What You Should Say About Your Competition when the Client Asks You

This article was first published in Raintoday.com

Suppose you’re bidding on some work, and the client says, “I might as well tell you, you have two competitors on this job: Widget Associates, and Smithtown Group.”

Do you then:

  1. Say nothing.
  2. Seize the opportunity to make a differentiating statement about your own firm.
  3. Hold your fire, and discretely refine your approach later in the process.
  4. Say, “That’s interesting – care to share why you chose the three of us?”

Of the above choices, I’d go with “d” and try to start a conversation.

However, there is a better choice – “e” – but before we see what “e” is, a little explanation.

Thinking About Your Competitors

To talk right, you must think right. And when it comes to talking about competitors with prospects, we usually don’t think right. Why? Our primary, ultimate and overriding objective is usually to win the sale. The result: our blatant display of disregard for the prospect’s interests is likely to lose us the sale.

I once heard a physician say, “In my 20 years of being a doctor, I never once heard a pharmaceutical rep from any company recommend a drug from any company but their own. So I don’t trust any of them.”

If you never concede the possibility that someone other than yourself might actually be better-suited than you for a given situation, then your objective is showing: you’re not in it for anyone but yourself.

You can’t avoid the appearance of self-absorption by using magic “lines” either. They may work if you’re selling free throws for a quarter at a county fair, but the more complicated a service or solution is, the more sophisticated the buyer is about choosing a service provider. Being sly, or clever won’t help you out.

What’s to be done? I don’t suggest you recommend the others, or even compliment them. No one faults you for a healthy competitive desire to win – the only issue here is what principles you would be willing to sacrifice in your pursuit of that goal.

So the right thing to say begins with the right thing to think. And the right thing to think is – what will be the best solution for the prospective client?

The Best Solution For The Client

If you’ve ever had the good fortune to debrief a prospect’s decision process post-purchase, you know that things look much clearer in the rear-view mirror. Whether you won or lost, it becomes obvious that the client really wanted the fast-payback solution, or the integrated solution, or the global solution, or whatever.

Whichever firm blunted its sword by attempting to argue the opposite was not only swimming upstream, but digging a hole for itself by appearing not to listen. If you won and that stubborn firm was your competitor, you probably nod your head knowingly: “Tsk tsk, how could they have missed those clear signals?”

But if it was your firm that lost – then you know how painful it is to think, “How, how could we have been so blind? And we thought we were doing the right thing?”

The simple truth about whether you won or lost is either your firm is probably better than your competitors at the fast payback solution or they are better than you. Ditto for the integrated solution. Or the global solution. Face it. Deal with it. It’s the truth.

Now, the implications. If you’re at a disadvantage for the fast payback solution – why would you want to pretend otherwise? In the unlikely event you are able to confuse and mislead the prospect, you win under false pretenses, and will have a very unhappy client when they learn the truth.

And if you’re at a disadvantage anyway, why would you want to argue against what the prospect probably perceives as truth, and be perceived as dishonest?

So, there is no benefit in saying things that make you sound better than you are. You might ask – is there an advantage in saying things that make you sound worse than you are? No – that is equally bad, because both make you untrustworthy in the eyes of the prospect. And if your objective is to find the best solution for the prospect, you need to be trusted when you do so.

So far this may sound like an argument for suicide. If we’re disadvantaged, are we supposed to just recommend the other guy and roll over? Absolutely not – because there is one factor we haven’t discussed. And that is the power of truth-telling in the pursuit of client service.

Tell The Truth

Suppose you were to just give up the struggle for winning, and accept that the objective of finding the best solution for the prospective client means just that – your job is to find the best solution for the prospective client.

Occasionally, that means blatantly redirecting the company that is interested in your services. I have seen lawyers say, “you don’t need a divorce attorney, you need a therapist – I’ll recommend one to you.” I have seen consultants say, “I think you need a firm that does more change management than we do.” Such clear client-orientation impresses prospects – and they have long memories, and big networks.

But more frequently, a commitment to finding the best solution means focusing on defining the characteristics of the best solution – and not focusing on the particular merits of a given solution.

The Test

Let’s come full circle and ask the question at the beginning of this article again. When the client says, “I might as well tell you, you have two competitors on this job: Widget Associates and Smithtown Group,” you respond with:

You: “That’s interesting – care to share with me why you chose those three?”

Client: “Well, you’re all reputable; all made the short list; we figure each of you can bring something to bear. Anything you care to share with me about how you see the other two?”

You: “Well, you should ask all of us that question. Most people who go with Widget Associates, if you ask them why, will say it’s their strength in global solutions. Most of Smithtown’s clients will cite their depth in integrated solutions. Our own clients are more likely to cite the fast payback on our work. Clients self-select, to a great extent – and rightly so.

“So, the critical step I recommend is focusing only on what’s most important to you. If you are clear on what’s most important – then it will be much easier for you to compare apples-to-apples solutions to that concern. And you will make a better decision.

“So, let us now discuss what is important to you. How clear are you? How clear is the organization? What are the trade-offs? What are the risks? The best thing we can do for you is help you make a clear decision based on criteria relevant to you. Let’s talk.”

And here’s the paradox. You may be second best at, say, the integrated solution. But a strong sense of client commitment and focus on their needs, not your own, can tip the balance in your favor even if integration is the key variable. Trustworthiness is worth a lot. It is more likely to win than any shading or tweaking you might throw into the mix.

And when you lose, having told the truth about focusing on the best client solution, you walk away with a ton of goodwill, future references and referrals.

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The pragmatic, field-oriented follow-on to the classic The Trusted Advisor. Green and Howe go deep into the how-to’s of trusted business relationships—loaded with stories, exercises, tips and tricks, and deeply practical advice.


TrustBasedSelling“Sales” and “Trust” rarely inhabit the same sentence. Customers fear being “sold” — they suspect sellers have only their own interests at heart. Is this a built-in conflict? Or can sellers serve buyers’ interests and their own as well? The solution is simple to state, hard to live—and totally worth the effort.



The Trusted AdvisorThis classic book explores the paradigm of trust through the filter of professional services. It is a blend of thought and practice, clear ideas and practical suggestions, and it has found a place on many professionals’ working bookshelves.


Does Your Customer Trust You? The Acid Test

The acid testMost salespeople will agree—there is no stronger sales driver than a customer’s trust in the salesperson. Further, the most successful route to being trusted is to be trustworthy—worthy of trust. Faking trust is not easy—and the consequences of failing at it are large.

But is it possible to know if your client does trust you? Is there one predictor of client trust? Is there a single factor that amounts to an acid test of trust in selling?

I think there is. It’s contained in one single question. A “yes” answer will strongly suggest your customers trust you. A “no” answer will virtually guarantee they don’t.

The Acid Test of Trust in Selling

The question is this:

Have you ever recommended a competitor to one of your better clients?

If the answer is “yes”—subject to the caveats below—then you have demonstrably put your customer’s short-term interests ahead of your own. This indicates low self-orientation and a long-term perspective on your part (I’m assuming sincerity), and is a good indicator of trustworthiness.

If you have never, ever, recommended a competitor to a good client, then either your product is always better than the competition for every customer in every situation (puh-leeze), or—far more likely—you always shade your answers to suit your own advantage. Which says you always put your interests ahead of your customers’. Which says, frankly, you can’t be trusted.

