Trust Matters, The Podcast: Competing on Competitors’ Lower Rates (Episode 12)

Podcast: EmbedSubscribe to TrustMatters, The Podcast Android | RSS

The Single Biggest Thing an Advisor Can Do

Most of you reading this are advisors, in some form or another. That’s obvious if you’re a consultant, accountant, or lawyer. Also if you’re a financial planner, account manager, executive searcher, and certainly if you’re in sales.

It’s less obviously, but equally, true if you’re in one of a thousand customer-facing roles with titles like customer (-experience, -service, -success, -relationship), delivery service, pre-sales, technical support. Even if your job has a title like operations specialist, or technical project manager, or product manager, your success hinges heavily on your ability to offer good advice – and to have that advice taken.

So what’s the Single Biggest Thing an Advisor Can Do for his or her client/customer/advisee?

It’s not “add value” (almost always a narrow financial concept, and not one that guarantees acceptance of the idea). Nor is it to “challenge” the advisee (again, a challenging idea unaccepted just annoys the advisee).

Let me suggest that the Single Biggest Thing you can do for an advisee is to help them reframe their problem definition – in a way that increases value, clarity, and commitment.

Back to Roots

One of my favorite David Maister epigrams is, “The problem is never what the client said it was in the first meeting.” A tad hyperbolic? Perhaps – but my own experience has taught me that David was far nearer right than wrong.

Let’s take a few basic examples. See if these ring true.

  • A potential client approaches a financial advisor, because (s)he is unsatisfied with their own track record of managing their investment portfolio, and hopes a professional can do better.
  • A potential client approaches a bookkeeper, because they don’t want to become experts in QuickBooks, but their small business is rapidly demanding more such time.
  • A potential client approaches a ballroom dance studio because they want their wedding dance, to their favorite song, to go perfectly.

All three of those presenting problems are reasonable on their face. And all three advisors can probably present competent answers:

  • The financial advisor can almost always do a better job of portfolio balancing and risk-profiling than an amateur investor;
  • Any bookkeeper is going to be more adept and efficient at bookkeeping software than a moonlighting business owner;
  • Any ballroom studio can fit a dance to almost any song.

But if the advisor chooses to respond to those problem definitions as presented, there are three problems:

  1. Those problems are all defined at pretty low levels of value-added; basically a make-buy decision based on perceived efficiency;
  2. They may be what the client thinks they want, but not what the client really needs;
  3. Just giving people what they ask for doesn’t do much to motivate their taking your advice. (For a whimsical but right-on example of this, see Episode 6 of the reality TV-show Sell It Like Serhant).

Redefining the Problem

But what if the advisor in each case succeeds in engaging the client in a way that jointly examines the true root issue? In many cases (OK, all, David would say), the problem definition can change.

  • A good financial advisor will also ask the client questions about the names in which taxable accounts are held, about the client’s use of trusts, and about educational plans for their kids. All of those have implications for the portfolio, but each of them also has profound financial implications in their own right. Many clients in such conversations realize that their real goal isn’t just better stock returns, but something more fundamental – financial security, for example.
  • A good bookkeeper won’t just demonstrate Quickbooks proficiency, but will also ask about useful managerial reports, interface with the tax accountant, and plans for online payment systems. This gets the customer to think about the use of Quickbooks, not just the efficiency with which one can manipulate software.
  • A good dance studio will determine whether the favorite song is really danceable by other-than-pros, and whether something else might better fit the true goal – to receive glowing comments and feel good about themselves at the close of the dance.

Redefining the problem often makes the problem definition larger, or more holistic – like the financial planner example above. But it doesn’t have to.

The point of redefining the problem is not to up-sell – it is to get the client higher value, greater clarity about their own objectives, and thereby greater commitment to actually doing something.

It’s Not About the Advice

The biggest problem advisors have is to stop thinking it’s about the advice. Being right is table stakes, jacks-for-openers. Any subject matter expert can be right – in fact, most are. The truth is,  subject matter expertise in this day and age of AI is rapidly becoming automated (think robo-advisers, offshoring, and YouTube videos).

Good advisors remember that, just because the client says the problem is thus-and-so doesn’t mean that’s the problem. Which means the challenge of advising is not getting the better answer: it’s getting the client to accept that there might be a better answer.

The above examples are all from sales, but the problem is the same if you’re implementing a CRM system. The client wants it to do what the old system did: your job is to get them to see that the new system can accomplish much more, of more basic objectives.

