Answer the Question

Q. What do you do when your client or customer asks you a question?

A. Why, answer the question, of course! (Doh!)

But – what if the question itself is flawed, or incomplete, or dangerous to answer?

For example:

 

  • What if a potential client wants to know the price before you have explained the value?
  • What if a client demands to know the final recommendation before going through the analysis?
  • What if a client phrases a question as a simple “go or no-go” when the issue requires nuance?
  • What if a potential client asks you a very pointed and narrow question about your qualifications?

Then what do you do?

On the one hand, if you answer the question directly, you risk giving an incomplete answer. You open yourself up to a ‘gotcha’ question. Worse, you legitimize a partial or even misleading question by the mere act of responding to it.

On the other hand, if you don’t answer the question, you risk offending the client. Worse, you look like you’re trying to hide something. And, it’s likely to come off as just disrespectful.

How can you avoid disrespecting the client, while not opening yourself up to an unfair and premature judgment?

How to Answer the Question

There is a way out of this dilemma. Better yet, it not only avoids a negative – it actually helps build trust. Here’s what you say:

  1. Flatly and simply answer the direct question you were asked
  2. Pause
  3. If necessary, offer to answer more questions

Here are some examples: then I’ll talk about why they work.

Client: Before we dive into specifics of the situation, I want to know the price on this project.

You: Depending on several issues, around $225,000.

[Pause]

Client: Um, depending on what, for example?

 

Client: Before you go on to page three of the presentation, I want to know: do you recommend we close the factory, or not?

You: We recommend you close it.

[Pause]

Client: OK, why?

 

Client: How much experience do you have doing marketing studies for tech services companies?

You: Two prior clients in the past 18 months.

[Pause] [More Pause]

You: Is there something else it would be useful to talk about?

 

Note the critical role in the dialogue of the [Pause]. In the first two cases, the client is the one who fills in the quiet space. In the third – after making extra-sure of the pause – you fill in the space, by respectfully offering to answer any more questions

The Text and the Sub-text

That’s the text. The sub-text is what’s critical here.

First, the answer. It has to be simple, specific, and directly responsive. That’s because the critical sub-text is all about respect.

By being simple, specific and responsive, you are conveying to the client, “I am willing to let you take the lead here. I am not going to quibble about the relevance of your question, or its potential for revealing value. I am not going to ’spin’ my answer to suit my own needs, but rather will defer to your terms, as stated by you. I will not hedge, hem, nor haw. I respect your right, as the client, to set the agenda and ask the questions; I will reserve my own attempts to frame the issue until you are satisfied. I respect you.”

One effect of showing respect by being simple, specific and responsive is that you reduce the level of fear and aggression in the client. You are demonstrating that this conversation does not have to be a competition, and the client need have no fear about you attempting to control them.

The other effect is to validate the client, to show them that they have asked a fair question, and that you have given a fair answer. Presuming fairness and reciprocating in kind appeals to the client’s innate tendency to return like for like – fairness for fairness – vs. engaging in passive-aggressive games of controlling the agenda.

Second, the Pause. The subtext of the pause is, again, respect. It allows the client to control the agenda (by following up, by taking a new tack, or by simply abandoning the question). This offer of control is another trigger for reciprocity on the part of the client.

Usually – as in the first two examples above – the client will fill in the pause. And their response will usually be tempered by the respect you have already shown them in the simple, specific and responsive answer.

Occasionally – as in the third example above – the pause continues long enough for it to be appropriate for you to offer another comment – and yet another opportunity to show respect. You do this by making explicit what was already implicit – that you are willing to answer any questions, and to respect the client’s right to frame those questions in any form they may want.

The Result

In most cases, this “onslaught of respect” is enough to alter the tone of the entire meeting. Instead of being cautious, suspicious, and aggressive, the client is likely to reciprocate and return the favor. (The fundamental nature of reciprocity was never better phrased than by Robert Cialdini: take a listen to this podcast interview of Cialdini by Barry Ritholtz).

You can call this dynamic “give to get,” or “trust to be trusted,” or “mxqtplskz;” what you call it doesn’t matter. What matters is that by treating a loaded question with respect, you can transform the context within which that question is being asked, and thus transform the relationship.

All by just responding to the question simply and specifically – and pausing to show even more respect.

The next time a client asks you a tough question, just try it. [Pause].

The Disconnect Between Short-term Behaviors and Short-term Results

One of the most frequent trust questions I get is typically phrased as a dilemma: how can we establish trust-based long-term relationships in a culture that values short-term performance?

But rarely have I had the question posed so clearly and sharply as in a recent discussion with an investment banker. Paraphrasing, he said:

“Listen, I make no apologies for being 100% money-motivated. That’s why I’m in the business I’m in.  If the firm changed our incentives tomorrow to a weekly basis, I’d be there in a heartbeat – doing what I have to do, week to week. So when you talk about long-term trust, I frankly glaze over. My timeframe is what maximizes my income – period.”