Here are the caveats: don’t count “yes” answers if:

a. The client was trivially important to you
b. You were going to lose the client anyway
c. You don’t have a viable service offering in the category
d. You figured the competitor’s offering was terrible and you’d deep-six them by recommending them.

The only fair “yes” answer is one in which you honestly felt that an important clientwould be better served in an important case by going with a competitor’s offering.

If that describes what you did, and it is a fair reflection of how you think about client relationships in general, then I suspect your clients trust you.

This is the “acid test” of trust in selling. To understand why it’s so powerful, let’s consider the factors of trust.

Why Is This the Acid Test?

My co-authors and I suggested in The Trusted Advisor that trust has four components, and we arrayed them in the “trust equation.” More precisely, it is an equation for trustworthiness, and it is written:
T =  (C   R   I) / S


T = trustworthiness of the seller (as perceived by the buyer),
C = credibility,
R = reliability,
I = intimacy, and
S = self-orientation.

Credibility is probably the most commonly thought-of trust component, but it is only one. Think of credibility and reliability as being the “rational” parts of trust. Believable, credentialed, dependable, having a track record—these are the traits we most consciously look for in screening for vendors, doctors, and websites.

The third factor in the numerator—intimacy—is more emotional. It has to do with the sense of security we get in sharing information with someone. We say we “trust” someone when we open up to them, share parts of ourselves with them. We trust those to whom we entrust our secrets.

But all pale beside the power of the single factor in the denominator—self-orientation. If the seller—the one who would be trusted, who strives to be perceived as trustworthy—is perceived as being self-oriented, then we see him as in it for himself. And that’s the kiss of death for trust.

At its simplest, high self-orientation is selfishness; at its most complex, self-absorption. Neither gives the buyer a sense that the seller cares about any interests but his own.

Self-orientation speaks to motives. If one’s motives are suspect, then everything else is cast in a different light. What looked like credible credentials may be a forged resume and false testimonials. What looked like a reliable track record may be an assemblage of falsehoods. What looked like safe intimacy may be the tactics of a con man. Bad motives taint every other aspect of trust.

The acid test aims squarely at this issue of orientation. Whom are you serving? If the answer is, the client, then all is well. No client expects a professional to go out of business serving them; the need to make a good profit is easily accepted.

It’s when the need to run a profitable business is given primacy in every transaction, every quarter, every sale, that clients call your motives into question. How can they trust someone who’s never willing to invest in the longer term, never willing to compromise, never willing to do gracefully defer in the face of what is best for the client? They cannot, of course.

Passing the acid test suggests you know how to focus on relationships, not transactions; medium and long-term timeframes, not just short-term; and collaborative, not competitive, work patterns.

Flunking the acid test means clients doubt your motives. Whether you are selfish or self-obsessed makes little difference to them—the results are self-aggrandizing, not client-helpful.

The paradox is: in the long-run, self-focused behavior is less successful than is client-helpful behavior. Collaboration beats competition. Trust beats suspicion. Profits flow most not to those who crave them, but to those who accept them gracefully as an outcome of client service.

Write Your Next Proposal Sitting Next to the Client

We all know we should write proposals that are less about us. We know we should spend less space on credentials and methodology; we know we should focus more on results, benefits, and adding value in the proposal. But we nearly always miss the biggest proposal opportunity of all—to build the relationship.

Rounding up the Usual Suspects—PIRL

You know well the drill; it varies in detail only, differing slightly with the complexity of your business. It probably sounds pretty much like this.

“Great meeting, Joe, we got a lot better feel for things today face to face than we could have done with more phone calls. Thanks for making the time. We’ll have the proposal to you as a .pdf file by end of the week, and FedEx a hard copy with full graphics to you at the same time. “It’ll include all the specs we discussed to date—capabilities, costing, time estimates, benefits, payback and ROI calculations—everything we talked about. “After that, we’ll look forward to hearing back from you, and of course I hope you’ll feel completely free to call us with any questions. OK, then, see you, we’ll get this to you by Friday, thanks a lot.”

Now, what is predictable from this dialogue? My guess is, these four things:

  1. The proposal will start from an existing proposal as a template
  2. The proposal take about the average amount of time and cost the average amount
  3. The likelihood of acceptance is your usual hit rate
  4. No matter how how much you stress “feel free,” you will not hear back from the client with any questions. None.

You had a great meeting. If you get the job, you’ll have an even better relationship after the contract is signed. But right now, you are in between. You are in the twilight zone of PIRL—proposal-induced relationship limbo. What if you could keep the relationship momentum going? What if you could break out of PIRL and do something to really accelerate the value add, and the likelihood of doing something great for the client? And of getting the job as a result? You can. All you have to do is change one major fact about the proposal. Don’t write it by yourself.

Why We Have Proposals

The socially acceptable presumption is that “proposal” means it’s time to go off and write something at arms’ length, so that the client can “objectively” study the various options facing them. Most of the consequences of this evolved social behavior are horrendous, for seller and buyer alike. It draws an awkward halt to a developing relationship. It forces sellers to retreat back to the kinds of things they did at the beginning of the relationship—re-hashing credentials and third party testimonials. It forces buyers to take a step back, to be rational and unconnected. It forces both parties to put benefits into cold, unemotional, factual terms; which means it forces them to translate realtionships into clinical terms. It makes some sense if your objective is to guard against irrational things like trust, relationships and collaboration. If you think the essence of the commercial transaction, however, lies at least as much in people interactions as it does in blinded reverse online auctions, then the proposal process is pretty much a big splash of cold water to the face. Yet there’s one very valuable thing that happens when you say, “I’ll send you the proposal.” You give the client an emotionally acceptable way of saying “no” to you. This may be the biggest reason of all that proposals exist. No one wants to be the agent of personalizing rejection; and frankly, we don’t want to be rejected in person either. So breaking out of proposal-induced relationship limbo will require an answer to the burning question: “How will I say ‘no’ if I have to?”

The Joint Proposal

Enter the joint proposal. What if, instead of the usual “send it to you Friday” line, you were to say:

“Great meeting, Joe, we got a lot better feel for things today face to face than we could have done with more phone calls. Let me suggest we keep up that progress, rather than shutting it down. “Let me suggest you book this conference room again for next Tuesday, and we write your proposal together. “Together, we’ll address all the specs we’ve discussed—capabilities, costing, time estimates, benefits, payback and ROI calculations—everything we talked about. We’ll put in the stuff you need, and leave out whatever boilerplate you don’t need. “I’ll bring everything I need from our side—pricing sheets, work design outlines—and I’ll be quite open about it. You come with the audience you need this to speak to, and the critical issues the proposal must address. As issues of interpretation arise, we’ll address them together. As issues of understanding arise, we’ll address them together. “Together, we’ll write the best proposal that can possibly be written for the combination of you and us. Is that the best possible proposal for you? Maybe, maybe not. But we’ll both know that we got the best we had to offer for you out on the table. “Joe, I know this approach is no guarantee we’ll get the job. In fact, it may become very clear to both of us as we write the proposal that we are particular well-qualified—or badly qualified—to do this work for you. Which means we’re reducing the likelihood of misunderstanding and surprise. Which is good for both of us.”

Now, what is Joe going to say, and think, and feel?

