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Selling from Inside Your Client’s Shoes: Part 2, Execution

I recently wrote about Selling from Inside Your Client’s Shoes

The gist of it was to drill-down into the interior dialogues that we all engage in at the outset of a sales  conversation. (The subject is related to what famed sociologist Erving Goffman explored in the 20th century – we are all actors on varying stages). 

I suggested that much trust creation in sales happens precisely in the opening, small-talk interactions – “small-talk” really isn’t small.  Done right, we can break through our parallel internal rituals and make a trust connection.  Trust in sales is as much about courage and intimacy as it is about preparation and credibility.

But How Do You Do It?

One reader (thanks Rich) said he totally bought the analysis, but took me to task for leaving out the good part – namely how you do this connection thing. How do you make small-talk Big, and truly connect to the feeling of being in the other’s shoes? 

Fair enough. Here we go.

The problem is that we (both our client and ourselves) are acting out pre-rehearsed, pre-scripted dialogues. There may be some room for improvisation, but not much. 

And when we all operate on auto-pilot, everyone’s interior dialogues continue as well, even taking on greater importance (“when’s he going to be done?” “huh just as I suspected,” “gotta pick up milk on the way home” ).

Why We Destroy Real-Talk

What causes this navel-gazing in place? Ironically, it’s a direct result of planning and rehearsing.  That sales program you’ve been taking?  The one that tells you how to set objectives for the meeting, how to articulate your value proposition, and how to handle objections?  That sales program is not the solution (in this instance), it is the problem! 

If all your interactions are “successfully” scripted in advance, do not pat yourself on the back for good planning.  Instead, kick yourself for having turned a potential human interaction into a bloodless, robotic performance.  

Think about it: If a successful sales call can be programmed in advance according to if-then clauses and do-loops, then why not just send in Robo-Seller? Better yet, email it.  

Borrowing from Pogo, we have met the enemy, and it is us. Sales planning and sales training all conspire to render us impersonal, unconnected, and unable to be effective at creating trust. 

The spell needs breaking. The inner dialogue, on each side of the table, has to be exploded and exposed to the bright light of connection. And it has to start with us, the seller. 

How to Break the Spell

The enemy is planning. The cure is spontaneity. You can’t be “real” if you’re not reacting in the moment. 

And the time to ‘get real’ is right at the outset. Make the small talk real. Let the client know that you are showing up in person, right from the outset, fully present and ready to interact. 

Meaning – improvise. React. Be in the moment. Comment, observe, be curious – about something that occurred to you no earlier than 60 seconds ago. 

Yes, I’m serious. Do not script your opening lines. In fact, don’t even think about them. 

I can hear you – “Whoah, that is risky!”

Yes, it is – and that’s the whole point. Think about the message that taking a risk sends. It says:

  • I’m confident in myself, enough to be at ease and relaxed
  • I’m aware of my surroundings
  • I’m paying attention to and focused on the person I’m talking to 
  • I came to bring value by interacting, not by playing a pre-recorded tape.

And if you make a “mistake?” First of all, making a mistake proves you took a risk, which is the whole point. Secondly, the frequency of making ‘mistakes’ is vastly overrated (really, how likely are you to say, “Who’s that ugly girl in the photo? Oops, that’s your daughter?”)

Prepping for Improv

There’s a reason improv comedians are being hired more and more by consultative organizations – what they teach is what we need in this situation. Here are a few tips.

  1. Don’t over-rehearse
  2. 10 minutes before the meeting, go clear your head. Take a walk; breathe deeply; meditate if you’re into it (count to a thousand if you’re not); notice what your senses are telling you (taste? smell? touch? sound? colors?)
  3. In the waiting room – notice stuff without judgment. What magazines are there? Is it cold? How old is this building? Chat up the receptionist about the weather, or how long they’ve been there with the organization.
  4. When you meet your prospect – focus on them. Pay attention to their voice, their pace, their emotional state. Make yourself wonder what’s going on with them?
  5. Say something. Better yet, ask something. Better still, make an observation and ask something.

At the risk of appearing to give instructions, here are some examples of what you might end up saying. These are only examples: you’re not allowed to use any of them :-).

  • Do you folks get fresh flowers in here every day?  Must be nice.
  • Driving in from the City, what a nice commute that must be every day – is that how you come in?
  • Your receptionist tells me you just moved in to this location last month – do you feel settled in yet? 
  • I’m picking up a sense here that you’re really busy today – anything special going on? Do we need to revisit our time contract?
  • Is that really a Rolls Royce I saw in the front parking lot? What’s the story behind that?
  • I confess, I thought the operation here would be somewhat smaller – then I walk in and I see you’ve got four whole floors here. 

The way you get inside your client’s shoes is to get out of your own. That in turn encourages the client to be present with you. When you do that, the ‘small talk’ actually becomes real. It becomes less a mechanical ‘business-only’ interaction, and a more personal one. 

After all – if you’re really interested in a potential relationship with someone, wouldn’t you want to be real with them from the start?

Credibility, Trust and Ignorance

Being right is vastly overrated.

Now, that doesn’t mean that lying is a good strategy. What it does mean is that in the business world, we all too easily conflate trust with credibility, and credibility with expertise.

You don’t have to look too far to find big-name sales trainers and gurus who insist that it is expertise and insights that drive sales success and trust.

I first heard this mantra back in the 70s (and if I were older, I’m sure I’d know of earlier instances).

Well, here’s some truth. People don’t trust you just because you’re smart. And they definitely don’t trust you because you’re a smart-aleck.

In fact, smart is not even a necessary condition for trust – much less a sufficient condition. Further, the role of expertise and insight doesn’t come temporally first in selling – it plays a role in marketing, and then later a role nearer the middle of the sales process.

