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No, I’m not crazy. (Well, not because of that headline, anyway). It’s actually a serious admonition. Here’s why, and how.
I suspect you want your clients to trust you. And I’m sure you tell them the truth about why they should buy from you.
We all would like to think that’s enough for them to trust you, but of course it’s not. Oddly, what’s missing is some context that contrasts the positive reasons to buy from you with some objective truths about why they might not need you.
Consider these two sentences:
1. If you’re serious about wealth management, then you should consider whole life insurance as part of your portfolio.
2. If you distinctly need insurance coverage in addition to an investment product, then you should consider whole life insurance as part of your portfolio.
The first sentence is a form of manipulative selling – like the assumptive close (“OK, shall we start on Monday or on Wednesday?”), or inducing a series of ‘yes’ answers (“Now, I assume you want your children to be taken care of, right?”). The way it’s written, you can’t disagree without being disagreeable.
Most people get annoyed when asked a question to which there’s only one reasonable answer. And most of us consider being asked that question a reason not to buy from the asker. So – don’t do that.
Instead, ask a question that allows reasonable people to consider reasonable multiple possibilities – including saying no to some of them.
Ask Questions that Allow Buyers to Self-Select
The second sentence does that. It provides information by distinguishing between people who might find value in the product and those who might not. Phrased that way, it not only educates the customer, it allows the customer to make a decision to opt-in or opt-out. Another way to put that: it posits a real-world choice, for real people in the real world who must make choices.
Most salespeople get nervous about questions that allow clients to opt out. Not, however, salespeople who understand the power of trust.
By giving a customer knowledge that permits opting out, a salesperson is putting herself at risk. But without risk in the first place, there can be no genuine trust – only control and the illusion of choice.
The reason trust works in sales is because human beings reciprocate when they are trusted. They appreciate being treated as adults, they appreciate not being manipulated and they appreciate being given choices that help them make intelligent decisions.
And they show their appreciation by buying, disproportionately, from those who treat them that way.
Let your clients know why they might not need you. Trust them to make the right choice. Amazingly, they do so more often than not.
Over a decade ago, I wrote Trust-based Selling.
As I said in the opening paragraph, “You don’t often hear those two words mentioned in the same sentence.” What that book was about was squaring the circle – explaining the apparent paradox of how you can sell and be trusted at the same time. I believe it is even more relevant today than when the book was published.
“Selling” is a critical concept at the core of capitalism. It’s often said that if you don’t have a sale, you don’t have a business. If you can’t sell your product or service, the market is democratically expressing itself that you have nothing of worth. Conversely, to successfully sell is in some way a validation of value.
At the same time, “selling” is at the heart of Adam Smith’s description of capitalism as based on the invisible hand of self-interest. If everyone behaves selfishly, you might say, everyone benefits from the competitive system that results.
And yet if anything seems inimical to trust, it must be selfishness. The prevailing theory of capitalism is that you may trust the system, but caveat emptor – buyer beware. We have regulations to prevent the abuse of buyers by sellers, not trusting the motives of sellers alone.
How then can we trust someone whose job, indeed whose core motivation, is to extract money from our wallet and transfer it to theirs – all the while smiling and telling us to enjoy it?
And from the seller’s side: how can you be trusted, trustworthy, when your entire job is based on getting people to do something that is first and foremost in your interest? There’s even an ethical dimension: how can you live with yourself when your job consists fundamentally of getting people to behave in ways that inure to your benefit?
It’s a paradox. Unless you think about trust.
But first: what’s changed since I wrote the book? I’d say three things: data, process, and the internet. Or if you want to put an over-simplified big fat label on it, let’s say Salesforce.
Let me be clear: there’s nothing wrong per se about Salesforce, and there’s a ton of value in it. If you’re not using Salesforce or a similar tool, you’re in the Dark Ages.
Nonetheless: Salesforce and its CRM ilk have enabled some negative and regressive tendencies in those who wish to sell. In particular:
- They can depersonalize sales. I don’t just mean spending time on the screen instead of talking to people: I mean the belief that you can reduce all relevant human interactions to datapoints, and by collecting and analyzing them per se, gain better relationships. The power of the tool seduces people into thinking that by collecting indicators, we have gained that which the indicators sought to indicate. To paraphrase Kierkegaard: CRM systems are like a “for sale” sign in a store: you go in to buy, and find out it was only the sign that was for sale.
