Acquiring Soft Skills: You Gotta Practice the Scales

I’ve led a fair number of trust-building workshops over the years. I’ve even written a book or three on the subject of trust. One thing hasn’t changed much: I still hear the same question, no matter who I’m speaking to, no matter what country I’m in.

“Do we really have to practice the soft stuff?”

It’s inevitably followed up with some variations of “I get it, but this isn’t going to help me close the big deal I have on deck,” or “Yes, but it’s different here,” or the classic, “This is so basic, why are we wasting our time?”

Let me answer that.

You’ve heard this one.

The New York tourist asks the cab Lyft driver, “How do I get to Carnegie Hall?”

“Practice, practice, practice,” comes the answer.

The joke is well known – but sometimes we forget how broadly it applies.

Students of classical and jazz piano and guitar often don’t like doing the scales; but most have to do them nonetheless. I remember learning to play all seven modes (Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, etc.) starting from all four fingers from the same starting fret; then moving up a fret and starting over again.

My guitar teacher told me that the next step was to do the same cycle for minor, major seventh, dominant seventh, diminished and augmented scales. “This is the point,” he somberly told me, “at which all the jazz greats picked up heroin.”

Suppose a music student tells the music teacher, “Scales are boring; I get the concept, that’s all I need. Doing scales just cramps my style and inhibits my improvisational skills.” What does the teacher say?

They typically smile and say, “Yes, the scales are boring – but you’ve gotta do them anyway. Do you know how to get to Carnegie Hall?” Etc. etc.

But what about soft skills training? Suppose a corporate training student tells the trainer, “This role-play stuff is boring. I get it, OK? It’s simple. I don’t need to do repetitive drills – it just makes me sound phony.”

What does the trainer say? What does the trainer’s boss say? What do the training department’s clients say?

We Do Muscle Memory Exercises in Music: Why Not in Soft Skills Training?

It’s my experience that, sadly, corporate soft-skills trainers’ responses are not the same as those of music teachers. Faced with resistance, the trainers are more likely to say, “Well, OK, if you say so.”

In fairness to the trainers, it’s not usually their fault. And I don’t think it’s the fault of the client organizations either. I think the blame  lies mainly with L&D organization leadership itself – for not pushing back hard enough, even for partly buying into the clients’ rationalizations that somehow you can cognitively understand your way into learning soft skills behaviors.

The truth is, there is no substitute for realistic “muscle memory” activity when it comes to learning soft skills. You simply can’t “think your way into” skills like active listening, much less empathetic listening. You can’t just memorize a set of canned “answers” to a buyer’s “objections.” You can’t just write sentences ahead of time and think you will be able to give acceptable feedback. (Go re-watch the movie Up in the Air for an amusing example of cognitive vs. muscle-memory learning).

The equivalent of scales in soft-skills training comes in several forms – role-plays, video replays, case discussions. For my money, nothing beats a “fish-bowl” role-play; two volunteers role-play a case in front of a room. When something happens – and it always does – everyone sees it, and knows it. There is no escaping the real-ness of what just transpired.

If trainers know this is true, why then don’t they insist on it just as strongly as music teachers do? Music teachers have one advantage: they are typically older than their pupils, hence in a natural position of authority; whereas trainers are often junior to, and subordinate to, the line people in their sessions.

One trainer told me of being politely informed by an AmLaw 20 law firm that there would be no role-plays in the upcoming session. “Just discuss the technique,” the partner client said, “our people are smart enough to pick it up quickly – no need to waste time on faux drama.” Right.

The Real Reason for Resisting Soft Skills Drills

As is often the case with negative behavior, fear is at the root. No one, me included, enjoys doing role-plays. I also don’t like the taste of some medicine, but if I’m sick, I know to over-rule my taste buds.

In other words, participants just don’t want to do it. Of course, they don’t say that. They say it’s boring, they don’t need it, comprehension is enough, and so on. But it’s still the L&D folks who must not let them get away with it.

I find that each of the major staff functions has a generic effectiveness issue. For IT staff, it’s speaking in jargon and over-promising. For legal staff, it’s an inability to balance risk-minimization with general management perspective.

For HR staff – in my experience – the weakness is a desire to be accepted at the Big Table. Combined with the fact that HR people have no secret vocabulary – they speak plain language – this means that clients will predictably abuse them.

And so when the students resist doing what the L&D people know perfectly well they should do – the teachers don’t push back.

This is of course my pet theory, though it is based on my experience. What’s yours?

If your students ask you how you get to corporate Carnegie Hall, tell ‘em, “Role play, dammit!”

How Not to Create Corporate Trust

In the past few weeks, one Southwest Airlines flight suffered the first US airline casualty in a decade, while another flight had to be diverted when a window ruptured. While there have been some notable exceptions, I think it’s fair to say that the media and public response has been pretty much crickets.