Credibility, insight, expertise, smarts – all these things do have a role. It’s just not what you may think.

Let me explain a bit further…

——

I long ago attended a sales call with my boss. When asked by the client, “What experience do you have doing this [narrowly defined] kind of work?” he shocked me by saying, “None that I can think of; what else would be useful for us to talk about?”

How is it that we come to influence other people’s ideas? How do we more effectively get others to take our advice? How do we sell more successfully?

The overwhelming answer in the corporate world seems to be, “By getting people to see that we have the right insights and answers.” But that response is very often wrong.

“Being right” turns out to be vastly overrated. Sometimes, even an admission of ignorance is actually a better strategy.

Misconceptions About Trust – How to Gain Credibility

Most of us think something along these lines: “They’ll take my advice (or buy from me, or be persuaded by me) if they think I’m credible. They’ll think I’m credible if I look smart, have great ideas, and have experience. Therefore I’ll tell them about myself, my bright ideas, and my track record at being smart.”

Clients contribute to this subornation by asking us to talk about precisely that (not because they care about the answer, but because they just don’t know what else to ask and don’t want to take the risk of looking foolish themselves).

But credibility isn’t the only element driving trust. And experience and smarts aren’t the only ways to get credibility. Think of the arrogance implicit in saying “let me tell you why I’m the best” before the customer feels you even know their situation. (This is a description of 98 out of 100 cold call emails you get from email “marketers”).

For example, consider humility. Being willing to acknowledge obvious ignorance creates rather than destroys credibility.  The ability to say, as my boss did, “I don’t know,” is an astonishing comment. It communicates ignorance, yes – but it also communicates radical honesty (who is about to doubt an admission of ignorance!).

  • It communicates a sense of self-confidence (“I am secure enough in my worth and my value to admit exactly what I do and don’t know”).
  • It communicates a clear customer-focus – it says, “You asked a good question, and you deserve a straight, no-spin-control answer. Here it is.”
  • It communicates a focus on the long-term – it says, “If this particular piece of knowledge is key, then I may not win this job; but by being always transparent about what I do know, clients will always know they can trust what I say.”

By contrast, leading with smarts alone just says, “I am a database with a protein user interface.”

The Role of Truth

The point is not to adopt a profession of ignorance as a tactic. Nor is it to pursue ignorance as policy. It’s to tell the truth. Your credibility is not just a function of expertise: it’s a result of a complex set of calculations made by someone when they decide whether to believe and trust you when you say something.

Even if people believe you—credibility—that isn’t enough to get you trusted. They must also trust your motives, your understanding of their situation, and your ability to empathize—as they see it.

True credibility comes from letting people see you as you are—not as you would wish they would see you. Transparency trumps expertise. The more you insist on how much you know, the less we believe you: “the lady doth protest too much.” The more willing you are to honestly admit your limitations, the more we believe you. It’s a paradox thing.

No one expects an advisor or salesperson to be perfect—we just want to know where their biases or blind spots lie, whether they know their own biases – and whether they’re capable of admitting them.

That way we can make up our own minds about how much to trust them.

Letting our clients make that decision is, itself, a driver of trust.

Selling from Inside Your Client’s Shoes

You know the phrase, “Walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.” It’s short for empathy, understanding the Other so well you can intuit what it feels like to take a long walk—wearing their footwear, no less.

Let’s adapt that idea to selling. What if you could understand your client so well that you could intuit how it feels to be sitting in their seat in a sales meeting, sensing every nuance along the way?

Shall we give it a try?

Sales Meeting Time T-minus-10

It’s 10 minutes before meeting time. You arrive early, and the receptionist ushers you into the conference room and offers you coffee. You nervously drum your fingers on the laptop you brought to introduce yourself and your firm to Claudio and Taciana. They are CEO and COO, respectively, of the relatively new marketing automation firm C3PX. You spoke by phone with Taciana to set up this meeting. You’re optimistic, marshaling your nervous energy as you mentally rehearse your key points for the nth time.

Claudio. Meanwhile, Claudio wonders if he has time to call his 19-year-old daughter at college. Actually, whether to call her at all. Things are not well between the two of them—they haven’t been since he and his wife divorced last year. Teenage girls can be so—difficult. And it seemed like she so often took sides with her mother.

Meanwhile, C3PX is doing well—sometimes too well. Claudio just signed another line of credit extension. The good news was the firm’s credit was good. The bad news is he wants to pay down some debt, but there was always a need to invest in some new software or process. The meeting in 10 minutes may be another example—a necessary expense, but not welcome in terms of cash flow.

Claudio hopes Taciana can take the lead on this. He’s been leaning a lot on her lately. Is he holding up his end of the bargain? Or is it welcome to her—a chance to grow into the business? But what if she’s growing too fast and taking over some of Claudio’s roles as CEO?

Taciana. Taciana is running late. She’s just finished a meeting with HR, and she is concerned the experienced hire recruiting program is short of target. She wonders if she’ll need to postpone the ops team call this afternoon until tomorrow, though she did that last week as well. Is she getting a little overloaded? Does it show?

Taciana has mixed feelings about this meeting. On one hand, she genuinely liked the phone call she had with you. She felt you sounded sharp, competent, and confident. But she can’t help worrying about your service offering.

Does C3PX really need your kind of service at this point in its growth? You offer some great services, but with them comes another level of complexity. Are the benefits worth it? Should they get along for another 12 to 18 months? What if some new technology comes along and leap-frogs your offering?

