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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.
Do you go into sales meetings – even meetings with your existing clients – with a slew of prepared questions? Do you constantly find yourself asking question after question in a meeting?
You may be thinking, “Duh, of course. Aren’t we supposed to? How else are you going to demonstrate value added, explore hypotheses, prove your expertise?”
But let’s explore this apparent no-brainer. The fact is, Question Obsession can actually be detrimental. Lets explore why and how.
Consultants and salespeople (especially consultative sellers and sellers of consulting) have learned one mantra, and we love repeating it. It is the mantra that says, “Listen first; talk later.” In other words, it’s all about the question. Ask a great question, the logic goes, and all else will fall into place.
That is the great lesson of Sales and Consulting 101. And I have no beef with it. The problem is – if you never graduate from 101, you will end up in quicksand because an obsession with questions alone ultimately leads nowhere.
The Obsession with Questions
There’s good reason for the Sales 101 and Consulting 101 lesson of focusing on questions. Go no further than Neil Rackham’s SPIN Selling, in the case of sales, or Peter Block’s classic Flawless Consulting for consultants. Each one shows with wisdom and data that artfully posed questions generate dialogue and interaction, and that is always superior to pre-emptively beating up the client with the answer.
Of course, we often forget our 101 lesson and go into meetings with answers blazing. But that’s not what this article is about. This article is about the downside of obsessing with questions. It’s what happens when we turn the 101 lesson into a mantra, and we begin to focus on questions alone.
Is questioning an obsession? Try doing a web search on “Top Ten Sales Questions;” you’ll get millions of results.
Now ask yourself whether you recognize these themes:
- Should I ask open-ended or closed-ended questions?
- Should I ask about implications or needs?
- Should I ask about the client’s opinions or offer “challenger” questions?
As one sales website puts it, “Get the answers to these questions, and take action based on those answers, and you’ll get the sale. It’s that simple.”
No, it isn’t.
The sales version of question obsession manifests in lists. The consultant version of question obsession manifests in the Great Keystone Arch Question—what is the central supporting element?
You can recognize this form of obsession because it leads consultants speaking among themselves to say things like, “If we can set the data up right, we can frame the discussion such that when we finally pop the Keystone Arch Question, the whole logjam will be released. They’ll feel the pain, envision the solution, and fall all over themselves in a rush to buy our solution.”
No, they won’t.
That’s because good questions are necessary—but not sufficient. You have to have them, but they won’t get you to the end zone.
If all you do is focus on questions, you’ll end up obsessed with yourself, with your solutions and products, and with how clever you are. That’s called high self-orientation, and it will kill trust and sales both. Question obsession is quicksand for salespeople and consultants alike.
Beyond Question Obsession
The narrow purpose of a question is sometimes to get an answer. But there are broader purposes to most questions, and certainly a broader purpose to the art of questioning itself. One is to create a greater sense of insight for the client. Two others are to improve the client relationship and to give the client a sense of empowerment.
These goals are best accomplished not so much by focusing on the “what” of the question but on the “how.” Some examples:
- Questions to create insight: Consultants often come up with “insights” that only an MBA could understand or that leave the client feeling helpless. These are not useful insights. We don’t want to leave our clients saying, “Gosh, that’s really smart. How will I remember that?” Rather, we want them to say, “Oh, my gosh, of course! it’s so clear when you put it that way, isn’t it?” Our objective is to create insight, not to demonstrate that we have it.
- Improve the relationship: The better the relationship—buyer/seller or consultant/client—the better everything else gets. Innovation, profitability, time to market, and insights all improve with relationships. Great questions allow the parties to get closer together, more comfortable sharing the uncomfortable, and more willing to take risks by collaborating. Questions such as, “Let me ask you, if I may, do you personally find that scary?” have nothing to do with “content” insight, but they are critical to advancing the relationship.
- Create client empowerment: The point of all this questioning is not, ultimately, to understand things. It is to change them. And change will not happen if the client feels the insights are threatening, depressing, or out of his control. The key to action is to help the client see ways in which they can change, take control, own, and improve their situation.
It’s not what you ask; it’s how you ask it. All three of these broader objectives have little to do with the content of, or the answer to, a business question. Instead, all of them focus on the outcome of the question-answer interaction. From this perspective, it is not what you ask that is important, but how you ask it. We need to get past the Q&A outcome, which is just about knowledge, and focus on the outcome of the interaction, which is how we help our clients drive change.