By contrast, imagine what the public and media reaction would have been had the airline in question been United. This despite the fact that the airlines are indistinguishably safe.

Question: Why does Southwest get a pass, where United probably wouldn’t?

Follow-up Question: How do you get your company to be perceived like Southwest?

I’m going to suggest a simple, unverifiable assertion: we trust Southwest more than we trust United. But what does that mean, and how can a company create corporate trust?

Where Not to Look

Don’t look to crisis management experts or plans. Don’t look to branding, or to reputation management. These are all second-derivative measures, aimed at direct manipulation of perceptions, rather than at fundamental first order causes. (And for heaven’s sake, don’t look to regulations and compliance).

You could say it’s all about corporate culture, and you’d not be wrong – it’s been said that Southwest’s culture is what creates our trust in the company. Or you could point out that Southwest continually ranks first in customer experience.

But culture is too vacuous a concept for serious managerial intervention. Culture is the end result of doing a whole lot of other things. You can’t act directly on culture, it’s a byproduct.

Customer service, while closer to tangible, is still the result of a thousand little things. How do you get a company to do those thousand things, and do them right?

Again, I think the answers come into focus when we reframe the question: How does one create a trusted company?

TrustProofing Your Company

Another assertion: most trust is at root personal. Robert Putnam talks about “thick” and “thin” trust, the first applying to close relationships, the second to indirect or reputational relationships. Corporate relationships are even ‘thinner.’ Tip O’Neill famously said, “All politics is local.”  In that same sense, “all trust is personal.”

We don’t trust Facebook, we trust Zuckerberg – or not. We sort of ‘trust’ Apple’s design, but we trust more those smart/nice folks in blue shirts at the Apple store.

What this suggests is that we don’t trust companies per se in any rich, thick, deep sense – we trust the personal interactions that we have with people at those companies. Let me call those companies “Trust-based.” And so, Rule 1:

Rule 1: A trust-based company is one in which all employees behave in trusting and trustworthy ways with all stakeholders.

Also, because trust is personal, it’s important to understand the basic dynamics of interpersonal trust. Trust is an reciprocating relationship between a trustor and a trustee. The trustor is the one who takes a risk; the trustee is the one who then proves to be trustworthy, or not. If the trustee is trustworthy, then the level of relationship trust is increased – and the trustor/trustee roles reverse. Rinse and repeat.

Rule 2: Employees must embody the virtues of trustworthiness: credibility, reliability, intimacy, and low self-orientation. 

But personal virtue is not enough to make a corporate culture. Organizations have a large impact on people’s attitudes and behaviors, enough to bend and shape even individuals’ innate predilections. We also need what’s conventionally known as ‘values.’  Of course, merely having a list of values is worthless unless:

Rule 3: Organizations must systematically enforce and reinforce a set of trust-enhancing values that support trusting and trustworthy interactions. 

Pick your own, but we’ve found that four fit the bill nicely:

  • An instinctive focus on the Other
  • A propensity for collaboration rather than solitary or competitive action
  • A default to transparency, except where illegal or hurtful
  • A relentless focus on long-term relationships rather than short-term transactions.

My colleague Andrea Howe and I have written at greater length about this in Creating a Culture of Trust: Virtues and Values.

The Trust-Based Organization

Back to Southwest Airlines vs. United. Which is known for being personable?  And which for being institutional?

In the tech crowd, we ‘trust’ Amazon to run great algorithms and distribution systems; but it’s going to have to go to another level to get us to trust the “Amazon guy” who wants to put packages inside your door or your car trunk.

Facebook developed great trust because it fostered personal networks: until those networks  got infected with fake personal relationships.

What about your company? Are you trying to gain customers’ trust by focusing on written policies, social media outreach, or good PR? Are you focused just on data security, or customer service, or great privacy policies, or compliance enforcement?

You’ll be better off by focusing on building a trust-based organization: one that consists of people who are virtuous and skilled at trusting, and that supports trust-based interactions according to a set of values that encourages such relationships.

 

 

Yes Trust is Down – But Trust in What?

New headlines daily grace the front pages (or screens) of our news outlets that make us question just how far our trust in (fill in the blank) has fallen. Whether it’s politicians or social empires like Facebook, it seems that as individuals we are now in a constant state of “well who shouldn’t I trust now?”

In many ways it’s very true, but it begs an even more important question – if trust is so far down today, what does that really mean?

You can’t throw a brick into the Googlenets these days without hitting some survey that bemoans the current low state of trust in society. And while there’s a lot of truth to those surveys, there’s also a lot of uncritical thinking and sloppy theorizing.

There are also some powerful ways in which trust has actually increased in recent times, and even more in which trust has stayed broadly the same.