Also, is this going to be yet another Taciana-solo project? “Sure, I’m the COO,” she thinks, “but that doesn’t mean I have to do everything. Am I leveraged enough? Will Claudio think I’m empire-building if I try to delegate? But if I don’t, how am I going to get time to spend with my husband? We’ve been trying to get more time together; he has a demanding job, too. I hope Claudio takes the lead in this meeting.”

Sales Meeting Time T = 0

It’s time. You take a last look at your phone just as the door opens. In walk Claudio and Taciana.

You all smile and shake hands, then pass out business cards. You each reject offers of more coffee and strategically settle into your chairs, all the while smiling and uttering meaningless phrases in non-committal tones.

The meeting commences.

Like all meetings, it commences on multiple levels. There is the overt agenda to be discussed. There are first impressions, flooding each of you as you quickly take into account the others’ appearance, sound, bearing, and manner. Are you who they expected? What’s different? What does that mean?

And are they who you expected? What did you misjudge? What did you get right? Can you afford to focus on that and pay attention to what’s being said? Do they seem a little rushed? What does that mean? Are they going to sit through your deck, or should you skip it? When should you bring up price?

You can ask them to tell you a bit about their situation, but you can’t do too much of that. These days no one has time for someone who hasn’t done their homework. Yet neither can you waste time proving you’ve done your homework. What does it mean that they placed their iPhone next to them? And so on.

Behind the Scenes

The internal dialogue is endless—and that’s just yours! What about the dialogue inside Taciana’s and Claudio’s heads? How important is this inner cacophony? And what should you do about it? Ignore it? Address it? If you choose to address it, how do you do it?

The truth is those internal dialogues are not trivial. They are important. You need to address them. Most of all this is a great opportunity cleverly disguised as an awkward social moment. You can dramatically affect the whole sale, and the whole relationship, by how you conduct yourself in the first few minutes regarding these internal dialogues.

Small Talk Isn’t Small

The idle chit-chat we engage in is a potent social ritual. The point is not to find out that you both went to Ohio State or love basketball or have kids. Those are proxies.

The real issue at stake is whether they can trust you—in a very specific sense of that word. It’s what we call “intimacy” in the trust equation. Do they feel safe being who they are in your presence? Do you laugh at the right moments—with the right kind of laugh? Do you wince at the right statements—like when Taciana mentions meeting overload? When they say, “Tell us about yourself,” do you remember that mostly they’re just being nice and then turn the conversation to them?

Do you have the emotional courage to raise your eyebrows when Claudio says, “Teenagers—am I right?” and invite further comment should he choose to go there? When one of them raises price concerns, do you respond with curiosity and say, “Tell me what’s behind that concern?” Or do you reply with a canned defense of your value-for-price? Do you have the nerve to say, “I’m sensing a little bit of stress from each of you. Is this decision a source of concern to you?”

This isn’t about your value proposition. It isn’t about proposing challenging questions or asserting your qualifications. But it’s critical. The buyer/seller interaction is many things, but it’s first and foremost human. First impressions matter, and not just about clothes and looks.

What buyers want is to feel at ease, trusting, and confident they can be authentically themselves with you and not have to look over their shoulders when dealing with you.

Buyers make up their mind about this subconsciously, and they do it very quickly. Trust in this sense doesn’t take time; it takes courage, connection, and empathy. Don’t be afraid to let your guard down. Doing so shows others that can do the same with you from the get-go.

This article first appeared on RainToday.

Read Part Two of this post, here. 

Don’t Treat Clients Like Competitors! The Four Principles Of Trust-Based Selling

The words “trust” and “selling” are rarely mentioned in the same sentence, and some people feel that “trust-based selling” is an oxymoron. That says something about the relationships between sellers and their clients.

And it’s one reason that professional services firms don’t like the “S” word. We prefer euphemisms like “business development,” itself phrased in the passive voice as if to distance ourselves as far as possible from the crassness of commerce.

Trust-based Selling® is a principled way of approaching the commercial relationship between two parties. It is not a methodology, or a process model; it can coexist with existing methodologies or processes, as long as they are not manipulative or selfish.

People—including sophisticated clients—are overwhelmingly disposed to buy what they need to buy anyway from someone they trust. They trust people who are trustworthy— worthy of trust. Trustworthiness can be defined as behavior in accord with certain principles.

There are four such principles. Trust-based Selling means applying these principles across all stages of the sales process, all aspects of selling, and all characteristics of the client/professional relationship. Those principles are:

  1. Client focus for the sake of the client;
  2. Medium to long-term perspective;
  3. A habit of collaboration with the client; and
  4. Transparency in all things with the client.

In total, the principles of Trust-based Selling define an alternative to the heavily competition-based paradigm that defines most approaches to selling.

Let’s look first at each principle and its applications.

Client Focus For The Client’s Sake

A lot of what goes by the name “client focus” or “customer-centric” these days is a bit misleading. It is client-focused, all right—but in the same sense that a vulture is client-focused. The focus benefits the seller, not the buyer.

For example, loyalty programs are designed by paying very close attention to exactly what clients are looking for. CRM systems are designed (and sold) to allow very fine analyses of client behaviors and preferences. But in each case, their ultimate purpose is to enhance the bottom line of the seller – not the client.

The more refined and the more pervasive those measurements become, the more obvious it becomes to the client that “having his needs met” isn’t really about him at all. Instead, it’s about getting a greater share of his wallet. When we treat clients like we treat supply chains, they will feel like supply chains. They become means to the seller’s ends, rather than valued as ends in themselves.

Client vulture focus comes from the competitive paradigm: a semi-conscious belief that selling is a zero-sum game in which we compete with our clients.