- They focus overly on the sales process. Sure, you can describe ‘sales’ as a process. You can also describe it as a noun, a relationship, a transaction, a profession, and many more things. To focus solely on process is to think of sales as a linear, logical, deductive kind of phenomenon. Sales is much more than that. Yet every sales model you can think of begins with finding a lead, and ends (in a left-to-right depiction) in ‘closing.’ It is by its nature seller-centric – not customer-centric. It’s often noted that the percentage of person-to-person time has declined in recent years: we forget that this means the relative importance of that time is increased – not decreased.
- Their overt purpose, goal, objective is to get the sale – and then get more sales. They concretely embody the self-interest that Smith spoke about – and don’t mention the ‘greater good’ that he meant by the “invisible hand.”
The convergence of data, process and the internet represented in modern CRM systems promotes an impersonal, process-oriented, seller-centric view of sales. Just as social media have turned out to be Trojan horses weaponizing some of our worst instincts while wrapped in undeniably valuable forms, so has CRM handed salespeople a double-edged sword.
Squaring the Circle
The good news is: it doesn’t have to be that way. And you don’t have to get rid of your CRM systems either. All you need is a few changed behaviors – and some fundamental shifts in mindset and belief systems. Paradoxically, making these changes will actually result in more sales, not less. But only if you embrace the paradox.
Here are a few of those changes:
- The goal of most selling is to make the sale. The goal of trust-based selling is to help the customer; a sale is an outcome, not a goal.
- “Closing” is anathema – that’s all about the seller. The joint agreement to do a transaction that benefits the buyer is what we should seek.
- In trust-based selling, the right time to mention price is when it is useful to the customer to know it.
- In trust-based selling, you don’t “handle objections” – you jointly explore the fit of the solution.
- In trust-based selling, hard-sell is not a sin – wrong-sell is.
- In trust-based selling, you don’t seek sales – you seek good decisions by the buyer (if this is your priority, you’ll actually get more than your share of such decisions).
- In trust-based selling, the acid test is whether you’d be willing to refer the customer to a competitor – if the competitor has the better solution.
- In trust-based selling, a sale transaction is just one event along the path of a relationship.
- In trust-based selling, the default mode of presentation is transparency.
- If everyone sold based on trust, we’d need fewer regulations, and Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand would be a lot more efficient.
- In trust-based selling, the time-frame is lifetime. Assume that you will meet this customer again, along with his or her customers, cousins, bosses and LinkedIn friends, and that every interaction is evident to all of them instantly. That’s your reputation.
Trust-based selling relies on the proposition that people return good for good, and bad for bad. If you treat a customer respectfully and with trust, and they happen to need what you are selling, the natural response is to buy it from you. And if they don’t presently need what you’re selling, guess who they’ll remember and come back to when they do need it.
You can bet on it. And you should.
That proposition is not only an ethical template – it is a business model.
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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.
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(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.
One of my favorite newsletters comes on Sunday mornings from Andy Paul. It’s called The Weekly Sales Fix. (He also does a great weekly podcast). While he focuses mostly on large B2B sellers, his thoughts this week mirror what I’ve also been seeing in smaller B2C marketers.
The overall thought is an over-reliance on tools and processes.
First, Andy’s take on it:
I’ve been in sales for 4 decades….
We’ve all read about the various research findings that paint a dismal picture of the state of B2B sales.
Low quota attainment rates. Falling close rates. Increased ‘No Decision’ rates. Buyers saying they find no value in their interactions with sales reps.
However, I believe that the fundamental reason these problems exist is that we have taken our eyes off the ball.
Too many in sales are trying to substitute process, methodology and technology for the fundamental and irreplaceable human connections that are at the heart of the B2B sales transaction.
The true science of selling is not about metrics. It’s about the science of mastering the human to human interaction.
Unfortunately, sales people today aren’t being sufficiently educated about the human element of sales.
The more time I spend in sales, and the more time I invest in working to help other sales people, the more clearly I’ve come to see that the keys to success at any level in our profession are directly tied to mastering a small handful of basic human behaviors.
Ask great questions.
You can make it more complicated than this. But, why would you?
Because, no matter what sales process, technology or methodology you utilize, your ability to win ultimately boils down to mastering those four behaviors to build functional and effective relationships with your buyers.
