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What Buyers Really Want

What do buyers really want?

In particular, what is the true role of expertise in evaluating the purchase of complex intangible services?

The head of marketing for a US East Coast major law firm was asked by 3 partners to help rehearse and prepare them for a key sales meeting at a major potential new client. “If only we can convince them that we are absolutely the best in this area, which we are,” the lead partner said, “then they’ll have to go with us.”

This point of view seemed so self-evident to the senior partner that it didn’t feel like an opinion; it seemed like an obvious truth. Unfortunately, not only is it just an opinion—it also is not particularly accurate.

Lawyers, accountants, bankers, actuaries, consultants—all behave more often than not as if the key to selling lies in a powerful display of expertise. Most complex intangible services sales are sold with the implicit, if not explicit, belief that expertise is the issue. But that doesn’t make it right. And if it’s not right, then we must answer three questions:

  • if expertise doesn’t sell best, then what does?
  • don’t buyers seem to want to buy expertise?
  • if selling expertise isn’t the best approach, why is it the dominant one?

Good questions all. The answers lie in the psychology of buyer and seller of complex intangible services, and in trust—which is what really lies at the heart of successful sales.

WHAT’S THE ALTERNATIVE?

If buyers don’t primarily buy expertise, then what are they buying? The answer, in a word, is trust.

Take a simple case. Imagine you have recently moved to a new city, and must find a pediatrician for your 2-year old child. You have a list of 6 doctors, referrals from a combination of health plans, co-workers and neighbors. One doctor clearly has a slight edge in reputation of medical school; another has the most years’ experience; another is on staff at a teaching hospital and has written several articles.

But there is one who hits it off immediately with your 2-year old. This pediatrician connects with and seems genuinely focused on your interests as a parent and on those of your child, rather than on getting you as a new patient. In other technical respects, this physician is in the top half, but not number 1 in any category.

What do you do? Not everyone, but a majority nonetheless, will go for the pediatrician who seems to care, as long as he or she is within an acceptable range of expertise. And, they will use the word “trust” to describe their decision. There are exceptions, of course; a few people always buy purely on the basis of technical specifications, a few more buy only on price, and occasionally one seller is overwhelmingly dominant in the technical realm.

But the majority behave as if expertise has an acceptability threshold. Achieving that threshold is a necessary condition for getting hired—but even expertise beyond the threshold is not a sufficient condition. Given an acceptable level of expertise, people prefer—strongly—to buy from someone whom they trust. In other words, expertise serves as a first-order screen in the buying process—but not as a final decision-making criterion.

To put it simply: most buyers of complex intangible services prefer to find an expert they can trust, rather than to evaluate expertise across experts.

THEN WHY DON’T BUYERS BEHAVE THAT WAY?

They do. They just don’t say so. There’s a difference.

First, buyers are a little intimidated by the role of buyer. Usually the seller has greater expertise. There is often a lot at stake, and the services are costly. It is often truly hard to choose between several very competent sellers. So, buyers feel a need to display some level of technical expertise themselves, partly out of natural human ego, and partly to keep the seller on his toes.

Second, corporate buyers of complex intangible services are usually professionals themselves—they worship at the same altar of expertise. And, they are particularly concerned to be able to justify their decision. Justification in business almost always consists of rational, mostly financial, arguments. Therefore buyers drive discussions in the technical direction, even while looking to assess their level of trust with the sellers.

How does this play out? Buyers look for rational reasons to justify what is finally an emotional decision, built heavily on trust. The most commonly accepted rational reasons are price and features. (Price is a very comfortable excuse for saying no—it is quantitative, impersonal, and only the buyer has all the numbers. However, price is rarely given as a positive reason for selection). Very few chief counsels will say to their CEO or board nothing more than, “I think we should go with XYZ because, basically, I think like them better and trust them more.” Yet that is how most of us do behave when buying complex intangible services.

THEN WHY DO SELLERS SELL EXPERTISE?

Professionals over-emphasize expertise for three reasons.

First, that’s what they think (falsely) the buyer wants— and the buyer encourages them in that belief.

Second, expertise is what we professionals are most comfortable with. Very few lawyers went into law because they wanted to sell, or because they wanted to work with people. They went because they love the law, and the vast majority of their learning, development, evaluations and study consist of greater and greater mastery of content expertise. The same is true for consultants, commercial bankers, accountants and actuaries. Why would anyone want to sell on any other basis than what they’re good at and spend all their time and energy at?

Finally, professionals have an emotional vested interest in selling on expertise. It is not comfortable to believe that success in selling might depend on something other than what we spend almost all our time and energy focused on. Still, it’s the truth.

Most buyers of complex intangible services prefer to use technical expertise as a screening mechanism, and then make final decisions based on trust. Sellers who recognize this will listen more, talk less, and focus on the issues of the client at hand (rather than those of past clients). These simple client-focused behaviors are the ways buyers assess trust. Get yourself in the door by focusing on expertise; but once in, drop it and focus on the client, not on yourself.

Handling Sales Rejection Without Becoming a Narcissist

You know the age old saying, “It’s not personal, it’s business.” We’ve all heard it countless times, in office settings and in the movies. It may be something you try to tell yourself after a deal you worked for so hard for goes sour – yet you still have trouble believing it.

Yet, with all that wisdom awash in the atmosphere – why is it that we continue to take sales rejection so personally?

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

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

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

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

Why Dealing with Rejection Messes You Up

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

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

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

The Three Usual Solutions to Rejection—and Their Weaknesses

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

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

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

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

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

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

The problem: prospects don’t appreciate being bulldozed.

Why “Handling Rejection” is Narcissistic

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

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

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

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

Curiosity is the Real Antidote to Rejection

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

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

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

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

In the real world, nothing is being rejected; there are simply solutions and fits, or not-solutions and not-fits. It’s not a struggle – it’s a puzzle. If you’re a good solution to that puzzle and are curious enough, you might solve it. If you’re not a good solution for it, and/or aren’t curious, then you probably won’t.

