Trust Matters, The Podcast: Why Won’t My Client Say ‘YES’? (Episode 2)

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Don’t Let It Ruin Your Day

Is your child driving you nuts with their self-destructive behavior and refusal to listen to your hard-earned wisdom? (Alternatively, are your parents driving you nuts with their constant attempts to control and guilt-trip you?)

Is your client behaving badly? Not returning calls, not making decisions, refusing to face up to tough decisions, constantly back-sliding on your (excellent) advice?

Did one of your (ostensible) good friends diss you recently? Have they refused to apologize, and continue to evade the issue? Have you heard by the grapevine they said something more that appears to confirm their betrayal of you?

Well, I have your answer. Here it is. Don’t Let It Ruin Your Day.

Of Course, You Already Know This.

But that’s just the problem, see. You already ‘know’ it, so you think that therefore you’ve already extracted full value from the proposition. You think, ‘Yeah, yeah, you can’t control other people, it’s not me it’s them, serenity now yada yada, live in the moment – I got it.’

But you don’t  ‘got it.’

If you did, you wouldn’t be living in a constant state of resentment, stress, and worry.

One of the dominant myths of our time is that if you cognitively understand something, you have mastered it. But the brain is a very weak weapon when up against the heart and the nervous system. Knowing something and a dollar may get you a cup of coffee.  Eons of wisdom literature suggests there’s something more to it.

A closely related myth is that the answer lies in doing something. At least that gets one step beyond “understanding” – or so we think.

But the belief in action suffers the same defect. It assumes that there exists An Answer. You’re smart enough to know that The Answer is probably not going to be found in better analytics, Big Data, convincing arguments or brilliant aphorisms. So you look to the softer side – you get better at empathy, listening, vulnerability, open-ended questions and the like. Maybe The Answer lies in better behavior.

Nope, sorry. As long as you’re attached to the outcome, you’re still bound to your attachment – and the attendant resentment, stress and worry. (Medication has its place, of course, but medical-grade marijuana is just the latest non-solution).

At wits’ end, it’s tempting to think, “ah, chuck it all. I’ll just withdraw from the game, there’s no point, I’ll make friends with hopelessness. Maybe happiness lies in just giving up.”

Don’t Let It Ruin Your Day

The answer, it seems to me, is to marry the instinct for thought and action with the detachment from outcome. You should still talk to your kids (and your parents); you should still stay engaged with your clients; you should still strive to make your friendships rich and mutual.

Just don’t let it ruin your day.

The problem is not striving, and the answer is not withdrawal.  The trick is to take the best of both: keep engaging – just detach from the outcome.

Sales

Note: this is not just happy talk for your spiritual side. It also has to do – profoundly – with sales. The answer to sales disappointment is not to “toughen up” and dial more sales calls; and obviously it’s not to stop selling.

The answer, in business development as in life, is to keep striving, for the betterment of your clients and customers. Just don’t let it ruin your day.

Take pride and pleasure in the process, keep putting out good effort for your clients. Just don’t be attached to the outcome. Don’t Always Be Closing: instead, Always Be Helping.

Keep on selling: and when it doesn’t work out, just don’t let it ruin your day.

Trust Matters, The Podcast: Dealing With A Freeloader When Selling Services (Episode 1)

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The Reverse Elevator Speech: Disaster and Recovery

Trust requires that someone take a risk. Perversely, that means the avoidance of risk is tantamount to preventing trust.

One of the hardest things to do is to recognize this need in the face of mundane, everyday interactions, where it always seems that taking a risk is inappropriate.

So rather than give a mundane business example, let me do this one by metaphor.

A British account executive years ago told me the following story:

“I was going to see a potential client for what could have been an important piece of business for us. Unfortunately for me, I missed the scheduled plane by minutes, and thus was delayed by an hour. I called, and they agreed to reschedule the meeting to accommodate me.

“When I arrived, a bit flustered, the team of a half-dozen clients execs had gathered downstairs, and we all then went to the lift to go upstairs to the designated conference room.