Some Basic Trust Definitions

Much writing on trust neglects to make two simple distinctions. The first is that between trusting and being trusted; both are required for trust, and they are quite distinct. Trust requires a trustor and a trustee – they are different, and asymmetrical. One requires taking a risk, the other requires, broadly speaking, a moral virtuousness. “Trust,” properly speaking, is neither one of those things: it is the result of an interaction between the two of them.

The second distinction is between personal and institutional trust. Personal trust is by far the stronger of the two. You may trust Google to find a babysitter to interview, but you don’t trust Google itself to babysit your infant. And you’re a lot more likely to put your life on the line for your children than for your Coke/Apple/favorite brand. (A notable exception is national patriotism).

Most of the surveys that decry the decline in trust are talking about institutional trust. And it’s true: our “trust” in many, perhaps most, of our political institutions has declined. Ditto for most professions, the police, banks, retail stores, and established religion.

And yet…

If Trust is So Far Down, How Come—

  • you entered your credit card number online last week – at least once – from your mobile;
  • some of you use auto-complete on your mobile to fill in forms, perhaps even including your credit card number;
  • you share so much private information on Facebook (even after all the recent news);
  • you use Lyft, Airbnb, or another sharing economy app;
  • you paid your property taxes online;
  • you may have paid for Amazon to deliver via FedEx a camera that shows your front door.

These are all small examples of how the world has become far more linked. Many of us wouldn’t have considered doing these things ten years ago. These are small counter-examples of increased institutional trust. And, they are examples of trusting, the propensity to trust; at the same time, they suggest that we assign some pretty high levels of trustworthiness to other actors.

At the same time, there are many examples of both personal and institutional trust that have remained largely the same, without much fanfare. For example, you probably still:

  • Ask your neighbor to hold your mail for a few days
  • Fly on planes
  • Don’t look right or left when the light turns green (though you should)
  • Drink the coffee / eat the food at nearly every restaurant in the world without thinking
  • Ask a stranger at the beach to watch your stuff for a minute while you go to the bathroom.

In fact, an enormous amount of daily life consists of little examples of trust: mostly social and personal, but also institutional. Don’t let the headlines make you forget it.

Where Trust Really Is Down

That said, trust really is down in a few areas, and it’s important to be clear about just where.

First, there are indeed some ways in which people are less inclined to trust institutions than we used to be. But even here, read with a grain of salt. When people say they don’t trust Target (for example), they often mean something like “I don’t trust Target’s IT systems to ensure that my credit card doesn’t get compromised.”

Note this is an issue that didn’t even exist a decade ago. Also, it’s an issue affecting pretty much any large organization involved in financing. Also, and most important, check how many people stopped shopping at Target because of concerns about credit cards.

Saying “trust is down” without specifying “trust to do what?” is akin to a non sequitur. You might as well say “love is down” without grounding the statement in divorce rates, dating sites or something else concrete.

The most important way in which trust really is down is in what Eric Uslaner calls generalized trust. As measured by the General Social Survey for 50-some years, it basically asks, “By and large, do you think people mean well, or can’t you be too careful?” In other words, it is a generalized propensity to trust strangers.

On this measure, there is indeed a very gradual, but nonetheless real, decline over the years. High levels of propensity to trust have been linked to education and optimism. Low levels of propensity to trust have been linked to pessimism and low exposure to out-groups.  It is a true, important, and sad, statement that trust in this sense has indeed declined in the US, and in most western world countries.

And that is indeed something to be concerned about, far more than whether “trust” in the financial industry is down x points on a survey last quarter.

Question Obsession: The Consultant’s Nemesis

Do you go into sales meetings – even meetings with your existing clients – with a slew of prepared questions? Do you constantly find yourself asking question after question in a meeting?

You may be thinking, “Duh, of course. Aren’t we supposed to? How else are you going to demonstrate value added, explore hypotheses, prove your expertise?”

But let’s explore this apparent no-brainer. The fact is, Question Obsession can actually be detrimental. Lets explore why and how.

Consultants and salespeople (especially consultative sellers and sellers of consulting) have learned one mantra, and we love repeating it. It is the mantra that says, “Listen first; talk later.” In other words, it’s all about the question. Ask a great question, the logic goes, and all else will fall into place.

That is the great lesson of Sales and Consulting 101. And I have no beef with it.  The problem is – if you never graduate from 101, you will end up in quicksand because an obsession with questions alone ultimately leads nowhere.

The Obsession with Questions

There’s good reason for the Sales 101 and Consulting 101 lesson of focusing on questions. Go no further than Neil Rackham’s SPIN Selling, in the case of sales, or Peter Block’s classic Flawless Consulting for consultants. Each one shows with wisdom and data that artfully posed questions generate dialogue and interaction, and that is always superior to pre-emptively beating up the client with the answer.

