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Bleeding Trust from Every Sales Interaction

Last week saw an impressive uptick in conversations about trust in companies. While United may be the strongest case for bleeding trust today, it’s not limited to them. It’s the massive PR mishaps that grab our attention – but that’s misleading. Trust can affect every business – including yours.

It’s not just about the big, egregious faux pas that loses our customers’ trust in an instant. It’s much more about the myriad little, every-day, seemingly trivial ways that add up – ending in a virtual hemorrhage of trust. In no particular order, let me identify a few.

Customer Tales of Woe

In Goodbye Avis, Hello Uber, danah boyd chronicled death by a thousand cuts at the hand of Avis Car Rental. Her rental car got a flat tire at 10 p.m. in Los Angeles, just seven miles from Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). A customer service phone rep said he didn’t know how long it would take to get an exchange. He said he’d text her. An hour later, she had not received a text, so she called again. They said it would take four hours. Outraged, she pushed back. OK, they said, 90 minutes.

They then suggested she leave the car with the keys in it and get a taxi. She left the car but got a ride from friends to her destination. Avis texted that they’d arrive at 4 a.m. They didn’t. She called again, and Avis blamed the towing company. They said it would take 30 minutes. Ninety minutes later a tow truck arrived.

At 4 p.m. the following day she called to make sure Avis had gotten the car. Nope. They said she was still liable. Roadside assistance told her to call customer service, who said to call the LAX counter directly, who passed her call on to the manager, whose call went to voice mail. He didn’t return the call. And, it went on.

The Avis tale may sound exceptional. But I bet you have your own horror stories to relate that are just as bad. And you probably reacted the same way danah did – by changing suppliers, even though she’d been a loyal customer for years.

One Cut at a Time

Not all customer horror stories have 15 fails in a row in a 24-hour period. But it doesn’t matter. Like little cuts, they can add up, and each one adds its own traumatic toll.

  • I went to trade in a car. We had a deal until the salesman noted a discrepancy on the CarFax report. I said I’d fix it. It took six weeks to fix, but I did get it fixed. However, the salesman never called to ask how things were coming along. Result: I bought my new car elsewhere.
  • A friend went to a store at 5:55 p.m. The manager was inside, locking up for the evening. When my friend pointed to the “Hours: 8AM – 6PM” stenciled on the door and pointed to her watch, the manager shrugged his shoulders and turned away.
  • At my daughter’s wedding, I asked if we could borrow a golf cart for 20 minutes to ferry the bride and groom across the wet lawn for photos so as not to get her wedding dress wet. “Sorry, we can’t afford the liability,” was the answer we received.
  • A friend who does small group communication training sessions is routinely asked by large companies to purchase liability insurance to indemnify MegaCo Inc. against any possible harm or claim of harm from anyone for any reason arising out of his delivering a half-day communication training session. (Many of you face the same exact extortionate policy of your customers offloading “risk” to you and having you pay for the privilege.)
  • Some years ago I had a great first sales discussion with a client about doing training to increase trust in their sales process. At the end of the call, he said, “This is great, we have a deal. Now, I presume you’ll grant us our customary 15% discount?” This after having discussed how to help his salespeople to stop cutting prices.
  • I’ll never forget the brokerage office head who, on hearing about my upcoming talk on being a trusted advisor, said, “Hey, anything that’ll increase my share of wallet, I’m all for it!”
  • I constantly receive offers to write articles for my blog in return for links. Ninety-nine percent of the time, they show no awareness of the subject matter of my blog, much less a sense for what quality levels of content might be expected.
  • Customer service scripts are increasingly being loaded with fake empathy and inappropriate apologies: “Oh, I know you feel,” “Oh, I do apologize for the power outage you experienced. …” No. Don’t pretend-feel. An acknowledgement is critical, but apologizing for things you didn’t do is phony.
  • A corporate online feedback site was generating error messages, sending me “not-deliverable” emails. Acting the good business citizen, I called the corporate 800 customer service number to tell them. The customer service rep told me, “The feedback page is not our department.” When at my suggestion she connected me to that department, they insisted on giving me an incident number so I could track my concern going forward. Wait – my concern?
  • On a United Airlines flight from Chicago to Charlotte, North Carolina, two aircraft were taken off the gate due to equipment problems. The third aircraft finally left three hours late. I emailed the airline. I got back a generic apology and a voucher redeemable against future miles—no acknowledgement of the particular issue, much less suggestions about dealing with it. (That reminds me of my cable company: after showing up three hours late, they’re trained to quickly offer you a $20 rebate – a fair deal only if your time is worth less than $7 per hour).