He may say yes, or he may say no.

a. He may think and feel that you are clever and creative and trustworthy, or at least enough to so to try your idea. In which case, you have achieved PIRL escape velocity and you’ll both benefit.

b. He may think it’s just a little too risky and avant garde for him to try and sell upstairs—yet still feel like it was a good idea and you are to be commended for being willing to be that open and constructive. In which case, you have offered some value—an interesting new idea—and gained some relationship credibility in the process, even if you still do the conventional proposal.

c. Or, he may think you are a very devious, manipulative person, and feel that you are putting him into an emotionally stressful and embarrassing position, and say no, and be inclined to be suspicious of you.

If your client fits category c, then may I suggest you are dealing with a particular personality type, one for whom proposals provide emotional protection and insurance against relationships. In such cases, gently acknowledge that you appreciate many people prefer the traditional proposal process, and you will be happy to comply. Then go back to your office, downgrade the probability of winning that proposal, and consider cutting your investment in time in writing it. Because the joint proposal is also a test of the client; can they handle a relationship? If the answer is no, wouldn’t you rather find out sooner rather than later?

My Client Is a Jerk: Three Keys to Transforming Relationships Gone Wrong

This article was first published in Raintoday.com

Have you ever had a difficult client? I don’t mean the client from hell, I just mean garden variety difficult. Difficult clients come in lots of different flavors.

• There’s the client who will not take the time up front to share critical information, explore ideas, or otherwise involve you in early stages;

• There’s the client who just cannot make a decision, regardless of how much data or analyses you provide at their request;

• There’s the client who is frozen by politics or fear or ignorance, who will not face facts about critical issues;

• Finally, there’s the client with personality issues, who argues, or rejects, or is otherwise disrespectful to you and your team, and who often shows favoritism to someone else rather than us.

Fortunately, there is a common thread to all these cases, which—if we understand it—can help us succeed.
The common thread has nothing to do with the clients. The common thread is us.

The Client Situation

First, let’s get some perspective—about our clients, and about ourselves.

We’ve all said, if only in our heads, “my client is a jerk.” But “my client is a jerk” is a terrible problem statement.

First, the client is unlikely to accept it as a problem statement, it’s highly subjective, and it’s quite unverifiable.

And frankly, people in a position to hire outside professionals typically have evidenced some degree of success in life. While it’s popular lately to describe the prevalence of “assholes” in business (see Bob Sutton’s excellent book), my guess is their frequency is overestimated. Most clients are intellectually and emotionally intelligent.

Most clients have spouses, or parents, or siblings, who seem to be quite capable of loving them. Most have a boss who has promoted them. It is wise to assume that, even if their behavior is bad, they have some ability to get by in life. True psychotics are pretty rare in business.

Furthermore, truly bad behavior more often than not comes from decent people who are stressed out. If someone is behaving badly, it’s a good bet that they are afraid—of losing something they have, or of not getting what they want.

If you can identify that fear, then you can replace demonization with a real problem statement—a far more productive approach. If, further, you can talk about that fear with your client, you will create a lasting bond that can serve you both well.

Our Own Situation

What’s true of clients is equally true for us. Particularly in selling, we are loaded with fears. We are afraid, first of all, of not getting the sale. And it goes deeper. We’re afraid of our boss, peers and loved ones knowing that we might not get the sale—afraid of their judgement. We’re afraid of the judging of the client, too—feeling that if we don’t get the sale, it means they think less of us.

But we ourselves carry the ultimate judges around in our own heads. We allow ourselves to be hijacked and held hostage by our own ideas of what constitutes success, or being “good enough,” or whatever value judgments we distill from our past, and apply to ourselves. There’s a thin line between having high standards and beating up on oneself.
If we allow ourselves to act from those fears, we are likely to run from judgment. One of the most emotionally attractive ways out of the tyranny of self-judgment is to blame others. It was not my fault, we want to say; the dog ate my homework. It was a bad hair day. Or—this sale was doomed because I got stuck with a difficult client. If you’d had my client, you couldn’t have done much either. It wasn’t my fault—it was the client.

But blame is more useless to us than our appendix. At least when an appendix gets inflamed, we recognize it and operate to remove it. When blame flares up, people at first commiserate with you, encouraging it. Then as it metastasizes into resentment, people begin to move away from you. Resentment, it is said, is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die. Misery may love company, but company doesn’t return the favor.

Blaming a client never got you the sale, and it never will; but it may keep you from getting the next one. People don’t like blame-throwers. Clients especially don’t.

If there is such a thing as a truly “difficult” client, the only valid lesson to draw from the experience is to avoid similar clients in future. And that is a lesson best kept to yourself.


What’s true of clients is equally true for us. Particularly in selling, we are prone to fear, hence to blame. And that leads to nothing good.

The first thing to do is to notice our thoughts. Practice taking a “snapshot” of your thoughts when you are stressed.

Ask yourself, “what is the problem here?” If your mental snapshot answer starts with, “my client won’t…” or “my client doesn’t…” or “I can’t get my client to…” or “my client never…” then you need to step back and reframe your thinking. You are stuck in the blame game, spinning your wheels, and going nowhere.

You need a problem statement that has you in it, first of all. And almost always it should be a problem statement that is joint. If you and your client can’t even agree about why you’re not getting along, you’re certainly not going to make much progress on the substantive issues you want to work on.

Good problem statements are joint. Jointness is reflected in language, e.g.:

• Our problem is we have differing views about the priority of X and Y
• We seem to have a problem in communicating when it comes to Q and R
• It looks like we differ about the timeframe to be considered here.

If you have a “difficult” client, find a “we” statement you can each agree to that gets to the heart of the disagreement.


Sometimes, all we need to do is jointly reframe an issue and, voila—our clients no longer seem so difficult.
It never hurts to go back to basics. One reason people act badly is that they have not had someone listen to them. Really listen. Deeply. Without reacting with suggestions or action steps. Just for the sake of understanding. “Just” understanding our clients often ends up being the catalyst that changes everything.

But sometimes, we need to do some advanced work on ourselves—in particular, to find out what we have become attached to that holds us hostage. Here are a few.

a. Don’t hold yourself hostage to the outcome. We should have points of view—that is part of what clients pay for. And we should argue clearly and forcefully for what we believe is right. But we are not responsible for our clients’ actions—only for informing their actions as best we can.
No one ultimately controls another human being without their consent—even at gunpoint. Holding ourselves accountable for changing others is a recipe for misery. Do the next right thing—then detach from the results. You don’t own the outcome.

b. Check your ego at the door. The best way to lose the sale is to try very hard to get the sale; the best way to lose the argument is to try very hard to win the argument. It is not about you. The only one who thinks it is about you is you. Focus on the client, not yourself.

c. Be curious. Is your client “difficult?” Be curious as to why. What is he afraid of? What is at stake for her? What is your role in the situation? What are you afraid of? On what basic issues do you see differently? What do you think the client sees as the problem statement? What problem are you both trying to solve?

There aren’t any difficult clients. Not really. There are only relationships that aren’t working well. And nearly all of those can be fixed. But it must start with us.

As Phil McGee says, “blame is captivity; responsibility is freedom.” To get free of “difficult clients,” take responsibility for fixing the relationships.

Don’t Handle Objections Like Snakes

I googled “sales objections,” and got 43,000 hits. Amazon yields 80 references. It’s a popular topic—objections are what we fear most when we think of “selling.”

The titles indicate how “objection-handling” is viewed. 90% of the verbs that go with “objection” are either “handling” or “overcoming.” (Occasional mention: “eliminating,” “crushing”). And why not? How dare those clients “object” to our wonderful propositions!

