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

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

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

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

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

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

Adam Smith, Competition, and Selling

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

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

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

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

And—most of all—seller vs. buyer.

Selling without Competition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Are You Worthy of Your Client’s Trust?

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

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

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

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

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

The Acid Test Of Trust In Selling

The question to you is this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why This Is The Acid Test

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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?

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.

 

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.

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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.

Beyond the Sales Process: Interview with authors Dave Stein, Steve Andersen

BSPangleI have known Dave Stein for many years. He’s an expert in the sales field, particularly in evaluating sales training. He has always been a clear and incisive thinker, with opinions as well-grounded in data as they are in thoughtfulness.

His new book, with Steve Andersen, is called Beyond the Sales Process: 12 Proven Strategies for a Customer-Driven World.

Dave and Steve shared some thoughts with me about the book, and about the state of selling.

———————–

Charlie: B2B selling and buying have been transformed during the past 8 years—what changes have you seen regarding the role of trust in selling? And as salespeople seek to adapt to those changes, how are they doing?

Steve and Dave: Beginning in 2008, when the last financial crisis hit, the concept of increasing revenues as a business objective was forced onto the back burner in many companies and replaced, or at least supplemented, with a scramble to reduce costs. In the process, the procurement function in many organizations gained unprecedented power, became more strategic, and began reaching further into daily operations.

Mostly unprepared for this fundamental transformation in their customers’ business practices, many salespeople found themselves in over their heads, often floundering in their negotiations with “the new procurement.” Under pressure to produce, they responded by upping the ante, throwing more products and services at their customers, despite supply being greater than demand in most cases, and – most importantly – despite the fact that many of their customers simply weren’t interested in these additional offerings.

The result has been a dismaying drop in the degree of trust that many contemporary buyers are able to place in their suppliers.

Charlie: Shocking – who could’ve seen that coming!

Steve and Dave: Right! Anyway, throughout this challenging period we observed consistently that sales professionals and account managers who truly understood their customer’s world—their wants and needs, the potential impact of external drivers on their business objectives, and the internal challenges they faced in meeting those objectives—continued to collaborate with and create value for their customers. For those top performers, earning credibility and focusing on the customer is an approach that continued to pay off.

Charlie: Makes total sense. So, what precipitated the two of you collaborating on a book?

Steve and Dave: After meeting and working together years ago at a software company we became friends and kept in touch as our careers continued on what might be considered parallel but related trajectories. Steve eventually leveraged his experience and expertise in B2B sales to establish Performance Methods Inc. (PMI), an industry-leading sales best practices consulting organization, and Dave authored his first book, “How Winners Sell” and went on to found ES Research Group, Inc. (ESR), an independent advisory firm that focused on B2B sales training.

When Dave closed ESR several years back, Steve seized the moment and proposed that we join forces and share what we have learned and experienced with other B2B sales professionals. A co-authorship was born and it was based on a common perspective—that sales needs to evolve in order to keep up with the changes that buyers have adopted. We also share a real concern that the sales training industry all-too-often leaves the “guest of honor” off the guest lists at the sales training parties: the customer!

Charlie: Indeed – seller-centric sales training is not the right idea. In the face of that drift away from the customer, what impact do you hope this book will have on the reader?

Steve and Dave: In the past eight years, and frankly even in the period leading up to the recession, the idea of a strong, enduring customer relationship has withered and commoditization has reigned. In the fierce competition for customers, value, trust, and credibility have been pushed onto the sales “back seat,” while features, benefits, pricing, and a willingness to discount in order to win business sit up front. Overall, our observation is that this hasn’t been a period of growth for the B2B sales profession, and for that matter, for business in general.

We wrote Beyond the Sales Process because we firmly believe that it’s time to rethink what has become accepted as the new norm—that in business, relationships and trust don’t matter so much any more. We disagree: not only do they matter, but we provide evidence in the book that relationships matter now more than ever.

Charlie: As you might imagine, I couldn’t agree more.