Avoid the quicksand: get past questions for questions’ sake, and focus on real business outcomes.
How do you open a sales call?
Do you strive to establish credibility? Thought leadership? Make a positive first impression? Establish trust rapidly?
There are lots of answers to that question, and I’m going to suggest most of them are sub-optimal. And, I’m going to suggest, there is one single Best Practice way to do it. It’s called Bring a Risky Gift—BARG for short.
Why Your Opening Sales Conversation is Critical
First, let’s be clear. This question is more important than it used to be – not less important. Many sales authors are fond of noting that the sales process is becoming far more composed of pre-meeting interactions – collecting data from websites, emails, search engines and the like. They then draw the wrong conclusion – that the actual sales meeting itself is declining in importance.
The opposite is true. As long as complex B2B buying decisions are made by human beings – that is, protein-based entities who are the products of eons of emotional and social evolution – we require some kind of personal interaction before making a major decision. Let’s call that the sales meeting.
The fact that less total time is taken up by face to face meetings these days simply means that those meetings’ relative importance in the entire sales process has increased, not decreased.
Let’s say you and your spouse or significant other are invited to dinner at the home of a business acquaintance. It’s your first time meeting them in a primarily social context. What must you do?
You know the answer to this one. On the way there, you stop at the liquor store and pick up a nice bottle of wine. It’s what you do. The culture of gift giving in a thousand forms (including simple gestures of respect) is deeply embedded in every culture, including modern western business culture.
By doing so, you fulfill a minor cultural obligation. The host thanks you, and the evening begins on a fractionally higher note than before you walked in with the gift. But notice – this is more obligation than generous gesture. The downside of not bringing a bottle of wine is probably greater then the credit you get for doing so. You’re supposed to do this.
But imagine this. On the way to the liquor store, you say to your SO, “I think they went to northern Italy last year. What if we bought them a really nice bottle of Barolo, with an Italian looking gift card?“ and maybe you spend a few dollars more than you might have otherwise.
What happens when you present the gift? Notice – there is a risk here! It’s possible they are alcoholics. Or perhaps it was Spain they went to, not Italy. But here’s the magic: you actually get more credit for having taken that risk – even if you were wrong – than you get for buying the conventional, safe Napa cabernet.
What happens if your host really is an alcoholic? They are likely to say, “You know, we don’t drink, but that’s very thoughtful of you – we’ll save it for our next guests who do.“
And if it was Spain they went to? They are likely to say, “Ha ha, we used to confuse Spain with Italy too,“ or, “No, it was Spain, but with wines like this Barolo, we’re thinking Italy is our next destination – have you been?”
The point is: yes, you get credit for bringing any wine, but not much more than for fulfilling an obligation. You get serious extra credit for having been willing to take a risk – even if you’re wrong! It shows you are willing to be vulnerable in service to the client.
The act of showing vulnerability and taking a risk first means that you are playing the role of the trustor – the one who initiates a trust relationship – rather than waiting to passively play the lower-risk role of merely being trustworthy.
The possibility of being wrong is critical to that extra credit: it says to your host, “I may be wrong here, but I have put serious thought into this, and I’m willing to accept the gamble that I could conceivably be wrong; I trust that you will appreciate my well-intentioned gesture and the quality of thought that went into it.”
Now let’s see how that metaphor plays out in opening up a Sales conversation.
BARG to Open the Conversation
First, notice that you rarely get an opening sales conversation without already having established serious credibility. B2B buyers don’t waste their time, they’ve done their homework on you, and you have established enough credibility to get this meeting.
Do not waste their time by launching into a demonstration of how smart you are. It is annoying, and they’ve already acknowledged that point. Continuing to do so is all about you, not them. Worse, it’s rude. Any sales author who tells you you should open a sales conversation by establishing your credibility is oblivious to the serious emotional undercurrents happening in these moments.
That includes authors who suggest you should open with a breathtaking demonstration of how you are able to challenge their thinking. If that’s all you lead with, it is not only rude, it is insulting and arrogant.
Insights are great, but they must come well-packaged in the emotional wrapper of respect and etiquette. That’s where BARG comes in.