All those verbs ooze negativity. The very language we use suggests that “objections” are the enemy—something nasty to be overcome, gotten rid of, dealt with—better yet, conquered, crushed or destroyed.

The way most of us would view having to handle snakes.


Here are some typical negative quotes from various selling books. (Note they almost all are based on tangible products businesses, rather than professional services—which makes them sound all the more jarring to a services client’s ear).

On the role of objections:

An objection from a customer can and should be overcome by the closer. There should be no excuse for not overcoming a legitimate, honest objection from the customer. This is the closer’s job: to provide answers, get an agreement, and conquer (close).

A typical logic structure of an objection-handling session:

Salesperson: “What is the reason you are not buying?”

Client: [states his objection].

Salesperson: “Is that the only reason?”

Client: “Yes.”

Salesperson: “Then, if…[eliminates objection]…would you buy?”

Client: “Yes.”

Several elected objection-handling techniques:

The Boomerang: yes, it is expensive, but I don’t think you would want to buy your wife a cheap present.

The Conditional Close: you say you want a red one. If I can phone up and get you one, will you take it today?

The Deflection: Yes, I see what you mean…mmm…Now let me show you the range of finishes you can have…

The Feel/felt/found Model: I understand you feel about that. Many others have felt the same way. And what they have found is that….

These are manipulative, yes—but that’s not the point. They all place us in opposition to the client. They cast the client either as the enemy, or as a hill to be taken.

From this standpoint, “objections” are bound to feel like handling snakes.

The usual, negative, approach to objections is part of a wrong set of beliefs, including:

  • The purpose of business is to make a profit
  • The purpose of selling is to get the revenue
  • The purpose of closing is to get the sale
  • The purpose of objection-handling is to get the close.

You can’t get rid of the snake-handling feel without getting rid of this snakes’ nest of bad thinking.

Here’s an alternative, positive set of ideas:

  • The purpose of business is to add value where none existed
  • The purpose of selling is to jointly articulate and point the way to greater value
  • Closing reflects agreement on a common view of the greater value to be created
  • Objections vaguely indicate lack of agreement on a view of a greater value to be created.

Rethinking Objections

At the outset of a professional relationship, we bring some strong ideas about how to add value. So do our clients. This is as it should be. Working collaboratively with the client to take the best of both perspectives creates the maximum value.

The concept of “objections” undermines that potential synergy. It suggests that selling is a struggle of ideas, a contest of wills, and that our job is to persuade the client of the superiority of ours. Hence we get objection-“handling.” Like snake-“handling”, it has overtones of danger—if we don’t know the tricks of savvy handlers, we’re likely to get bitten.

But we don’t need to go there. If we can approach the client with an open-minded, curiosity-driven, adventuresome, mutual attitude of discovery—then “objections” no longer look like snakes. They are simply emotional statements about the buyer’s readiness. They are information, not attacks.

Of course, there will always be issues of timing, budget, politics and alignment. We need to proactively identify them along with the client. To do any less is unprofessional.

Then there are the issues your tummy tells you are emotional, not rational. Price is a common one, but any objection can be nominally about one thing, and in fact about something else. Most objections have multiple layers.

The temptation is to treat every “objection” as being about what it claims to be. But people buy for emotional reasons, then justify it later in rational terms. We must deal with the emotional underlying the rational.

Sometimes this is best done overtly (“I get the feeling you’re not happy about this; can you say more about it?”) Other times, it is enough to tacitly acknowledge the feelings. The point is to deal with the underlying reality.

Speaking the New Language

We and our clients get stuck in the old language of “objection-handling” and “closing.” We need new language to communicate new approaches, but also to signal ourselves and others that something fundamental has shifted.

Here are some phrases to get rid of, and some new ones to add.

1. Get rid of the word “objections” itself. The term suggests a negative reaction to something we proposed—but this shouldn’t be about us! Let’s start with the client, not with us. Start with the idea of a client’s concerns—not ours.

2. Every client is concerned about change itself. They simply want to know that they have covered all the bases, that they haven’t left anything out. Our role is to help them make sure they have thought of everything—and, where there are answers, to articulate them. And where there are not, to articulate that too.

Your client does not want an advocate, but a trusted advisor. Help them by uncovering all their concerns, not by “handling” their “objections.”

3. Get rid of—completely—the old “if I could meet this objection, then would you buy?” language. It is manipulative, but more importantly, it is all about you and your objectives—not about the client.

4. In initial conversations, start a joint running list of issues and concerns that the client has. Share that list at all times—and work on in it jointly. Introduce issues with the phrase, “If I were in your shoes, I imagine I’d be concerned about…” Make sure that you include some emotional and political issues on your list, e.g. “I would imagine you’d be concerned about how your internal clients will perceive the price you end up paying; is that right?”

5. At several points—particularly after resolving some concerns—look jointly at the list and say, “How are we coming along here? Is this process helping the decision? Are we meeting your time schedule? Are there any concerns that have emerged since we last talked that we need to get onto the list?”

6. If at any point you sense hesitation, say, “I sense that you’ve got some other concern here that we haven’t written down. Is that right? Is it the process itself? Tell me how you’re feeling.” You need to use direct, honest talk here, otherwise the client can withdraw—in which case the trusted relationship you’re working to cultivate can fall down. Honest, unselfish concern is the antidote.

Your objective is not to handle the objection, or close the deal, or get the sale. Those things happen naturally, as outcomes—as long as you don’t make them goals. Making them goals turns your client into objects, and you end up handling them like snakes.

Don’t handle objections; help define and solve client concerns. Let go your concern about the outcome—paradoxically, that willingness the outcome go will improve your outcomes.

Trust in Business: The Core Concepts

Trust relationships are vital to the conduct of business. Some base level of trust is required just to have employment contracts, or to engage in commercial transactions. Beyond such minimum thresholds, trust also plays a major role.

The level of trust in business relationships—whether external, e.g. in sales or advisory roles, or internal, e.g. in a services function—is a greater determinant of success than anything else, including content excellence.

How can we think about trust? What conceptual frameworks do we need in order to intelligently assess and improve on trust relationships, and in particular on our levels of trustworthiness?

This article lays out the core trust models I have developed and adopted over the years. They are taken from The Trusted Advisor (with Maister and Galford, Free Press, 2000), and Trust-based Selling (McGraw-Hill, 2006). There are three.

  1. The Trust Equation: a deconstructive, analytical model of the components of trustworthiness;
  2. The Trust Creation Process: a process model of trust creation through personal interaction—mainly conversations;
  3. The Trust Principles: four principles, or values, which serve as guides to decision-making and conduct to increase trust.

The Trust Equation

Trust is a bi-lateral relationship—one trusts, and the other is the trusted. While the two are related, they’re not the same thing. The trust equation is a model for the second—the one who would be trusted. It is about trustworthiness.

Often we intend more than one thing when we use the word trust. We use it to describe what we think of what people say. We also use it to describe behaviors. We use it to describe whether or not we feel comfortable sharing certain information with someone else. And we use the same word to indicate whether or not we feel other people have our interests at heart, vs. their own interests.

Those four variables can be described as Credibility, Reliability, Intimacy, and Self-Orientation. They can be combined in an equation.

The Trust Equation

Credibility has to do with the words we speak. In a sentence, we might say, “I can trust what she says about intellectual property; she is very credible on the subject.