“Unfortunately the lift was made for about four people. We all crammed into the lift, and it slowly began to climb. At that point someone – how shall I put this – well, as we English say – passed gas. The lift continued its crawling pace upward. No one, of course, said a word, nor even altered their expression. There was dead silence.

“As the doors finally opened, we all rushed to get out – all at once. And all 7 of us thereby tumbled onto each other on the floor. We all picked ourselves up, even more embarrassed, and again without saying a word to each other, made our way into the conference room.

“As I set up at the head of the room, I could feel the weight of this triple discomfort: I was late, the tumbling all over each other – and of course the ‘gas’ incident in the middle. It was all contrived to create a mutual sense of misery.

“What to do? I stood in the front of the room and said, ‘Gentlemen, little did I know this morning what a fine level of intimate relationship we should all achieve in so little time here this afternoon. I am honored indeed.”

“Well, everyone fell all over each other laughing; I had somehow managed to prick the balloon of the unspoken that hung over us like a cloud, and the rest of the day went marvelously. And oh yes, we got the sale.”

What this gentleman had done, in our nomenclature, was to Name It and Claim It; that is, to speak aloud the one thing that no one could figure out how to talk about. He did it with humor – an excellent tool – and was rewarded for the relief he caused by an appreciative relationship, and even a sale.

So What?

Charming, you think, but quite beside the point. What’s it got to do with me?

Well, as it happens, I had another conversation just last week (with, as it happens, another Englishman). He was a business development manager, tasked with what felt like an impossible burden.

“The senior partner insists on bidding a job in a sector in which we frankly have no experience. Certainly far less than anyone else. And he wants me to pretend it just doesn’t matter, or to dazzle them with bluster, or in some way to just blow through it. It’s simply not going to work, and we’ll look the fool.”

Well, yes they’ll look foolish if that’s how they go about it. They don’t recognize the relevance of the reverse elevator speech.

The solution is for the senior partner to say something like this:

“You may be wondering why a firm with so little experience in this sector is even here pitching you at all today. Certainly I wondered it! But I assure you we don’t make a habit of tilting at windmills.

“There is an angle here that I fear conventional wisdom might not point out. We’ve seen it a few times before, and it can make the difference between a run-of-the-mill project and a truly game-changing solution.

“I simply could not let the situation rest un-addressed. And that is why I am here in front of you today. Now, what we see going on here is…”

You may have picked up that there’s a ‘catch’ here.  The catch is that you actually have to have something consequential to say. If you have nothing consequential to say, then you shouldn’t be there in the first place, and you deserve what’s about to happen to you.

But if you do have something to say, the surest way to strangle it before it sees the light of day is to deny the elephant in the elevator – the lack of relevant sector experience, in this case.

Hope, they say, is not a strategy. Hoping somebody won’t notice the obvious is a strategy-killer. In such cases, not to take a risk is the biggest risk of all.

Get credit for stating the obvious, for telling the truth, and for relieving the tension that everyone feels. Put it out there. That way everyone is leaning forward on their seats, waiting to hear the idea that just might be so good as to overcome the banality of traditionalism.

Take the risk. Call out the wind in the elevator. Like a vaccination, it amounts to taking a little risk to mitigate the much larger risk staring you in the face. And you’d be surprised at how often it works.

Client Service vs. Client Servility

With every technological advance in communications, we get another chance to negotiate the boundaries between good client service and client servility.

Where do you draw the line?

Better yet: How do you draw attention to a line that’s already there, if we think about it rightly?

Most client-serving organizations I know make a pretty big deal about client service. It is right at the top of their list of stated virtues. And rightly so.

But sometimes, things can get a little twisted.

What do you make of:

o The SDR who unquestioningly responds in detail to every detailed request, without adding perspective. Regularly.

o The project manager who video-cons the team on Sunday to re-work the slide deck. Regularly.

o The senior officer who drops in on the staff meeting to “show the flag” but leaves early because “when the client calls, you know…”  Regularly.

o The salesperson who cuts price at the drop of the hat when the client demands.  Regularly.

o The VP who cancels the cleanup position on the third round interview because, “I had no choice, the client changed the date.” Regularly.

o The manager who joins the training session late and slips out to take calls between scheduled breaks, because “we’re in the middle of a really tough time for the client – they need me.”  Regularly.

