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In Complex Sales, Time Is on Your Side

What’s the relationship of time to sales?

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


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

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

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

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

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

Sales as Events

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sales as Patterns

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

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

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

Is Time On Your Side?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Relationships or Metrics? I Haven’t Got Time for Both

I heard it again today. I hear it in almost every workshop I do, and in every – bar none – big company sales organization I work with.  It sounds like this:

I believe in trust and relationships, but it’s a luxury problem. Here in the real world, the pressure’s on. I don’t have time to do all that nicey-nice stuff, I’ve got to hit my numbers. And even if I did have that kind of time, my clients don’t. The days of easy-going ‘what’s keeping you up at night’ conversations are over – they’ve got as much pressure as I do, and maybe more.

I just don’t have time to build trust-based relationships. Hopefully, someday I will.

But with that attitude, that day will never come. Because trust-based relationships don’t come when you’ve got plenty of time – they’re forged when you don’t have time, and have to trust someone. The whole relationships-vs.-metrics debate is based on four false beliefs. When will you get rid of them?

Myth Number One: You Don’t Have the Time

Maybe you’re old enough to remember an old ad for Fram Oil Filters: “You can pay me now – or you can pay me later.” It stuck because it rang very true – if you refused to pay for a cheap oil filter, you’d end up paying for much more expensive engine repairs later.

It’s the same here. Every phone call, conversation and meeting that you cut short to “save time” puts a label on your head. The label says, “I’m a transactional sales guy; I will never invest in my customer, and I’ll blame you for being the busy one.”

As Aristotle said, you become what you practice. If you never take time for relationships, if all you do is transact, then you become a transactor. And nobody suddenly decides one day out of the blue that they really want to have a trust-based relationship with someone who’s been transacting with them since forever.

The truth is, a little time taken now, up front, results in far more efficient use of time down the road – even just next month. Trust-based relationships aren’t just more effective, they’re more timely and less costly.

You do have the time; you’re just constantly refusing to invest it for returns in future time.

Myth Number Two: Your Client Doesn’t Have the Time

How do you know? Because they told you so? Get real. What client is about to tell you they’re not busy? They want to control their time with you, not give control over to you.

And the same logic applies: our customers are as short-sighted as we are, constantly failing to invest a bit of time up front for future gains of time. So they tell you they don’t have the time, and you believe it, and the two of you race off so as to cut the elapsed time of your transaction. And then do it all over again the next time you meet.

They have as much time or as little time as you do; and if neither of you breaks the vicious cycle, the cycle will stay unbroken.

Who should break it? That’s easy – you should.

Myth Number Three: Trusted Relationships Take Time to Create

The truth is, people form strong impressions of trust and relationship very, very quickly. Initial impressions get formed in much less than a second.

Think about someone you trust. If asked why, your first thought is not, “our trust has grown over the last 6 years.” It’s far more likely something like, “One day we were talking about XYZ and he said an amazing thing…ever since…”

Because trusted relationships are step functions, not continuous curves. They are based on events, moments, instances. Trust gets created in those moments. If you never let yourself be open to those moments, it will never happen.

Trust doesn’t take time. The only sense in which it does is the creation of a track record. All qualitative aspects of trust take virtually no time at all.

Myth Number Four: Relationships are Built on Quantity of Time

Wrong. Relationships are built on quality, not quantity. It’s true with your dog.  It’s true with your five-year old child. And it’s equally true with your client.

The quality of your time matters far more than the quantity. An hour on the golf course or hoisting a beer doesn’t hold a candle to sincerely asking a difficult question, and conveying to your client that you care about the answer, and that you’re a safe haven in discussing it.

A lot of the “I don’t have time for relationships” line is frankly a cover-up for fear of customer intimacy. Invariably, the workshop participants who tell me they haven’t got time are the same workshop participants who tell me that customer intimacy is too risky, and potentially unprofessional. Meanwhile, their compatriots who understand the qualitative basis for relationships are selling circles around them.

Haven’t got time to form relationships and still meet your metrics? If that’s what you’re saying, you don’t understand how to meet your metrics. In any medium timeframe, the person with the relationships will outperform on all business metrics the person without the relationships.

And being busy’s got little to do with it.

So You Don’t Have Time to Be a Trusted Advisor?