Here’s how you don’t do it:

  • Tell them you’re the expert and you know better than they do
  • Show them a financial comparison of their idea and your idea
  • Tell them about all your past clients who successfully took your advice.

Instead, take a page from the one profession that is built on getting people to take advice – therapists of one form or another. (This most definitely includes your best friend, when you go to them for tough life advice).

What do all good therapists do?

  • They listen to you; not for clues about how to define the problem or add value, but to understand how you view the problem
  • They ask questions: not 20-question-game deductive queries aimed at winnowing down the solution set, but rather aimed at getting you to see your own true objectives and motives
  • They care: their objective is for you to get better, on your terms, not theirs.

Because the truth is, most of us are suspicious of our own problem definitions – even as we are defensive about them. It is not easy to get people to take advice: we all are resistant. The solution to resistance is first to find common ground – but first on their ground, not ours.  Done right, we become first unthreatened, then open, then grateful and committed once we see and can accept another problem definition.

This stuff is simple. That doesn’t mean it’s easy, by a long shot. In my view, getting your advice taken is a lot harder than getting the advice right in the first place. That’s why good advice can be copied by AI; but human interaction is the provenance of getting your advice taken.

It starts by helping people redefine their own problems – on their terms.

Trust Matters, The Podcast: Managing Missed Client Deadlines (Episode 11)

Podcast: EmbedSubscribe to TrustMatters, The Podcast Android | RSS

Trust Matters, The Podcast: The Cult of Closing (Episode 10)

Podcast: EmbedSubscribe to TrustMatters, The Podcast Android | RSS

Trust Matters, The Podcast: Creating Trust While Filtering Lukewarm Sales Leads (Episode 9)

Podcast: EmbedSubscribe to TrustMatters, The Podcast Android | RSS

Why Crying In Your Beer is Just a Waste of Good Beer

(Today’s post is a rework of an earlier one, focused on trust and reciprocity of emotions).

One of the great things about country music is how it speaks to the heart, about real human emotions. Among the arts, music may be the most powerful at mirroring our feelings.

Then again – after a certain point, dwelling on those emotions can turn toxic on you. It’s easy to get addicted to crying in your beer –– and there are plenty of country songs to feed the addiction.

Dwight Yoakam, for my money, holds the top spot in this genre. Here’s verse 1 and chorus from Lonesome Roads:

Where did I go wrong?

You know I haven’t got a clue.

I must’ve just been born no good –

Bad’s the best that I can do.

Lonesome roads, the only kind I ever traveled,

Lonesome rooms, the only place I’ve ever stayed.

I’m just a face out in a crowd that’s turnin’ ugly—

Poor ol’ worthless me’s the only friend I ever had.

Indeed, there’s something comforting about a beautiful song that articulates your own melancholy. Thin early Bob Dylan (Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands, or better yet, Visions of Johanna). Really, the words don’t even have to make sense; they just have to mirror your deep melancholy.

And then there’s life. The sun comes up the next morning and the dishes are still in the sink, the car’s engine light is still blinking, and your secret inamorata at work still doesn’t appreciate the ennobling of your soul that can only come from crying in your beer alone with Dwight or Bob. All you’ve done is waste some good beer.

The trouble with emotions – as well as the promise – is they attract the same. You empower what you fear; you attract what you put out. Beer-crying is the ultimate in high self-orientation; it’s a trust-killer. Why would anyone trust someone whose aim is to amplify his feelings of misery?

Five Steps to Stop Crying in Your Beer

You don’t need me to tell you it’s a stupid waste of time. As David Maister wrote in his book Strategy and the Fat Smoker, the issue is not one of diagnosis, but of implementation. What can you do to get out of the funk? Here are five steps.

1. It may sound obvious, but it belongs #1 on the list: give Yoakam and Dylan a rest. Go listen to something a bit more extroverted. Pretty much anything will do. Though may I suggest Robert Randolph and the Family Band?

2. If you’re hungry, get something to eat. (Unless, that is, you’ve got eating issues. In which case, do not revert to beer).

3. If you’re tired, go take a nap.

4. Get outdoors, preferably in the daytime. Get some exercise. Go volunteer to walk dogs at the local animal shelter.

5. Go meet some other human beings. (Preferably not in a bar. Though if bar is unavoidable, look for pop, rock or jazz on the jukebox).

Because the flipside is true too: positive emotions attract other positive emotions. (And please don’t confuse this with that business about manifesting what you imagine; I’m just saying that people respond to what people put out).

And if you can’t manage those five steps, then give my regards to Dwight. I miss the guy from time to time.