By contrast, reliability has to do with actions. We might say, for example, “If he says he’ll deliver the product tomorrow, I trust him, because he’s dependable.”

Intimacy refers to the safety or security that we feel when entrusting someone with something. We might say, “I can trust her with that information; she’s never violated my confidentiality before, and she would never embarrass me.”

Self-orientation refers to the focus of the person in question. In particular, whether the person’s focus is primarily on himself or herself or on the other person. We might say, “I can’t trust him on this deal—I don’t think he cares enough about me, he’s focused on what he gets out of the deal.” Or—more commonly—“I don’t trust him—I think he was too concerned about how he was appearing, so he wasn’t really paying attention.”

Increasing the value of the factors in the numerator increases the value of trust. Increasing the value of the denominator—that is, self-orientation—decreases the value of trust.

Since there is only one variable in the denominator and three in the numerator, the most important factor is self-orientation. This is intentional. A seller with low self-orientation is free to really, truly, honestly focus on the customer. Not for his own sake, but for the sake of the customer. Such a focus is rare among salespeople (or people in general, for that matter).

Looking at trust this way covers most of the common meanings of trust that we encounter in everyday business interactions. Note that the meanings are almost entirely personal, not institutional.

People don’t primarily trust institutional entities, they trust other people. The components of credibility and reliability are sometimes used to describe companies or Websites, but at least as often to describe people. The other components—intimacy and self-orientation—are almost entirely about people.

Trust in selling requires good “scores” on all four variables in the equation. But the most important, by far, is low levels of self-orientation.

Living the four trust values is the best way to increase your trustworthiness.

The Trust Creation Process

Trust typically gets created at the individual level, between people, and usually in conversations. The Trust Creation Process is a five-step model for that process:

  1. Engage the client in an open discussion about issues that are key to the client;
  2. Listen to what is important and real to the client; earn the right to offer solutions;
  3. Frame the true root issue, without the language of blame, via caveats, problem statements and hypotheses; take personal risks to explore sensitive issues—articulate a point of view; create by giving away;
  4. Envision an alternate reality, including win-win specific descriptions of outcomes and results, including emotional and political states; clarify benefits—make clear what’s at stake; be tangible about future states;
  5. Commit to actionable next steps that imply significant commitment and movement on the part of each party.

The order in which these sentences occur in a conversation has as much impact as the sentences themselves. That is, you could do a wonderful job on framing the issue or on the commitment to action—but if you do them before you do listening, then the trust process breaks down, or freezes. This becomes clearer when we translate the trust creation process into a sales context, as follows:

  • Engage: I hear X may be an issue for you—is that right?
  • Listen: Gee, that’s interesting; tell me more; what’s behind that?
  • Frame: It sounds like what you may have here is a case of Q.
  • Envision: How will things look three years from now if we fix this?
  • Commit: What if we were to do Z?

The most powerful step in the Trust Creation Process by far is the Listening step. The two most common errors in practice are:

  • Inadequate listening, and
  • Jumping too quickly to the final, action, step.

The Trust Principles

Being or becoming trustworthy cannot be reduced to pure behaviors. You can’t bottle it in a competency model. Our actions are driven by our beliefs, and our beliefs are driven by our values or principles. Trustworthy behavior is way too complex to fake without the beliefs and values behind them. If your values don’t drive you to behave in a trustworthy manner all the time, you’ll be found out quickly.

Hence, the Trust Equation and the way we use the Trust Creation Process model are really just outcomes of the principles we hold. The way to become trusted is to act consistently from those principles—and not just any set of principles will do. There are four specific principles governing trustworthy behavior:

  1. A focus on the Other (client, customer, internal co-worker, boss, partner, subordinate) for the Other’s sake, not just as a means to one’s own ends.We often hear “client-focus,” or “customer-centric.” But these are terms all-too-often framed in terms of economic benefit to the person trying to be trusted.
  2. A collaborative approach to relationships.Collaboration here means a willingness to work together, creating both joint goals and joint approaches to getting there.
  3. A medium to long term relationship perspective, not a short-term transactional focus.Focus on relationships nurtures transactions; but focus on transactions chokes off relationships. The most profitable relationships for both parties are those where multiple transactions over time are assumed in the approach to each transaction.
  4. A habit of being transparent in all one’s dealings.

Transparency has the great virtue of helping recall who said what to whom. It also increases credibility, and lowers self-orientation, by its willingness to keep no secrets.

Applying these principles to all of our actions will develop the fullest possible sort of trusting relationship.

For continued reading about Core Trust Concepts, check out: Understanding The Trust Equation

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The pragmatic, field-oriented follow-on to the classic The Trusted Advisor. Green and Howe go deep into the how-to’s of trusted business relationships—loaded with stories, exercises, tips and tricks, and deeply practical advice.


TrustBasedSelling“Sales” and “Trust” rarely inhabit the same sentence. Customers fear being “sold” — they suspect sellers have only their own interests at heart. Is this a built-in conflict? Or can sellers serve buyers’ interests and their own as well? The solution is simple to state, hard to live—and totally worth the effort.



The Trusted AdvisorThis classic book explores the paradigm of trust through the filter of professional services. It is a blend of thought and practice, clear ideas and practical suggestions, and it has found a place on many professionals’ working bookshelves.


Friends, Motives and Profits: Avoid Fear-based Selling

This article was first published in Raintoday.com

Imagine that your best friend in the world needs your help. Your friend needs to buy some of the service that you sell. And—knowing that you are an expert in this area, and that they can trust you—they have sought you out.

“I want you to advise me in this area,” they say. “I’ll do whatever you tell me to do.” And you know that they will.

What do you do with that power and trust?

How much, and in what ways, would you treat your best friend differently from a new client off the street? What does that say about your level of trustworthiness? About your sales effectiveness?

Under which conditions would you buy from you?

Selling to Your Best Friend

I don’t know you, of course. But I’m willing to bet that, when it comes to selling to a friend, you’ll do most of the following six things:

• If you feel conflicted, or uncomfortable, you’ll advise your friend to seek out another salesperson—and probably suggest someone;

• You’ll ask your friend to explain exactly what they’re looking for—and you’ll listen carefully to decide the best answer for them;

• You’ll explain to your friend a little bit about “how it really happens,” or “what’s really important here,” or “what you should focus on” in your business;

• You’ll have a strong point of view about what particular service or product is right for your friend—and you’ll tell them what it is;

• You’ll think carefully about the right price, ending up somewhere between a pretty good deal for your friend and a reasonably fair deal for the both of you;

• If, after all the discussion, you decide that your friend either should not buy the service at all, or that a competitor actually has a variation of the service that is better suited to your friend—you’ll advise the friend either to not buy the service, or to get it from your competitor.

How many out of that list of 6 describe what you would do?

Now for my last prediction: if you do those things, your friend will be very happy with you regardless of the recommendation. Even if—no, especially if—you recommend the friend not buy or buy elsewhere, the friend will be grateful to you—and will most likely buy from you again when they need what it is that you do.

This sounds like a happy outcome. A friendship is deepened. A client is very satisfied. You get positive references. You get a new client at a zero cost of sales. And, you feel good about having helped someone.

The question is: why would you ever sell any other way?

Selling to Your Newest Client

Because, let’s face it—how often do we sell to someone as if they were our best friend? When faced with a new prospect, how often do you:

• Advise they seek another firm or salesperson;

• Listen for what the client needs—not what you can sell;

• Share inside info about how the industry works

• Think about the best service for the client, not for your sales

• Aim for a price range whose upper limit is “a reasonably fair deal”

• Recommend a competitor?