Build Trust In No TimeOne of the more frequent comments I get in talking about being a trusted advisor is this:

“We’d love to practice all the things you talk about, Charlie, we agree with them all.  But, we just don’t have the luxury of the kind of time it takes to get there. There are too many other demands, and we just can’t spare that kind of time.”

True or False: It takes more time to be a true trusted advisor than it takes to do just a very good job of service delivery.

Just to be clear where I stand: that statement is as false as a three dollar bill.

Trust Doesn’t Necessarily Take Time

First of all, the old truism that “trust takes time” isn’t necessarily true. Only one of the four trust equation components necessarily takes time, and that’s reliability – because by definition reliability requires a track record.

The other trustworthiness components – credibility, intimacy, and low self-orientation – can be, and often are, assessed in a few moments.  We all form very strong first impressions of people about whether they are truthful, competent, paying attention to us, of high integrity, and so forth.  Furthermore, we’re generally pretty right in those impressions, or at least we tend not to modify them greatly.

But that’s only about a single instance of trust establishment. Let’s look at trust over time.

Trust Saves Time

The fact that trust can be established quickly is only the beginning. What happens after trust is established?

Most would agree that having a trusting relationship means that things go more quickly from then on; your word is taken as bond; your advice is heeded; processes proceed more quickly; there is less double-checking, and so forth.

So, do the math. Let’s say you’ve got ten interactions with a client, and in the first one, you establish a great deal of trust. The next 9 interactions will proceed more quickly, with deeper results, than if you did the dance of distrust every time you interacted. The aggregate amount of time spent is almost certainly less, not more, in the trustworthy case.  Trust doesn’t require more time, trust saves time.

In other words, even if trust took time up front, the investment is more than paid off in future interactions by a host of benefits. But even that’s not the end.

It’s Trust Quality, not Quantity, that Counts

If you had to invest time to create trust, the ROI created would typically be very positive; it drives lower costs of sales, better time to market, and so forth. But you don’t have to invest much time. Not if you are qualitatively excellent.

Imagine two equally competent and good-willed professionals.  Over the same period of time, one does high quality client work, displays excellence, and offers good value.  The other one does the same – but in addition, becomes highly trusted. If time were the only variable, then this scenario makes no sense – given equal time and equal everything else, they should be equally trusted.

But we all know that scenario is actually quite common – one professional is frequently more trusted than another, often with even less time invested. Why is that?  What are those highly trusted people doing?  Ask yourself that question about the highly trustworthy professionals you know.

Let me suggest they don’t get there by logging more hours – they get there by higher quality trust creation. They are authentic. They take emotional risks. They pay attention. They don’t focus on driving clients toward their own desired outcomes. They go where the conversation takes them. They freely admit their blank spots. Their goal is client service, not account profitability. Their highest calling is to make things better for the client.

They are fearless, humble, generous, curious, and other-oriented.  Those are the qualities that make them trustworthy – not how many basketball games they took the client to.

You don’t have the time to be a trusted advisor? In the aggregate, there may be a positive correlation between high-trust relationships and time spent, but you’d have a hard time convincing me that time caused the trust. In fact, I think it’s more likely that trust drives the length of time.

You don’t get to be a trusted advisor by logging hours. You get there by being more trustworthy. And not only does that not take more time, it actually takes less time.

Don’t let yourself off the trust hook; you can do it with quality, not time.

Top Trust Myths: 1 of 2: Trust Takes Time

Trust takes a long time to build, and only a few moments to be destroyed.

That has to be one of the great trust platitudes. In fact, it literally is: there’s a website that ranks the most popular trust quotes, and essentially that quote is number 3 (numbers one and two are inexplicably complex).

Many truisms are in fact true; that’s how they came to be truisms. But some are not; and this is an example.

Trust Takes a Long Time to Build? Not necessarily, in fact frequently not. That’s what I want to talk about today.

Trust Takes Only a Few Moments to Be Destroyed? Even less true. That’s what I’ll talk about next.

Trust Takes Time: Not.

“At once my mind was made up. I knew I could trust this young man implicitly,” goes a tale of petty larceny from the web. Researchers tell us that the propensity to trust can be increased or decreased simply by chemicals; increased by Oxytocin, decreased by testosterone. Neither takes long to administer.

How about trustworthiness? Think about the symbolism that goes on when you enter your physician’s office: the white coat, the stethoscope, the faint odor of something (I always assume ether, which probably went out with Sherlock Holmes), the degree on the wall. How long does that take? Not long.