Of course, we often forget our 101 lesson and go into meetings with answers blazing. But that’s not what this article is about. This article is about the downside of obsessing with questions. It’s what happens when we turn the 101 lesson into a mantra, and we begin to focus on questions alone.

Is questioning an obsession? Try doing a web search on “Top Ten Sales Questions;” you’ll get millions of results.

Now ask yourself whether you recognize these themes:

  • Should I ask open-ended or closed-ended questions?
  • Should I ask about implications or needs?
  • Should I ask about the client’s opinions or offer “challenger” questions?

As one sales website puts it, “Get the answers to these questions, and take action based on those answers, and you’ll get the sale. It’s that simple.”

No, it isn’t.

The sales version of question obsession manifests in lists. The consultant version of question obsession manifests in the Great Keystone Arch Question—what is the central supporting element?

You can recognize this form of obsession because it leads consultants speaking among themselves to say things like, “If we can set the data up right, we can frame the discussion such that when we finally pop the Keystone Arch Question, the whole logjam will be released. They’ll feel the pain, envision the solution, and fall all over themselves in a rush to buy our solution.”

No, they won’t.

That’s because good questions are necessary—but not sufficient. You have to have them, but they won’t get you to the end zone.

If all you do is focus on questions, you’ll end up obsessed with yourself, with your solutions and products, and with how clever you are. That’s called high self-orientation, and it will kill trust and sales both. Question obsession is quicksand for salespeople and consultants alike.

Beyond Question Obsession

The narrow purpose of a question is sometimes to get an answer. But there are broader purposes to most questions, and certainly a broader purpose to the art of questioning itself. One is to create a greater sense of insight for the client. Two others are to improve the client relationship and to give the client a sense of empowerment.

These goals are best accomplished not so much by focusing on the “what” of the question but on the “how.” Some examples:

  • Questions to create insight: Consultants often come up with “insights” that only an MBA could understand or that leave the client feeling helpless. These are not useful insights. We don’t want to leave our clients saying, “Gosh, that’s really smart. How will I remember that?” Rather, we want them to say, “Oh, my gosh, of course! it’s so clear when you put it that way, isn’t it?” Our objective is to create insight, not to demonstrate that we have it.
  • Improve the relationship: The better the relationship—buyer/seller or consultant/client—the better everything else gets. Innovation, profitability, time to market, and insights all improve with relationships. Great questions allow the parties to get closer together, more comfortable sharing the uncomfortable, and more willing to take risks by collaborating. Questions such as, “Let me ask you, if I may, do you personally find that scary?” have nothing to do with “content” insight, but they are critical to advancing the relationship.
  • Create client empowerment: The point of all this questioning is not, ultimately, to understand things. It is to change them. And change will not happen if the client feels the insights are threatening, depressing, or out of his control. The key to action is to help the client see ways in which they can change, take control, own, and improve their situation.

It’s not what you ask; it’s how you ask it. All three of these broader objectives have little to do with the content of, or the answer to, a business question. Instead, all of them focus on the outcome of the question-answer interaction. From this perspective, it is not what you ask that is important, but how you ask it. We need to get past the Q&A outcome, which is just about knowledge, and focus on the outcome of the interaction, which is how we help our clients drive change.

Avoid the quicksand: get past questions for questions’ sake, and focus on real business outcomes.

Living Inside a Pariah Company

A while back I wrote a very critical blogpost about Volkswagen. I was, of course, hardly alone in doing so; the scandal they incurred at the time created major tremors in the business world.

But in the years since, I’ve been trying to think in different terms – in particular, what must it have been like to be an employee of VW in those difficult days? What is the view from inside the glass, looking up and out? What tensions must it have caused people – and what could they have done?

The Pariah Organization

My good friend Matt Nixon started writing a book a year before the VW incident, tentatively titled “Pariahs: Hubris, Reputation and Organisational Crisis.”  I happen to be re-reading it now.

Matt has the credibility to write this book: an MBA, he spent over a decade in consulting (Accenture, Towers Perrin), then another decade as a VP at Shell Oil and later an MD at Barclays. He knows something about whereof he speaks. Combined with a classical English education and a wide network, the book makes for illuminating reading.

Matt suggests that being a pariah organization (think “outcast” and “exile”) is a phenomenon on the increase (just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you, it’s really true).  He also points out that pariah-dom is about much more than individual moral failings – it is trackable at an industry level (another gut feeling ratified by data).

He provides some diagnostics and descriptive models to identify and predict pariah-like conditions in organizations. Particularly telling is his critique of “false metamorphosis,” the consultant snake oil of “transformation” that has been overblown. True change, he suggests, requires a lot more, and is a lot more uncommon.