I could go on and on. And so could you. The cut-cut, drip-drip of such low-level, tedious violations of basic customer relationships adds up. It results in listless relationships at best and cynicism, surliness, and passive-aggressive hostility at worst. Finally, we customers jump ship when the opportunity presents itself.

This isn’t “just” about customer service. There is a steel cable linking all customer experiences – sales, service, whatever – with future sales. How everyone treats customers in all ways at all times is a big driver of trust and thus of revenue.

But you already get that point. The more urgent point is this: how can you be sure you’re not imposing such semi-conscious bloodletting on your customers? Here are two ideas.

1. Follow the 10% rule. At every customer interaction point, take 10% more time to close out the interaction in a trust-creating way.

  • If you couldn’t help someone after a five-minute call, then take 30 seconds to suggest an alternate vendor.
  • If you’re going to spend 15 minutes writing an exploratory letter, then spend another two minutes to find some value-add to include in it.
  • If a potential customer walks out the door after an inconclusive interaction, take a note about a content-specific way to follow up in two weeks with an email or phone call.

You think you don’t have 10% more time? Please. Consider how much you put at risk the other 90% of time you did spend by failing to leave a trust-based impression.

2. Personalize responses in some way. Buying is emotionally triggered, and that’s as true for B2B sales as it is for B2C. Don’t let your last impression be the customer seeing dollar signs in your eyeballs.

  • Responding immediately, or in some hugely fast way, is a powerful tool for showing you’re paying attention when someone reaches out to you. Just don’t automate the response. Fast and customized is a powerful combination.
  • If you are responding to an error, don’t minimize it – but also don’t over-accept responsibility for things beyond your control. Acknowledge, explain what must have happened, and – most important – say what you are going to do on your own to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

Sales don’t just happen during selling. They’re a predictable result of your entire mode of relationship with your customers at all times.

Trust, Honesty and Authenticity

A few years ago, Deborah Nixon posted an interesting question on LinkedIn. She asked: “Is there a difference between authenticity and honesty?”

She got about 35 answers. Here’s what I sent in:

Deborah, I’m sure you would agree the two terms cover a lot of territory in common. The trick with these definitional things is not to discover some underlying reality, because there is none; these are conceptual models that help us explain the world. They are good or bad insofar as they help us; so I’d suggest starting there. What’s the most useful way to distinguish the two?

One way might be to say that authenticity is largely passive, and honesty is largely active. When we say someone’s honest, we usually mean they tell the truth, and go out of their way to do it.

Sometimes we also mean that they don’t tell a lie – but that’s far from all the time. You often hear someone way ‘well, he was honest – he didn’t actually tell a lie.’ In such a case, ‘honesty’ just means I didn’t utter an untruth; it’s perfectly consistent with covering up all other kinds of truth. So the casual use of ‘honest’ may rule out sins of commission, but not sins of omission.

That’s why the legal language “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” is required in court; to prevent the ‘honest’ witness from conveniently leaving something out, or snow-jobbing the court with irrelevancies.

Authenticity, on the other hand, I think usually implies a lack of attempt to control another’s perception. It means letting others see us as we are, warts and all. I think it also goes one more step: it means letting everyone see us in a way that’s no different from how anyone else see us: that is, we don’t play favorites in terms of constructing alternative fictions to respective people.

At a corporate level, a company might support a claim of honesty by pointing to the truthfulness of its statements, or the lack of court cases against it. Again, ‘honesty’ conveys a sense of ‘never knowingly told an untruth.’ Whether it includes consciously allowing other people to make incorrect inferences by not telling them something – well, that’s not entirely clear.