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

Three Steps You Can Take to Reject Rejection

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

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

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

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

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

It’s Always Risk-on for Selling

In the financial trading community, there is a concept called “risk-on, risk-off,” or RoRo for short. It refers to the general market sentiment at a point in time. Simply put, if the prevailing trend is toward more risky and aggressive instruments (e.g., stocks, emerging markets), that is called “risk-on.” If the trend is toward less risky and conservative assets (e.g., cash, developed markets), that is called “risk-off.” Traders have evolved all kinds of complex strategies to deal with this indicator.

What does that have to do with selling professional services? It’s tempting to view selling as a series of RoRo moments, where sometimes it’s appropriate to take a risk and sometimes it’s not. Maybe the client has become complacent, and you need to shake things up. Or maybe the client seems overwhelmed, and you need to back off. It feels only natural to construct our responses to situations based on our readings of “risk-on, risk-off” coming from the client.

That might seem natural, but most often it’s more wrong than right. In selling, particularly in the complicated worlds of complex or professional services, we systematically make one mistake. We err mostly in one direction. We keep doing the same thing, expecting different results. We have a built-in bias to view the world as risk-off, and we need to shift our attitude toward risk-on.

People and Risk

Adult humans have a well-developed sense of fear and suspicion. Maybe it comes from our ancestors’ close encounters with saber-toothed tigers (that food looks enticing, but I’ll pass it up if I have to walk too close to the tigers). If we view the world as full of such threats to our existence, then we behave in a risk-off mode, being very careful.

If we view the world as risk-off, we will guard against a Bad Thing Happening. And if that means we leave a Good Thing Undone, we are fine with that decision. Who wants a close encounter with a sabere-toothed tiger, anyway?

But suppose the world is risk-on, and we constantly behave cautiously. Suppose we always leave Good Things Undone, not taking a small risk, never daring to take the next step forward. Suppose we are so afraid of doing “sins of commission” that we constantly commit “sins of omission.” That can end up very badly, too.

The world of sports has plenty of adages about this situation. No pain, no gain. Just do it. Swing the bat. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. As Wayne Gretzky put it, “You’ll never miss a shot you never take.”

Finally, add the dimension of time. If the Good Things are far in the future and the Bad Thing is here-now, we are likely to focus much more on the here-now Bad Thing even if the future benefit is much greater and well worth the risk. In fact, even if the Bad Thing is far in the future and the Good Thing is here-now, people tend to be very cautious about the future negative, even if it is smaller than the positive.

Again, we have sayings: A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. Really? Unless you’re starving, turning down a two-to-one deal isn’t very smart. A poker player who constantly folds will never lose big, but he’ll slowly bleed dry. The suitor who never asks out the enamorata is never rejected, but nonetheless always dines alone.

Risky Business

Business is full of risks, to be sure. Hiring the wrong employee, investing in the wrong market, those things are real and we are right to worry about them. But in selling, the risk of not doing the right thing is a lot higher than the risk of doing the wrong thing. We act as if we are in a risk-off world, but in selling, more often than not it’s a risk-on world.

The saber-toothed tigers we face in selling seem to come in droves: The client might be offended. I don’t want to look unprofessional. If my price is too high they might not buy. That might be inappropriate. I don’t really know that area of finance. It’s too early in the relationship. They might not like me. They might go with my competitor. My peers won’t respect me. I might be wrong. I might say the wrong thing.

So we do nothing. We take the easy way out, the path of least resistance, all the while telling ourselves that we have avoided an imminent saber-toothed tiger. And sure enough, no tiger appears. By folding our hand, we avoid catastrophic loss. But we never win, or never win much. We act like the world of sales is risk-off when in reality it is far more risk-on.

Fighting Human Nature

The world of product sales approaches the problem as mainly one of motivation. Sales books and conferences are full of admonitions to get out there and try some more, it’s a numbers game, don’t take rejection personally, read this book, listen to that motivational speaker.

You probably don’t see yourself that way. You think motivational speakers are cheesy, and losing a widget sale pales in comparison to the agony of being told that your particular service just isn’t all that good. You need something deeper, something that really changes your approach to risk-taking. And reviewing the odds isn’t going to cut it. It’s human nature we’re dealing with here, and the brain is over-matched when it’s up against the heart.

Instead, recognize the powerful-positive role that risk-taking actually plays in sales. Unlike with saber-toothed tigers, the act of taking a small risk now actually lowers the odds of a big risk later. Yes—small risk-taking mitigates big risk. If you take risks, you lower the bigger risk.

Think of a vaccine. For the small pain of a shot in the arm, we gain protection against a plague. For the small risk of a hand extended, we gain greater likelihood of a conversation to follow. For the small risk of making a phone call instead of an email, we lower the risk of later emails being left unread.

The key to taking more risks lies in taking a broader view: the risk is not the risk of one transaction now; it is part of a series of transactions to happen over time. In that broader view, taking the small risk now is the least risky thing you can do.

This is where we part ways from our product-selling brothers and sisters. They have to sell widgets, pretty much one widget at a time. It is much easier for us, selling complex services, to envision relationships and lengthy time horizons. And that is the key to mastering the risk problem.

The world of sales is far more risk-on than we think; the environment is much more welcoming of small risks than we think. The key to beating risk lies precisely in taking the small risk of making that phone call, commenting on that shared intimacy, being transparent about your experience, and being open about your price.

It’s a risk-on world out there for those of us willing to see the bigger picture.

 

Pain, Brain, or Reframe: How Do Buyers Really Buy?