For that new prospect, how many of those descriptions fit what you would do?

Compare the two scores. What’s the gap between what you’d do for a friend, and what you’d do for a stranger.

Let’s call that The Trust Gap.

Who would you rather buy from: a friend, with scores like your first list? Or a stranger, with scores like your second? Which you would you buy from?

The Trust Gap is the measure of the distance between buying from a friend—and buying from someone who probably says he wants to be your friend, and whom you don’t trust.

Fear-based Selling

If we’re honest about it, the reason we don’t treat strangers like friends is simple: we’re afraid. Afraid they might take advantage of us, or put one over on us. Or—afraid they’ll think we’re trying to take advantage of them, or put one over on them.

We’re afraid we won’t get the sale. And if we don’t get the sale, our boss won’t like us, our promotion will be put off, our bonus will go down. If we don’t get the sale, we’ll slip in the eyes of our would-be peers. And that means we slip in our own eyes—which are really the reflected views of what we imagine others will think of us. Our perceived self-worth is at the heart of this fear.

Fear-based selling always drives us in one direction: to control the outcome. We seize on any opportunity to shift the odds, alter the perceptions, control the process. We read books on closing, try new screening processes, experiment with process flows. And all of this attempt at control drives us further and further away from treating clients like friends.

Specifically, the fear-based desire to control leads us to:

• Influence the client to buy from us, not from others

• Listen for what is advantageous to us, secondarily to what helps the client

• Don’t share information about our friend or our business, lest it “give away” perspectives

• Think about the most profitable service to us, not the best for the client

• Aim for maximum price

• Steer clients away from our competitors.

This of course is the exact opposite of how we would treat our friends. And the result is eminently predictable: we become suspicious of people who behave from fear. We doubt their motives, and rightly so. We do not trust them. And, so, we do not buy from them (unless left no other choice).

Friends, Motives and Profits

In the first scenario, selling to your friend, your motive is almost entirely to do right by your friend. The consequences are positive and many: you make a profitable sale to a satisfied customer; you improve a friendship. You increase the chances of future sales, both directly from your friend, and indirectly from any referrals he or she would generate. You paid nothing for the lead and the testimonial.

This is very good business.

And it all comes from good motives crowding out fear. This is the paradox of selling from trust:

• The best short-term results come from focusing on long term relationships;

• Serving the client’s best interests is the best way to improve your own;

• A relationship is not a means to a sale—a sale is the outcome of a relationship;

• If you treat profit as an outcome, not a goal, you will outperform someone who sets profit achievement goals.

Sell to your clients the way you would want your friends to sell to you. The trustworthy way.

The good business way.

When Clients Don’t Buy What a CPA Firm is Selling

When clients don’t buy what a CPA firm is selling, it’s unlikely that they don’t want what you’re selling. More likely it’s that they’re not buying how the service is being sold.

For example, a potential client is talking with several accounting firms about a significant assignment. One firm has expertise in that area and understands the client’s issues, and the meeting goes well. The firm bids competitively, recognizing the value of potential future work. The final presentation is a hit, but another firm gets the engagement.

The firm is surprised because the winning firm is not one that many in the business community would consider to be as competent. A week later, the firm asks the client for feedback. The client politely demurs, suggesting that the bid price may have been a bit out of line; maybe next time. The firm is puzzled, and concludes that things really are getting awfully competitive out there.

A month later, a partner of the firm accidentally (though legally) hears that the winning bid was 25% higher than the firm’s own bid. Some weeks later, the partner sees the would-have-been client at a golf course, and in that informal setting tells him of the new information, saying, “I can appreciate that perhaps you told me price was the issue to avoid a difficult conversation, but I would consider it a favor if you’d be truthful with me and help me understand what happened. It happens too often, and I don’t know why.”

The client assesses the CPA’s sincerity, and replies: “The truth is, there just wasn’t that sense of something—chemistry, trust, click, I don’t know what—that we had with the other firm. You had a fine track record and lots of good things to say. Your firm certainly has the credentials and clearly understands our business—but we just didn’t connect, we didn’t feel like you understand our company. You were eager to be helpful, but it was as if you were eager to be helpful for anyone—not just for us.”

The CPA firm partner asks, “What could we have done differently or better?” The client responds, “I don’t know. It’s just one of those things. You have to get your times at bat. But I think we’ll be seeing you again one of these days.” The partner leaves the golf course dumbfounded.

What the Problem Isn’t

David Maister, this author’s co-author on the book The Trusted Advisor, wrote in another book, Managing the Professional Services Firm (Free Press, 2004): “[T]he problem is never what the client said it was in the first meeting.” Accounting-firm clients, from CFOs to treasurers to comptrollers, have no trouble telling their CPA firm what they want.

Most professional services providers, such as lawyers, actuaries, and management consultants, are highly abstract, disciplined, analytical, structured, and unemotional. But accountants stand out within professional services on one dimension in particular: They are the most level-headed, “reasonable” professionals. Perhaps it has to do with the need to balance debits and credits, to cross-foot spreadsheets. It may involve the ubiquity of money: Not every issue is a legal, human resources, or information technology issue, but every issue must be financed or budgeted or has other financial impacts. Those qualities are the perfect characteristics for financial managers. Other managers in a company look to financial managers for permission to undertake initiatives; for guidance about what is reasonable; for parceling out resources and rewards; for evaluating whether things are going well; even for defining the very rules by which the rest of the company operates.

In general, such a person will strive to be clinical, removed, judicious, fair, analytical, detached, balanced, cautious, deductive, and will strive not to appear whimsical, passionate, partisan, emotional, confused, indecisive, erratic, or otherwise not in control.

How Financial Services Buyers Buy

Decisions like the one described above are typically made in two stages: screening and selection. The first stage is somewhat rational. Round up the usual suspects, throw in the chairman’s favorite, rate them objectively on criteria assessed by an assistant controller, then narrow down the field to three or so firms to be invited to submit bids and make presentations.

The CFO is likely to describe the selection process as being just as rational as the screening process, but the truth is otherwise. The personality traits of financial buyers show why such a person will want a process that is objective, data-based, defensible, analytical, and—above all—rational. The next-to-last thing the CFO wants is a wrong decision; the very last thing he wants is the appearance of a wrong decision.

This is how accounting firms end up being presented with questions like:

  • Tell us why we should hire you.
  • Tell us what is so different about your firm.
  • Tell us how you would go about this work.
  • Tell us about your credentials and references.
  • Tell us what you know about our industry and our business.

And a firm being interviewed will generally be told things like:

  • We want your best people on this.
  • We need a very good price on this.
  • Good value is very important to us.

Those are all rational questions and discussion points, from which one can draw comparatively different ratable and rankable answers, so they fit the analytical requirement for rational decision-making. More important, those questions are emotionally acceptable to the financial buying organization, people who want to see themselves and be seen by others as fitting the financial image.

The deeper truth will not be spoken aloud: The financial buyer really wants someone who makes him feel good about the decision. Someone he can trust, someone whose selection will allow him to sleep at night, someone he knows will go the extra mile, who can be depended upon to speak the truth, who knows the limits of his abilities and is not embarrassed to admit them when appropriate, someone who will behave appropriately in all circumstances, who knows how to finish his sentences, who treats his people the way the CFO treats his own staff, who “gets how things work here at XYZ”—and so on.