To Live Outside the Law You Must be Honest

Bob Dylan long ago surpassed his namesake Dylan Thomas in fame. His lyrics grace the lists of most popular lyrics of all time; my favorite is “the ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face…” from Visions of Johanna.

Some lines are more than just poetically evocative – they also hint at serious truths. One such line is this: “To live outside the law, you must be honest.” The lyric is from Absolutely Sweet Marie, from (IMHO) his greatest album, Blonde on Blonde, recorded in New York and Nashville in 1966. As with all Dylan songs, who knows what the artist meant – he’s not talking – but here’s my take.

It’s easy to color within the lines. It’s easy to paint by numbers, fill in the check boxes, meet the specs and follow the regulations. In short, to follow the law. But when it comes to issues like trust and ethics, balancing social responsibility and profits, navigating between government demands and consumer demands – it’s not enough.

It’s tempting, taunting, tantalizing, to look to the law (or corporate guidelines, or regulations) for guidance when faced with a difficult issue in client relationships, customer satisfaction, taking responsibility, or ethical issues. It’s also a copout.

Such issues demand a higher order of resolution. When faced with a client demanding to know the truth about some matter, how much truth do you share? The ‘law’ will clearly tell you what truths not to tell; and if you want to argue from omission, what truths are therefore not restrained. But your client – or your constituencies, or your legacy – isn’t going to be satisfied, in part because all you’re doing is citing ‘the law;’ you’re not taking any responsibility.

Being Honest, Being Principled

In this situation, I’m equating “be honest” with “be principled.” Principles apply to more than just honesty, but honesty will do fine as a stand-in for other principles. The point is – you’d better have something more than chapter and verse at hand to satisfy a demand for trust or fairness, whether from clients, employees or society at large. The statement “but it was legal” doesn’t cut any mustard in the higher courts of human interaction.

If you’re looking to be trusted, compliance is de minimis; by itself,  even inflammatory. “Sorry, that’s the law” is only slightly more satisfying than “Sorry, that’s our policy,” or, “Sorry, that’s not how we do things around here.”

Instead, you need principles – rooted in human nature and human relationships. Principles like service to others, or collaboration, or transparency, or don’t treat others as means to your ends. It’s principles like these that provide better guidance to tough decisions. (It’s also principles, that in the long run, must undergird the law itself for the law to be seen as legitimate.)

Living Outside the Law

To “live outside the law” doesn’t mean you’re a criminal – but in Dylan’s meaning, it does mean you’re an outlaw. You operate in part outside the narrow proscriptions of the law; you find affirmation by others of your actions by grounding them in broader principles.

That’s ultimately what makes others trust you. We live our daily lives by universal principles that others recognize as legitimate as well. We don’t trust people whose ‘ethics’ amount to rote checkbox compliance. We trust those who come from someplace deep, a place where connection to others and relationships with them are bedrock. People who feel their principles and are confident enough in them to re-compute them in every situation, as if for the first time.

If you’re going to live outside the law – and you should – you’d best be honest.

Can You Ethically Sell to a Friend?

Maybe you have a college classmate in a company your firm would like to sell to.   Maybe a neighbor down the street works for an organization you wish you could sell to. Maybe you’ve become friendly with someone in a client company for which you’d like to do further work elsewhere in the organization.

Can you sell to a friend?  Should you? And even if the answers are ‘yes’ – how do you go about doing it?

The Ethical Quandary

Let me make a guess: the reason you’re reading this article in the first place is that you feel somehow squeamish about these situations. Part of you feels it’s unfair to take advantage of a friendship for the sake of sales, that it cheapens your friendship. More importantly, you’re concerned you might put your friendship at risk by appearing to use it for your own commercial gain.

Worst of all – you’re worried what your friend might think of you.

Well, rest assured: there are some times when it’s wrong to sell to a friend – and there are some times when it’s right. There are ways to tell the difference. And there is a way to do it that minimizes any risk. And when you follow these rules, any ethical quandary disappears.

Let’s be clear. If you’re coldly using a personal connection solely to get business, but you pretend otherwise, and you don’t truthfully much care about the consequences to your friendship, then you are indeed behaving unethically. And we struggle not only to be clear about our own motives, but with how it will appear to our friend. So, how can it be done ethically?

The Brother-in-Law Test

Imagine you’re watching football (your version of ‘football,’ of course) on the couch with your brother-in-law who is over to visit for the holiday weekend. At a break in the action, he asks you, “Listen, your company works in the widget services business. We’re thinking about buying some widget services; who do you think we should be talking to, and what should we be careful about in talking to them? And should we be talking to you guys?”