But what about VW’s employees? As Matt notes from other pariah organizations, a great many people in such companies feel bewildered and unfairly treated.  They see themselves, and their company, as largely ethical, and remain quite positive about staying with the organization they are part of.

The overwhelming criticism of their organizations feels like torches and pitchforks.

At a time of crisis, Matt suggests employees go through a predictable sequence of emotions – shock, followed by anger and shame, swinging back to resurgent loyalty, and ending in a blend of guilt, responsibility, and denial. He talks as well about three “tribes” of employees: Loyalists, Mercenaries, and Heroes. The three tribes react differently to the four phases.

What Can Be Done?

Matt’s book has some great insights for organizations and leadership. For me, for this post in particular, I want to focus on what an individual at VW could have been thinking about, what they could do, and what we could have done to support them.

Human beings are delicate creatures. We process information that is critical of us in very self-protective ways. We will take advice from a friend that we would never take from a stranger.

As outsiders, this means we have to temper criticism with the recognition that exceeding few employees assume personal guilt. The vast majority feel very little personal accountability for the sins of the organization, and personalizing accusations doesn’t help them come to grips with any objective truth.

The increasing demand for personal civil and criminal accountability of leaders in pariah organizations is, I think, a good thing. But it must be tempered by some focus on responsibility – our criminal justice systems are easily inclined to focus on the underlings, and not the leaders. Indiscriminate demonization of employees is counter-productive. In the VW case in particular, the role of culture and corporate environment seemed a strong contributor, rather than a simple case of “bad apples.”

As employees, the challenge is to see this as a “Santa Claus” moment: as in, “there is no…”

This did not happen in a vacuum; as Matt notes, the cult of leadership is partly to blame for obscuring the truth that corporate cultures “eat strategy for breakfast,” not to mention well-intended but impotent compliance programs. It’s critical to employees – for their own psychic health, as well as that of the organization – to be constructively schizophrenic.

They need to both feel secure in their own good intentions and, at the same time, be able to objectively see how things could have gotten to this point. As Henry Mintzberg angrily points out, this kind of phenomenon is best seen not as a scandal, but as a syndrome. And only insiders have access to the “real” story.

—————

Moral outrage has its place in the reform of business. So does shaming, by bringing business issues outside narrowly proscribed economic boundaries and into the social realm as a whole.

But blame and shame are two-edged swords, and very hard to control. At a social level, their overuse just promotes entrenched ill-will; look no further than the current state of US national politics.

At an individual level, blame and shame keep us from seeing and accepting reality, as it is. In a very real sense, as my friend Phil McGee puts it, “Blame is captivity – responsibility is freedom.”

As we look at more recent scandals/syndromes, we need to balance our outrage with a sense of respect for other individuals, and our defensiveness with a willingness to see things as they are.

Being Offensive vs. Being Offended – and Trust

When you offend someone, someone is offended. That seems obviously, trivially true. But the two are very different events – each touching on a part of the human experience, and each teaching us something about trust.

The Social and the Psychological

Disrespecting someone is a social violation: it is not a nice thing to do. It goes against the rules of etiquette and ethics (most of if not all ethical precepts have to do with our relationships to others). Every society has its rules about how to respect others, and to violate them is a serious matter.

To disrespect someone is a matter of one of two things – ignorance, or deliberate malice and rudeness. Both are matters of personal choice.

Being offensive and disrespectful, then, deals with the social side of being human.

Being disrespected or offended, on the other hand, is an intensely personal event. It is experienced one person at a time, as an interior phenomenon.

Being offended and disrespected, then, deals with the individual side of being human.

How do we integrate, as human beings, these two realms? Where are the ’shoulds’ in our social behavior, and in our individual behavior?

The answer is a little paradoxical: We should strive not to offend or disrespect others. At the same time, we should also strive to not feel offended, or disrespected, for long. In other words, we should strive to be kind socially, and to feel free psychologically.

We should respect others, yet not take personally others’ disrespect of ourselves.

The second is often the harder of the two. Here are a few contrasts to help make the point.

  • Religions teach us to be good to each other – the social message. Twelve Step programs remind us “pain is inevitable; suffering is optional” – the psychological message.
  • MLK fought for human rights – the social side. Viktor Frankl reminds us that “human freedom is not a freedom from but a freedom to” – the psychological side.

What’s Trust Got to Do With It?

Quite a bit, actually.

In contrast to almost all you read about ‘trust’ as some all-inclusive thing, keep in mind this simple fact, obvious to anyone on reflection:

Like tango, trust takes two. Trust is a relationship between a trustor and a trustee. The trustor initiates trust by taking a risk. The trustee then responds by being trustworthy. The roles then shift, and the players reciprocate. Rinse and repeat, etc. etc.

First, the trustee side: If you disrespect or offend others, then others will not trust you. You become untrustworthy. Disrespect and offensiveness affects the trustee.