Sometimes when it comes to sales, we approach it as if there were some specific model or equation to follow in order to result in closed business. A + B must equal C. So, many of us tend to look for this equation over and over again. If we didn’t get it right – it must be because the equation is wrong. We’re missing something. So we take to the white board afresh as if we were Einstein moments away from solving the theory of relativity.

But, what it seems we have yet to admit to ourselves is – there isn’t a set equation. And that’s because there are always variables at play. And mostly, that always comes down to the players: who is doing the buying and who is doing the selling.

If you’re interested in selling, you might plausibly start with trying to understand how buyers buy. It’s a simple enough question. But then why are there so many answers?

Three of the most common answers to that question are:

  • People buy when they strongly feel a desire to alleviate a negative situation.
  • People buy as a response to a clear value proposition.
  • People buy most from those who offer differentiated, out-of-the box, creative solutions.

For short, let’s call those Pain, Brain, and Reframe, and examine them in turn.

The Pain Model

Many sales writers say things like these two quotes:

“The customers that are most likely to convert have a pain that they need to alleviate. Now.”

or

“Solid, smart sales are focused on our clients’ pain points, not on the tech demo.”

Within the Pain category, there is an internal debate about whether the prospect of a better situation can be as motivating as alleviating a painful situation. (One solution: reframe the gain as alleviating a potential pain.)

The Brain Model

Many other salespeople consider “value propositions” to be the key driver. Consider, for example, Investopedia’s definition of value proposition:

“A business or marketing statement that summarizes why a consumer should buy a product or use a service. This statement should convince a potential consumer that one particular product or service will add more value or better solve a problem than other similar offerings.”

Or consider this one from a sales training firm:

“Customer contact professionals must be engaged and expected to adapt a financially oriented value proposition to the customer or prospect.”

Many fans of value propositions suggest they are best used as conceptual maps for marketing and not as sales collateral. But this distinction is lost or ignored by a great number of salespeople.

Note that nearly the entire economics profession is built around the idea of rational economic choices. In my experience, greater exposure of salespeople to economics or MBA programs translates to greater reliance on the Brain model of selling.

The Reframe Model

One constant need among buyers is to de-commoditize their business. “What have you got that’s new?” is a powerful and relevant question for them, and sellers who have an answer will generally get a hearing.

The Challenger sales approach is a good example of this model:

They have “a deep understanding of the customer’s business and use that understanding to push the customer’s thinking and teach them something new about how their company can compete more effectively.”

This approach has some justification in business strategy, where the attempt to gain differentiation is an alternative to the low-cost producer strategy.

So, what is the truth? Are buyers motivated by the desire to remove pain? By a rational statement of value? By a compelling new way of articulating issues?

What’s best? To soothe the pain, appeal to the brain, or reframe the game?

Making the Buying Decision

If clients make buying decisions because of rational calculations, then the Brain model would appear to be the best. If buyers are looking for access to new, differentiated ideas—and the people who bring them—then the Game-reframe model looks best. And if buying is mainly motivated by emotional issues, then the Pain model is best. The question, therefore, becomes: which underlying psychological model best explains the process buyers undergo.

Of course, simple choices like A, B, or C often end up being solved only by rephrasing the question. This is no exception. For example, consider the buying decision as a multiple-step decision, or a multiple-psychology decision, rather than a single-step decision.

Different Buying Stages: In The Trusted Advisor (written by David Maister, Charles Green, and Rob Galford), we note that complex services buying decisions are typically two-step decisions. The first step is screening to identify plausible sellers. The second step is selection. Bill Leigh of the Leigh Speakers Bureau tells the story of one client’s decision process to hire a speaker for a major corporate event:

“They quickly narrowed it down to two—either Michael Porter, a major business strategist, or Lester Thurow, a prominent economist. They went back and forth until finally they agreed on a solution—ex-Chicago Bears football coach Mike Ditka.”

The first step is a relatively rational process of data-gathering. That process sounds very much like the Brain model.

But the selection step is taken much more emotionally, involving a complex set of cross-currents. That sounds more like the Pain model. (Or if you consider Ditka a redefinition of the problem, it’s more like the Frame model.)

Different Buying Psychologies: Another approach to splitting the A/B/C dichotomy comes from a large study by Bill Brooks and Tom Travesano, reported in You’re Working Too Hard to Make the Sale. Looking over thousands of sales across several B2B buyer types, their conclusion was summarized in one powerful sentence:

People buy what they need from those who understand what they want.

In other words, the identification of needs (systems, audits, legal advice) is fairly straightforward—the Brain model. But the actual choice is made on the basis of which seller most deeply taps into buyer wants—fears, hopes, aspirations, wishes, desires. It is not necessary that those wants be satisfied; it is enough that they are recognized, understood, and acknowledged. Doing that drives the decision to buy what, after all, has to be bought anyway.

Integrating Buying Psychologies: Neil Rackham, via his classic SPIN Selling, offers yet another insight, one that integrates the various models. SPIN (Situation, Problem, Implications, Needs-Payoff) operates at one level on a buyer’s emotional needs by forcing sellers to listen to the customer before they start offering solutions. At another level, it is a very rational model, methodically identifying both pain points and alternative, potentially breakthrough conclusions.

What’s the Answer?

Perhaps the last word may come from science fiction author Robert Heinlein, who is credited with saying, “Man is not a rational animal: man is an animal who rationalizes.” Putting it into sales terms, “People buy with their heart and rationalize it with their brains.”

That is not to minimize or discount the role of rational decision making. We all acknowledge rational analyses as important checks against the mistakes we might make if we rely solely on the emotions. At the same time, it recognizes the powerful role that emotions play in human decision making, of which the buying decision is just one.

The most useful answer is, “Develop a rich, insightful, trusting relationship with your client, and be prepared to offer them all the legitimate backup they’ll need to defend their decision to buy from you.”