(It should go without saying that the wrong answer to, “so, tell us about yourself“ is to launch into your prepared deck about yourself. They were merely being polite by asking that question; you should not take it as any more than a pleasantry, which the rules of etiquette suggest requires only a 30-second answer.)
Here’s what you should say after the minimal pleasantries are complete:
Thanks for having us here. It is apparent to us, having looked through a lot of available information about you, that you are truly expert in [insert something] [insert something more]. It would be arrogant of us to claim that we know more about these areas than you do.
However— we do know a thing or two about similar situations, and one thought arose as we looked over your circumstance. It seems to us – please correct me if I’m wrong – that [X] might be a critical issue for you. Is that the case? And if so, could you tell us more about how X plays out in your business?
Two things: first, note that X had better be a meaningful, thoughtful insight.
But second, and frankly even more importantly, X had better be possibly wrong. If it is an absolutely 100% safe hypothesis, then you get no credit for having taken a risk. If you cannot be wrong in your hypothesis, then you are refusing to show any vulnerability. You are refusing to take the first step in creating trust. That is simply a variation on “I’m smarter than you are, and I’m going to start off by showing you why and how that’s true.”
There are two possible answers to your risky gift, and they are both good:
- The first answer is, “you’re totally right – anything you have to say about that critical issue, we are very interested in hearing.”
- The second answer is even better. “You know, most people think of X as the big issue, but the fact is – it’s really Y.”
In which case, you respond with, “Oh my gosh, I see it now – of course you’re right. Please, tell us more about Y, and how that plays out for you.“
And of course they will be happy to tell you about Y: because you have demonstrated vulnerability, you are showing sincere interest in what they have to say, you are focusing on them not on you, and you are demonstrating the willingness to learn from them. At that point, the polite thing for the client to do is to answer your question of them.
If you think these rules of social propriety are vague and imprecise, think about how you respond when someone extends a handshake to you: how often do you spurn them and turn away with a cold shoulder? Pretty much never. You can make serious book on the hard-wired social responses of human beings in these situations – we are extremely predictable.
Insight by itself is worse than useless if not wrapped in the package of social propriety. BARG is that wrapper. It triggers hard-wired responses of etiquette, respect and other-focus in an ever-ascending spiral of reciprocating exchanges between two trusting and trustworthy parties.
To close the loop: should you open a Sales conversation with credibility? With a first impression? With insight? With rapid trust creation?
The answer to all of those questions is Yes. What’s critical is how you do it. And how you do it is BARG—Bring a Risky Gift.
What do buyers really want?
In particular, what is the true role of expertise in evaluating the purchase of complex intangible services?
The head of marketing for a US East Coast major law firm was asked by 3 partners to help rehearse and prepare them for a key sales meeting at a major potential new client. “If only we can convince them that we are absolutely the best in this area, which we are,” the lead partner said, “then they’ll have to go with us.”
This point of view seemed so self-evident to the senior partner that it didn’t feel like an opinion; it seemed like an obvious truth. Unfortunately, not only is it just an opinion—it also is not particularly accurate.
Lawyers, accountants, bankers, actuaries, consultants—all behave more often than not as if the key to selling lies in a powerful display of expertise. Most complex intangible services sales are sold with the implicit, if not explicit, belief that expertise is the issue. But that doesn’t make it right. And if it’s not right, then we must answer three questions:
- if expertise doesn’t sell best, then what does?
- don’t buyers seem to want to buy expertise?
- if selling expertise isn’t the best approach, why is it the dominant one?
Good questions all. The answers lie in the psychology of buyer and seller of complex intangible services, and in trust—which is what really lies at the heart of successful sales.
WHAT’S THE ALTERNATIVE?
If buyers don’t primarily buy expertise, then what are they buying? The answer, in a word, is trust.
Take a simple case. Imagine you have recently moved to a new city, and must find a pediatrician for your 2-year old child. You have a list of 6 doctors, referrals from a combination of health plans, co-workers and neighbors. One doctor clearly has a slight edge in reputation of medical school; another has the most years’ experience; another is on staff at a teaching hospital and has written several articles.
But there is one who hits it off immediately with your 2-year old. This pediatrician connects with and seems genuinely focused on your interests as a parent and on those of your child, rather than on getting you as a new patient. In other technical respects, this physician is in the top half, but not number 1 in any category.