These are subjective qualities that defy objective rating or ranking and involve inferences and observations from interactions with the firm and its representatives, rather than responses to direct questions. In short, the financial buyer is trying to make an emotional decision that he can then comfortably rationalize.

What the Problem Is

Robert S. MacNamara, former U.S. Secretary of Defense, once said, speaking of politics, “Never answer the question you’re asked.” He may have been right in politics. In business, he’s only half right.

The selling accounting firm cannot avoid answering the question asked by the CFO—and the firm must also answer the questions that are unasked. Those questions cannot be answered directly, as in “You can really trust me to work well with your people” or variations thereof, because “Trust me” is about the least trustworthy thing one can say. Instead, the firm must demonstrate those qualities in how it sells itself.


Principle 1: Sell by doing, not by telling. The most effective client relationships are those that have been around for a while. The firm and the client have gotten to know each other and the client has come to trust the firm. Because the best selling is virtually indistinguishable from doing, the CPA firm should design the sales process as much as possible as if it had already won the job.

The firm should build into the sales presentation how it would work with the client upon getting the job: engaging directly with the client as much as possible; talking openly and collaboratively about design and staffing alternatives; suggesting key issues to be decided; generally behaving with comfort and ease; having a conversation, not making a sales pitch.

A CPA firm that builds selling-by-doing into its sales process will become more open, transparent, and collaborative, precisely the behaviors that let the client assess trust, compatibility, “fit,” “chemistry,” and other intangibles.

Most clients set up sales processes to be distant, formal, and structured, and that must be respected. But within bounds, a CPA firm can suggest to clients that the selection process be more action-oriented. It is, after all, in the client’s interest to get the kind of freewheeling insights and ideas that come from open exchange.

Principle 2: Client focus without the vulture. Here is an exercise. A CPA dissociates herself from the winning or losing of a job, picturing herself in the future beyond the decision and feeling utterly indifferent about whether she won or lost.

She holds that thought, then asks herself, “What does this client really need, not just from this project, but in a much bigger context?”—without being limited by the request or her own service offering.

She now has some sense of what the client needs, but is not vested in winning or losing the job. She then returns her attention to the job at hand, picturing herself calmly advising the client about what needs to be done, and how, and when, and with what approach and resources, moving the client forward in the larger direction of what needs to be done.

Those who can honestly speak the truth about what needs to be done, without attachment to winning and losing, will convey the biggest emotional truth to the client: They will convey that they care about the client. This—focusing on the client’s needs for the sake of the client—differs from the usual kind of client focus that is the focus of a vulture: Focus for the seller’s sake, not the client’s.

Of the factors driving trust—credibility, reliability, security—none ranks higher than this sense of the seller’s being able to put the client’s needs ahead of his own need to “get the deal.” And here the paradox of trust kicks in: Truly separating from the need to win enhances one’s chances of winning.

As with many apparently either/or questions, this one is best answered by defining our terms. Client feedback is indeed critical—but how you get it varies radically by what you are trying to find out.

Truth, Lies and Unicorns

This article was first published in Raintoday.com

What is lying?

On a conversational level, we take “lying” to mean speaking an untruth; overtly saying something that is not the case. Webster’s first definition is “to make an untrue statement with intent to deceive.” “To lie” is an active verb, with a connotation of intent.

But Webster’s second definition is far broader: “to create a false or misleading impression.” That definition includes lies of omission; it even extends beyond speech.

It’s that second definition we’d like to explore. By that definition, business advisors (or for that matter, people) who don’t lie are like unicorns: not inconceivable, but pretty infrequent. In the same sense, Diogenes never found an honest man.

Yet we say trust is critical to client-advisor relationships. How do we reconcile these two “truths”?

How We Lie
Here are five common ways we lie to clients:

1. Saying an untruth. This means flat-out dishonesty. Even something seemingly innocuous like saying we’re fine when we’re not erodes trust. What if we’re clearly stressed?
2. Speaking truth by technicality. Using the subtleties of language to exonerate ourselves doesn’t work. Ask Bill Clinton.
3. Telling “harmless” fibs. Even something like calling in sick when you’re not quietly erodes trust.
4. Lying by omission. It is possible to mislead our clients with silence. Not raising the issue of scope creep, for instance, is a lie of omission. The client asks herself, “Well, why wasn’t this discussed sooner?”
5. Habitually exceeding expectations. Under-promising and over-delivering is a peculiar form of lying; it is saying one thing and doing another. Consistently exceeding expectations causes disbelief and skepticism over time.

The pervasiveness of at least four of the five types of lying demonstrates that we’d all generally rather tell small lies, or omit lots of information, than face one encounter with the truth.

Why is that?

Why We Lie
Let’s first explore the motives behind lying from a purely self-serving, utilitarian perspective. That is, evaluate the decision to lie or not via a simple equation comparing the costs and benefits of lying vs. truth-telling.
Let’s say the question at hand is whether or not to tell our client that we will likely exceed our delivery date, where saying nothing clearly constitutes a “false or misleading impression” (in other words, a lie).

On the Truth side of the scale there is the benefit of being perceived as a truth-teller, offset by the cost of experiencing our client’s disapproval for not getting the job done on time.

On the Lie side of the scale there are the benefits we perceive of maintaining a positive image (and therefore our client’s confidence), offset by two things: the cost of disapproval should the delay actually materialize, multiplied by the probability of getting away with the decision to lie —the cost of covering up.

The utilitarian advisor would simply weigh the two sides, and choose the optimum from his or her point of view.
And therein is the difficulty: we are not rational, calculating utilitarians. In particular, human beings in the real world systematically misestimate several of the factors in the calculus of self-interest, and therefore choose to lie in cases where an objective analysis would suggest that truth-telling would benefit us more.
Here’s how.

On the Truth side:

-We underestimate the value of truth-telling. Forthrightness and willingness to face facts are quickly perceived by others as virtues, often outweighing an uncomfortable message.

-We overestimate the cost of disapproval for telling the truth. Clients who face an uncomfortable reality usually see it as something to be dealt with and to move beyond.

One the Lie side:

-We overestimate the benefit of falsely maintaining a positive perception with our lie. When a client says, “we want your best people on this job,” do you answer, “All our people are the best,” or perhaps “certainly, we will do that”? Both responses avoid truths—namely that “best” is situational, and resources are finite. An off-handed guarantee may sound confident; in fact, it’s a time bomb. Speaking the truth creates a much deeper positive perception.

-We underestimate the cost of disapproval if the truth is revealed. We lie doubly because we focus on the immediate transaction, and rationalize that we aren’t really lying (we are being optimistic, maintaining a “can do” attitude). Except we are lying by avoiding or omitting the truth, and getting caught affects our reputation for the long term.

-We overestimate the probability of getting away with lying. We convince ourselves that somehow we’ll be saved from ever having to face the truth. How many times did you think you were fooling your parents as a child only to find out they knew what you were up to all along? In the heady days of 2000-2001, how many officers and directors backdated options because “everyone’s doing it?’

In short, lying seems to make sense in a psychological way and therefore masquerades as the rational choice. But even when analyzed from a purely self-serving perspective, truth-telling is under-rated.