How You Use Your Smarts Is What Attracts Clients

You’ve heard, “It’s not what you know; it’s who you know.” You’ve also heard the reverse.

You’ve heard, “You’ve got a limited amount of time to impress them; use it.” But you’ve also heard, “Let the client do most of the talking.”

And you’ve probably heard, “You’ve got to be just a little smarter than your client.” But you’ve probably also heard, “Don’t think you know more about your client’s business than your client does.”

So, what’s the role of smarts? How important is it to be smart? And, by the way, what does that even mean?

Let’s be clear. I’m not talking about emotional intelligence, political savvy, or so-called street smarts. I’m talking about what we usually mean by “smart” in business, which generally boils down to three things:

  • Native intelligence, IQ-ish talent
  • Subject matter mastery
  • Industry knowledge

But let’s also be clear: being smart is less about what kind of smart you are and more about how you use your smarts. And usage, in turn, deconstructs into timing, amount, and context.

Kinds of Smart

I’ll use “IQ” as shorthand for some measure of native intelligence, mindful that there’s a lot of debate about its validity. IQ is seen as an innate form of smarts—you’re supposed to be born with it.

People with high IQs tend to think highly of high IQs, but that doesn’t mean everyone else does. In fact, if clients perceive someone as more clever, sharper, quicker, adept than them, it can be perceived as a negative—particularly if you’re selling.

“Watch out for this one,” the client thinks. “He might pull the wool over my eyes and outwit me.”

Subject matter mastery is different. It’s not an innate kind of smart; it’s derived from experience.

“I could be as smart as him,” thinks the client, “if I had chosen to work in that area.”

In fact, it’s that mastery that clients seek. A client hires a lawyer who knows the law precisely because the client doesn’t know it as well. A subject matter expert with a slightly lower (perceived) IQ than the buyer is even better. They are seen as knowledgeable but unthreatening.

Like subject matter mastery, industry smart is derived, not innate. But unlike subject matter mastery, its presence isn’t a plus so much as its absence is a minus. Clients, particularly those in professional and financial businesses, look down on “generalist” subject matter experts and functional specialists. There’s a general feeling that “our people won’t accept advice coming from you unless you have industry smarts” (though the speaker usually refers to ‘our people’ and not to himself).

In general industries, it is believed that management is management and sales is sales, that the know-how is transferable across industries. That isn’t the case in the professions—rightly or wrongly. You won’t win fighting that feeling; it runs deep.

Timing: When to be Smart

The time to show your IQ smarts is before you meet. Show it in your resume, qualifying documents, and your website’s “About Us” section. That’s because IQ smarts are the only kind of smarts that are potentially embarrassing to the client. The client doesn’t want to be over- or under-estimating you in real time; they’d prefer to know what kind of person they’re dealing with up front, in advance of meeting you. That way they feel much more in control, which is a good thing.

Once you’re in a meeting or interacting with the client, never mention IQ smarts again. Don’t bring up your resume, your degrees, your globe-hopping upbringing, or the brilliant circles in which you travel unless, of course, you’re asked a direct question.

You also want to show a little bit of subject matter smarts and industry smarts in advance of a first meeting or interaction—enough to assure the client they won’t be wasting their time and that they might well benefit from meeting you.

In short: be IQ-smart before you meet. And in face-to-face meetings, be subject-matter and industry-smart.

Amount: How Smart Should You Be?

No one likes to feel condescended to. Fortunately, it’s easy to avoid being condescending in subject matter and industry smarts. The main place to worry is in IQ smarts. If you really think your IQ is so much higher than your client’s, remember that your client is likely to resent or fear you if you make a point of it. Go work on your emotional quotient.

For subject matter and industry smarts, there is no natural upper bound. You’re being hired in part for your expertise, and your client will respect high levels of knowledge of your industry without fearing it. Your biggest challenge here is to be gracious in revealing how smart you are.

Context: Being Gracious about Your Smarts

The single most common sales error regarding smarts that professionals make is to think they have to show how smart they are. They somehow believe that a goal of client interaction is to demonstrate how smart they are. This is almost always unfounded, and frequently it accomplishes the very opposite of what’s desired. It makes the client feel you are self-centered and ego-driven and that you’re only out to make the sale.

Instead, the rule should be to use your smarts as necessary in support of the right thing for the client:

  • If it’s useful to mention that a particular recommendation has been followed successfully by three other clients, then say so. But if you say so just to demonstrate your clout, it’s better to leave it unsaid.
  • If it might be useful to the client that you know so-and-so, a big industry player, then mention it. If you do it only to prove your industry smarts, don’t.
  • If a question is asked to which you clearly know the answer, answer it. But if it’s another question that was asked, and you’re piling on to that question to answer another one, unasked, stifle yourself.

Following that simple rule demonstrates that your driving motivation is client service, not the pursuit of the sale and not your search for ego gratification. And if you’re worried about not knowing the answer to an occasional question, remember a client would rather hear an honest “I don’t know” than a transparent struggle to fake your way through an answer.

The smart call is to use your smarts only in service to your client.

The Consulting Industry: the Critical Role of Interpersonal Relationships

This is the first in an occasional series on trust in particular industry verticals. This post looks at the consulting industry.

————

In consulting, some things are changing. And some are not.

The biggest trend is, of course, the digitization of the firm’s service offerings. For example, nearly three quarters of one large consulting firm’s HR practice consists of moving processes into the digital age. Naturally, firms increasingly put more emphasis on technical qualifications of their consultants.

Another change, nearly as big, is the shift in business development practices (this one isn’t unique to consulting). Depending on who you talk to (Marketing BlenderGartner), something like 50-60% of the buying process is complete before the buyer meets a seller. This number is only going higher. Naturally, firms focus increasingly on managing that non-personal-contact front end of the business development process.