Steve and Dave: As salespeople ourselves, we also know that it’s not enough to simply urge our B2B colleagues (who face these challenges on a daily basis) to change their approach; they must be equipped with how to make those changes. They need to know why it’s crucial to rethink their approach, and they need to know how to implement strategies that will lead to more wins and greater success for themselves, as well as for their customers.

Beyond the Sales Process provides what we refer to in the book as “actionable awareness”—proven strategies and tactics for developing, offering, and creating unique differentiable value that will directly address the customer’s external drivers, business objectives, and internal challenges, as well as their individual wants and needs. And we substantiate this by providing examples of industry-leading companies, their customers, and the actual people that are creating and co-creating this value together.

Charlie: Companies don’t focus enough on developing new business from existing clients. What do you recommend for salespeople, account managers, and sales leaders seeking to build their trustworthiness and grow their relationships with their customers?

Steve and Dave: Most sales book focus primarily on that small period of time when there’s a specific sales opportunity on the table, and that’s absolutely an important topic. But there’s another area that is too-often neglected—“after the sale,” you have an existing customer that has experienced your value. Will they want to work with you again? Did they realize the value that you and your organization promised to deliver? As the salesperson, are you going to stick around to measure and validate the impact you delivered? Are you willing to apply the lessons learned and adapt your approach?

Your past proven value can and should be leveraged to build and strengthen your future relationship with your customer and provide you with momentum for the future potential value that you will create and co-create together. The strategies we lay out in the third section of Beyond the Sales Process provide a clear roadmap for how to make this happen.

Charlie: In your book, you frequently use the word “trust.” Since you know trust is near and dear to my heart, how do you respond to those who believe that relationships in sales don’t matter much anymore? How can you make time for trust in our high-pressure, fast-paced B2B world?

Steve and Dave: We’ve interviewed hundreds of customers over dozens of years, and not a single one has ever told either of us that relationships don’t matter. Credibility is a critical success factor for the contemporary salesperson—so as far as we’re concerned, the real question to ask yourself is this: how can I expect to be successful if I don’t make time to build trust?

This is not just a theory or a philosophical argument. Over and over again, the numbers show that it is considerably more costly to pursue and acquire a new customer than it is to grow your relationship with an existing one. And, when a customer trusts that you have their best interests at heart, there’s a good chance that they’ll want to talk to you, to consult with you, and to hear what you have to say before they start developing requirements for their next specific opportunity. If you haven’t developed a relationship with your customer based on trust, you can expect to hear about their next opportunity at the same time that your competitors do, or worse, you’ll realize that your competitor may have been able to influence your customer’s thinking and view of success while you were waiting for the RFP to arrive.

Before there’s a sales opportunity, the savvy salesperson realizes that they have an opportunity to build trust and credibility by understanding the customer’s world, how they define success, and by visioning value creation together. On the other hand, once the customer is in buying mode, they’re under a great deal of pressure, they’re stressed, and the opportunity to engage differently, explore possibilities, and vision success is lost. If you haven’t already taken the time to establish customer mindshare, you are just one of many providers clamoring for your customer’s attention, and you’ve missed a golden opportunity to build trust.

Charlie: You obviously put considerable work into creating, vetting, and getting approval for your case studies. How were you able to get companies such as these to contribute with such depth? What was it was like working with these industry leaders to capture their successes and best practices?

Steve and Dave: We’ve built trust with these companies over the years, and it’s reflected not only by their full participation in the case studies but also in their willingness to have their own customers to take part. They demonstrate that the twelve proven strategies actually work by using them to create trust-based relationships with their customers themselves. They have embraced the idea that it’s not about control or manipulation, or a methodology that every reader or company has to follow in lockstep, but instead an approach that puts the customer first and creates value for everyone involved. It was an absolute pleasure to work closely with these smart and successful industry leaders, their people, and their customers to give our readers insights and actionable awareness that they can use to ensure their success with their own customers.

Charlie: The market is responding favorably to the concepts in your book, including the notion of engage, win, and grow with your customers. How is this idea more inclusive, holistic, and customer-oriented than traditional sales approaches that have been around for a while?