Authenticity is a whole ‘nother level. It means not hiding out, opening the door in things that are not excluded through standard rules of privacy, letting the chips fall where they may. Further, I think it usually entails a commitment to be authentic, not just a convenient lifestyle.

Seems that of the two, we might say that authenticity is broader (i.e. it encompasses being honest, but goes beyond that to proscribe sins of omission).

On a practical level, people who strive to be honest often talk of it as a struggle: to resist temptation, to not gossip, to say things that can be embarrassing if they are true.

People who choose to be authentic have, in a way, an easier time of it.  For someone who is authentic, the daily default way of life doesn’t involve decisions or will power: the default is openness, there is no issue of control vs. transparency.

Things are what they are, and there is no threat about them.

What’s trust got to do with it?  To trust a person or a company, honesty is table stakes.  If you suspect they’re lying, trust is stopped dead in its tracks.  But even if they’re honest, that’s nothing compared to authentic.

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.

Don’t Be a Social Selling Lemming

I first wrote the below a few years ago – and it’s interesting how well the content, not to mention the message, still rings true today. While social media is probably the fastest evolving marketing and sales tool available, it’s interesting how much of it just hasn’t changed at all. Most of that is the root of it. The point behind it – which is to connect, engage with customers, consumers, fans – and build trust in an online world.

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

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

Competitive Strategy Must Differentiate You

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

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

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

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

The Social Media Lemming Strategy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Four Anti-Strategic Social Strategies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t Be a Lemming

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

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

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

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

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…

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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.

Why You’re So Predictable

On the one hand, it seems the world is getting less predictable. On the other hand, looking at the successes of Big Data and AI, haven’t we all at the same time become more predictable?

Isn’t that how those kids in Macedonia made thousands of dollars running fake articles on social media? Isn’t that how James Corden got famous enough to host the Grammys?

As I thought about this, I remembered that I’d thought about this before. About 11 years ago. Let’s see how 2006 sounds from the vantage point of 2017.

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Fortune talked about recommender systems a few years back.

What’s a recommender system? Well, take Amazon’s “if you liked The Da Vinci Code, you’ll love Blink.” Now move from book-to-book relationships into book-to-other relationships: “If you liked the Da Vinci Code, you’ll like a Jura Capressa espresso maker.” That’s a recommender system.

Fortune’s example was www.whattorent.com, helping slackers save time at 10PM Friday night at what was the local Blockbuster by predicting what movie they’ll love. [Remember Blockbuster? Just eleven years ago…]

Fortune interviewed whattorent’s two founders at a coffee shop, and put them to the ultimate test: pick two strangers in this restaurant, and—just by observing them—guess their favorite movie.

They settled on a guy and a young woman. After much clever psycho-babbling, the founders guess: Starship Troopers for Joe, Roman Holiday for Renee.

And wouldn’t ya know it—they were dead right.

You can hear Fortune cuing up the PGA graphic—“these guys are good!” And indeed that’s our reaction—wow, how could anyone pull that off?

But wait. What if we’re mixing up cause and effect? Maybe it’s not that two twenty-somethings are great predictors. What if we’ve just all gotten way more predictable?

Everyone had their favorite Beatle. If you preferred John to Paul, it said something about you—to everyone. Because everyone had a common reference point. The Fab Four were global litmus tests.

Since then, culture got way more global. Africans wear Arizona t-shirts; Valley Girls know Tibetan monk choirs. The weapons of mass dispersion are well known—iPods, MySpace, YouTube, Hollywood [can you believe – this was only 11 years ago…the iPhone was still a year away…]

Everyone wants to be different—but we share referent points from which we diverge. Jeans, music, hair, slang… Take five variables with five values each: five to the fifth power is 3,125 combinations. Sounds like a lot, but it’s based on a small set that’s easy to reverse-engineer.

People don’t predict us: we self-identify, and the code is easy to read. Marketers love this stuff.

Ironically, it also makes it easier to trust others. When a British Stones fan meets a Jagger aficionado from Beijing—the world shrinks.

The question is: can we keep the diversity while enhancing the trust?