“I trusted him instantly,” says Emma-Jane Corser of her husband, whom she met online. She’s not alone. This is profoundly common human behavior; we all make split-second decisions based on a variety of factors, few of which boil down to the kind of analytically-based routine we like to think of ourselves as following.

Peter Tingling and Michael Brydon write incisively in Sloan Management Review about “evidence-based decision-making” and “decision-based evidence making.” Jeffrey Gitomer says, “People buy with their hearts, and rationalize it with their brains.” Trust is hardly the only kind of decision we make quickly.

What Kind of Trust Takes Time?

Of course, platitudes don’t achieve that status out of thin air. There’s usually something to them, and of course there’s something here too. In the Trust Equation, one of the factors is reliability (the others are credibility, intimacy, and an other-orientation). Reliability is the only factor that requires the passage of time to be evaluated.

Think of all the ways we link trustworthiness to time. She walks the talk. He does what he says he’ll do. She’s never let me down. He’s always been there for me. If she says she’ll do it, you can take it to the bank. And so forth.

Finally, there’s what the social scientists and trust academics call “generalized” trust—the propensity to believe well of the motives of strangers, and to be generally optimistic about the future. That one, it turns out, takes ages to turn around—negatively or positively. As Dr. Eric Uslaner points out, generalized trust is pretty much installed with mother’s milk.

So: does trust take time or not? Clearly, this is one of those cases where the right answer is, “it depends.” And what it depends on is the type of trust we’re talking about.

Does it take a long time to be seen as trustworthy? Let’s break it down:

Type of Trust Takes Time?

Trustworthiness

Credibility Not much

Reliability Yes, by definition

Intimacy Not necessarily; usually pretty clear pretty quickly

Other-focus Not necessarily; usually pretty clear pretty quickly

Propensity to trust

In institutions Shifts over a few years

In specific people Not much time

Generalized trust A long time—typically from birth

Next Post, Trust Myth #2: Trust is lost very quickly.

Misconceptions about Trust-based Selling II: The Time Thing

Last week I wrote about the first of three misconceptions people have regarding trust-based selling—the idea that it’s naïve.

This post tackles the second misconception: that trust takes too much time, both elapsed time and in aggregate. You’ve heard this one as either:

  • “trust takes time and we can’t afford to wait that long,” or
  • “trust takes such a big time commitment I’m not sure it’s worth it.”
  •  

It takes too long; it takes too much. Neither is true.

Let’s start with “trust takes time.” How long does it take for you to read the degree on the doctor’s wall? To notice the doctor’s white coat? To share feelings with a surprisingly interesting seatmate on a transcontinental flight?

More pointedly: in a sales conversation, how long does it take to demonstrate interest, curiosity, caring, and enough self-confidence to shift the agenda on a dime in response to client interests? All these take less time than a conventional process-driven, presentation-oriented sales meeting—and create more trust.

Now let’s consider “trust takes such a big time commitment.” Behind this statement is the belief is the first belief—that people only come to trust slowly, in incremental parts, repeated frequently over time.

But trust has many dimensions: the “trust takes time” belief is mainly focused on reliability, which by definition does take elapsed time. It misses other senses of trust—credibility, integrity, intimacy, other-focus, for example. Those can be established in an event, in a moment, with a handshake, a word, a question asked at the right time in the right tone. These take very little time. And hence they don’t take a huge investment.

Let’s move away from B2B sales: consider online dating services. Do they take time? Do they require large investments of time?

Not if you consider the dating scene pre-Match.com. Think of the ability to read people’s self-descriptions, to hear about them in their own words, perhaps with video or audio, perhaps with some advance “metrics” on compatibility.

Now consider how long it took, and much invested time it took, to get to a comparable level of trust one date at a time, over days and weeks. Or consider the odds of a first date ending well in the online dating world, vs. the blind date world of not that long ago.

Rapid trust creation is not an oxymoron; if anything, it taps into something more powerful. Rather than waiting to develop trust by reputation, we can create trust by being bold, other-oriented, curious and courageous—quickly. And benefiting all.

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Note: I will be giving a webinar this Thursday, on How to Build Trust in Sales Conversations.   It’s hosted by the good people at RainToday.com.  It’s from 2 to 3:30PM US Eastern time.  Again, that sign-up address is here.