Steve and Dave: Focusing on benefits rather than features has long been accepted as the “right” way to peddle one’s offerings, but we think it’s an approach doesn’t go nearly far enough. How can you sell on benefits to the customer if you don’t know what they value? How do you establish credibility when it’s obvious you haven’t taken the time to understand the world in which they live? How can you build on the value you’ve created after the sale closes to grow trust and credibility, and to expand your relationship with the customer? In Beyond the Sales Process, we look at all of this, and we equip the reader to implement a new, more contemporary approach for engaging, winning, and growing your customer relationships, and for selling in the customer-driven world in which we live today.

Charlie: That’s a great statement of the value of relationships in selling, and its linkage to some of the more traditional aspects of selling. Thanks guys for taking the time with us today, and best of luck with this excellent new book.

Trust-Based Selling Between Cultures

The hardest thing about describing Trust-based Selling to Americans is the idea that the first step in selling has nothing to do with selling. They just don’t get it. Maybe this will help.

Jim Peterson—lawyer, accountant, former newspaper columnist, blogger—told me this delightful story about himself.

I’m an American, and had moved to Paris as an expat, to be senior in-house counsel in Europe for my global firm. The dossier included oversight of our litigation, disputes and risk management.

I inherited a very large piece of pending litigation: we were one of the several defendants — the lead plaintiff was a large French bank. The case had been going on in the course of Germany for several years — but it was then dormant.

I got from the files the name of my in-house counterpart at the bank — whose office was near mine in Paris — and invited him to meet over lunch. The ground rule was–no discussion of the case or its details or merits, since I had no background on the matter and there was no activity then or on the horizon. We did in fact meet up — had a fine and proper French meal including a good bottle of wine — and parted company.

The case ran on in Germany for a year and a half or so. Eventually the local lawyers for both sides called to say that it was time for a settlement, but that they were at an impasse and there was no prospect for fruitful discussions.

I went back to my phonebook. I called the bank’s lawyer in Paris, got caught up on the current status, and asked for a meeting. In a Paris conference room, in about an hour, a successful resolution was reached.

To the French, relationships are vitally important in the conduct of business of all kinds. This could not have happened if we had been coming together for the first time. (The American mis-apprehension about the rudeness of French shop-keepers, waiters and taxi drivers is misplaced — they simply don’t know or have any relationship with a new arrival. By taking the time to be courteous and conversational, ahead of the desire to transact business, the entire atmosphere can be changed. And even more so when you become a repeat customer.)

We Americans, with characteristic brevity and impatience, have an urge to “get on with it.” We consider this a virtue, despite the fact that this approach will often leave us frustrated and will yield sub-optimal results. Neither does this alter our belief that we are results-driven.  But the truth is: slowing down rather than rushing to finish in time to catch the afternoon plane will often yield a better outcome.

By extension, I have used variations on this approach even in the American context — where the investment of a small amount of time and effort is often seen to bear fruit.

Jim is not alone. One Japanese bargaining technique (as per Riding the Waves of Culture, a great book) is to wait until the Americans have confirmed their return flights before demanding an additional item or making a small concession in their position. The urge to hold to a preset plan is so strong that the Americans will jump at the offer rather than reschedule.

The point is not just that Americans are prisoners to our own US-centric views of culture, but that we are mistaken even about our own culture. The simple powerful truth, anywhere in the world, is that people prefer to do business with those with whom they have some kind of relationship. The mechanics of that differ; the principle does not. Tons of sales are left on the table in the US because of an inability to deal with relationships.

Want to sell? Then first Stop Trying to Sell.

This truth is no less truthful for being a truism: People don’t care what you know, until they know that you care.

The best sales begin with relationship. Deal with it.

This post first appeared on TrustMatters.

Giving Prospects the Confidence to Hire You

When it comes to selling – many of us focus on our fears.

“Will they buy?”

“Are my services priced right?”

“What are they looking for?”

“Will they go with me?”

These questions inevitably lead to a dance that involves both buyer and seller, a delicate tip-toeing around the heart of the matter. We try to talk about needs, solutions, benefits, values.