You can trust investment bankers to cut to the chase. It’s their job, and they’re very good at it.

But here’s what he missed.

There’s an unspoken assumption in his stark phrasing of the issue. That unspoken assumption is:

The best way to maximize short-term income is through short-term behaviors.

And that assumption is dead wrong. Here’s why.

The Disconnect Between Behavior and Results

The point is obvious if you think about strategy. Which approach to corporate strategy is likely to be more successful over the next five years?

  1. Company A, which revamps its entire corporate strategy every quarter, or
  2. Company B, which sets its corporate strategy over a five-year timeframe, and occasionally tunes it

Pretty clearly, changing a long-term strategy on a quarterly basis is the recipe for long-term bad results. But notice – long-term bad results happen a quarter at a time. Five years of bad performance shows up in 20 bad quarters.

The basis for strong short-term results (quarterly in this case) is long-term behavior – not short-term behavior.

What’s true for strategy is true for relationships as well. If you manage your client relationships by viewing them through the prism of quarterly (or monthly, or weekly) sales and income reports, those clients are bound to notice.

Few things destroy client relationships like a lame, semi-apologetic request like, “Could you maybe move that sale up a few weeks so I can get credit this quarter?”  Clients are not stupid, and there’s no way to dress up such a self-serving request for monetization of the relationship so as to disguise what it really is. Such a request will backfire on you.

So will any such behavior that betrays your true objective – if your true objective is to treat your clients like transactional piggy banks, rather than as the long-term relationships we claim to aspire to.

Long-term Greedy

Former Goldman Sachs senior partner Gus Levy is credited with coining the phrase “long-term greedy.” In typical Wall Street fashion, the phrasing was perhaps calculated to sound offensive – but in fact, it expresses something completely commonsensical, and highly consistent with trust. I endorse it myself.

What Levy meant was that the best way to do well in the long-run – and, by implication, in each quarter on the way to the long run – is to behave in a long-term manner. That means: keeping your word, taking care of clients, acting with integrity, putting clients’ needs first – all the time.

If you behave that way – in the long-term, as a matter of habit and principle – then you will actually do far better in the long run (and by extension, in the accumulation of short-terms on the way there) than someone who is constantly seeking to optimize only the next quarter.

Note this does not necessarily have anything to do with ethics. You can be, as my investment banking friend claimed to be, 100% motivated by money, and still act in ways that are largely indistinguishable from someone whose trustworthy behavior is ethics-based. You just have to not be stupid. And Gus Levy was assuredly not stupid.

The next time you hear someone say. “I can’t do that trust stuff because all the incentives around here are short-term,” explain to them why there’s nothing wrong per se with short-term incentives. The problem is stupidly believing that short-term behavior is the best way to get there.

The best short-term results come about from operating on long-term principles – and reaping the benefits every quarter along the way.

Trust Matters, The Podcast: Building Trust When Industry Spirals Into Cutthroat Pricing (Episode 13)

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

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Blurring the Line Between Sales and Marketing

I got an email from, Ralph, the 50-ish owner of a small consulting firm. He had three competing offers to buy his practice, and a few complicating life factors. He wanted advice, and asked if we could talk.

I don’t do much coaching or consulting, and he almost surely couldn’t afford my rates. Nor am I an expert in life planning, or in valuations.

But I said sure, call me in the morning, we’ll talk – no charge.

We had a very good chat for about 45 minutes.

I think I helped him. I know it was useful for him to talk to a third party able to comprehend his situation. I believe he’ll make a better decision, and I’m sure he’ll feel better about it. Value was created for him in our talk.

But How Does Free Advice Help the Advice Giver?

But what about me? I knew going in there was no chance of a sale from him – not now, not in the future, not anytime. And my rate was zero. Was this a foolish, impetuous, soft-hearted, flakey thing to do?

No. I like doing nice things, but I’m not a saint. Nor did I consider Ralph a pro bono case.

Sure, it was a nice thing to do. But, I would argue – it was also good business.

Sometimes a sales lead that we would otherwise screen out can be a good marketing investment. Sometimes you can do well by doing good. Sometimes we need to blur the  line between sales and marketing.

“Ralph” will never buy from me (though other Ralph’s have done so). But he will remember what I did for him; even more, that I was willing to help.

Remember: Ralph invested time in searching for alternatives, chose me, and felt strongly enough to seek me out. He spent time to find out who I was, what I did, whether and how I might be useful to him. He was probably willing to pay for consulting. He was an educated, willing buyer, a near-client with influence on other potential clients.

For me, he was not a qualified sales lead. Instead, he was one helluva marketing resource.

Ralph now knows me – the sound of my voice, how well I think on the spot, the way I interact, my sense of humor. He knows me better than one of 200 people in an audience for a speech; much better than 500 people reading this blog, or an article of mine.

Total investment: 45 minutes. Most sales people will tell you that’s an extravagant waste of sales time, an inefficiency that is off-scale. Just think of the waste in extrapolating such activities to scale!

