viewpoint. It suggests that a sale is an event with a beginning and an end. It suggests that we can understand sales patterns by averaging the sales events. It suggests that someone who is good at selling is good at making transactions happen. And it suggests that processes for managing sales will track these events through a sales process, attaching probabilities and sizes to each sale as the leads pass through the process.

That’s pretty much every modern-day CRM program, most sales metrics and sales management processes. The defining characteristic of those systems is that they’re built around discrete, separate events. In fact, we’ve talked ourselves into a mode of thinking such that we can’t conceive of managing sales without conjuring up behavioral, trackable events. If you can’t list an action and put a date on it – it doesn’t exist.

The sale event begins with a lead event, an initial contact. It proceeds through various exchanges of questions and answers. At some point there is a more or less formal proposal made by the seller. The end of the event comes when the proposal is either accepted, rejected, or ignored. At that point, the event is considered “closed.” The buying company, unit, or person may show up again, and they may go on a contact list. But when they show up again as a buyer, the seller will consider it a separate event.

When we think of sales as events, time is generally not on your side. Time is money. Time is the denominator in measures of efficiency. Time is what’s a-wasting when you’re spending your time unproductively, i.e. not selling. Time is the unit that determines your bonus, and it is what your manager is talking about when he says, “What have you done for me lately?”

Viewed that way, the world of sales is a series of discrete events. To borrow a metaphor from subatomic physics, the modern view of sales sees sales particles, not waves.

And yet—as in physics—we don’t have a complete understanding of things unless we view things from the “wave” perspective, as well as the particle perspective.

Sales as Patterns

Sales as events may sound blindingly obvious, but consider an alternative. What if a sale didn’t describe a discrete event, but a pattern of events, or a state of relationship, or a condition? What if a sale happened over time, with no particular event being more significant than others? What if a sale were about a relationship, not a transaction? What if it were an adjective, not just a noun or a verb?

We would view selling not as about executing isolated, separate transactions, but as relationships.

We would talk mainly about the quality of the relationship with a customer. Individual sales transactions would be seen as indicators of relationship success, not as the sole driving purpose.
Relationships and transactions would trade places as ends and means. CRM systems would actually measure relationships, not just transactions, thus finally living up to their name. Sales managers would coach people on furthering customer relationships, not on check-boxing behavioral events and driving transactions through the customer organization.

Is Time On Your Side?

A critical difference between the transactional and the relationship view of sales is the role of time. Transactions happen at points in time; relationships wax and wane over time. How you spend your time varies:

  • If you view sales as transactional, then you’ll want to maximize transactions over time and view relationships as a means to that end.
  • If you view sales as relational, then you’ll want to maximize relationships over time and trust that transactions will come about as a byproduct.

Note: in the long run, the metrics converge. The longer the timeframe, the more relevant is aggregate dollar sales. The critical question is this: do you maximize long-term sales by focusing on short-term transactions, or by focusing on long-term relationships?

For some businesses, long-term revenue pretty much equals the sum of the short-term results. Possible examples are convenience stores, Wall Street trading businesses, and online ad revenue. Here the transactional view of sales works just fine.

But for many other businesses – especially professional and intangible services, and complex and high-ticket B2B sales – the reverse is true. You don’t succeed by micro-focusing on transactions, by relentlessly improving efficiency, or by scrimping on time.

Instead, you succeed by focusing on the qualitative – by improving relationships, by nurturing the conditions that lead to repeat business, loyalty, deep customer knowledge and intimacy. In the not-very-long run, that focus actually produces better results than focusing on the transactional.

The Stones were right: time is (largely) on your side. If you are prepared to be consistent, trustworthy, focused on the greater good of your client, and not blinded by the shiny object of the Next Transaction, time becomes your friend. Your customers will indeed come running back—at least as many and as often to make it a superior sales strategy.

Are You Worthy of Your Client’s Trust?

Have you ever stopped and asked yourself if you’re worthy of your client’s trust? It’s a big question, but one with an interesting twist.

It seems that trust, especially a client’s trust in us, is something that we too often take for granted. Just because a client signs on board with us – shouldn’t mark the end of building upon a trusted relationship. In fact, it should be just the beginning. Let’s dig in a bit further.

——–

Most salespeople will agree – there is no stronger sales driver than a client’s trust in the salesperson. Further, the most successful route to being trusted is to be trustworthy – worthy of trust. Faking trust is not easy – and the consequences of failing at it are large.

But is it possible to know if your client does trust you? Is there one predictor of client trust? Is there a single factor that amounts to an acid test of trust in selling?

I think there is. It’s contained in one single question. A “yes” answer will strongly suggest your clients trust you. A “no” answer will virtually guarantee they don’t.