What do you do? Not everyone, but a majority nonetheless, will go for the pediatrician who seems to care, as long as he or she is within an acceptable range of expertise. And, they will use the word “trust” to describe their decision. There are exceptions, of course; a few people always buy purely on the basis of technical specifications, a few more buy only on price, and occasionally one seller is overwhelmingly dominant in the technical realm.
But the majority behave as if expertise has an acceptability threshold. Achieving that threshold is a necessary condition for getting hired—but even expertise beyond the threshold is not a sufficient condition. Given an acceptable level of expertise, people prefer—strongly—to buy from someone whom they trust. In other words, expertise serves as a first-order screen in the buying process—but not as a final decision-making criterion.
To put it simply: most buyers of complex intangible services prefer to find an expert they can trust, rather than to evaluate expertise across experts.
THEN WHY DON’T BUYERS BEHAVE THAT WAY?
They do. They just don’t say so. There’s a difference.
First, buyers are a little intimidated by the role of buyer. Usually the seller has greater expertise. There is often a lot at stake, and the services are costly. It is often truly hard to choose between several very competent sellers. So, buyers feel a need to display some level of technical expertise themselves, partly out of natural human ego, and partly to keep the seller on his toes.
Second, corporate buyers of complex intangible services are usually professionals themselves—they worship at the same altar of expertise. And, they are particularly concerned to be able to justify their decision. Justification in business almost always consists of rational, mostly financial, arguments. Therefore buyers drive discussions in the technical direction, even while looking to assess their level of trust with the sellers.
How does this play out? Buyers look for rational reasons to justify what is finally an emotional decision, built heavily on trust. The most commonly accepted rational reasons are price and features. (Price is a very comfortable excuse for saying no—it is quantitative, impersonal, and only the buyer has all the numbers. However, price is rarely given as a positive reason for selection). Very few chief counsels will say to their CEO or board nothing more than, “I think we should go with XYZ because, basically, I think like them better and trust them more.” Yet that is how most of us do behave when buying complex intangible services.
THEN WHY DO SELLERS SELL EXPERTISE?
Professionals over-emphasize expertise for three reasons.
First, that’s what they think (falsely) the buyer wants— and the buyer encourages them in that belief.
Second, expertise is what we professionals are most comfortable with. Very few lawyers went into law because they wanted to sell, or because they wanted to work with people. They went because they love the law, and the vast majority of their learning, development, evaluations and study consist of greater and greater mastery of content expertise. The same is true for consultants, commercial bankers, accountants and actuaries. Why would anyone want to sell on any other basis than what they’re good at and spend all their time and energy at?
Finally, professionals have an emotional vested interest in selling on expertise. It is not comfortable to believe that success in selling might depend on something other than what we spend almost all our time and energy focused on. Still, it’s the truth.
Most buyers of complex intangible services prefer to use technical expertise as a screening mechanism, and then make final decisions based on trust. Sellers who recognize this will listen more, talk less, and focus on the issues of the client at hand (rather than those of past clients). These simple client-focused behaviors are the ways buyers assess trust. Get yourself in the door by focusing on expertise; but once in, drop it and focus on the client, not on yourself.
As tech infiltrates every aspect of our personal and business lives, efficiency becomes an ever-more celebrated virtue. This is as true in communications as elsewhere. Think one-word book titles (Blink, Switch, Drive); think the obsession with CRM metrics; and think the Elevator Speech.
You know the “Elevator Speech.” It’s the hypothetical answer you would give if you were alone in a high-rise building elevator with the CEO of a potential client. Presumably the CEO says, “Tell me about your company,” or “Tell me why we should work with you.” Your presumed answer – sometimes called “the elevator pitch” – turns out to be a good solution in search of the right problem.
There are situations where a 30- to 60-second answer to those questions is exactly what’s called for. But there are other situations – far more, in fact – where different approaches are called for – let’s call them the Escalator Speech and the Stairs Speech.
THE STANDARD ELEVATOR SPEECH
Try searching “elevator speech.” Depending on whom you read your elevator speech should last 30 seconds – or maybe 120. It should answer the question, “What do you do?” or maybe it should just make an impression. It should – or shouldn’t – be a sales pitch. It is applicable to a job hunter, as well as to an entrepreneur in search of venture capital.