But most salespeople would be wrong. This is not about efficiency in selling: this is about effectiveness in marketing. (And let’s not forget, I also learned some things about valuations).

Let’s say Ralph will tell a dozen people about our discussion. Those are people who understand what each of us do, and who are first-degree connections to Ralph. That’s a powerful testimonial. Sounds like a reference to me; better yet, one freely given.

The choice is not between being “good” or making money; they often go together.

Try, for just a few hours per month, shifting your sales practices to subsidize your marketing by investing in a lead.

Don’t get lost in charge-back accounting and tit-for-tat favor-record-keeping. The benefits will eventually accrue to your firm, and to you personally. Both.

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

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Being a Competitive Seller vs. Being a Trusted Advisor

“What are the most important personal attributes for finding the right balance between being a trusted advisor, and being a competitive seller?”

That was the question teed up by a Google sales training leader earlier this month at a Talks at Google session with Ryan Serhant. It’s an intriguing question. (The answer, not so much).  But first, some back story.

The Background

Ryan Serhant is known to most people for his reality TV show Million Dollar Listing, about New York real estate. Personally, I prefer his most recent show, Sell It Like Serhant, which also happens to be the title of his recent book, subtitled “How to Sell More, Earn More, and Become the Ultimate Sales Machine.”

Let me just say: Serhant gets a lot right – very right. He’s also extremely personable, with very good interpersonal instincts, and a compelling personal story.

A (partial) list of what he gets (very) right about sales: the idea that people want to have a personal connection; the importance of improvisation; the emotional journey of buyers; the role of buyer insecurities and the need to recognize and address them; the importance of metaphors and stories; the critical role of personal selling; and many more.

But that’s not what I want to talk about.

Back to the Question

Remember, the question raised by the sales training leader was ““What are the most important personal attributes for finding the right balance between being a trusted advisor, and being a competitive seller?”

Here’s Ryan’s answer. “Endurance, empathy, and enthusiasm.”

Huh?

He goes on to say these are the three traits he always looks for in his own hires, and they’re the keys to all sales that require just a little bit more than a good product that fits the price.

Note he didn’t answer the question. As he mentioned, he had written about those three attributes in his book, so it was a bit of a canned answer. It certainly didn’t address the “balance between being a trusted advisor, and being a competitive seller.”

But in fairness: the question itself is an odd one – it begs many more questions. It posits a tension between being a trusted advisor and being a competitive seller. But can someone be both (as the question implied)? Or is it an either/or proposition? Does it depend on the industry? On types of sales (e.g. B2B or B2C)? Is it really a choice? And if so, what kind of choice?

Serhant didn’t address any of those questions, settling for what is ultimately a fairly conventional description of the key personal attributes for successful selling of all types. It left me unsatisfied. So of course I wondered how I would have answered.

My Answer

In most industries and situations, the question is a false dichotomy: in fact, the best way to compete successfully is to be a trusted advisor to one’s prospects – to practice Trust-based Selling.

What’s my evidence? In its simplest form, if a prospect thinks I have more endurance and enthusiasm than you do, but trusts you more than me, you’re going to get the business more than half the time. (Empathy – Serhant’s third item – is also critical to trust-based selling, so no argument there).

The biggest difference between Serhant’s proposition and trust-based selling is profoundly simple:

  • Serhant is focused on the seller’s success as the end goal
  • By contrast, the end goal of trust-based selling is doing the right thing for the buyer.

In one approach, competitive success is the goal. In the other, it’s a byproduct.

The answer to the questioner’s dilemma is to reject the question. It’s not a question of balance, nor is it an either-or proposition. It is how you get from one to the other.

You don’t gain trust by being competitively successful nearly as much as you gain competitive success by being trusted.

Common Threads

Interestingly, a lot of what Serhant suggests fits equally well in trust-based selling. You have to have empathy; you have to take risks; you have to understand and appreciate emotions.

But there are tells. Serhant shares a touching story about the power of fear: how he is motivated by never wanting to go back to a dark period in his life, defined by stark failure and rejection. We can all relate.

But fear of failure is a very private, internal emotion: it doesn’t help connect us to our clients, it separates us from them. If not getting the sale is part of the fear, then we haven’t conquered it – in fact, we’ve made our clients hostage to our personal pursuit of overcoming fear.

Trust is a relationship. But competitive sales, the way Serhant defines it, is a personal adventure, with clients as means, not ends. He is very insightful about the need for connection: but he never mentions relationships.

There are differences in tactics between the two approaches, which I’ve written about at length elsewhere. But this is the bedrock difference between the goals of the two approaches from which they all flow.

At one point in the interview, Serhant notes how he consciously prioritized success over career. If your goal is personal success, being a great seller is a great way to get there.

But if your goal is your clients’ success, you will, paradoxically, end up a more successful seller yourself. Because buyers trust more those whose goal it is to help them, rather than to help themselves.