The key word is, of course, regularly.  Any one of those examples can be held up as a case of client heroism.  If, that is, it’s an isolated event. But if it’s endemic – then that’s not client service, that’s client servitude.

They are not the same. Great client service is being willing and able to behave in unusual ways when faced with unusual situations; and doing them selflessly, for the sake of the client.

Being servile is quite another thing. It means seeking out options to give faux service.  Terms related to servile include sycophant, suck-up, boot-licker, and toady.

We suspect those who are servile of dishonesty – of speaking falsely in an attempt at self-aggrandizement. Their motives are suspect; which means their credibility is at risk as well.

Ironically, their servility costs them in terms of respect from the very people they are most trying to impress.  Above all, we don’t trust such people.

If we’re honest – I’ll just speak for me here – if I’m honest about it, there’s always a tiny touch of servility lurking around the edges of most client service I perform.  It’s hard to be unaware of the value of being perceived as client-serving.

The trick is to not be overcome by a need for recognition. To do the next right thing, yet to be detached from the outcome; particularly whatever benefit clearly might accrue to me from doing the right thing.

This is the heart of it.  Client service is doing good for the client.  Period.  We are not surprised when we get credit for doing it.  But expecting good from doing it is Station 1 on the slippery slope; the End-Station is doing client service  in order to get credit for doing it.

That way lies client servility.

Most clients don’t want servants at their beck and call – they want equal partners at the table who can make a plan and stick to it; who have enough respect for themselves and their own firm that they will, on occasion, push back; who take the partnership seriously enough that they will keep their own team healthy enough to deliver in the long run, rather than burn it out in a never-ending series of faux client crises.

And if you really think you have one of those rare clients who actually wants servants – then put your money where your mouth is.  Give that client to a competitor.

Stop Measuring ROI on Soft Skills Training

Many, perhaps most, of our clients tend to ask us about how they can measure the returns from Trusted Advisor workshops. However, I suspect their reasons are a little opaque. More often than not, these buyers are already persuaded of the benefits. The potential clients who are truly skeptical are rarely the ones who actually call–nor are they likely to be persuaded, even by a hard-nosed ROI calculation. 

So – why are they asking?

Let’s tackle a garden variety corporate orthodoxy: the one that says your company shouldn’t do training without a measurable return on your training investment.

Variations on the theme: if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it; all training must be defined in terms of behavioral objectives; each objective must link to behavioral milestones, each quantifiable and financially ratable.

Let me speak plainly: Subjecting soft-skills training to pure skills-mastery financial analytics is intellectually dishonest, wrong-headed, useless at best and counter-productive at worst.

There, I said it.

Now let me explain – and offer an alternative.

There are are sprinklings of truth in the rush to measure soft-skills ROI – but they are surrounding a germ of falsehood at the heart of the matter.

The ROI-behavioral view of training is fine for pure cognitive or pure behavioral skills. If your focus is on teaching Mandarin to oil company execs, mastering the report generation functions of CRM systems, or teaching XML programming, you can stop reading this now.

But if you’re talking about communications skills, trust, customer relationships, listening, negotiation, speaking, giving and receiving feedback, consultative thinking, influencing, persuasion, team-building and collaboration, then read on.  There are at least four problems with measuring “return” on these kinds of programs.

First problem: definitions. We evaluate golf coaching by lowered golf scores—neat, clean, unarguable. But try defining “good communication.” Or trust. Or negotiation. You might as well define the taste of water, or the quality of love. To accept behavioral indicators (“she smiles, she touches me”) is to miss an essence.

Second: causality. All causality is unprovable, though we know when to accept it anyway. “I had 3 lessons with a golf coach, and cut my score by 8 strokes. It was the coaching—you can quote me!”

But what if I take one course in trust, and another in listening. Suppose my sales go up next year by 50%. Which course did it? Or did my company’s 70% growth have something to do with it? Or my happy new marriage? Too many variables.