One size does not fit all, of course. But there is one simple question to help you craft your response speech, and it is this: What does the other person really want from you?
There are three possible answers, each requiring a different “speech”:
- Do I want to be involved with these people?
- What can these people do for me?
- Who are these people, and do I care?
Let’s examine each.
DO I WANT TO BE INVOLVED WITH THESE PEOPLE? THE TRUE ELEVATOR SPEECH
If you’re an entrepreneur pitching a venture capitalist, there is a definite frame of reference established simply by naming those two roles. A venture capitalist’s key question is, “Shall I invest more time, and ultimately more money, in developing an investor relationship with these people?”
Answering that question is part of what venture capitalists do. They deal in business models, competitive analyses, concept descriptions, and corporate story lines. A snappy 60-second comprehensive, high-talk, low-listen pitch is very right – if you’re an entrepreneur in an elevator with a venture capitalist.
WHAT CAN THESE PEOPLE DO FOR ME? THE ESCALATOR SPEECH
That question rarely comes up in other corporate roles. A line executive doesn’t spend much of his time interviewing consulting firms or deciding on systems or communications vendors. Even an HR executive doesn’t spend a lot of time interviewing candidates.
If such clients are approached by someone in a captive audience situation and forced to endure a 60-second speech – no matter how insightful or clever – their reaction is likely to be one of resentment. They didn’t ask to be informed about the benefits of a relationship. If anything, it feels presumptuous if a consultant or vendor starts to talk about one. If they’re with you on a trip to the 46th floor, this is when they hit the 26th floor button and say, “Oh, I just remembered, I have to…”
And yet consultants and vendors are often encouraged to think about the “elevator speech” concept – to emulate the entrepreneur – and begin telling their “life story” to a stranger who hasn’t invited a relationship conversation.
Meanwhile, the client is stuck back at something like, “Relationship? Slow down – I don’t even know what you can do for me. Let’s not put the cart ahead of the horse.”
This is the question more commonly being asked in a happenstance business encounter. The client is not interested in an investment relationship, but they might be interested in a simple services relationship. It depends on what we can do for them. So, answer that question. Do it with what I’ll call the “Escalator Speech.”
The Escalator Speech should be limited to about 20 seconds and culminate in a question. The rest of the time is entirely up to the client—who can, after all, choose to invite you to continue the conversation on whatever building floor they choose.
Your “speech” needs to sound something like this:
Mr. Jones, I’m James Smith from XYZ Associates. We’ve worked with a customer of yours, ABC, and I’m acquainted with Janice Johnson of your firm. We work to improve trust levels in our clients’ sales processes. It’s always seemed to me there’s untapped potential for improved customer relationships in your insurance business by changing the way benefits payments are transmitted. Do you see it that way too? Why isn’t there more personal contact at that critical point in the industry’s business process models?
Then shut up and listen for the rest of the escalator ride. There are two possible outcomes to this conversation, and both are good:
- The client says, “You’re right, it’s a constant source of amazement to me that we don’t do a better job on that. Let’s talk some more about how you’ve gotten organizations to do that.” Good conversation ensues.
- The client says, “Ah, that’s what many people think, and it sounds right at first, but there’s a hidden reason it doesn’t happen this way, and I’ll let you in on it. The reason is….” Even better conversation ensues, because you learned something, and the client had the pleasant experience of giving a smart person an even better education. They get to look smart – always a fun thing. Your original insight doesn’t have to be right; it just has to be intelligent and thoughtful.
The Escalator Speech starts off by giving the bare minimum of information required for social comfort, then it offers a piece of free insight to the client, ending with a genuine question. This gives the client total control over whether to take the conversation further.
DO I CARE WHO THEY ARE? THE STAIRS SPEECH
Both the elevator and escalator speeches happen in a business context – a semi-random event within a non-random environment. But other situations arise as well. You sit next to someone on an airplane who turns out to be a potential client. You go to a neighborhood cocktail party and run into someone who works at a potential client organization.
In such a situation, even an escalator speech is presumptive because the occasion is largely social. The impression you make here is based first on obeying the social roles that govern the situation. And rule number one is you don’t get deeply into business.
In this situation, if someone says, “What do you do?” they’re not inviting you to assess their business, much less pitch your own. And remember, they probably don’t care much about your answer. Their question was a social nicety; they didn’t come to this event looking for business contacts.