Most likely, your first response is not “Boy, have I got a deal for you!” You’d probably say something like, “Well, there are several things to think about. We do widget services of course, but there are others as well in that business. The first thing you need to think about is the scale of involvement you want; and next is probably the complexity of your customer base. Depending on those answers, you might want to talk to us, or to someone else.”

In other words, you’d probably approach your brother-in-law in the manner of a trusted advisor – someone who applies his expertise with the best interests of the client in mind. You place the long-term interests of a close relationship (family in this case) over the short-term interests of your business.

And, if you knew your firm wasn’t the best choice for your brother-in-law, you’d probably tell him as much. The point is, you’re more attached to your long-term relationship with family than you are to a sales transaction at work.

So – what’s the difference with a friend?

Selling to a Friend

The correct answer is – there shouldn’t be any difference. If your services aren’t the best fit for your friend’s company, then you shouldn’t be pitching her. And if you really do have the best solution for your friend’s company – then you should be selling it, if only because you’d like to see your friend and her company do well.

The real question isn’t whether you should treat a friend like a brother-in-law – it’s why you would treat any customer any differently?

How to Do It

Notwithstanding all the above, it can be socially awkward to sell to friends – as much for the friend as for you. Relax, you don’t have to jointly take an ethics course. All you have to do is Name It and Claim It.

Acknowledge the issue out loud, and the elephant in the room disappears. You might say something like, “Look, I realize it could be awkward for us as friends to do business; I have no intention of jeopardizing our friendship, so I’m making this suggestion very mindfully.” Or, “I initially hesitated to raise this given our friendship, but realized I’d be cutting you off from something valuable if I didn’t speak up.”

To sum it up: if you wouldn’t sell it to your brother-in-law, don’t sell it to your friend. And if you would sell it to either one, say so, and say clearly why you’re doing it. If it’s the right thing for your friend to buy, then it’s the right thing for you to sell – to your friend as much as to anyone else.

Why You Should Refer Your Competitors to Your Clients

(I dug this out of the old chest; it still holds up).

Refer your competitors to your clients in the sales process.

Yes, I do mean it. This is not a sarcastic title, or a clever trick. But I’ll warn you: your motives will affect your outcome.

Step One—check your objective. Is it:

a. To get the sale, or
b. To do the right thing by the customer.

Now multiply by 10 times – the next ten similar sales opportunities.

  • If your objective is always “get the sale,” then well before number ten, everyone will know you’re in it for yourself, short-term. You’ll have a reputation. You’ll win about the same percentage as your market share—say, 30% for sake of discussion.
  • If your objective is to do the right thing by the customer, then well before number ten, everyone will know you’re in it long-term, to help them. You’ll have a different reputation. And (can you say “paradox”?), your own success rate will get better—say, 40% or higher.

Option b doesn’t mean you’re not in it for yourself—just that it’s not your primary objective, and you’re willing to trust a longer-term process.

Step Two—admit you’re not always the perfect choice for every customer. (If this feels hard, and your market share is less than 100%, consider the implications of believing you’re always the best: either your customers are very stupid, or you can’t sell a perfect product.)

Let’s review. Your objective is to help your customer (which also gets you better sales numbers), and you admit that your product isn’t always the best.

Step 3: Therefore: shouldn’t you offer your customer informed advice about other alternatives? Shouldn’t you refer your competitors as a possible alternative?

The best reason to do this is—because it’s the right thing. But there are ancillary reasons:

  • Being willing to refer a competitor is the most direct indicator of your having the customer’s interests at heart. It makes it look like you care (note: don’t try faking this). 
  • In those rare cases where you convince someone against their better interests to use you instead of someone better suited for them, odds are that everything will unravel and you’ll regret it. Take one small loss and consider it an investment in good will.

Think this is suicidal? Try forwarding this blog to your existing clients, saying how crazy I am, and that you would never be so stupid as to point them to anyone but yourself, because…because…well, you try and explain it.

If you agree with me, and you are a buyer of goods or services, consider forwarding this blog to your suppliers, asking them to educate you regarding choices in their industry. And see how they respond.

  • The best ones have already done so. The next best will meet the test and give you some great info—be good to those suppliers, they just took a risk to help you.
  • And those who tell you there’s no need to review because they’re the best—well, you know what to do.

How do you say the words? Try this:

“We both win if you make the best decision. Given my understanding of your situation, if you haven’t already done so, you should also be talking to X and Y. If you do so, it’ll help our discussions.”

Is it a trust thing? You betcha.