Third: the Hawthorne effect. (Or, the Heisenberg Principle in physics). Sometimes the act of measuring alters the measurement of the thing being measured. If I know I’m being graded on listening, I’ll do whatever it is I think that you think makes me look like I’m listening. Which destroys real listening.

If you hype net-promoter scores, many will game the scoring – thus reducing the genuineness that underlay the original idea.

Fourth: the perversion of individual measurement. Most soft skills deal with our relationships to others. The drive to individually behavioralize, then metricize, has the effect of killing relationships by focusing on the individual – an ironic outcome for relationship-targeting training.

Suppose a course teaches focusing more on the customer, listening, helping others achieve their goals, helping teammates grow – worthy objectives, found in many programs.

The usual reason to define those results financially is to evaluate them financially. Thus someone – somewhere between the CEO and the person getting trained – is responsible for deciding to do more, or less, relationship-building programs – by using short-term individual measurements, often with short-term incentives.

Hence the perversity: training people to focus on relationships, by measuring and rewarding them individually.

“The more unselfish you are, the more money we’ll give you for being unselfish.
“The more you get rated as providing ‘excellent customer service,’ the more we’ll pay you” (which leads to pathetic begging by CSRs)
“The more you focus on others, the more we’ll pay you.
“Quick, get over here, I want to genuinely listen to you so I can raise my quarterly bonus and get promoted.”

Raise this perversity to the level of an industry over decades, and you can understand why pharmaceutical and brokerage companies have accrued such low ratings on trust.

So what’s the answer? Simple. And you don’t even have to give up your addiction to metrics.

Just measure subjective rankings.

Ask people these simple questions, over time:

1. Would you do that training again?
2. Would you recommend others attend?
3. Would you include it in your budget?
4. How do you rate that training compared to these other five programs?

You can run regressions, chi-squares and segmentations on that data to your heart’s content – as long as it’s measuring subjective data in ranking terms. Just stop trying to monetize interpersonal relationships by measuring ROI on soft skills training.

And for those of you still interested in seeing some data – I recommend our Trust360 multi-rater assessment tool. It’s not going to measure your ROI from a soft-skill training, but when you run a program as a before and after, you’ll be able to see and track key, measurable changes and improvements as a result of a soft-skill program. We recommend running a Trust360 in advance of a program and then again, for the same group, about 6 months later. Our clients who have done so have seen measurable results that still focus on the changes in soft skills, how the program and the Trust360 provided key insight to allow participants to really get to the root of the trust-building in relationships.

Give it a go – talk to us about it. What’s the downside?

 

Sample Selling Without Giving Away the Whole Store

Sample selling isn’t just for ice cream and perfume. I have argued that it works for intangible services, mainly because the seller has expertise beyond the buyer’s range, and sample selling makes it appear less threatening.

But not everyone buys that. Consider a phone conversation I had not too long ago. It went like this:

“I know you recommend sample selling for intangible services, Charlie,” the caller said, “but I have to tell you, I think that’s naïve.”

“I followed your advice,” he continued, “I gave them a great idea; but I didn’t get the deal. Worse, they stole my idea; now they’re making it a practice area. You can’t trust everyone; you can’t give away the store.”

The Three Myths of Giving Away Too Much

My caller is not alone in his fear of being taken. And as the saying goes, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.

Yet he is the architect of his own misery. He has fallen prey to three mistaken beliefs. And while you can’t think your way out of all tough situations, this is one where you can.

Myth 1: Ideas, Like Shoreline, are Limited. I’ve heard it said there are really only seven jokes—all others are variations. I have no doubt that’s true: but there is no end to standup comedians telling no end of those variations. Limited categories don’t preclude infinite instances.

Myth 2: Ideas are the Scarce Resource. As a consultant, I originally bought into the idea that corporate strategies were invaluable; if discovered by competitors, they could bring the company down.

This turned out to be a conceit. In truth, you could give an entire industry public access to each other’s written strategies, and due to a combination of hubris, incompetence and the inertia of culture, very little would change as a result.