Here, you need to say something like this:
“I spent 12 years in consulting. I then joined a small healthcare client company as their CEO. Last year, I started my own consulting firm focused on the health industry. And you – what do you do?”
The rules of this dialogue are that it’s back and forth, and you shouldn’t spend more than 30 to 60 seconds on your side before tossing the conversational ball back to the other side. Your only business objective here is to give the client enough information to know if they care who you are. If they do care, then further discussions can be held later – exchange business cards or email addresses, and look for signs that the other party prefers to start talking about football. Follow their lead.
Let’s call this the Stairs Speech – so named because you take it one step at a time.
The next time someone says to you, “So, tell me, what is it that you do?” ask yourself what that questioner really wants to know.
- Are they just being polite? Give the Stairs Speech.
- Are they interested in what you might do for them? Use the Escalator Speech to escalate from monologue to dialogue.
- Are they interested in investing serious time and money in you? Use the Elevator Speech to show you’re on top of your business and respectful of their time.
There are several ways to get up in a building, and only one involves an elevator.
You know the age old saying, “It’s not personal, it’s business.” We’ve all heard it countless times, in office settings and in the movies. It may be something you try to tell yourself after a deal you worked for so hard for goes sour – yet you still have trouble believing it.
Yet, with all that wisdom awash in the atmosphere – why is it that we continue to take sales rejection so personally?
It’s one of the hardest parts of selling – that knife edge space where company revenue stream meets interior personal psychology. The fact is – it is business, and it is personal.
Most solutions share one problem; they are narcissistic, leading the salesperson to believe it’s all about them.
But it’s not all about you. And the sooner you build that insight into your selling, the better.
This is a topic I wish I had written more about in Trust-based Selling, so I’m glad to amplify it here.
Why Dealing with Rejection Messes You Up
Let’s start with the obvious. If you’re not getting some rejections, you’re probably not taking enough risks. So if you avoid rejection, you’re avoiding risk; which means you’re losing sales.
But that’s not all. If you’re avoiding rejection, on some level you know it. If you know you’re avoiding something, you know you’re not doing what you know you could do; you’re not living up to your own self-image. That soaks up a whole lot of energy; it makes you inward focused and unhappy. None of which helps you as a salesperson.
So avoiding rejection hurts your business, and it makes you feel unhappy. Inability to handle rejection hurts you everywhere it counts.
The Three Usual Solutions to Rejection—and Their Weaknesses
There are three common approaches to dealing with rejection. I’ve given them each distinctive names. They are:
1. Endure it. This approach suggests there is some natural relationship between the numbers of rejections you have to endure to get to the good stuff. If you spin the wheel long enough, your number will come up. Get out there and dial for dollars.
The problem: it’s hard to treat prospects as people if you’re just counting their no’s.
2. Shrink it. This approach says. “It’s not about you, it’s not personal, you shouldn’t feel hurt.” Bring in the shrinks; think your way into not feeling.
The problem: it really is personal. In fact, it’s about as personal as it gets – and you know it.
3. Motivate through it. This approach relies on getting you ‘motivated,’ which usually means pumped up, psyched, and able to just play through the pain.
The problem: prospects don’t appreciate being bulldozed.
Why “Handling Rejection” is Narcissistic
All those solutions have one defect: they’re all about managing your psychological response to an issue called “rejection.” But here’s the key: rejection is an imaginary concept – a fiction, a figment of your imagination.
“Rejection” is a belief that if something happened that affected you, then it must have happened to you – that it was about you, concerning you, because of you, etc. And that’s what I’ll refer to as narcissism – a tendency to view everything as being about you.
(Not-so-ancient societies used to believe that the sun and the planets revolved around the earth. There’s a very natural human tendency to believe that we are at the center of our own anthropomorphic universe, our own private Idaho. Much of growing up is getting over this idea, and most of us are only partially successful at it).
Instead of “dealing with rejection” let’s focus on what’s really going on in the real world – the world outside your head.
Curiosity is the Real Antidote to Rejection
Think of selling as a scavenger hunt. On a scavenger hunt, you go off into a relatively unstructured environment, looking for pre-defined items to collect. Of course, you’re interested in winning; but the game itself is fun as well.