In Trust-based Selling, client focus is practiced for the sake of the client. This doesn’t mean we are oblivious to the impact on us as sellers, but it does mean we approach clients in fundamentally different ways.

Medium to Long-Term Perspective

A lot of firms feel that their time perspective is reasonable—a bit short-term, perhaps, but not out of line. But look at behaviors.

Most approaches to professional selling are derived from industrial process models; they all have a few things in common. For one, they all have arrows, going from left to right. For another, the last step is almost always “closing,” followed by a feedback loop that says “go back to start and repeat.” That is a short-term model. It’s a transaction model whose end is closing. How much reward does your firm give to maintaining the relationship and how much to the sum of the year’s transactions?

Trust-based Selling focuses on the relationship, not the transaction. This longer-term focus takes care of much of the concern that some people have over the client focus principle. They need not worry that the client will take advantage of free services and bleed the provider dry.

In the long term, it is not just unfair but infeasible for the provider to lose money and the client to make money. In the long term, unequal relationships are simply unsustainable. The discipline of thinking long-term forces provider and client alike to think in terms of win-win or lose-lose, rather than the competitive paradigm of win-lose or lose-win.

A Habit of Collaboration

In most approaches to selling, the firm and client spend most of their time apart from each other. Firms spend the majority of their time imagining what the client might be thinking, how the client might react to our guess about what they might be thinking, and even more time developing elaborate “what-if” scenarios about how to respond to and control the client’s reactions to our guesses. What an elaborate substitute for simply asking clients what they think and talking about it!

Again, the paradigm underlying the usual belief is competition. We act like face time must be “managed,” as if client interactions are theatrical events which require staging and rehearsal.

Trust-based Selling demands collaboration. Significant selling acts are undertaken together. The next time you write a proposal, instead of doing it back at the office and emailing them files, what if you were to book the conference room or set up a videocon and actually write the proposal with the client – with each of you bringing to the process all the information needed to prepare the best proposal possible?

That is collaboration. It doesn’t guarantee you get the job. That’s not the point. The point is to help the client get the best possible proposal while you are secure in the belief that, if you behave consistently in a trustworthy manner, you will get more than your fair share of the business—in truth, much more.

Again, the resistance to collaboration comes from our internalized beliefs that somehow we are in competition with our clients.

Transparency in All Things

Being trustworthy means, above all else, having the client’s best interests at heart. One way to demonstrate this is to be open with them in all our affairs. Conversely, the biggest reason a client might suspect we don’t have their best interests at heart is a sense that we are hiding something. So – make sure your policies are right and then don’t hide anything.

In particular, be willing to discuss sensitive issues like pricing policies, reasons for discounts, leverage models, overhead models, staff assignment models, even billing rates. And be prepared to insist that if you share such information, the client will give you adequate time to do a good job of putting that information in its proper context.

Most firms find transparency the most radical principle of all: “There’s no way we’d tell them our billing rates. They’d freak out!” But they already know you have billing rates and make their own guesses without any context to understand them. Remember your feelings when you first heard your billing rate? Most likely initially you were overwhelmed with responsibility. Later, you started wondering where all that money went.

It’s the same with clients. The solution isn’t to keep secrets from them; it’s to explain reality to them. You gain three benefits by being transparent:

  1. You show you’ve got nothing to hide;
  2. You distinguish yourself by so doing;
  3. If your policies are weak, wrong or inconsistent, you’ll find out fast and have to fix them so they’re stronger—in which case, repeat the first two benefits.

Why do we resist transparency? Again, the culprit is the competitive mindset we bring to bear in selling. In this case, we’re afraid that if we share certain information, the “other party”—in this case, a potential client—will use that information against us, or we will lose advantage. That is the language of competition, not of trusted relationships.

We have to stop viewing our clients as our competitors. What we fear, we empower. If we treat our potential clients as competitors during the sales process, we will end up with competitors.

The cycle has to stop with us. We need to sell from principles of trust, rather than from principles that create more competitors in the very process of gaining clients. Trust begins in the sales process, if we have the courage to put it there.

 

Top Ten Reasons Organizations Don’t Teach Trust

A little while back I was asked a simple yet profound question by Tom Hines from the Monitor Group. It’s a question that over the years, I continue to get from clients – and clients from all over the globe, no less.

It seems no matter where you are from or what services your organization offers, there is a focus on closing the sale through the official “sales process.” And yet, everywhere, people are either already aware or starting to take notice that its the softer side of sales that pushes the “sale” towards establishing a lasting client relationship.

So – why don’t more organizations teach trust? Well – here’s my top ten list that may shed a little light on the subject.

———-

This recently from Tom Hines of the Monitor Group.

“My question to you, Charlie, is simple, but something that I’ve been struggling with for some time now. If every CEO or other senior leader (or at least the great majority) seems to agree that success in selling is in some part attributable to trust based selling concepts, then why do they spend virtually all of their training $$ on sales process, closing techniques, etc. It seems like a dirty little secret that this is nothing but a waste of money.”

“I have worked with literally hundreds of sales people over my career and no process, qualification questions or closing technique ever works without establishing trust as the foundation of any client relationship. So the question then is why don’t organizations prioritize and invest in helping their organization understand the dynamics of trust and use that as the foundation of any other program they try to implement? It seems to me that they spend a great deal of money on “quick fix” programs that do nothing to change behaviors and belief systems about the importance of trust and how it is the only way to improve performance.”

Well, Tom, no surprise, you’re preaching to the choir. But I know you mean the question seriously too, and I too take it as a serious question.

Why is it that things are that way?

Here’s my Top Ten list for why organizations, especially sales organizations, don’t invest more in trust.