Consider an experience Andrea had with a trusted colleague, Catheryn. Catheryn and the client learned that Andrea would be rolling off the project—before Andrea was told. When Andrea directly asked Catheryn if the client knew, Catheryn made the (seemingly) rational choice of telling an untruth: “Ummmmm … I’m not exactly sure what the client knows.” But she was tortured. More on Catheryn’s response later.

Early in Charlie’s career, a senior consultant suggested to Charlie on the way into a client meeting that there was no need to let on to the client that Charlie had been with the firm for only a few months. Of course, the question arose in the first few minutes with the client. More on Charlie’s response later.

The interesting question is, why are even the most trustworthy, well-intentioned people – Catheryn, Charlie’s senior manager, and all of us — predisposed to act in ways that seem rational but are not actually in their (our) self-interest?

Lying is Rooted in Fear
Simply put, we act in ways that are not ultimately in our own self-interest because we act out of fear. Specifically, we underestimate long term benefit and over-estimate short term fear.

Not just rational fear of consequences, but the echoing, reverberating fear in our brains when we allow ourselves to have nothing better to do than to cogitate on how bad things might be. In its milder forms, this is simply neurosis. In more virulent forms, it approaches low-grade terror.

This tendency is pretty common. Freud even argued (Civilization and Its Discontents) that it was the predictable price of living in a complex, interdependent society.

More prosaically, this fear lies at the heart of most television situation comedies. Think nearly all I Love Lucy episodes; think most Seinfeld episodes (and all of those involving the character George). The characters just can’t quite deal with the truth—so they tell a little fib, let a little misperception go by uncorrected, and hopefully figure the odds of getting caught are pretty low. Of course they’re not, and Lucy/George/everyman get caught up in an ever-expanding hilarious web of lies, ending in the dramatic exposure. Comedy is tragedy writ small, funny because we all recognize the truth in it.

Whatever the cause, we know well that people lie. Cognitive therapy focuses on getting people to rationally see the true probabilities of harm in situations instead of the fear that we obsess about. Spiritual approaches talk about acceptance, or the turning over of the will where we have no control.

Simply put, our lower-level brain systems are wired to over-estimate the downside of risk, and downplay the upside. In evolutionary terms, this makes perfect sense. The downside of getting eaten by a saber-tooth tiger gets weighted very heavily despite the low probability of its happening.

Today’s civilized versions of the saber-toothed tiger are confrontations, harm to our reputation, losing face, being disrespected, looking bad. These we fear, for they devalue our social worth, and therefore some important sense of self-worth. Therefore, lying becomes a matter of survival in the business world—or, so we think.

Why Lying Costs Us—Big Time
Lying doesn’t just affect relationships. It shoots holes in P&Ls, bonus plans, and compensation structure. It destroys profitability. Here’s how.

Lying is the most corrosive anti-trust action we can take. Most obviously, when we are found to have lied, our credibility is damaged. People stop trusting what we say. That quickly spreads to not believing what we have said in the past. And that in turn destroys credibility in who we say we are.

But it doesn’t stop there. Lying undercuts not only what we say, but the perception that we are reliable. If we lie to the client about something, we may lie again—in particular, about promises we make. Hence we are seen as unreliable.

If we are seen as non-credible and unreliable, then our clients are unlikely to trust us with certain critical information or perspectives. They will not share their confidences, their secrets or their opinions. We are unsafe.
But worst of all, being seen as non-credible, unreliable and un-safe, our very motives are brought into question. If we would lie to a client, it must have been for our benefit, not the client’s. So thinks the client, and he quickly becomes suspicious of the motives behind all our actions. We don’t really care, the client thinks, and perhaps never did; else why would we be lying?

This kind of mistrust leads quickly to the P&L. It reduces confidence, cuts repeat business rates, increases RFPs, reduces our access to key information, introduces legal agreements where none existed, drives multiple vendor relationships, and increases elapsed time through processes.

Loyalty economics are compelling. It costs four to seven times as much to generate a dollar of income from a new client as it does from an existing client. But that’s just repeat business. Trust produces the deepest, most sincere loyalty.

Add trust into the repeat business picture and the benefits multiply. Secure in our honesty, clients reveal more to us and listen to what we say. They take our phone calls. They are likely to call us first when a new challenge or opportunity arises. They more often sole-source business to us. They listen to us, partner with us, and are transparent in return. The economic benefits of deep trust and cooperation are massive.

How to Tell the Truth
What’s a poor business advisor to do to reduce fears and therefore decrease the survival-based tendency to lie? Sometimes the answer is very simple, even if it feels hard to do. The answer is to coldly assess the long-term cost of lying to you personally. In Charlie’s case, despite considerable felt pressure from the senior consultant, he figured the cost to his own reputation exceeded the pressure he would get from his senior. He was almost certainly right.

In cases where our emotions obscure our clear thinking, there is a lot to be learned from various approaches to therapy, more physically-based approaches like exercise, and in mental-state approaches like meditation. They all work. But they are also perceived by some to be out of the mainstream path of business. So we have a mainstream suggestion.

Name It and Claim It is a socially acceptable way to be honest, even when handling tough situations. It starts with a caveat and ends with telling it like it is.

Caveats are forewarnings that compensate for what we are about to say. An example might be, “I wish I had better news …” Acknowledging the sometimes harsh truths that follow, we rob them of their power.
Another style of caveat is to speak with humor: “You’re gonna love me for this …” By using humor, we lighten a tense situation.

After the caveat, the next part is simple: Tell it like it is. Say, for instance, “This job is going to take longer and cost more.” It’s easy.

Remember Charlie’s story, where a senior consultant suggested to Charlie on the way into a client meeting that there was no need for the client to know that Charlie had been with the firm for only a few months? Predictably, within the first two minutes of meeting, the client asked Charlie, “So, how long have you been with the firm?” Charlie gulped and said, “Oh, not too long.” Like a heat-seeking missile (or so it felt), the client replied, “Really, how long?’ Charlie gulped again, and honestly answered, “Two months.” The senior consultant glared, but the truth was out there. The conversation went on, and the “issue,” deemed earlier as requiring spin control, was quickly forgotten.

Name It and Claim It functions as a meta-tool: by speaking the thing we fear most, we disarm its power. It is a form of emotional risk management. By incurring a small amount of discomfort, we reliably defuse much larger amounts of discomfort later.

Back to the Andrea and Catheryn story. Catheryn, faced with whether or not to confess an uncomfortable truth to Andrea, initially made the rational choice of telling an untruth: “Ummmmm … I’m not exactly sure what the client knows.” Having lied to Andrea, Catheryn called back five minutes later and boldly named it and claimed it—“This is really awkward, but I have to tell you I lied to you.” She then briefly explained why and apologized (“I was like a deer in headlights and I made the wrong choice; I’m sorry.”) The irony? The trust Andrea now feels for Catheryn – trust that was pretty high before this incident — is now exponentially greater; not despite having told a lie, but because she called herself out on having told one.

By telling the truth, we solve problems and simultaneously build trust. The result: our client (or colleague) opens up to us. He takes our advice, seeks us out, and listens carefully to what we say. Isn’t that what we’re really being paid for?

The Real Value of Truth-Telling
Honesty helps relationships. It builds trust and profitability. But the ultimate value of openness is the plane of professionalism where it lets us operate.

When we speak the truth, clients see that we have no hidden agenda. We are seen as worthy of collaboration. Our motives are clear and transparent. It encourages clients to share.

Truth-telling sets us free from fear. And it is precisely this condition that makes us of maximum use to our clients.