However, the critical role of interpersonal relationships is not going away. Paradoxically, the increasing role of technology and automation does not mean that the role of relationships is decreasing – in fact, it means exactly the opposite. Here’s why.

On the project side, expertise is a commodity. The markets for human capital are efficient, and widely accessible. On the business development side, virtually no client wants to buy a significant project without understanding, and meeting, the people who will staff it.

This is an important fact of human biology. Reducing the time spent on human interaction merely increases the leverage that such time has on final decisions. Those infrequent interactions take on geometrically more importance as their duration declines.

The implication for consultancies?  The ability to rapidly and genuinely create trust with clients is more critical than ever. You don’t have the luxury of schmooze time to establish comfortable relationships; it’s got to be done deeply and quickly, and done right.

Trusted Advisor and Trust-Based Selling workshops, are aimed at this need. 60% of our work is done in various professional services clients, with consulting a heavy component.

For a discussion about these issues, drop me (Charles Green, CEO, Trusted Advisor Associates) an email at cgreen-at-trustedadvisor-dot-com. You’ll not go onto an email list; there are no automated follow-ups; no cost, no obligation. Just let’s talk.

Don’t Confuse Your KPIs with Your CSFs

I spoke with BigCo, Inc. They wanted their B2B salespeople to become trusted advisors.

They felt (correctly) that greater trust levels with their customers would result in greater intra-customer market share and greater profitability. And they were right – as far as that goes.

But they then described to me their implementation plan. It consisted of breaking down the objectives into finer and finer components and matching them up with accountable business units – pretty standard practice.

As we dug deeper, a pattern emerged. The higher penetration levels, for example, were broken into more sales calls, more proactive ideas, and greater time spent up front. On the face of it, that sounds perfectly reasonable: if penetration were to increase, you’d probably see these changes in activities.

But there’s a causation/correlation problem here. Simply increasing the number of sales calls won’t do a thing; they have to be good calls. Simply offering more ideas won’t do a thing; they have to be decent ideas. Simply spending more time up front won’t do a thing; the time has to be well-spent. And simply assuming good calls, decent ideas, and well-spent time does not make it so.

This sounds perfectly obvious in the telling, but I have found that BigCo’s story (which is a composite of several clients) is common. It may even be the norm.

BigCo confused key performance indicators (KPIs) with critical success factors (CSFs). They confused correlation with causation. They confused measurements with the things being measured. And since we live in a management world that uncritically worships metrics (“if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it”), this confusion has critical and strategic implications.

That’s especially true when you’re trying to implement a values-driven strategy – such as becoming trusted advisors.

Measurement and Management

Just because something sounds obvious in the retelling, it doesn’t mean it’s obvious when you’re in the middle of it. Case in point: BigCo’s flawed logic in their approach to trust-based selling.

Increasing penetration requires more sales calls, they thought, and they’re probably right. Their mistake lay in thinking that “more sales calls” was a cause. It’s not – it’s an effect.

“More sales calls” may be a KPI, but it’s not a CSF. It may be an outcome, but it’s not a driver. “More sales calls” is a metric. It is not the thing that “more sales calls” is intended to measure. That “thing” is something like “more high-quality interactions driven by mutual curiosity.”

This confusion between actions and measurements, causes and effects, and KPIs and CSFs is not just common – it’s becoming rampant. It’s a real issue for digital age businesses in some ways even more than old-line businesses. Let’s look at some examples.

Gaming the Numbers

We’re all familiar with the salesperson who knows how to tweak an imperfect system to maximize his commissions at the expense of, say, the company’s gross margins. “Hey, I’m just following the incentives you built in,” he might say. That salesperson seized on a metric that imperfectly measured the company’s intended sales behaviors. (The proper management response would be not to change the metric, but to insist on a higher set of principles that overrule one misguided number.)

The next time you get a customer service operator on the line, check to see whether they conclude by saying something like, “May we say that I gave you excellent customer service today?” You are experiencing a system that is driven by metrics to the point where operators shamelessly beg for ratings. The metrics have been pimped out to serve a goal other than the customer service they were meant to measure.

See for yourself. Go to Amazon, and search for books under any significant topic you like (e.g., sales). Make sure you sort on relevance. It’s amazing how many books are rated over four stars (out of five). The reason is simple: we have been taught to look for ratings. Of course, the emphasis on ratings suborns all kind of perjury, misleading comments, and even outright falsehoods.

It’s not just books. Look at the flood of “recommendations” on LinkedIn. Look at the massive follow-me-I-follow-you dynamic on Twitter and other media. Or just look at your own behavior. What do you do when a friend asks you to rate a book, promote a blog post, or recommend them? There is monstrous grade inflation in most customer-rated aspects of business today.

Much of this comes down to our obsession in business with metrics. It goes back to the invention of the spreadsheet and the success of books such as Reengineering the Corporation. Numbers-all-the-time is today’s secular business religion.

The Wages of Confusion

The “so what” is big indeed. Assume any metric, almost by definition, has to be a pale reflection of the “thing” that is to be measured. We accept anniversary gifts as tokens of our love, market share as an indicator of competitive success, and, in the case of BigCo, numbers of sales calls as indicators of trusted advisor relationships. But we all know an anniversary gift does not a marriage make.

The only way to become trusted advisors to your customers is to gain the trust of your customers. You do not cause trust by increasing the number of sales calls; rather, greater trust causes more invitations for you to call on prospects. Doing the dishes doesn’t cause a great marriage; instead, a great marriage results in your doing the dishes willingly.

Confusing KPIs with CSFs causes KPIs to be artificially inflated. We know this intuitively, and so we discount them – while still trying to get higher scores on more of those discounted-value KPI metrics. We all know the game is rigged, but we keep playing it faster and faster.