The Acid Test Of Trust In Selling

The question to you is this:

Have you ever recommended a competitor to one of your better clients?

If the answer is “yes” – subject to the caveats below – then you have demonstrably put your client’s short-term interests ahead of your own. Assuming you sincerely did so, this indicates low self-orientation and a long-term perspective on your part, and is a good indicator of trustworthiness.

If you have never, ever, recommended a competitor to a good client, then either your service is always better than the competition for every client in every situation (puh-leeze), or, far more likely, you always shade your answers to suit your own advantage; which says you always put your interests ahead of your clients’; which says, frankly, you can’t be trusted.

Here are the caveats. Don’t count “yes” answers if:

  1. The client was trivially important to you;
  2. You were going to lose the client anyway;
  3. You don’t have a viable service offering in the category;
  4. You figured the competitor’s offering was terrible and you’d deep-six them by recommending them.

The only fair “yes” answer is one in which you honestly felt that an important client would be better served in an important case by going with a competitor’s offering.

If that describes what you did, and it is a fair reflection of how you think about client relationships in general, then I suspect your clients trust you.

This is the “acid test” of trust in selling. To understand why it’s so powerful, let’s consider the factors of trust.

Why This Is The Acid Test

My co-authors and I suggested in The Trusted Advisor that trust has four components, and we arrayed them in the “trust equation.” More precisely, it is an equation for trustworthiness, and it is written:

T = (C + R + I) / S
T = trustworthiness of the seller (as perceived by the buyer)
C = credibility
R = reliability
I = intimacy
S = self-orientation

Credibility is probably the most commonly thought-of trust component, but it is only one. Think of credibility and reliability as being the “rational” parts of trust. Believable, credentialed, dependable, having a track record – these are the traits we most consciously look for when screening vendors, doctors, and websites.

The third factor in the numerator – intimacy – is more emotional. It has to do with the sense of security we get in sharing information with someone. We say we “trust” someone when we open up to them, share parts of ourselves with them. We trust those to whom we entrust our secrets.

But all pale beside the power of the single factor in the denominator – self-orientation. If the seller – the one who would be trusted, who strives to be perceived as trustworthy – is perceived as being self-oriented, then we see him as someone who is in it for himself. And that’s the kiss of death for trust.

At its simplest, high self-orientation is selfishness; at its most complex, self-absorption. Neither gives the buyer a sense that the seller cares about any interests but his own.

Self-orientation speaks to motives. If one’s motives are suspect, then everything else is cast in a different light. What looked like credible credentials may be a forged resume and false testimonials. What looked like a reliable track record may be an assemblage of falsehoods. What looked like safe intimacy may be the tactics of a con man. Bad motives taint every other aspect of trust.

The acid test aims squarely at this issue of orientation. Whom are you serving? If the answer is, the client, then all is well. No client expects a professional to go out of business serving them — the need to make a good profit is easily accepted.

It’s when the need to run a profitable business is given primacy in every transaction, every quarter, and every sale, that clients call your motives into question. How can they trust someone who’s never willing to invest in the longer term, never willing to compromise, never willing to gracefully defer in the face of what is best for the client? They cannot, of course.

Passing the acid test suggests you know how to focus on relationships, not transactions; medium and long-term timeframes, not just short-term; and collaborative, not competitive, work patterns.

Flunking the acid test means clients doubt your motives. Whether you are selfish or self-obsessed makes little difference to them – the results are self-aggrandizing, not client-helpful.

The paradox is: in the long-run, self-focused behavior is less successful than is client-helpful behavior. Collaboration beats competition. Trust beats suspicion. Profits flow most not to those who crave them, but to those who accept them gracefully as an outcome of client service.

Don’t Be a Social Selling Lemming

 

You probably have a social media presence. You might even call it a social media strategy. But is it really strategic? Or is it just a lemming strategy—making you look like a thousand other firms rushing headlong together toward a cliff? There’s a chance your social selling strategy may not be very strategic at all.

Let’s review a few basics about strategy, then come back to the question.

Competitive Strategy Must Differentiate You

First, a strategy that doesn’t distinguish you from competitors’ strategies is not a strategy at all. The whole point of a competitive strategy is to point out why you, in some important way, are different from your competitors.

This is why the pursuit of “best practices” is not only un-strategic, but it’s anti-strategic. The more you adopt everyone else’s best practices, the more you look like everyone else. A “me-too” strategy isn’t a strategy at all.

Economist Mike Porter suggested years ago there are only two kinds of strategies: being a low-cost producer or being a differentiated producer. Differentiation, in turn, can be along product or industry lines. That makes for three distinctive, differentiable strategies. If you are not following one of the three, then you are in danger of being un-strategic.