10. Fear–of looking wussy, as in Real Men Don’t Play Trust Games.

9. Thinking that business is about competition. It’s not. It’s about commerce.

8. Fear—of someone taking advantage of us; hence do unto others before they do unto you.

7. Bad long-term logic. We are dominated by financial logic, internal rates of return and present-value discount rates. That belief outlaws any investment beyond about 25 years. The parent of a child operates on a longer timeframe, not to mention entire nations in Asia.

6. Inability to defer gratification.

5. A Hobbesian hangover. The continued belief, fostered by ideologue economists and politicians, that the world is an evil place—life is nasty, brutish and short–and therefore the best defense is a good offense. Even if the premise were true (I have no position on it), the conclusion certainly is not.

4. The cult of rationality. Belief that only “scientific” management works; forget passion, belief, relationships—and trust.

3. Over-emphasis on measurement. The belief that “if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” Just think about that. False on the face of it.

2. The cult of short-termism. Here-now, bird-in-hand, payback time, fees-not-interest, outsource, monetize—it all adds up to transactions, not relationships. Not good for trust.

1. Fear—that someone will find out who you really are if you don’t manage your image. So tighten up, spin everything, and get out of Dodge before they can spot you for who you really are.

What’s your answer to Tom’s question?

Are You Talking Your Way Out of a Sale?

We’ve all done it. Talked ourselves just a little too far back into a corner. Often – and especially in a sales meeting – it’s because we feel a need to fill that conversational void. But rather than being helpful, rattling on can be detrimental to your getting the sale.

Read on to find out more about the biggest source of that evil temptation – and how to avoid it.

——-

The evil temptation is the well-known question, “So, tell us a little bit about your company?”

If you’re like most salespeople, you view this as a sincere invitation to rattle off all those key points you’ve rehearsed, all those selling points and value propositions you’ve developed, tweaked and improved with each pitch. You hear this question as a godsend, an opening that you can do with as you like.

My, how wrong. All that glitters is far from gold – and this is Case Study Number One.  When customers ask you that question, they are not, in fact, all that interested in hearing about you. In fact, just the opposite.

It’s not that they’re lying to you – their intentions are good. The problem is they never went to buying school, and frankly they just don’t know what else to ask you. They don’t know what to say that will, in a socially acceptable manner, get you to talk about them. Because that’s what they really want.

Unfortunately, they use the words “tell us about yourself” – and we, wishfully, hear those words literally. But they’re not really interested in your story, despite what their words sound like – they want to hear you talk about their story. This is often the fork in the road that can send you down the path of literally talking your way out of the sale.

How Do You Make Your Story Their Story?

First, if the client asks you to tell them about yourself, you shouldn’t embarrass them by refusing to do so. But you can quickly turn the conversation back to them. And once they start talking about themselves you have an opening to weave your story lines into theirs.

It’s not unlike going out on a first date. If your date says, “So, tell me about yourself?” you should, of course, have a few things to say. Key words – “a few.” Because very shortly the rules of etiquette and romance dictate that you should return the favor by saying, “But enough about me – let’s talk about you.”

You may also recognize this as a form of samples selling. Product salespeople know it well—instead of talking about the product’s features, give the customer a sample. If you’re selling cars, offer a test drive, if you’re selling ice cream, hand out little wooden spoons.

The way you do samples selling in complex, intangible services is to actively engage the client in a discussion about their situation. Now, in the context of their situation, you can demonstrate your capabilities in a meaningful and relevant way.

You don’t want to be a name-dropper or a show off (that’s just annoying), but if you’re having a serious conversation with the customer you’ll easily find places to say things like:

  1. “Ah yes, that’s just what Intel did in a similar situation,”
  2. “So, doesn’t that leave you with just choice a and choice b?
  3. “Most of the time, that ratio is less than half, isn’t it?”
  4. “The majority of my clients choose to do X rather than Y; which way did you go on that issue?”
  5. “Have you ever thought of outsourcing that process?”

Think of selling this way as showing, not telling. You are actively engaged in showing the customer how you fit into their story—and you’re helping them tell that story going forward.

Let your competitors sell by telling their story. It won’t work very well because the only story the clients are interested in is their own. You be the one to work your way into their story. Work your way into their story—don’t talk your way out of it a sale.

Enabling Stupid Marketing (and #Sales) at the Speed of Light: Part 3 of 3

This is the third part of a three-blogpost series.

  • In the first, I argued that “stupid marketing and sales” – defined as “a stultifying obsession with one’s own product features, to the exclusion of any meaningful focus on customer needs, much less wants” – has become endemic.
  • In the second, I stated three reasons for the endemic status of this sad situation: the complexity of technology, the tyranny of zero-cost marketing, and a pervasive view of business as impersonal and mechanistic.
  • In this third and final post, I want to outline two generic solutions to the problem.

If you want to contribute to a general improvement in the state of sales and marketing, may I suggest that the next time you spot an offender, send them a link to this series.

Hey, it can’t hurt.

Two Fixes for Stupid Marketing and Sales

If the problem is an obsession with features and an absence of other-focus, two solutions present themselves.

  • One is to offer a rich, compelling narrative – a story – that allows the customer to deeply appreciate one set of possible benefits of the product or service, triggering a series of ‘ah-ha’s’ in the customer’s imagination. I offer two great examples of marketers who use this technique.
  • The other is to go straight at the particular customer, suggesting a uniquely relevant scenario for them – and to do so in the familiar-as-etiquette form of a gift. This is an approach I call BARG, for Bring a Risky Gift.

Story-telling as an Antidote to Stupid Marketing (and sales)

I am far from the first to point out the power of stories. Something there is that we all love about stories. Stories offer meaning, but in a way that is not preaching.