What’s at stake is nothing less than how we implement things like “better client relationships.” You don’t get there by measuring metrics and deluding yourself that you’re addressing root causes. You get there only by understanding what it takes to interact with your very human customers—and then doing it.

Do that, and the numbers will take care of themselves.

Buddhist Capitalism: Why Trust and Collaboration Outperform Competitive Selling

When we think of capitalism, we typically think of competition as a central, driving force. At a macro-level, we have enshrined the value of competition in our antitrust laws. We think of competition between providers as a way to increase innovation and reduce costs. Adam Smith is frequently (and somewhat inaccurately) cited as the prophet of competition in his concept of the “invisible hand.”

At a micro-level, we have also glorified competition. Athletic competition is seen as a metaphor, as well as a proving ground, for competition in business. Businesses line up to sponsor major athletic events and athletes. And nowhere in business is competition more revered than in sales.

The truth is much of what we think about competition is dysfunctional, suboptimal, and actually destroys value. By contrast, what I’ll whimsically call Buddhist Capitalism shows another way that adds more value. I’ll explore this theme first at the business world level, then at the sales level.

Business Competition in the Real World

In the real world, pure competition leads directly to monopoly. Competition is inherently unstable, resolving to dominance of one more powerful firm over all the others. What we call “competition” in the modern Western world is a finely tuned mix of rules and regulations, as well as a few customs, that serve to keep behavior within socially acceptable bounds.

If you doubt this, think of what the U.S. economy would look like in the absence of the FTA, the FDA, the FAA, the SEC, or the FDIC. Or just look back a few decades in the history books. Maintenance of a state of competition depends enormously on the power of the referees.

Pure competition, even where regulatory regimes are strict, rarely exists. There are imbalances of labor, education, geography, and a hundred other variables. The point is in nearly every industry, there is an imbalance of power, exploited by one party at the expense of the weaker parties. “Competition” in the real world is more or less about zero-sum games, with one party holding the stronger hand.

The definitions of “capitalism” have been hijacked by extremist theoreticians in recent years: people such as Milton Friedman, Ayn Rand, and Alan Greenspan, who believe in a moral purity produced by competition. (Never mind that an ethics built on selfishness isn’t worthy of being called ethics in the first place.)

Buddhist Capitalism

By contrast: imagine an economy relatively unencumbered by laws and regulations, but where trust and custom abounded. An economy with not nearly as many lawyers, but with fewer legal battles. An economy where the frictional costs of competition (and the regulation of competition) are lower, and innovation is higher.

You get such an economy when you introduce the concept of trust and collaboration. Zero-sum games shift to 1+1=3 games. Stephen MR Covey Jr.’s book The Speed of Trust is all about this: when trust is present, speed goes up and cost goes down.

If my Buddhist friends will forgive me the crude colloquial language, I’ll call this Buddhist Capitalism. What I mean is that it focuses on collaboration, not competition; on getting along harmoniously rather than vanquishing; on letting go attachment to outcome rather than obsessing over goal achievement.

It’s far from crazy. The lesson of the Prisoner’s Dilemma work in game theory is that a collaborative strategy always, always beats a competitive strategy if played long term. Research shows that collaboration produces more innovation than solitary introversion. Collaboration and trust build on each other, increasing knowledge of both parties to the point where they can jointly add value, cut costs, and reduce risks.

It may sound like a Beatles song—the more you give, the more you get—but it’s true.

Buddhist Selling

What does all this have to do with sales? Selling is just the micro-version of the same thing. We as human beings have a primal desire for survival, which can easily revert to competition. But we have an equally strong desire for connection, collaboration, and cohesion.

Except for pure commodities (and not even water or electricity is a pure commodity), buyers prefer to buy from sellers they trust. Trusted sellers have their customers’ interests at heart, ahead of their own. They play the long game because they know that the best way to long-term success is through their customers’ success, and, therefore, no particular sale is worth sacrificing the long-term relationship.

Trusted sellers are also not attached to a particular outcome. They don’t keep meticulous score at a detailed level, and they are willing to let their agenda be influenced by client needs. Finally, they keep no secrets from their customers because they see their interests and their customers’ interests as one and the same, and the value of shared information to both parties exceeds the value of secret information privy to just one party.

Of course, these attitudes are hard to come by in a world that prizes competition. Sellers everywhere are taught to compete not only with their competitors, but also with their own customers. Not getting a sale is considered bad form, if not unacceptable. Metrics in sales are short-term, incentives are largely extrinsic, and motivation basically consists of war chants.

But a seller who can “think Buddhist” will outperform a competitive seller over time because customers prefer to deal with sellers they trust. And they do not trust people who are in it for themselves.

The ultimate irony: by being willing to forego a sale and do the right thing, the “Buddhist seller” will end up selling more than the competitive seller.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Trust and Selling to the C-Suite: Interview with Ken Roller

Ken Roller is an experienced B2B salesperson; he spent the past 35 years in Corporate America working for 2 industry leaders (including 21 years at Intel), serving Global 1000 customers.

Ken’s classic sales credentials are impeccable: he exceeded his quarterly sales quota for over 20 years straight – 83 quarters in a row – in a time and in industries that faced brutal competition and roller-coaster global economic conditions.

I came to know Ken during his tenure at Intel; he was extremely helpful to me at a time I was writing Trust-based Selling. We’ve stayed in touch; I asked Ken to share with us some hard-earned wisdom from his career.
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Charlie: Ken, it’s great to have you ‘here’ on Trust Matters. I’ve always thought you embodied many of the things I write about.

Ken: Thank you. I’ve always thought that we’re kindred spirits in our concepts and feelings on how we work and relate to customers and people. One of the inflection points in my professional career was when I read “The Trusted Advisor.” It succinctly captured the essence of selling with integrity, something that is paramount to my being and who I am.

Charlie: Well then, you’re a great person of whom to ask this question: How do you establish trust with “C” level execs at some of the biggest companies in the world?