As the NRA might put it, “ideas don’t change businesses—people do.”

Myth 3: They’re Out to Take My Stuff. Yeah, some are. And they are the people who believe that ideas are limited and that access to ideas alone is valuable. See myths 1 and 2 above.

Those who are out to take your stuff are co-conspirators in a joint exercise of self-delusion. They’re like thieves bent on stealing counterfeit cash. Go find some fresh air to breathe.

 

Sample Selling without Giving Away the Store

Let me acknowledge that there are certain businesses where idea theft is quite real. Chemical formulae in the pharmaceutical industry, novels in the publishing industry, code in the software business—I’m not talking about these cases. They are covered by patent, trademark and copyright laws. There are still lawsuits, but by and large the rules and case law are very well developed.

I’m talking about marketing, change management, business strategy, process change methodologies, sales processes, communications, systems implementation—the world of complex, intangible services. Like jokes, there may be a limited number of categories—but there is an unlimited number of applications.

How do you avoid falling prey to the myths? How do you not give away the store? Here are three tips to remember.

Sample Selling Tip 1: Present Ideas Collaboratively. The context in which you present an idea is critical. Don’t waltz in and dump an idea on your client’s desk; first they’ll reject it, then they’ll tweak it, then come to believe it’s theirs—leaving you to stew in your own juices. (That’s best case; most likely, they’ll ignore it.)

Instead, go back three steps and engage your client in a general conversation; let the idea emerge in context, between the two of you. Don’t be obsessed with ‘ownership’ of the idea unless you already have a patent.

You might say something like:

“Susan, I was thinking about the XYZ problem we discussed Monday. Does that situation ever arise in other divisions? I’m wondering if it’s really a process problem, or a people problem; can we bounce this around for a while?”

If you’re really smart—and evolved; see Tip 3 below—you’ll let your client discover the idea.

Sample Selling Tip 2: The Real Sample is Problem Definition. The idea of ‘sample selling’ is a bit of a misnomer. The real sample you’re giving the client is not a sample answer, but a sampling of how it feels to work with you.

You do this by continually asking—with the client—“what problem are we trying to solve?” You might say something like:

“Joe, we’ve come up with some great ideas in the business process arena. As we’ve talked, some related issues have arisen in the talent side of the business. Could we schedule some time to work those issues together?”

Then repeat Tip 1 above.

Sample Selling Tip 3: Rebalance Humility and Confidence. You need humility. Not humility about your ability—humility about your uniqueness. You are not Einstein (unless you are); you aren’t the only one with ideas. And frankly, your ideas are probably not unique either.

You need confidence. Not confidence in your ideas—confidence in your ability to spot an infinite number of problem areas in your client, and confidence in your ability to generate more ideas to address each problem. It starts simply with seeing opportunities for improvement.

Above all, you are the one with the client relationship; in that, you are unique. So—go define problems, and generate ideas collaboratively.

You’ll get credit—but more importantly, you’ll get repeat business.

How Trusted Advisors (Should) Think About “Business Development”

When you think of business development, what is the first thing that comes to mind about the purpose behind it?

If you thought “to drive sales,” then this post is for you.

It’s a special kind of person who finds his or her way into an expertise-based advisory career. They are, of course, what we call “smart”—meaning cognitively talented, analytical, with high IQs. They are also often driven, motivated, and high achievers.

What doesn’t get mentioned as often is that they also tend to have high standards—for their work, and for themselves. These high standards are reflected in ideas like devotion to customer service, ethical behavior, and commitment to quality.

And if there’s any one thing that feels contradictory to all those fundamental beliefs, it is probably business development.

I don’t know a single professional who started out wanting to be in ”business development.” For starters, the phrase itself feels like a contrivance. Isn’t “business development” just a softer word for ”sales?” (Note it’s even phrased in the passive voice, to distance itself from “develop business”).

Customers, we believe instinctively, resist being ”sold.” The dictionary is loaded with secondary and tertiary meanings of “sales” that suggest selling is manipulative, conniving, even morally offensive. Our customers work from that dictionary. They tell us—and we want to believe—that they buy from us because of our quality and our ethical devotion to service.