But a buyer is not looking for those things alone. Above all else, a buyer is looking to feel confident that they made the right decision; that their business or needs are in the right hands.

Are you giving your prospects the CONFIDENCE to hire you?

——–

A western journalist visiting the old Soviet Union, so the story goes, asked a worker if he was being paid well. The worker said, “It’s all pretend. We pretend to work and they pretend to pay us.”

Do you sell consulting? IT services? Accounting? Financial planning? Legal services? Then you too play a game of pretend – with your would-be clients. They pretend to care about your qualifications. You pretend to listen to their questions. You pretend to write a unique proposal. They pretend to read it. You pretend to sell. They pretend to buy.

All the while, behind the game of pretending, an unspoken and important vetting process is taking place.

For example, a company about to spend big on a CRM system, or make an investment in leadership training, or change its sales approach, will ask about the benefits of what’s being sold. The prospect will want to know the answer and they will pretend it matters most.

But what they really want to know is – will we have the confidence to sleep well at night given the choice we make?

And yet, this search for confidence – the thing that matters most – isn’t what’s actually discussed during the sales process.

Instead, prospective clients have been seduced by the trappings of “hard business.” They think “if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it,” and they try to reduce decisions to metrics. That’s how we end up with clients wanting to know all about our qualifications – despite the fact that our qualifications were what already got us in the room in the first place.

And so, we all pretend that buying and selling is about talking. About words and numbers. About qualifications.

But it’s not. The fact is, clients make huge, complex, intangible decisions very much on the basis of gut, emotion, feeling, opinion, Kentucky windage, call it what you will.

As sales guru Jeffrey Gitomer says, people buy with the heart, and justify with the brain. It’s not about rational decisions, but about decisions rationalized.

The truth is this: people vastly prefer to buy what they need from people they feel good about. People they trust. People who they believe have their clients’ interests at heart, not just their own. People who make an effort to honestly listen to their clients. People who actually seem to care.

This goes beyond “people buy from people they like,” or “people buy from people similar to themselves.” It’s way more than schmoozing and finding out common interests.

It gets to the guts of the matter:

  • Do you actually seem to give a damn about me?
  • Do you act like you care about me?
  • Are you working your own agenda, or will you actually listen to mine?

Sales process designs won’t get you there. Metrics and CRM systems won’t get you there. Motivational speeches won’t get you there.

But two things will.

1. Genuine, Honest-to-Goodness Listening

That’s listening for real. Listening not to find out data, but to find out about the client. Listening not to make or confirm a hypothesis, but to understand another human being. Listening not to find out client needs, but to find out what makes a business and a person tick. Listening not so you get answers, but listening so that at the end of it, the other fellow feels heard. Listening not to provide great answers, but listening to earn the right to offer those answers later.

I’ve heard this called yellow-pad listening; no proposal or talking points in front of you, just a blank pad ready to take notes if necessary as issues come up. Whatever you call it, remember another old truism that is still true: People don’t care what you know until they know that you care.

2. Sample Selling

People don’t buy ice cream from verbal descriptions; they buy it from taste. Referrals may get people in the door, but samples sell them. We don’t use samples selling nearly enough when it comes to selling the intangible.

Give people a taste of what you do. Assume you’ve got the job, and start working it in the early stages. Don’t say how good you are at tax planning, grab hold of some business issues and show them how you do it — on their data.

If a voice in the back of your mind (or your boss in the front) says, “don’t give it away,” recognize that they are wrong. There is an inexhaustible supply of problems in this world. Giving away a few solutions doesn’t diminish your value — it earns you the right to solve more of those problems.

If a client shows a pattern of stealing ideas from you, quietly drop them. After all, that’s the kind of client you’d prefer your competitors to have. Place your focus instead on those clients who want relationships of mutual benefit.

* * *

Listening and sample selling. These are actions, not thoughts. Deeds, not qualifications. Results, not process designs. Most of all, they demonstrate your devotion to your client.

After all, would you rather buy from someone who says, “Trust me”? Or, from someone who shows you why you should?

This post first appeared on RainToday.com