Ken: First, I’ve always taken seriously my counsel with my customers and would never jeopardize their livelihood, career and their family’s future with my guidance. That’s not pablum, that’s truth; it is the root of my answer to your question.

It’s easy to tell somebody about your experience and the benefits of your products and services. It’s harder to demonstrate that you “truly care.” That has always been a differentiator for me. You quote the late great George Burns as saying, “you can’t fake sincerity.” He’s right, and the continued attempt to do so is why there’s a pervasive view of salespeople being the proverbial “used car salesperson,” with their only concern being themselves and their company.

Charlie: Now, let me just get this straight. I ask you about selling to the C-suite, and your answer is “you have to care?” I don’t think that’s the typical canned response from most sales ‘experts,’ is it? Maybe you can give an example of how you showed a customer “you cared” in this manner?

Ken: Sure. I was blessed that the companies I worked for had world-class products. Even so, the reality is that not all products are always great – or even good.

I was working closely with the CTO and his staff at one of the largest Financial Services companies in the world. Our competitor’s product was 78% faster than our comparable product out of the box! That was the context in which I put together a several day meeting at our facility in Ireland, and had this company’s entire senior staff fly in from Europe and the US for a strategic update.

During the meeting, I asked them if our technical team could work with them to ensure that they implemented our solution properly so we could have a fair bake-off – and, I told them, if our competitor were to beat us, they should purchase their product and shame on us.

When I said that, you could hear an audible gasp come from my company’s execs. They had a look on their face of “Did Ken really just say what I think he said”?
The thought that my career was over suddenly crossed my mind.

However, my customer’s CTO noticed the ruckus I caused and immediately stood up. He said, “Thanks, Ken, for putting together this wonderful 3-day gathering; you’re a breath of fresh air in an industry that is polluted with unscrupulous salespeople.”

“You educated us to the fact that your next generation product, coming out in a few quarters, will have a new micro-architecture that will enable you to leap-frog the performance of your competitors. We believe you, and trust you, and are looking forward to testing your new platform ASAP. We want to work with you Ken.”

He basically told my executive management that my candor and “caring” should be applauded; and if anything were to happen to me, my company would lose their future business.

And…our next generation product did perform as promised, and has been the industry leader ever since.

Charlie: What I called the Acid Test of trust is whether you’re willing to recommend a competitor to a client. In effect, that’s what you did here.

Ken: It’s not that hard if you have a long-term perspective. If you want to build a long-term strategic relationship, and have faith that the next iteration of your product will fix your issues, you’d do what I did. If not, you might sell them your current product, but your reputation will be ruined forever.
Be honest and live to sell another day!

Charlie: Switching gears: I think when a lot of people find themselves in the C-suite, they get tongue-tied. Their pulse rate goes up, they get flustered, and they end up making any number of rookie mistakes. Advice?

Ken: Senior executives have no time for those who are in “awe” of whom they’re meeting.
Confidence – especially, confidence in yourself – is critical. You don’t have to be an expert in everything – but you’d better be expert in something, very clear about the boundary lines – and just as forthright about what you don’t know. Be prepared, and do your homework: then tell the truth. Honesty trumps ignorance.

You have to have great respect for them – but also remember they’re your equal! Deal with your insecurities and don’t psyche yourself out.

Talk about what’s important to the executive. Being STRATEGIC and not tactical is critical. Don’t discuss problems, just solutions. The higher up you go, the more you’ll find people who are surgically focused on growing revenue, innovation, and garnering a competitive advantage.

Charlie: Any additional tips?

Ken: Creating long-term relationships with senior executives is like shooting a good game of pool – you’re always shooting for the next shot!

As we discussed earlier, listen more than you talk, but be prepared based on your research to share some 30-second “nuggets” that will be of interest to them that also demonstrates your reputation as a known expert in your specialty.

Ultimately, if you want a trusted advisor relationship with executives, you have to make sure they see you as a “Player” that a) constantly educates them to things that they and their staff don’t know, and b) does so respectfully but in an insightful, direct manner that clearly shows you have the customer’s interest at heart.

Charlie: In your experience, what’s the single biggest obstacle to a salesperson building trust with their customers?

Ken: That’s an easy one! Sorry for my politically incorrect answer, but it’s imperative that salespeople learn to STFU and LISTEN!

So many salespeople are myopic – enamored with themselves and their voice when the conversation is not about them; it should be about their customers and helping them solve their business / OPEX problems and issues.

That’s why I feel the “Trust Equation” is the single most important sales theory ever created. With Self-Orientation in the denominator, the more you talk about yourself, the less trust you build! So in the words of the Kevin Spacey character from “Swimming with Sharks”, Shut-up, Listen and Learn!

Charlie: Thanks Ken for sharing with us your thoughts and ideas.

Ken: Thank you, as always, it’s been a pleasure!

Perfect Pitch in Sales: 9 Rules

You may know it as the dog and pony show, the beauty contest, the shoot-out. Or you may just call it “the pitch.” The term is especially common in some industries—advertising, executive recruiting, some law firms—but we all know it.

We typically think of it as an event – a rather formal presentation by several professionals made to several members of the client organization that typically lasts 30 to 90 minutes. Secondary characteristics of a pitch often include PowerPoint and a time-slot among a few other competitors who are pitching on the same day.

Let’s be clear: there is no single perfect pitch, since the winning pitch is situational to you and your client. Still, there are some guidelines that hold true. Here are nine rules for perfecting your pitch.

1. When the Best Pitch Isn’t a Pitch

Sometimes the best pitch is one that never happens – because both parties choose an alternative.

Think of a pitch as a blind date where each party is cautious. The quietly cautious buyer wants control and seeks it in an impersonal, formal event. The seller also wants control but expresses it by being assertive. One fears being “sold;” the other fears losing. When both parties are fearful, decisions get made on process, features, and price.