Using the Trust Equation, you will have low Intimacy scores, because others will not confide in you. You will probably have high Self-orientation scores as well (a bad thing), because you’re likely acting out of willful anger or resentment, or willful ignorance – all of which are about you, not about the Other.

Being offended works the other side of the trust dynamic, that of the trustor: it renders you incapable of trusting others. You cannot initiate a trust relationship if you live in fear of being disrespected or offended.

Being chronically prone to offense means you are not free to act fully as a human. Rather than risk being hurt, you choose never to engage. You will never enjoy trust-as-relationship if you cannot trust-as-action. Victimhood destroys trust as much as  rudeness.

The Human Conundrum

And so the sociological and psychological, aka human, conundrum. You should never disrespect others. And you should never allow yourself to (remain) feeling disrespected.

You should always be trustworthy. And you should also never depend solely on the Other to initiate a relationship of trust.

May you not offend, nor be offended. And both are entirely your choice.

 

 

What Buyers Really Want

What do buyers really want?

In particular, what is the true role of expertise in evaluating the purchase of complex intangible services?

The head of marketing for a US East Coast major law firm was asked by 3 partners to help rehearse and prepare them for a key sales meeting at a major potential new client. “If only we can convince them that we are absolutely the best in this area, which we are,” the lead partner said, “then they’ll have to go with us.”

This point of view seemed so self-evident to the senior partner that it didn’t feel like an opinion; it seemed like an obvious truth. Unfortunately, not only is it just an opinion—it also is not particularly accurate.

Lawyers, accountants, bankers, actuaries, consultants—all behave more often than not as if the key to selling lies in a powerful display of expertise. Most complex intangible services sales are sold with the implicit, if not explicit, belief that expertise is the issue. But that doesn’t make it right. And if it’s not right, then we must answer three questions:

  • if expertise doesn’t sell best, then what does?
  • don’t buyers seem to want to buy expertise?
  • if selling expertise isn’t the best approach, why is it the dominant one?

Good questions all. The answers lie in the psychology of buyer and seller of complex intangible services, and in trust—which is what really lies at the heart of successful sales.

WHAT’S THE ALTERNATIVE?

If buyers don’t primarily buy expertise, then what are they buying? The answer, in a word, is trust.

Take a simple case. Imagine you have recently moved to a new city, and must find a pediatrician for your 2-year old child. You have a list of 6 doctors, referrals from a combination of health plans, co-workers and neighbors. One doctor clearly has a slight edge in reputation of medical school; another has the most years’ experience; another is on staff at a teaching hospital and has written several articles.

But there is one who hits it off immediately with your 2-year old. This pediatrician connects with and seems genuinely focused on your interests as a parent and on those of your child, rather than on getting you as a new patient. In other technical respects, this physician is in the top half, but not number 1 in any category.

What do you do? Not everyone, but a majority nonetheless, will go for the pediatrician who seems to care, as long as he or she is within an acceptable range of expertise. And, they will use the word “trust” to describe their decision. There are exceptions, of course; a few people always buy purely on the basis of technical specifications, a few more buy only on price, and occasionally one seller is overwhelmingly dominant in the technical realm.

But the majority behave as if expertise has an acceptability threshold. Achieving that threshold is a necessary condition for getting hired—but even expertise beyond the threshold is not a sufficient condition. Given an acceptable level of expertise, people prefer—strongly—to buy from someone whom they trust. In other words, expertise serves as a first-order screen in the buying process—but not as a final decision-making criterion.

To put it simply: most buyers of complex intangible services prefer to find an expert they can trust, rather than to evaluate expertise across experts.

THEN WHY DON’T BUYERS BEHAVE THAT WAY?

They do. They just don’t say so. There’s a difference.

First, buyers are a little intimidated by the role of buyer. Usually the seller has greater expertise. There is often a lot at stake, and the services are costly. It is often truly hard to choose between several very competent sellers. So, buyers feel a need to display some level of technical expertise themselves, partly out of natural human ego, and partly to keep the seller on his toes.

Second, corporate buyers of complex intangible services are usually professionals themselves—they worship at the same altar of expertise. And, they are particularly concerned to be able to justify their decision. Justification in business almost always consists of rational, mostly financial, arguments. Therefore buyers drive discussions in the technical direction, even while looking to assess their level of trust with the sellers.

How does this play out? Buyers look for rational reasons to justify what is finally an emotional decision, built heavily on trust. The most commonly accepted rational reasons are price and features. (Price is a very comfortable excuse for saying no—it is quantitative, impersonal, and only the buyer has all the numbers. However, price is rarely given as a positive reason for selection). Very few chief counsels will say to their CEO or board nothing more than, “I think we should go with XYZ because, basically, I think like them better and trust them more.” Yet that is how most of us do behave when buying complex intangible services.