That’s what it means to work in a meritocracy, and a big reason we signed up. If customers don’t buy from us, it was because someone else beat us on quality and expertise. (Or, of course, on price). And again, that is what our customers tell us.

This is why the ”business development” professionals’ message is so distasteful. They seem to suggest that customers don’t buy on quality and price; that having the best expertise doesn’t guarantee the sale. And that, worst of all, customers are making buy decisions based soft criteria and emotions, and not being honest with us, or even with themselves, about it.

The whole matter is profoundly distasteful. We don’t like to think that we’re selling our time for money to begin with. We particularly don’t like to think that people are buying us for reasons other than expertise. And we recoil from being lumped together with car salesmen in such obfuscatory phrases as “business development.”

What’s a poor professional to do?

The answer—amazingly—is at once simple, profound, and easily accessed. It lies in fundamentally redefining the purpose of business development, beginning in our own minds.

The Purpose of Business Development

For most people, the purpose or goal of business development is obvious: to get the customer to buy something. Indeed, that’s what most people believe, which is precisely the source of the problem. It all starts there, and heads downhill fast.  Here’s why.

Those who believe the purpose of business development is to get the customer to buy have made three key assumptions:

  • That the purpose is one-sided, meaning all about the business developer.
  • That value to the customer is per se irrelevant, as long as it’s enough to result in a sale.
  • That the process is essentially competitive, and you fail if you don’t get the result, whether the loss is to a competitor or to the ubiquitous DND (Did Not Decide).

Those assumptions just fuel customers’ paranoia. They enforce the notion that business developers do not have their customers’ best interests at heart, that ‘the deal’ is all that matters, and that you can’t trust anything business developers say. It’s the kind of attitude that fuels traditional sales wisdom like “buyers are liars,” and “there are no be-backs.”

And those are just the key assumptions. There is a host of secondary implications which also follow from believing the purpose of business development is to get the customer to buy. For example, it suggests that efficiency is key—that business developers should work to qualify and prioritize their leads so they don’t waste unproductive time. For example, it suggests that you should be very careful about giving anything away. And especially it suggests that you should never, ever refer a competitor.

All of these are equally pernicious beliefs. It’s easy to characterize them as just traits of used car salesmen, but they’re taught in many ways by well-respected business development programs. Of course, that doesn’t make them better. They are still the source of all the negativity held by so many about business development. Softening the word doesn’t change the truth; “sell” is usually a four-letter word no matter how you spell it.

Fortunately, there is great news: It doesn’t have to be this way.

The Striking Alternative: A New Mindset

Try this simple statement on for size:

The purpose of business development is to improve the customer’s outcomes

There, does that sound more comfortable?

But wait! There are radical implications. It means, for example, that if the services don’t improve things for the customer, then you shouldn’t sell it to them. That’s a little bit radical.

Much more radically, it means that if a competitor truly has a superior solution for a given customer, you as the business developer should actually recommend the competitor. (Rest assured that the willingness to do so endears you so strongly to the customer that you’ll virtually guarantee future sales).

But even those aren’t the really radical implications. The Big Implication is that— properly conceived—there is virtually no difference between professional, high quality, ethical delivery and professional, high-quality, ethical business development. Why? Because both aim at improving the customer’s outcomes.

The Freedom to Be of Service

It is liberating to think of business development this way. It means the best way to generate new work is the same as the best way to execute on existing work: by giving samples, by helping them define the real problem, by being open and candid about … everything.

Let’s draw out the implications of this view. See if you agree to the following two statements:

  1. “I have a professional obligation to point out issues and opportunities to my customer that I can see and that I think would be of benefit to address.”
  2. “If those issues or opportunities aren’t obvious to the customer, I have a professional obligation to explain them so they become clear.”

If your answer is “yes,” then not only have you agreed that you have an obligation to develop business, but you have succeeded in re-defining business development in an ethical and customer-focused manner. You’re doing it for them, and for the same reasons you deliver high quality, ethical, customer-focused project work. You’re just not getting paid yet.