———————

Well, that was my question then. My question now is similar, but updated: can we keep the authenticity while mechanizing the means of connection?

This is most evident in commerce. You still know, in your bones, when you receive a mechanized spam email, trying to pass itself off as personal. I suppose scams may be getting more sophisticated; but a ton of people aren’t even bothering to be sophisticated. They confuse the ability to target and segment with the desirability of doing so. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.

We’re all pretty predictable. That’s OK. Go ahead, predict me – just let me know there’s someone behind the prediction machine, someone who cares enough to add the whipping cream topping by making it personal.

The difference between being sold to by a person and being sold to by an algorithm is the difference between talking to a person who used a robot to find me, and talking to the robot itself. I don’t mind being predicted – just don’t insult me.

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. 

What Problem Are We Trying to Solve?

An old business friend told me the other day that the thing he most remembers me saying was, “What problem are we trying to solve?” As he put it, “That little phrase is the key to unfreezing more off-course conversations than any other technique I know of.”

I can’t claim invention. I got it from the United Research side of Gemini Consulting, one of several pieces of clever social engineering they brought to business. Here’s how, and why, it works.

How Business Conversations Go Astray

To hear us tell it after the fact, many business meetings follow a logical flow. They start with an agenda or problem definition, data are then presented, discussions held, and conclusions reached.  Then pigs fly.

It’s not that those individual elements don’t happen – they do. It’s that they happen like a Tower of Babel, randomly and all at once. When everybody’s got an opinion and a vested interest, and nobody’s a designated facilitator – a description of most meetings – we shouldn’t expect much else.

Have you ever been in a planning board meeting?  A condo association meeting? A meeting within your firm’s HR department? An inter-departmental meeting? A sales call with an interested but wary client?

Then you’ve seen the following dysfunctions:

  1. People pursuing their own agendas as sub-text to a given issue
  2. Aimless wandering around various problem definitions
  3. Randomly proposed solutions without grounding
  4. A social struggle for air time
  5. An airing of pet peeves as they manifest in the given issue
  6. A game of dominance and submission playing out in an issue.

And I’m sure there are more. All are forms of incoherence, lacking sequence or structure, generating more frustration from which to feed more incoherence.

It Doesn’t Have to Be That Way

If the root issue is incoherence, then there are several ways to tackle it. You can agree on an agenda. You can enforce sequencing. You can apportion air time.

But one way seems to work better than others. When the babble begins to peak, and the frustration level is palpable, raise your hand, furrow your brow, and ask, genuinely, “Hey folks – what problem are we trying to solve?”

Notice what this simple formulation does.

First, it is socially neutral-to-positive. Logically it has the same effect as saying, “You fools are all over the map – you can’t even define the problem” – but the emotional effect is totally different. You’re not claiming the moral high ground or fighting for your point of view – you’re simply observing a phenomenon, and asking a question.

Second, it’s a very good question. Asking a group to gut-check a problem definition almost immediately elicits an answer – and often it’s the same answer. In which case, collaboration is restored – you all have a common mission again.

And if it’s a different answer, voila, you’ve distilled the essence of the debate – “we have two competing problem definitions, no wonder we were having such difficulties!” In either case, the group becomes re-centered around a dynamic goal – problem definition and resolution, rather than bitching and moaning, or power games.

The net effect of all this is claiming, centering, and norming. A group becomes a group again, with common goals, moving forward, rather than a fractious collection of squabblers.

Give it a try next time you’re in a meeting that’s driving you a little batty – just ask, “Hey folks – what problem are we trying to solve?”

 

A Better New Year’s Resolution

Ten years have passed since I first wrote the following thoughts on New Years resolutions. Frankly, it was good. And frankly I haven’t been able to write a better one. Next year, maybe.
So, apologies to those who have read it year after year—though I suspect some of you won’t mind.

Happy New Year.
——————————————-
My unscientific sampling says many people make New Years resolutions, and few follow through. Net result—unhappiness.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

You could, of course, just try harder, stiffen your resolve, etc. But you’ve been there, tried that.