THEN WHY DO SELLERS SELL EXPERTISE?

Professionals over-emphasize expertise for three reasons.

First, that’s what they think (falsely) the buyer wants— and the buyer encourages them in that belief.

Second, expertise is what we professionals are most comfortable with. Very few lawyers went into law because they wanted to sell, or because they wanted to work with people. They went because they love the law, and the vast majority of their learning, development, evaluations and study consist of greater and greater mastery of content expertise. The same is true for consultants, commercial bankers, accountants and actuaries. Why would anyone want to sell on any other basis than what they’re good at and spend all their time and energy at?

Finally, professionals have an emotional vested interest in selling on expertise. It is not comfortable to believe that success in selling might depend on something other than what we spend almost all our time and energy focused on. Still, it’s the truth.

Most buyers of complex intangible services prefer to use technical expertise as a screening mechanism, and then make final decisions based on trust. Sellers who recognize this will listen more, talk less, and focus on the issues of the client at hand (rather than those of past clients). These simple client-focused behaviors are the ways buyers assess trust. Get yourself in the door by focusing on expertise; but once in, drop it and focus on the client, not on yourself.

Why the Talking Stick Creates Trust

The morning news is celebrating a minor triumph of civility in the United States Senate. Senator Susan Collins helped broker a (very) short-term deal by using a talking stick – a centuries-old example of early social engineering from Native Americans.

What’s interesting here is not the agreement itself, but how the use of the talking stick creates trust.

The Nature of Trust

Interpersonal trust is a bilateral, reciprocating relationship based on risk-taking. Let me unpack that in simple English.

Trust requires a trustor, and a trustee. The trustor initiates the relationship by taking a risk. The trustee then responds, or not, by being trustworthy. The players than reciprocate roles – it becomes the trustee’s turn to be the trustor. And so on.

As a visual metaphor, think of a simple handshake; one person extends their hand – the other (usually) responds in kind. A minor social ritual, but of the type that plays out dozens of times a day in simple respectful, reciprocating gestures. It is the stuff of etiquette, among other things.

The Critical Role of Listening

Trust formation follows the rule of reciprocity – but what is the currency of that reciprocity? A powerful component of it is very basic – listening. As in, “If you listen to me, I will listen to you.”

This is a familiar proposition to all of us. In sales, we have “I don’t care what you know until I know that you care.” In fields as diverse as hostage negotiation, terrorist interrogation, and suicide hotlines, we know the critical nature of listening in order to ensure the other person feels heard. (In the field of relationships, you’ve probably been on one end or the other of the familiar line, “Would you stop trying to solve the problem, I just want you to listen to me.”)

I’m not talking about “active listening,” or listening to find out the other person’s position, or to formulate a value proposition. I’m talking about something much more basic and fundamental – listening so that the other person feels heard, validated, understood. This is primal stuff.

The Talking Stick

What the talking stick does is to ritualize this fundamental human truth. The only person allowed to talk is the one holding the stick. The result – even though everyone ‘knows’ that it’s an artificial constraint – is that it works.

We are hard-wired to appreciate the civility of listening – and to respond in return. The talking stick is a physical reminder of a basic rule of trust creation: the critical role of listening. If you let me talk about my issues, I will then let you talk about yours.

It’s a rule all humans seem to respect; and a clever vehicle, even if transparent, for drawing on our better natures to create trust.

 

A Better New Year’s Resolution

Eleven years have passed since I first wrote the following thoughts on New Years resolutions. Frankly, it was good. And frankly I haven’t been able to write a better one. Next year, maybe.
So, apologies to those who have read it year after year—though I suspect some of you won’t mind.

Happy New Year.
——————————————-
My unscientific sampling says many people make New Years resolutions, and few follow through. Net result—unhappiness.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

You could, of course, just try harder, stiffen your resolve, etc. But you’ve been there, tried that.

You could also ditch the whole idea and just stop making resolutions. Avoid goal-failure by eliminating goal-setting. Effective, but at the cost of giving up on aspirations.

I heard another idea: replace the New Year’s Resolution List with a New Year’s Gratitude List. Here’s why it makes sense.

First, most resolutions are about self-improvement—this year I resolve to: quit smoking, lose weight, cut the gossip, drink less, exercise more, and so on. All those resolutions are rooted in a dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs—or with oneself.

In other words: resolutions often have a component of dissatisfaction with self. For many, it isn’t just dissatisfaction—it’s self-hatred. And the stronger the loathing of self, the stronger the resolutions—and the more they hurt when they go unfulfilled.  It can be a very vicious circle.

Second, happy people do better. This has some verification in science, and it’s a common point of view in religion and psychology—and in common sense. People who are slightly optimistic do better in life. People who are happy are more attractive to other people. In a very real sense, you empower what you fear—and attract what you put out.