Even if the ‘moral’ of a story is blindingly obvious, the form allows us to indulge the conceit that we, ourselves, have done the lesson-drawing.

Ian Brodie. @Ianbrodie is an ex-management consultant turned email marketer. He writes an insightful blog – and an even more brilliant newsletter. It’s the latter I want to talk about.

I look forward to reading each newsletter. In the kindest, gentlest way, Ian always manages to appreciate just how a particular email marketing technique, or a turn of phrase, or an approach to marketing, might work. Usually he tells it in the form of a wry, self-deprecating story about himself; occasionally, in the form of a triumphant story about a client.

He doesn’t write directly about me: but in writing insightfully and artfully about himself and others, he tells a story that unlocks my own imagination, and makes me interested in what he’s selling.

Ramit Sethi. @ramit also writes a blog, a newsletter, and various other missives. Some people are put off by the in-your-face title of his website – I Will Teach You To Be Rich.

First of all, he actually can. Secondly, he is a cornucopia of ideas of how to improve your life. But for present purposes, it’s how he does it on which I want to focus: Ramit tells in-your-face stories that rivet the attention and supercharge the imagination.

Like Ian, Ramit is a story-teller. Also like Ian, some of his best stories are about what he himself was, and what he managed to become. He’s also loaded with real life examples of others. Unlike a lot of happy-talk writers, Ramit doesn’t hesitate to describe failure: if you can’t stand the occasional ‘ouch’ of self-recognition, better not risk reading him. But if you can take it, this is great marketing.

Bring a Risky Gift

One of the most powerful forms of marketing – really, of influence in general – is the principle of reciprocity. If I do X for you, you’ll be inclined to return the favor. It’s as basic as a hand-shake.

Think about what you do when a friend invites you to dinner. You bring a gift – maybe a bottle of wine. But if you take a risk, you give some thought to that wine. You spend a little more; but especially, you spend some time thinking about it. Maybe you buy a bottle from Piemonte, because your friend recently returned from a foodie tour of Italy.

Critically, you could be wrong. Maybe they hated Italian wines. Maybe they quit drinking. But that’s the point. If you actually take a risk, you make yourself vulnerable.

Vulnerability and risk-taking are the drivers of trust. There is no trust without risk. Waiting for the other party to take the first risk is like aggressively waiting for the phone to ring. You need to create your own luck, and BARG – Bring a Risky Gift – is how you do it.

The best marketing is not shotgunning features lists into dead, cold email lists, but digging into those lists and doing just a bit of research to actually do something personal – and to offer a gift.

I don’t mean a bribe, or an illegal offering. I mean a sample of your wares. An insight; a tool; a white paper. Something that is valuable, that is clearly aimed uniquely at the target client in a transparent and intentional way, and that entails some risk.

That is what BARG is about. It triggers the reciprocity process. It triggers the trust process by taking a risk. It gives a humble sample of what you can do.

Who does this?  Really good consultants do it all the time. In the larger world of marketing, this is some of what Hubspot Marketing became famous for doing.

The point is, it’s another antidote to the impersonal, features-only approach to “marketing” that has come to plague the field in our time.

 

So, take your pick. Tell rich stories about yourself and your clients; or dig in to real life target clients, and BARG.  Either way, the point is to re-personalize marketing and sales, reconnecting with the human aspect of buying.

Let’s make sales smart again. Sell the hole, not the drill. Make it personal. You don’t have to put up with stupid marketing and sales as a customer; and you surely shouldn’t practice it yourself.

Enabling Stupid Marketing (and Sales) at the Speed of Light. Part 2 of 3.

This is the second of a three-part blog series. In the first, I argued that Stupid Marketing (and sales) has become endemic. Briefly, I defined “stupid” as “a stultifying obsession with one’s own product features, to the exclusion of any meaningful focus on customer needs, much less wants.”

In this second part, I want to explore how we got there: why is there so much of this kind of 101-level marketing and sales confusion going on?  In the third part, I’ll explore the two solutions to Stupid Marketing (and sales).

Why Is Stupid Marketing Endemic?

There are three basic reasons for this plague; the third one is the biggest.

Technical Complexity.

Marketing and sales have become so transformed (taken over?) by technology that complexity has gone way up. Previous generations of Willy Lomans were flummoxed by IBM 360s, yesterday’s marketers stand in awe as today’s generation navigates between content creators, media vendors, execution technologies, and automated ad buys.

That (mostly marketing) complexity has kept sales at a low level of sophistication. Because we have so recently become able to do so many things so much more cheaply and more quickly and more effectively, we have all gotten seduced into thinking that pouring old wine into new bottles changes the wine. It doesn’t. Features are still features – they’re not needs. And they’re miles away from wants.

In the early days of business process re-engineering, we heard about “paving the cowpath.” Automating a process doesn’t change that process per se. Putting features online, making them pop up through a thousand triggers, and linking them to highly targeted audiences doesn’t change the fact that they’re still features.

Technology makes us better at identifying customer needs. But too many marketers draw the inference that, having done so, all we have to do is throw a product-and-features advertisement their way at the right moment in the right medium, and sales will magically go up by a metric-measurable tick.

This leads to a semi-conscious belief that everything is marketing, and that marketing will absorb sales. Not going to happen.

If all you do with profound market intelligence is to throw digital darts with more and more precision, you’re still not selling – you’re just enabling creepiness.  People still crave engagement. The need for personal sales has not diminished, it’s simply shifted.

Search engines, AI, and CRM have not repealed a few laws of human nature – that people like to feel understood before they seek to understand. That they still want you to feel the problem they’re trying to solve. They still want to know that you care before they care what you know. Even an automated buying process is automated by someone who is responding to those laws.