Paradoxical Results

When you see the purpose of business development is to improve the customer’s outcomes, things change fundamentally. Your goals are no longer in conflict with your customer; they are precisely and profoundly aligned. Your customers have every reason to trust you. And the new work becomes not the goal, but a byproduct.

Here’s the ultimate paradox: If you re-conceive the purpose of business development in this way, your customers will recognize it very quickly—even instantly, in some cases—and be more inclined to give you opportunities to be of service.

Your very willingness to forego the “sale” actually increases the likelihood that they’ll “buy.”

There is one catch: You can’t work the paradox against itself. You actually have to be willing to forego “developing business” as your objective in order for it to come true. You have to mean it. After all, you can’t fake trust.

But then, why should you even try?

How You Use Your Smarts Is What Attracts Clients

 

“It’s not what you know; it’s who you know.”

You’ve probably heard that. But – you’ve also probably heard the exact opposite.

You’ve heard, “You’ve got a limited amount of time to impress them; use it.” But you’ve also heard, “Let the client do most of the talking.”

And you’ve probably heard, “You’ve got to be just a little smarter than your client.” But you’ve probably also heard, “Don’t think you know more about your client’s business than your client does.”

So, what’s the role of smarts? How important is it to be smart? In fact – what does that even mean?

To define terms, I’m not talking here about emotional intelligence, political savvy, or so-called street smarts. I’m talking about what we usually mean by “smart” in business, which generally boils down to three things:

  • Native intelligence, IQ-ish talent
  • Subject matter mastery
  • Industry knowledge

But let’s also be clear: being smart is less about what kind of smart you are and more about how you use your smarts. And usage, in turn, deconstructs into timing, amount, and context.

Kinds of Smart

I’ll use “IQ” as shorthand for some measure of native intelligence, mindful that there’s a lot of debate about its validity. IQ is seen as an innate form of smarts—you’re supposed to be born with it.

People with high IQs tend to think highly of high IQs, but that doesn’t mean everyone else does. In fact, if clients perceive someone as more clever, sharper, quicker, adept than them, it can be perceived as a negative—particularly if you’re selling.

“Watch out for this one,” the client thinks. “He might pull the wool over my eyes and outwit me.”

Subject matter mastery is different. It’s not an innate kind of smart; it’s derived from experience.

“I could be as smart as him,” thinks the client, “if I had chosen to work in that area.”

In fact, it’s that mastery that clients seek. A client hires a lawyer who knows the law precisely because the client doesn’t know it as well. A subject matter expert with a slightly lower (perceived) IQ than the buyer is even better. They are seen as knowledgeable but unthreatening.

Like subject matter mastery, industry smart is derived, not innate. But unlike subject matter mastery, its presence isn’t a plus so much as its absence is a minus. Clients, particularly those in professional and financial businesses, look down on “generalist” subject matter experts and functional specialists. There’s a general feeling that “our people won’t accept advice coming from you unless you have industry smarts” (though the speaker usually refers to ‘our people’ and not to himself).

In general industries, it is believed that management is management and sales is sales, that the know-how is transferable across industries. That isn’t the case in the professions—rightly or wrongly. You won’t win fighting that feeling; it runs deep.

Timing: When to be Smart

The time to show your IQ smarts is before you meet. Show it in your resume, qualifying documents, and your website’s “About Us” section. That’s because IQ smarts are the only kind of smarts that are potentially embarrassing to the client. The client doesn’t want to be over- or under-estimating you in real time; they’d prefer to know what kind of person they’re dealing with up front, in advance of meeting you. That way they feel much more in control, which is a good thing.

Once you’re in a meeting or interacting with the client, never mention IQ smarts again. Don’t bring up your resume, your degrees, your globe-hopping upbringing, or the brilliant circles in which you travel unless, of course, you’re asked a direct question.

You also want to show a little bit of subject matter smarts and industry smarts in advance of a first meeting or interaction—enough to assure the client they won’t be wasting their time and that they might well benefit from meeting you.

In short: be IQ-smart before you meet. And in face-to-face meetings, be subject-matter and industry-smart.