Both parties are often better off starting from a strong relationship. Though both know this, they engage in denial, not wanting to admit it. Sellers may try to go around pitch events. The trick – not really a trick at all – is to explore the possibility of meetings before the pitch during which personal relationships can be established. It’s critical that this be done from a position of respect and honest concern for what’s right for the client.

Sometimes the client then abandons the pitch idea altogether because they find one competitor that seems to understand them uniquely. That’s generally a good outcome for both parties. But do NOT try to force this outcome—you’ll jinx if it you do.

2. The Pre-Pitch Warm-Up

Your objective shouldn’t be to avoid the pitch, but to produce a good outcome for both parties. Any pitch will be improved by prior conversations with as many client people as possible.

If you are meeting the client representatives for the first time at the pitch, your odds are even less than one divided by the number of competitors. It’s less because with total strangers meeting each other, the “none of the above” option frequently appears on the table.

Of course, not every client wants to meet you in advance. Often the intent of the pitch is to prevent such meetings in the first place in pursuit of an “independent, fair” competition. Pushing too hard for meetings can appear distasteful.

How do you know how far to push the suggestion for prior meetings? Simple – ask the client. Point out the advantages of offering all competitors a chance to talk with them in advance, then gracefully yield if the resistance is too strong. You get a few points for offering if you do it respectfully – just don’t push your luck.

If you can talk to people in advance of a pitch, you’ll improve the quality of the pitch for both you and client. Of course, you learn valuable information, and you get to call people by name. But it goes much further than that because the next key to a great pitch is interaction.

3. Interact in the Pitch

Nearly always the client says, “Tell us about yourself.” And nearly all sellers assume that’s what the client wants – after all, they said so!

But the truth is, listening to someone – anyone – talk about themselves for 30 minutes is incredibly boring. Even more important, listening to others does not persuade human beings—they become persuaded by listening to others who have previously listened to them.

Letting clients be heard is critical to successful pitches. If you can’t do it before the pitch, then dare to be great and engineer listening into the pitch. Here are several approaches:

  • Tell the client ahead of time you’d like to ask for reactions
  • Build in “and what about you?” questions into your pitch
  • Offer data about similar situations and ask for comment
  • Ask the client if they’d consider a “first-meeting” approach. Instead of a standard pitch, offer to treat the pitch like a first meeting, as if you’d already been hired, and allow five minutes at the end to talk about how it felt. (This is not a crazy idea; I know of two success stories using it.)
  • If you’ve had any prior-to-pitch conversations, refer to them.

Remember: what you say in the pitch matters less than whether you have listened to them first.

4. Have a Point of View

Your qualifications, credentials, and references are worth absolutely nothing if you can’t show relevance to the client. To walk in without a point of view on the client and the issues facing them is arrogant, disrespectful, and selfish. Those are strong words; let me back them up.

If you want this job, you’ve (hopefully) thought about what you’d do if you got it. If so, why wouldn’t you share it? The probable answer is because you’re afraid you might have gotten it wrong.

But that fear is all about you. Now is precisely the time when not to take a risk is risky. The client wants to see if you’ll do some homework on spec and if you’re willing to engage in real-time thinking about it. They want some sample selling. Showing up with nothing but a track record is like going on a blind date with just a list of past dates. It’s no better as a pitch strategy than as a dating strategy.

5. Collaborate on Talking Price

Conventional wisdom says don’t quote price until the client has heard benefits so that they can properly calculate value. This makes theoretical sense, but it ignores human psychology; price is the elephant in the room during the pitch.

While everyone listens (or pretends to listen) to your pitch, they are all mildly pre-occupied with what your price is going to be. That pre-occupation is death to their ability to listen to you, so air it.

When you walk in, place a five-page pile of paper on the table, saying, “This is the price part of our proposal—the bottom line and four pages of backup explaining it. We don’t want to focus on it, nor do we want to keep it from you. At any point in the conversation today, you can ask us to turn the page over, and we’ll talk about it. Wheneveryou want.”

The point is not when you talk price; it’s about who makes that decision.

6. PowerPoint Pointers

There seems to be an emerging consensus among presentation professionals that looks like this:

  • Most presentations are written as leave-behinds: build your pitch on the presentation, not the leave-behind
  • Less is more: limit yourself to several bullets
  • Don’t read aloud what’s written: get a picture and talk from that
  • Visuals are great, great, great: use photos, not clipart
  • Except for the title page, lose the logos and backgrounds

7. Handling Qualifications

Most big sales these days follow a two-step process: screening and selection. Most screening is done on credentials. That means if you’re in the pitch, your credentials got you there. The pitch is the sale you already got; stop selling it.

If the client specifically requested a section on credentials, don’t embarrass them by fighting it. But you can touch briefly on credentials, with a large leave-behind set of documents. Go through them only if the client insists.

8. Dissing the Competition

This is an easy one. Don’t. Don’t do it, don’t go there, don’t even think about it. If asked, demur, with, “We respect our competitors. You should talk with them. But they can speak well enough for themselves without our help.” Taking the high road never hurts, and it usually helps.

9. When to Ditch the Pitch

Imagine a pitch where an obstreperous client takes you off script away from the PowerPoint or raises a point well in advance of when you had intended to address it.

Disaster? Not at all. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. This is client engagement – exactly what you want – cleverly disguised as an objection. Greet it with open arms. Ask the client for permission to go off script and deal directly with the issue raised for as long as the client wants.

Remember: despite what the client said, it’s not your PowerPoint they want to see – they want to feel how it will be for you to interact with them. If you respect their wishes, move your agenda to fit theirs, and respond directly with relevant content, you will address precisely that desire. And you will more likely win the pitch than someone who stayed on (Power)Point.