You could also ditch the whole idea and just stop making resolutions. Avoid goal-failure by eliminating goal-setting. Effective, but at the cost of giving up on aspirations.

I heard another idea: replace the New Year’s Resolution List with a New Year’s Gratitude List. Here’s why it makes sense.

First, most resolutions are about self-improvement—this year I resolve to: quit smoking, lose weight, cut the gossip, drink less, exercise more, and so on. All those resolutions are rooted in a dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs—or with oneself.

In other words: resolutions often have a component of dissatisfaction with self. For many, it isn’t just dissatisfaction—it’s self-hatred. And the stronger the loathing of self, the stronger the resolutions—and the more they hurt when they go unfulfilled.  It can be a very vicious circle.

Second, happy people do better. This has some verification in science, and it’s a common point of view in religion and psychology—and in common sense. People who are slightly optimistic do better in life. People who are happy are more attractive to other people. In a very real sense, you empower what you fear—and attract what you put out.

Ergo, replace resolutions with gratitude. The best way to improve oneself is paradoxical—start by begin grateful for what you already have. That turns your aspirations from negative (fixing a bad situation) to positive (making a fine situation even better).

Gratitude forces our attention outwards, to others—a common recommendation of almost all spiritual programs.

Finally, gratitude calms us. We worry less. We don’t obsess. We attract others by our calm, which makes our lives connected and meaningful. And before long, we tend to smoke less, drink less, exercise more, gossip less, and so on. Which of course is what we thought we wanted in the first place.

But the real truth is—it wasn’t the resolutions we wanted in the first place.  It was the peace that comes with gratitude.  We mistook cause for effect.

Go for an attitude of gratitude. The rest are positive side-effects.

Do We Learn From Our Mistakes? Or Not?

The NYTimes reported a few years back on a Harvard Business School study of venture capital-backed entrepreneurs to test whether or not we learn from our mistakes. The results are confounding to many—including me.

Here’s the story. Several thousand VC-backed companies were studied over 17 years. First-timers had an aggregate success rate of 22% (success meaning going public).

The study is about those trying for a second time. Did the 78% who failed the first time learn from the experience, and do better the second time? Or worse? How did the 22% first-time winners fare—did they get lazy and decline? Or did they somehow do better the second time?

No less an expert than Gordon Moore, sainted ex-leader of Intel and the author of “Moore’s law,” said “You’re more valuable because of the experiences you’ve been through under failures.”

I’m with Gordon. But according to this data, we’re both wrong.

Those who succeeded the first time upped their success rate, to 34%. But those who failed the first time stayed mired in the muck, at 23%. So much for the myth of the gritty, plucky lads who pick themselves up and learn from their failures.

Apparently the data are not the problem: “the data are absolutely clear,” says Paul Gompers, one of the study’s authors. Yet it is still far from clear what the data mean.

As is often the case, data are one thing, and explanation another. Of course, the obvious explanation may be true: people just do not learn from adversity. This seems to be the study’s authors’ view—that the learn-from-failure ethos celebrated in Silicon Valley is really just anecdotal tales over-told.

Then again, maybe we actually do learn more from success than from failure. If so, perhaps that’s because of increased confidence resulting from one win.

Or, maybe only the really good people learn at all. And they can learn from experience alone, whether success or failure.

Or, perhaps these conclusions are only true of a certain type of person, characterized by some cross-cutting characteristic, such as risk tolerance. (Did you know height is correlated with IQ? True: short people score lower on the same IQ tests that tall people take. Of course, if you separate young children from the adults, or use age-normalized tests, the correlation goes away).

Or, to channel a recent 30 Rock storyline, maybe the first time winners are just very good-looking people who are actually horrible, but live in a bubble in which others let them pass. Hey, you never know!

Causal deductions are never fully provable—thanks, Dr. Hume. But progress can be made toward explanations.

So, what do you think’s going on?

And I’ll throw one idea into the ring, borrowed from Karl Popper, who developed the falsifiability theory of meaningfulness. A theory which is highly disprovable, but which remains standing, is superior to a hard-to-disprove theory.

Maybe people who fail have a much greater chance to learn. Why it is that they don’t still seems a mystery to me.