Well said, Andy. Now let me apply those same thoughts to what I’ve been seeing on the smaller business side.
I get (and I bet many of you do too) a lot of emails and LinkedIn requests that completely ignore Andy’s advice.
- Someone sends me a LinkedIn request; they look interesting, so I accept. Within hours, I get a message telling me about their services and suggesting a call or a meeting.
- Someone sends me an email – it says a bit about their services, but absolutely nothing about me or my business, much less why I might be interested. Worse, they assert that they’re relevant and can help me. Worse still, they suggest a call or a meeting to explore how they can help me.
The Seductiveness of Tools and Processes
On the B2B side, the sheer power and connectedness of today’s CRM-and-related systems is impressive. As with all tech, things are getting digitized and interconnected. You can track and link to virtually unlimited amounts of things, including your own (automated) ‘content’ and customers’ responses.
The seduction is this: the belief that Because You Can, Therefore You Should.
- On the B2B side, because you can micro-identify potential buyers, their past behaviors, their likely interests, and monitor their reactions to anything you might put out, therefore you should do all the above.
No, you shouldn’t. Because as Andy Paul points out, the approach touches precisely zero of the four factors Andy calls “keys to success.”
- On the smaller business side, the seduction is that because you can easily invite me to join you on LinkedIn or ID me on a targeted mailing list and send me the equivalent of your brochure at zero cost, therefore you should do all the above.
No, you shouldn’t. Because if your response to an invitation acceptance is to send me a pitch, you’re committing the business equivalent of asking for sex on the first date. It’s just not done. It’s rude.
Worse, it pretty much doesn’t even work. The law of large numbers won’t help you. If your strategy was to micro-target desirable buyers with all your great screening tools, then offensiveness actually backfires on you: not only is the potential market smaller, but your bad reputation spreads more thoroughly.
Whether you’ve been seduced by processes or by tools, you are
a. Not being human
b. Not asking great (any?) questions
c. Not listening slowly (if at all)
d. Not delivering value
With great tech comes great temptation: Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. As Andy says, keep it simple, and keep it human.
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In sales, especially B2B sales, having a clearly developed and clearly stated value proposition is unquestionably important. This is especially true for large, complex, or intangible offerings.
In fact, some experts go so far as to suggest a value proposition is the key component of successful sales. And most would say that a value proposition is at least a necessary condition for success, if not a sufficient one.
But this is certainly to overstate the value of value propositions. Not only are they not sufficient – sometimes they’re not even necessary. They are frequently less important than classic issues of needs and wants. And discussing value propositions without overtly addressing client confidence in the capability of the seller is not useful.
Value propositions are unquestionably powerful. But if you think nailing down a clear value proposition is going to solve your sales issues, you need to think again.
Thinking about Value
First, let’s set some definitions. I’m using “value” in a simple, narrow way to mean economic value. For example, I might offer a client a value proposition that says, “By using a distinctive approach to account development, I can improve top-line revenue by 10% within six months at virtually no cost to margins.” The “value” in that example is “10% of full-margin top-line revenue,” and the total statement includes reference to how I’m going to achieve it and in what realm of the client’s business.
But usually that’s not how clients start out thinking. In my experience, clients go rather quickly from “we’ve got a revenue problem” to “the biggest reason for our revenue problem is sales force turnover,” from whence it’s a quick hop to “we need a salesforce recruiting solution.” In which case, my highly articulated value proposition about the account development process, even if it’s correct and relevant, doesn’t even get invited to the party.
Their problem (“10% top-line revenue gap”) may rhyme with your value offering (10% top-line revenue growth”), but if the buyer is fixated on sales force turnover, game over. You could argue you need to present your value proposition earlier in the buying cycle, but that’s a problem outside the value proposition per se. Call that the “misaligned diagnosis” problem.
Another problem is relative lack of urgency. A 10% increase in top-line growth, while it sounds great, may produce yawns in organizations that are transfixed by products going off patent, or by R&D rejuvenation, or by M&A activity, or by the urgency of a cost-cutting drive.
A value proposition can work its magic only if the client (a) agrees on the issue at hand, (b) feels a need to address the issue, and (c) wants to use the particular value proposition to address the need.