Amount: How Smart Should You Be?

No one likes to feel condescended to. Fortunately, it’s easy to avoid being condescending in subject matter and industry smarts. The main place to worry is in IQ smarts. If you really think your IQ is so much higher than your client’s, remember that your client is likely to resent or fear you if you make a point of it. Go work on your emotional quotient.

For subject matter and industry smarts, there is no natural upper bound. You’re being hired in part for your expertise, and your client will respect high levels of knowledge of your industry without fearing it. Your biggest challenge here is to be gracious in revealing how smart you are.

Context: Being Gracious about Your Smarts

The single most common sales error regarding smarts that professionals make is to think they have to show how smart they are. They somehow believe that a goal of client interaction is to demonstrate how smart they are. This is almost always unfounded, and frequently it accomplishes the very opposite of what’s desired. It makes the client feel you are self-centered and ego-driven and that you’re only out to make the sale.

Instead, the rule should be to use your smarts as necessary in support of the right thing for the client:

  • If it’s useful to mention that a particular recommendation has been followed successfully by three other clients, then say so. But if you say so just to demonstrate your clout, it’s better to leave it unsaid.
  • If it might be useful to the client that you know so-and-so, a big industry player, then mention it. If you do it only to prove your industry smarts, don’t.
  • If a question is asked to which you clearly know the answer, answer it. But if it’s another question that was asked, and you’re piling on to that question to answer another one, unasked, stifle yourself.

Following that simple rule demonstrates that your driving motivation is client service, not the pursuit of the sale and not your search for ego gratification. And if you’re worried about not knowing the answer to an occasional question, remember a client would rather hear an honest “I don’t know” than a transparent struggle to fake your way through an answer.

The smart call is to use your smarts only in service to your client.

Santa Does Trust-based Selling

Some of you are partaking in the annual ritual of watching Christmas movies – most notably the perennial It’s a Wonderful Life. This is not about that movie.

Instead, I want to remind you of an interesting lesson from the seasonal also-ran, Miracle on 34th Street.

Nominally a cute tale about the existence of Santa Claus and the power of belief (featuring a starry-eyed 6-year-old girl, and the comic relief of the US Post Office dragging in all those letters to Santa as proof-of-existence), it has a hidden gem buried within about the power of trust-based selling.

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The “real” Santa (a kindly old man who is or is not deluded) is employed by Macy’s in its flagship store as, of course, Santa. Santa is nearly fired by a numbers-driven Type-A middle manager for suggesting to a shopper that she buy the toy from Gimbel’s across the street.  (The cynical shopper confounds the manager by congratulating him on “this wonderful new stunt you’re pullin’.”)

This “stunt,” of course, is the Acid Test of Trust-based Selling: the willingness to refer a customer to a direct competitor, if that is the right thing to do for the customer. But it doesn’t end there, with a whimsical sappy Santa.

Macy’s President happens along and instantly realizes that Santa’s customer focus is far more effective for Macy’s than the conventional approaches to sales.  He announces:

…not only will our Santa Claus continue in this manner…but I want every salesperson in this store to do precisely the same thing. If we haven’t got exactly what the customer wants, we’ll send him where he can get it.

No high pressuring and forcing a customer to take something he doesn’t really want. We’ll be known as the helpful store, the friendly store, the store with a heart, the store that places public service ahead of profits.

And, consequently, we’ll make more profits than ever before.

Exactly.

If you focus relentlessly on the customer, you-the-seller will do just fine. Even better “than ever before.”

The good news is you don’t have to believe in Santa Claus to do this. You just have to follow the Four Trust Principles:

  • Customer focus for the sake of the customer
  • Long- not short-term timeframe
  • Transparency
  • Collaboration

Sometimes we view this as a paradox: relentlessly focusing on the Other ends up serving You as well – but only if you do it genuinely, rather than as a means to an end.

Paradoxical yes, but a Truth well-known to most who delve into human relationships. You get back what you put out. Do unto others. Pay it forward. Be the change you want. And so forth.

Truly a message for the season. And not just for sellers.