In the game, you decide how and where to spend your time. You set priorities, and notice how and what your competitors are doing. There is skill involved in collecting the items. And you often end up in blind alleys when a particular path didn’t pan out for you.
What you don’t feel on a scavenger hunt is rejection. There simply is no such thing. It is not about you; it is just a process involving many people, of whom you are one.
All you need on a scavenger hunt is curiosity. And curiosity is a perfect emotion to bring to sales. Curiosity means you don’t have to ignore your emotions, or play through them, or convince yourself you’re immune to them. Instead, you’re just paying attention to a different set of issues. Let’s call those issues ‘reality.’
In the real world, nothing is being rejected; there are simply solutions and fits, or not-solutions and not-fits. It’s not a struggle – it’s a puzzle. If you’re a good solution to that puzzle and are curious enough, you might solve it. If you’re not a good solution for it, and/or aren’t curious, then you probably won’t.
So where’s ‘rejection’ in all this? In your head. So just stop it.
Three Steps You Can Take to Reject Rejection
1. Make a list of questions you’d like to know about each of your key prospects. Real questions, things you’d really like to learn.
2. Just as you would in a scavenger hunt, keep track of what you’ve learned at each blind alley. You don’t win scavenger hunts sitting back at the office; you learn by going out and finding blind ends.
3. Be alive. Have fun. Keep your ears open. There’s no point in blinding your senses in a scavenger hunt; why blind your emotions in the sales hunt? Just use them to figure out the puzzle.
Did the post-Copernican western world feel “rejected” by the sun when they found out it didn’t revolve around the earth? Of course not – though they probably did feel deflated. But that was just because they were cosmologically narcissistic. You don’t have to be that dumb or that narcissistic.
Nobody can reject you without your complicity in defining ‘rejection.’ Any time you hear ‘handling rejection,’ learn to laugh at yourself for thinking it’s about you – and go back to being curious.
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.
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.
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
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.
This is the first in an occasional series on trust in particular industry verticals. This post looks at the consulting industry.
In consulting, some things are changing. And some are not.
The biggest trend is, of course, the digitization of the firm’s service offerings. For example, nearly three quarters of one large consulting firm’s HR practice consists of moving processes into the digital age. Naturally, firms increasingly put more emphasis on technical qualifications of their consultants.
Another change, nearly as big, is the shift in business development practices (this one isn’t unique to consulting). Depending on who you talk to (Marketing Blender, Gartner), something like 50-60% of the buying process is complete before the buyer meets a seller. This number is only going higher. Naturally, firms focus increasingly on managing that non-personal-contact front end of the business development process.
However, the critical role of interpersonal relationships is not going away. Paradoxically, the increasing role of technology and automation does not mean that the role of relationships is decreasing – in fact, it means exactly the opposite. Here’s why.
On the project side, expertise is a commodity. The markets for human capital are efficient, and widely accessible. On the business development side, virtually no client wants to buy a significant project without understanding, and meeting, the people who will staff it.
This is an important fact of human biology. Reducing the time spent on human interaction merely increases the leverage that such time has on final decisions. Those infrequent interactions take on geometrically more importance as their duration declines.
The implication for consultancies? The ability to rapidly and genuinely create trust with clients is more critical than ever. You don’t have the luxury of schmooze time to establish comfortable relationships; it’s got to be done deeply and quickly, and done right.
Trusted Advisor and Trust-Based Selling workshops, are aimed at this need. 60% of our work is done in various professional services clients, with consulting a heavy component.
For a discussion about these issues, drop me (Charles Green, CEO, Trusted Advisor Associates) an email at cgreen-at-trustedadvisor-dot-com. You’ll not go onto an email list; there are no automated follow-ups; no cost, no obligation. Just let’s talk.
I spoke with BigCo, Inc. They wanted their B2B salespeople to become trusted advisors.
They felt (correctly) that greater trust levels with their customers would result in greater intra-customer market share and greater profitability. And they were right – as far as that goes.
But they then described to me their implementation plan. It consisted of breaking down the objectives into finer and finer components and matching them up with accountable business units – pretty standard practice.
As we dug deeper, a pattern emerged. The higher penetration levels, for example, were broken into more sales calls, more proactive ideas, and greater time spent up front. On the face of it, that sounds perfectly reasonable: if penetration were to increase, you’d probably see these changes in activities.
