Have you ever had that sinking feeling that your client—or your hopefully prospective client—is being less than honest with you?
Maybe they haven’t returned that call. The last three email exchanges have been one-way. They haven’t mentioned that meeting they were so eager about just last month. They’re talking constrained budgets. Is it possible your client is lying to you?
There Is Lying, and There Is Lying
I’m not talking about flat-out lies like, “We’re going to give you the project,” when they already signed an agreement with another firm. But consider a few other situations from your daily life:
How often do you answer “How are you?” with “Fine, thanks,” when you’re not fine?
How often do you answer, “No problem,” when, in fact, it is a problem?
How do you answer the classic, “Does this dress make me look fat?”
How often do you say, “Let’s do lunch,” meaning this is goodbye?
How about, “Oh, I’m sorry, I’m booked on Friday?” Or, “Yes, let’s definitely stay in touch.”
I’m not trying to draw a sharp moral distinction (or to blur one). I’m not trying to justify or excuse any type or level of truth-telling or its absence. I’m simply pointing out the ubiquity of situations in which we, on a daily basis, are Less Than Fully Transparent. Let’s call it LTFT. And let’s recognize that it happens—a lot.
What You Mean When You Are LTFT
What about when you are LTFT? Do you have evil intentions? Are you attempting to hoodwink someone? Are you a swindler? A thief? A con artist?
Almost certainly not. Your motives are probably to be careful of and solicitous toward the other person. You are trying not to hurt their feelings. You want to spare them the embarrassment of being contradicted, rejected, or humiliated.
And oddly enough, the less you know them, the more you are likely to feel a need to protect them. After all, if you knew them well, you’d feel more comfortable having a heart-to-heart.
But from another perspective, this isn’t odd at all. The fact that you don’t know them well is precisely why you don’t want to get into uncomfortably specific details. You can afford to think “out of sight, out of mind” because you won’t see them much more—if ever—but you don’t want them to speak ill of you either.
And so we choose a strategy for handling difficult situations with not-deep acquaintances we don’t want to hurt—to be polite and give no offense.
And so, you are LTFT. Or, if you prefer, you lie to them.
What They Mean When They Are LTFT
Be honest: why should other people’s motives be any different, or any worse, than yours? Unless you’re a candidate for sainthood, odds are your motives are the same as theirs.
What, then, to make of the girl in high school who, when you asked her out, said, “Oh, I’m so sorry. I’m busy Friday night,” before turning away? Do you really wish she had said, “Look, I just don’t want to go out with you at all?”
What to make of the prospective client you met at a networking event who said, “Yes, let’s do lunch one of these days.” Would you prefer he said, “Look, I’m just not interested in you or your offering, and I don’t want to waste any more time talking about it?”
What did your client really mean when they said you lost the bid on price? Would you really prefer they said, “Frankly, you were fourth out of five on most dimensions, and fifth on the rest, and we don’t want to invest more time in explaining it to you?”
Like you, your clients are trying to be polite, to spare your feelings, and to disengage without hurt feelings—or, at least, with the ability to say to themselves that there were no hurt feelings. They’re not “lying” to you; they’re just being LTFT with you.
The Solution to LTFT
If you don’t like being in an LTFT situation as a seller, you have two options.
The first option is appropriate when you really don’t have a viable proposition to bring to the table—when you know in your bones that you got solidly beat by a competitor or you just don’t have game. In those cases, your strategy should be simply to accept it.
In fact, be grateful for it. At least they liked you enough not to be “brutally honest.” Stop obsessing, stop feeling angry, and stop the self-pity. Resolve to either change your proposition for the next time you face this situation or not to get into that situation again.
The second option is preventive and prophylactic: drive sharply past the “friend zone,” and create a personal connection of trust. Use the “Name It and Claim It” approach and speak out loud the issue that everyone is dancing around. Give them an off-ramp, but be sure to put the issue on the table.
You don’t have to be a full-blown trusted advisor to have a trust-based connection. Nor does it have to take a long time. What you must do is speak a direct, unvarnished little piece of The Truth. Here’s what some “truth-bits” might look like:
- Don’t send that third email pretending nothing is wrong. Say something like this: “If I don’t hear back from you, I’ll assume things have shifted or changed, which of course does happen.” Then if you don’t hear back, move along.
- Instead of saying, “Let’s do lunch,” lean in while you shake the person’s hand and say, “Look, would you like to have lunch a week from Wednesday, or would you prefer to just get back to me at some later point of your choosing?” Then if you don’t hear back, move along.
- Instead of meekly accepting that you “lost on price,” say, “Look, Joe, I just want to ask you one favor, just one yes-or-no question with no follow-up. I know we did several things wrong—was it really just price that determined your decision? Or was it several other things, too? I just want to know where we should focus our efforts going forward, and that yes/no would be a huge help to us.”
- Better yet, before the bidding results are announced, say, “Look, Joe, I know we may win, and we may lose. I’d like to ask you one favor. If we were to lose, could I ask you to be honest with me about the main reason we lost? So often people give just a nice ‘So sorry’ and then we go off and make the same mistake again. You could really help us learn going forward. If you’d be so kind, I’d really appreciate it.”
Instead of meekly submitting to the LTFT ritual, be the one to break out of it. You can’t force other people to break out of it with you—you always need to give them the LTFT off-ramp—but you can lead by example.
You can show them that you’re willing to speak directly and truthfully, and you’ll appreciate the company—if they’re up to it.