Ergo, replace resolutions with gratitude. The best way to improve oneself is paradoxical—start by begin grateful for what you already have. That turns your aspirations from negative (fixing a bad situation) to positive (making a fine situation even better).

Gratitude forces our attention outwards, to others—a common recommendation of almost all spiritual programs.

Finally, gratitude calms us. We worry less. We don’t obsess. We attract others by our calm, which makes our lives connected and meaningful. And before long, we tend to smoke less, drink less, exercise more, gossip less, and so on. Which of course is what we thought we wanted in the first place.

But the real truth is—it wasn’t the resolutions we wanted in the first place.  It was the peace that comes with gratitude.  We mistook cause for effect.

Go for an attitude of gratitude. The rest are positive side-effects.

Trust, Inc.

Walgreens, the venerable (116 years old, second largest) US drugstore chain, has announced a new tagline as part of a new brand positioning strategy.  No longer will it be “At the corner of happy and healthy” – the new mantra is “Trusted Since 1901.

Well.

I wish Walgreen’s nothing but the best, and don’t doubt their good intentions. Nor are they necessarily wrong on the facts. And, Walgreens is hardly alone in wanting to trumpet their levels of trustworthiness, or their trusted relationships with customers.

However, the use of “trust” in corporate branding is problematic on at least three dimensions. Walgreens provides a good opportunity to explain why.

Cognitive Dissonance

I always tell people not to call themselves a ‘trusted advisor,’ and certainly not to incorporate the phrase into their advertising. It’s like saying “humility is my best quality.”

Trustworthiness is something of a virtue, and calling yourself virtuous just explodes the claim. It’s wonderful when other people use trust to describe you or your relationship with them – as long as it’s them saying it. (“Trust me” may be the two most trust-destroying words you can say).

Calling yourself ‘trusted’ is also different from calling yourself innovative, or respected, or high quality. Walgreens might want to take note that none of the ”Top 10 Most Trusted Brands” brands incorporate trust itself into their taglines.

They might also take note of how it’s worked our for “The Most Trusted Name in News,” whose tagline allows Donald Trump a convenient foil.

Risky Business

Claiming to be trusted is a bit like the Gary Hart strategy – daring the press to find otherwise. It’s like a red flag to a bull.

How many people will manage to dig up the fact that Walgreens made a substantial amount of money and growth during Prohibition by selling (legally) whiskey? Or that the pharmacy business managed to quickly carve out a very liberal interpretation of “medicinal purposes” during that period? Sorry, Walgreens, it’s what you’re setting yourself up for.

History aside, stuff happens. Ask BP about oil spills, or the old Union Carbide about explosions. Or, closer to home, J&J about Tylenol redux. Mis-steps are magnified, and stay in the press longer, for those who claim to be trustworthy in the first place.

Corporations are Not People

This is the biggest one. “Trust” is a word with much contextual nuance of interpretation. But one thing we can say for sure: personal trust is richer and stronger than corporate trust.

We trust people on an emotional level. We trust people based on our views of their intentions, their transparency, and their willingness to trust us.

By contrast, corporations’ intentions are usually very much self-oriented; transparency is little-practiced; and rare is the corporation without legal disclaimers governing their customer relationships. That’s not a criticism (well, it is a little bit); but it’s mainly just stating the difference between protein-based and legally-based entities and the ways we trust them.

Most corporate executives would probably agree with this in the abstract – but they ignore the implications in the particular. If they really believed it, they would be spending money on becoming more trustworthy, rather than on PR campaigns to be seen as more trustworthy, or on reputation management to change perceptions rather than underlying reality.

So What’s a Company to Do?

A company that is serious about being seen as trust-based would start by recognizing – it’s personal.

Trust is not created by spin, advertising, PR, or taglines. It is created by the collective personal behavior over time of corporate employees interacting with customers, suppliers and each other.

This means corporate trust is a culture-and-values issue – not a process-and-marketing issue.

A company that is serious about trust will, among other things:

  • figure out how to trust its customers and suppliers, often by taking some form of risk (because trust is reciprocal – we trust those who trust us);
  • invest in customer service by focusing on effectiveness, not efficiency; by using ROI, not budget variances, to measure success;
  • hire, train for, and role-model best practices for interpersonal trust, including emotional intelligence, strict truth-telling, and vulnerability;
  • consistently prioritize long-term, relationship-based behaviors over short-term, self-aggrandizing behaviors, in its compensation and promotion policies;
  • focus on ways to establish deeper relationships with stakeholders, rather than focusing on issues like NDAs, non-competes, or arbitration clauses;
  • make heroes out of people who model trust-based behavior.

We trust those more who do not protest how much we trust them.