What does it mean to be un-strategic? It means you present no compelling reason for anyone to hire you—unless you’re willing to cut your price (an act that often lowers your perceived quality anyway).

The Social Media Lemming Strategy

As the popular myth has it, lemmings throw themselves en masse into the waters in a collective undifferentiated rush toward oblivion. Clearly that’s not a metaphor you want your social media strategy associated with.

But there are two huge forces that drive us all in that direction. One is the zero-marginal cost of volume on the Internet. The other is an obsession with metrics in social media.

Zero-marginal cost: As direct marketers found out to their glee when they discovered Internet marketing, the marginal cost of adding another name to your email list is infinitesimal. The result: spam.

The zero-marginal cost feature has likewise encouraged people to build massive databases, expanded Twitter lists, turned “friend” into a verb, and so on. It all costs nothing. If X is good, then X + whatever must be even better, so why not go for it?

Obsession with metrics: The zero-marginal cost factor is a feature of Internet economics. By contrast, the obsession with metrics is a purely human creation. Encouraged by a tsunami of data supply and a desire to appear scientific on the part of dozens of management gurus, the field of business has been overwhelmed by a tendency to mistake a measurement for the thing that is being measured.

This mistake—basically confusing cause and effect—is evident in the ever-finer increments of activity to be found in CRM systems. It’s embedded in the formulaic insistence of learning and development managers that all training must be evidentially behavioral to be relevant. But nowhere has it become more endemic than in the field of social media.

Think Klout: a metric of metrics. Think Twitter: how many followers you have and how many people you follow. Think LinkedIn: how many “contacts” you have. Think about the incredibly complex mix of analytics put out by Google and a thousand website traffic consultants. All are aimed at improving your metrics. And what do they measure? Basically, more metrics. The ultimate substrate of reality (revenue, anyone?) is sorely missing.

Four Anti-Strategic Social Strategies

  1. Promoting the Same Content: Consider one social media “strategy,” exemplified by Triberr but also evident in LinkedIn groups. Join a group, and the agreement is “we’ll all promote each other,” thereby driving up everyone’s numbers. Does the metric work? Sure, it works to drive up metrics. The cost, however, is strategic.

If you and 25 others all agree to auto-tweet everyone else’s blog post, you then have 25 people all tweeting the same content. Their twitter behavior becomes asymptotically identical to each other. The result: mass un-differentiation.

  1. Pumping Up the Numbers: Another social media “strategy” is to simply increase your number of followers. The direct approach is to announce to the world that “I follow.” Thus, any lemming-like-minded twitterer who follows you can automatically expect you to return “the favor,” thereby increasing each of your numbers.

Do the numbers work? Sure. They work to increase your numbers. Eventually, high numbers will get you onto lists—lists like “Top 50 sales bloggers” or similar. Finally, at that point, differences become grossly evident. There really are some true sales experts. And, there are others who got there solely on social media grade inflation. The difference becomes stark. In the sunlight, quality is evident.

  1. No-Value Content: Another social media “strategy” is a perversion of “content marketing.” Originally (and still, for some people), this meant offering high-quality content in an accessible way to help potential customers develop their thinking. But it rapidly succumbed to the “obsession with metrics” rule.

Today, I get at least one invitation a day from fly-by-night auto-emailing outfits asking if they can write “content” for my site or to embed a link in a post I might make available to them. In any real sense of the word, there is no “content” there.

  1. The Aggregation Delusion: Mimicking news sites, this delusion consists of writing zero-insight-added blog posts that have titles that begin with “Top 12 reasons why…” They amount to little more than clickbait, since they consist of regurgitated, even directly plagiarized, content from elsewhere. The purpose is to drive clicks and traffic so that the blogger can show up on lists of clicks and traffic. Again, there comes a point in the actual buying process where buyers easily note the difference between vapor-ware and real content.

Don’t Be a Lemming

When you set out to compete on volume alone, you’re up against some seriously tough competition. There is room for only one low-cost producer in any market, and it’s traditionally the one with the highest volume. In an Internet world of zero-marginal cost and a lemming-like belief that more metrics are better, there is no shortage of people willing to bankrupt you by leading the way to bankruptcy. Don’t go there unless you have deeper pockets than anyone else.

Competing on differentiation is inherently more attractive. But a lemming strategy is equally seductive here: just because you can “move the needle” doesn’t mean the needle is connected to anything real. It’s easy to get lost in the supposedly quantitative world of social media metrics and forget that there’s not necessarily any “there” there.

Ask yourself the tough strategic question: Why, really, am I different? And the equally tough follow-up question: How would a customer be able to really notice and appreciate that difference?

If you’re not seriously asking yourself those questions, why should anyone believe your answers? They may click, but they won’t buy.