Technology-based marketing enables sales – it doesn’t trigger them except incrementally.  Detailed descriptions of features are still just features.

The Tyranny of Zero-cost.

The second reason for endemic stupid marketing and sales is the zero marginal cost nature of information. Closely related to the tragedy of the commons, this speaks to the perverse incentive that makes almost any trivial sale profitable in the face of massive, destructive-of-relationships, spam-like emails.

When coupled with the short-termism of our times (remember IBGYBG from the recent recession? remember when startups aimed to become profitable, rather than to cash out?), this is toxic. Zero incremental marketing cost plus a disregard for long-term (heck, even medium-term) social or customer costs, leads to cynical, impersonal marketing and sales alike.

An Impersonal View of Business

The biggest reason, I believe, for endemic Stupid Marketing is the view that business itself is best described as impersonal, logical, deductive, sequential, behavioral, and self-serving.

By this view – dominant in the US since the 1970s – business decisions are made through cognitive and impersonal processes. Without going much deeper, let me just say this is at best a gross over-simplification, and in large part is simply wrong.

People, with all their protein-based emotional behaviors, still have a critical role to play in business. (The great philosopher Sidney Morgenbesser once told BF Skinner, “Let me get this straight – you’re saying we shouldn’t anthropomorphize people?”). Sidney was right to cock an eyebrow.

Many trends merged to create this impersonal view of business:  competitive strategy, the spreadsheet, business process re-engineering, the Internet, hyperlink technology, AI, cell phones. We can all see why modern marketers might think that sales and marketing can be reduced to incentives, chips, and bits and bytes.

But it can’t. People do behave rationally – just not according to the simple rules of economic self-optimization that marketers have adopted.

Instead, they behave according to rules of relationships, emotions and the heart – and then rationalize their decisions with the brain. And those rules transcend the basic features descriptions and simplistic “solutions” that so dominate the field today.

Why is stupid marketing and sales endemic? Because we mistake complexity for substance, because it costs nothing, and because we have come to believe the false gospel of People as Rational Self-Aggrandizers.

In the last part in this series, I’ll talk about the two generic solutions to the problem of stupid marketing – two strategies that are tried and true, and that incorporate the human part of business.

 

 

 

Enabling Stupid Marketing (and sales) at the Speed of Light. Part 1 of 3

How would you rate the quality of the following three unsolicited emails? What letter grade would you assign to each?

Sample A:

Hi Charles,

I have emailed you a few times now regarding your business cards. Let me know if you are not the correct person, also please tell me who I should be contacting?
We – ABC – are the leaders in online business card management for large organizations. We will save you money and make ordering business cards very easy.
Here is a link with more information and a demo – _____.
Sample B:

Dear Charles H.,

If you’re like most companies today, you spend tons of time and effort tracking all the sales tax rates, rules and processes required for compliance everywhere you do business. But are you 100% confident in the result? Are you confident you’re audit proof?

We’re called XYZ. Our cloud-based solution not only eliminates all of those unproductive hours, but it solves all the sales and use tax compliance guesswork for good. In fact, we guarantee the accuracy of every rate you use, rendering you audit-proof in the process.

Charles H., if you’re willing to give us just 15 minutes on the phone, we can show you how we automate all the sales tax rates, rules, and processes required for compliance. We even address consumer use and seller use tax, too.

 

Sample C:

Good Day how are they getting on? It’s Irina! I’m from Russia.

I’am very ripe person and for now looking dependable Man) If You want to date me;) response me;)

I can send You my photo attached have a good time

 

What do you think?

Here’s my grading of them.

They’re all about the same. I would grade them F, F and D respectively (yes, sample C is fractionally better – I’ll explain).

Worse yet – not only is that kind of effort by far the dominant quality of email marketing I see today – it is not all that much different from the supposedly sophisticated B2B sales and marketing initiatives we see major firms putting forth. Stupid marketing (and sales), I suggest, have become endemic.

 

This is part 1 of a 3-part blogpost series I’m calling “Enabling Stupid Marketing (and sales) at the Speed of Light.”

  • In this first part, I want to describe the problem – to point out how widespread it has become, to define the problem, to describe just what kind of “stupid” we’re talking about.
  • In part 2, I’ll talk about why this problem has become so endemic.
  • In part 3, I’ll talk about the two generic solutions to the problem.

Speed of Light Stupid Marketing (and sales): How to Spot It 

There have, of course, been amazing advances in recent years in the fields of sales and marketing. CRM and Salesforce have upended sales processes. Technology has enabled almost frighteningly good tools for identifying and targeting customer behavior. And amazing software tools are helping automate and micro-tune all kinds of sales and marketing functions.

But the sales and marketing folk of today – very much driven by the increased role of technology – have confused process with substance, features with benefits, and even sales with marketing.

The core, basic, Stupidity-101 mistake of our time is the same mistake that was made back in the Stone Age of business, when I came of age – a stultifying obsession with one’s own product features, to the exclusion of any meaningful focus on customer needs.

Let’s look first at how my three examples stack up:

  • What does ABC from Sample A have to tell me? That they’re the leaders in business cards. 100% features. Zero benefits. And don’t even look for a hint of connection with me. Do I care? Not one bit.
  • What does XYZ from Sample B tell me? That I’m indistinguishable from half the companies out there (it’s not easy to insult your customer in the first sentence), spending “tons of time” tracking sales tax rates. Not true for me (and I doubt for others); they want more time from me on the phone than I’ve spent in the last 5 years thinking about it. So now not only do I not care, but I peg the writer for a liar and/or a fool.
  • Irina, in Sample C, asks if I want to date her and have a good time.  To her credit, at least she leaves something to my imagination, which offers a chance of escaping the no-man’s land of ‘features and price’ that traps the other two.