That is not a radical statement. (The value of a glass of water in the desert is greater than when lakeside.) And yet it is violated all the time. Salespeople keen on articulating value propositions to clients risk making the world look like a nail to match their value proposition hammer. We know better than to sell product vs. solution, but it’s so tempting when the “product” is disguised as a total value proposition.
Note: this can work in sellers’ favor. Over half my clients already see what they want in my offerings by the time they contact me. They articulate my value proposition for themselves. And unless they’ve gotten it quite wrong (not very common), there’s little point in forcing them to tweak it. At that point, the imperative to add value as the opportunity presents itself becomes the key task.
Selling Value and Buying Value
Suppose you haven’t productized the value proposition. You’re engaged in a constructive dialogue with an interested client. You’ve articulated your value proposition, they comprehend it, and it meets their needs. However, the same can be said for two competitors, each of whom is also talking to your potential client about increasing top-line revenue by changing the account development process.
Several issues then arise, such as the level of detail. (Just how does your approach to changing the account development process differ from theirs?) You could call this a deeper level of value proposition, but below some level it starts to look like just product variations.
But the biggest issue for buyers at this point is often not the value proposition at all, but the confidence or trust the buyer has in the seller. Confidence and trust can not only overcompensate for lower stated value, but they can overturn the value proposition entirely.
Consider two firms competing for a bid, with general agreement on the value proposition that the client is looking for. Let’s say the economic value calculated by each firm is about net $5 million. Sophisticated decision analytics might reveal the client has 90% confidence that firm A will deliver fully on the expected value, but only a 75% level of confidence that Firm B will do so.
That’s 15 percentage points variation in expected value—the same as if one firm had quoted a value of $750,000 more than the other! It’s also a discrepancy often sufficient to entirely wipe out the fees difference between the two sellers. Even greater discrepancies emerge when the issues turn to, “what if things go wrong? What will they be like to work with then?”
Yet this discrepancy virtually never gets talked about—at least not in a direct and quantitative way. The discussions are more along the lines of, “I don’t know. I just don’t feel like when push comes to shove they’re going to be able to get with our program.”
If you lose a bid and are lucky enough to get some post-bid debriefing, you’re not likely to hear, “Well, we just didn’t feel like when the chips were down you’d be able to get with our program.” That would be the corporate version of politically incorrect speech.
Instead, you will hear, “The other guys had a more compelling set of resumes on their team, ” or “We just felt like we had to go with their longer track record in this area.” In other words, the language of value proposition gets cited as post hoc justification even though it was not the basis for the actual decision. More prosaically, people buy with their heart and rationalize it with their brains.
Trust Can Even Overturn a Value Proposition
I’ve been on both ends of this one. I won a job by telling the client they flatly didn’t need to do a significant part of the job they were requesting. I didn’t win because I came up with a better value proposition; I won because I showed I could figure out the right thing to do. And the proof of it was they didn’t bother to solicit other bids around the new value proposition.
Sadly for me, I’ve lost this way, too. It’s not about picking the right game, it’s about picking the person who knows how to pick the right game.
The Role of the Value Proposition
Too often it’s assumed that the purpose of the value proposition is so obvious it doesn’t need stating. Doh! We assume clients buy value, clearly expressed, and tightly calculated. After all, that’s what they say they do.
There are seriously valuable roles for a value proposition, of course. They are:
- To force the seller to have a Point of View: my client may or may not buy what I’m selling, but my statement of it marks a beginning point of discussion, a coherent account—one that suggests other ideas, proves I’ve thought things through, and shows I am worthy of valuable time.
- To give the buyer “air cover” in justifying a decision internally: a B2B buyer wants to be able to tell anyone who asks, but especially his superiors, that they bought a proven product with a 35% ROI that will provide a 15% CAGR by an experienced-based approach to account management. They do not want to tell everyone they chose vendor A because, gee, they really felt good about them—even if that’s the truth.
- To undergo a required, universal protocol: like meeting ISO standards, following tax rules, or complying with traffic laws, the tight definitions that come from rigorous thinking about value propositions are an assurance of quality. They may be a little pro forma, they may be subject to some tweaking, and they may not be a guarantee. But if everyone must do them, they form a common denominator by which to compare something of importance—value.
Value propositions are powerful, useful, and often necessary. Typically, however, they are not sufficient. Don’t go to into the sale armed with a value proposition alone.