But there’s a causation/correlation problem here. Simply increasing the number of sales calls won’t do a thing; they have to be good calls. Simply offering more ideas won’t do a thing; they have to be decent ideas. Simply spending more time up front won’t do a thing; the time has to be well-spent. And simply assuming good calls, decent ideas, and well-spent time does not make it so.
This sounds perfectly obvious in the telling, but I have found that BigCo’s story (which is a composite of several clients) is common. It may even be the norm.
BigCo confused key performance indicators (KPIs) with critical success factors (CSFs). They confused correlation with causation. They confused measurements with the things being measured. And since we live in a management world that uncritically worships metrics (“if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it”), this confusion has critical and strategic implications.
That’s especially true when you’re trying to implement a values-driven strategy – such as becoming trusted advisors.
Measurement and Management
Just because something sounds obvious in the retelling, it doesn’t mean it’s obvious when you’re in the middle of it. Case in point: BigCo’s flawed logic in their approach to trust-based selling.
Increasing penetration requires more sales calls, they thought, and they’re probably right. Their mistake lay in thinking that “more sales calls” was a cause. It’s not – it’s an effect.
“More sales calls” may be a KPI, but it’s not a CSF. It may be an outcome, but it’s not a driver. “More sales calls” is a metric. It is not the thing that “more sales calls” is intended to measure. That “thing” is something like “more high-quality interactions driven by mutual curiosity.”
This confusion between actions and measurements, causes and effects, and KPIs and CSFs is not just common – it’s becoming rampant. It’s a real issue for digital age businesses in some ways even more than old-line businesses. Let’s look at some examples.
Gaming the Numbers
We’re all familiar with the salesperson who knows how to tweak an imperfect system to maximize his commissions at the expense of, say, the company’s gross margins. “Hey, I’m just following the incentives you built in,” he might say. That salesperson seized on a metric that imperfectly measured the company’s intended sales behaviors. (The proper management response would be not to change the metric, but to insist on a higher set of principles that overrule one misguided number.)
The next time you get a customer service operator on the line, check to see whether they conclude by saying something like, “May we say that I gave you excellent customer service today?” You are experiencing a system that is driven by metrics to the point where operators shamelessly beg for ratings. The metrics have been pimped out to serve a goal other than the customer service they were meant to measure.
See for yourself. Go to Amazon, and search for books under any significant topic you like (e.g., sales). Make sure you sort on relevance. It’s amazing how many books are rated over four stars (out of five). The reason is simple: we have been taught to look for ratings. Of course, the emphasis on ratings suborns all kind of perjury, misleading comments, and even outright falsehoods.
It’s not just books. Look at the flood of “recommendations” on LinkedIn. Look at the massive follow-me-I-follow-you dynamic on Twitter and other media. Or just look at your own behavior. What do you do when a friend asks you to rate a book, promote a blog post, or recommend them? There is monstrous grade inflation in most customer-rated aspects of business today.
Much of this comes down to our obsession in business with metrics. It goes back to the invention of the spreadsheet and the success of books such as Reengineering the Corporation. Numbers-all-the-time is today’s secular business religion.
The Wages of Confusion
The “so what” is big indeed. Assume any metric, almost by definition, has to be a pale reflection of the “thing” that is to be measured. We accept anniversary gifts as tokens of our love, market share as an indicator of competitive success, and, in the case of BigCo, numbers of sales calls as indicators of trusted advisor relationships. But we all know an anniversary gift does not a marriage make.
The only way to become trusted advisors to your customers is to gain the trust of your customers. You do not cause trust by increasing the number of sales calls; rather, greater trust causes more invitations for you to call on prospects. Doing the dishes doesn’t cause a great marriage; instead, a great marriage results in your doing the dishes willingly.
Confusing KPIs with CSFs causes KPIs to be artificially inflated. We know this intuitively, and so we discount them – while still trying to get higher scores on more of those discounted-value KPI metrics. We all know the game is rigged, but we keep playing it faster and faster.
What’s at stake is nothing less than how we implement things like “better client relationships.” You don’t get there by measuring metrics and deluding yourself that you’re addressing root causes. You get there only by understanding what it takes to interact with your very human customers—and then doing it.
Do that, and the numbers will take care of themselves.