This is 101 stuff. These days you can’t just put out a sign saying, “Stuff for sale here; and it’s really good stuff – let me tell you all about it.” You never could get away with just that, truth be told. Yet that’s what the majority of sales and marketing these days boils down to.

As a client/customer, I don’t care if it’s the latest AI-based PE Round Two-financed new app from Israel/Hyderabad/Silicon Valley that does blood tests while pre-emptively snuffing out Russian hackers and getting me Uber-delivered lunch. The only thing I care about is – what problem does this solve for me? Reciting your product’s nifty features does not, repeat not, constitute effective sales, or even marketing.

Drills vs. Holes.  The still-sentient among us with long memories will recall Ted Levitt’s old bit about “people don’t buy drills, they buy holes.” They also don’t buy business cards, they buy impressions. They don’t buy tax compliance software, they buy peace of mind. And they don’t buy Russian girls, they buy – well, to Irina’s credit, she at least engages her customers’ imagination to fill in the blank.

Listing features is simply describing the drill, not the hole.

As my friend @davidabrock points out, this obsession with description is a failing especially noteworthy in the tech industry. This leads to some delicious irony; I’m sure I’m not the only one who gets emails from tech companies telling me about their ability to increase my sales and bottom line via their powerful software, which enables micro-targeting, lead generation, personalization, and the like. Meanwhile, it is clearly aimed at businesses not like mine, clearly the product of a mass emailing, shows no evidence of having micro-defined me in any terms, and clearly impersonal.

If their own dog food is so great, how come they’re not eating it themselves?

The Collateral Damage of Drill-bit Marketing. If you think of your brilliant product as the scarce resource, then you probably think of the customer as the commodity part of the supply/demand equation. The focus becomes on how good we can get at describing ourselves to as many people as possible.

This is of course dead wrong. Properly thought of, the scarce resource is customers, and the commodity is what we’re selling. The right focus is to jointly define a problem, and then help solve it for the customer.

I remember a college acquaintance who claimed to use this approach with women: “Just ask enough of them to have sex, someone is bound to say ‘yes.'” Maybe, maybe not. More important is the impression you leave on all those you interact with.  A well known CRM vendor with a 3-syllable name used to be renowned for such scorched-earth sales approaches.

If you believe your job is to pitch as many leads as possible about your features, you devalue the customer. Conversely, if you believe your job is to understand a few customers as deeply as possible, your product features will take on new levels of meaning. But you have to view sales and marketing as about customers, not about your product.

Metaphors – Jobs and Dates. Here’s a metaphor. Imagine you’re looking for a job. You list your resume on all the job sites, email it in to employers, etc. You get an invitation to interview. You go in for the interview. Now – what do you do?

If your response to any question is to cite your resume, you lose the job. Because your features – the resume, in this case – are what got you the interview. What got you the interview won’t get you the offer. At that stage in the ‘sale’ (the sale of you), you need to go beyond features, and make a connection.

Another metaphor: you go out on a first date. Your date says, “So, tell me about yourself.”  If your response goes on for more than a couple of minutes, you’ll not get a second date. Your features are what got you in the door – they won’t get you to the other side.

Doing email marketing based solely on features is like getting a job solely on resumes. Doing B2B marketing based solely on putting features in front of people is like dating based solely on picking the right app.

And It’s Not Just Email Marketing. I’ve used email marketing examples, but I see the same tendency in sophisticated B2B clients – and not just tech clients, either. There is so much complexity out there that sellers in complex B2B businesses don’t know how to achieve escape velocity from the black hole of features. They make the same mistake their B2C email marketing brethren do – they fall back on describing features.

And don’t tell me “solutions” are different. What passes for “solutions,” all too often, are just slightly altered versions of descriptions. The “problems” they are set up to solve are simply descriptions of one level up the business process or IT chain. They are still far from what classic marketers would call ‘needs,’ and miles away from ‘wants.’

In some ways, the problem is not that new. For 40 years now I’ve heard clients tell me that, “You have to talk technically with them, they really want to know features, you don’t know my client, they’re content freaks.” After 40 years, I suspect a pattern. And the pattern is not about the customer, it’s about the seller.

We are in love with our products, our features, our hard-fought expertise. And if we’re in love with it, how could our customers not be? Besides, that customer focus stuff feels un-scientific, soft, and – above all – risky. Far safer to stay in the safe world of features and price, features and price, features and price. New bottles – old wine.

 

Next Blogpost: Part 2 of 3 – Why Has Stupid Marketing (and Sales) at the Speed of Light Become Endemic?

 

The Perfect Pitch in Sales: 9 Rules

You’ve heard about “the dog and pony show,” the “beauty contest,” or perhaps “the shoot-out.”  Maybe you just call it “the pitch.” The term is more common in some industries – advertising, executive recruiting, some law firms – but we’re all familiar with it.

Typically it’s thought of as an event – a somewhat formal presentation by several professionals, made to several members of the client organization that typically lasts 30 to 90 minutes. Other common characteristics of a pitch include PowerPoint and a timeslot among a few other competitors who are pitching on the same day.

Let me be clear: there is no single perfect pitch.  The winning pitch is situational to you and your client. Still, there are some guidelines that hold true. Here are nine such 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 seeks control 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 usually better off starting from a strong relationship. Though both know this, they don’t 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. 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.

And 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.

So 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 just 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 alone 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, lazy, 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 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 put it out there.

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. Whenever you 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.