To Live Outside the Law You Must be Honest

Years ago, O best beloved, there lived a musician, both popular and influential. His name was Bob Dylan. Some of you may remember.

Dylan’s lyrics grace the lists of most popular lyrics of all time, including my favorite, “the ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face…” from Visions of Johanna.

But some lines were more than just poetically evocative – they also hinted at serious truths. One such line was today’s title: “To live outside the law, you must be honest.” The lyric is from Absolutely Sweet Marie, from (IMHO) his greatest album, Blonde on Blonde, recorded in New York and Nashville in 1966. As with all Dylan songs, who knows what the artist meant, he’s not talking – but here’s what I take it to mean.

It’s easy to color within the lines. It’s easy to paint by numbers, fill in the check boxes, meet the specs and follow the regulations. In short, to follow the law. But when it comes to issues like trust and ethics, balancing social responsibility and profits, navigating between government demands and consumer demands – it’s not enough.

It’s tempting, taunting, tantalizing, to look to the law (or corporate guidelines, or regulations) for guidance when faced with a difficult issue in client relationships, customer satisfaction, or ethical issues. It’s also a copout.

Issues of ethics and trust demand a higher order of resolution. When faced with a client demanding to know the truth about some matter, how much truth do you share? The ‘law’ will clearly tell you what truths not to tell; and if you want to argue from omission, what truths are therefore not restrained. But your client – or your constituencies, or your legacy – isn’t going to be satisfied, in part because all you’re doing is citing ‘the law;’ you’re not taking any responsibility.

Being Honest, Being Principled

In this situation, I’m equating “be honest” with “be principled.” Principles apply to more than just honesty, but honesty will do fine as a stand-in for other principles. The point is – you’d better have something more than chapter and verse at hand to satisfy a demand for trust or fairness, whether from clients, employees or society at large. The statement “but it was legal” doesn’t cut any mustard in the higher courts of human interaction.

If you’re looking to be trusted, compliance is de minimis; by itself,  even inflammatory. “Sorry, that’s the law” is only slightly more satisfying than “Sorry, that’s our policy,” or, “Sorry, that’s not how we do things around here.”

Instead, you need principles – rooted in human nature and human relationships. Principles like service to others, or collaboration, or transparency, or don’t treat others as means to your ends. It’s principles like these that provide better guidance to tough decisions. (It’s also principles, that in the long run, must undergird the law itself for the law to be seen as legitimate.)

Your client wants to know what principles are driving you to be opaque and malleable about your pricing. Passat owners and VW dealers want to know what principles, if any, justify the slow drip of revelations about accountability. Apple shareholders and customers are very much vested in wanting to know the principles behind Tim Cook’s position on security – and the government makes its case best when it challenges Apple on principle grounds, e.g. arguing that the real motive is brand enhancement.

Living Outside the Law

To “live outside the law” doesn’t mean you’re a criminal – but in Dylan’s meaning, it does mean you’re an outlaw. You operate in part outside the narrow proscriptions of the law; you find affirmation by others of your actions by grounding them in broader principles.

That’s ultimately what makes others trust you. We live our daily lives by universal principles that others recognize as legitimate as well. We don’t trust people whose ‘ethics’ amount to rote checkbox compliance. We trust those who come from someplace deep, a place where connection to others and relationships with them are bedrock. People who feel their principles and are confident enough in them to re-compute them in every situation, as if for the first time.

If you’re going to live outside the law – and you should – you’d best be honest.


Fear and Loathing in Sales

Why is it that, when it comes to sales within a service-based industry, the very thought of selling seems to leave a bad taste in one’s mouth? Below, we dive into why the fear of sales creeps up on those of us “rewarded” with the extra task of “business development.”

Let’s dig a little deeper into the root cause of the fear and loathing that so often seems to accompany sales.


Some people seem born to sell. They enjoy the challenge, the meritocracy of the numbers, the feeling of controlling their destiny, and the social interaction that comes with sales. They like selling, and they are good at it.

But that isn’t true if you’re a professional who sells services. If you’re a management consultant, accountant, lawyer, human resources professional, financial planner, or technology consultant, let me ask you a question: did you set out early in your career with the goal of being a salesperson? No? That’s what I thought.

Fear and Loathing in the Professional Services Sales Business

The biggest difference between professional services salespeople and other salespeople is the former’s general distaste for selling. Fear and loathing is often not too strong a phrase. A professional is generally hired, trained, rewarded, and promoted for subject matter mastery.

Up to a point, that is. At some point, like a cruel joke, they are “rewarded” with the additional responsibility of selling. Little wonder, then, that the word “sell” is a four-letter word in the professions; most firms prefer the euphemism “business development,” conveniently phrased in the passive voice. After all, they reason, clients buy from us because of the quality of our work. Our sales strategy is to aggressively wait for the phone to ring.

Fear of sales runs deep, yet few professionals can really succeed without confronting and overcoming their apprehension. And so people who thought they had chosen cold hard data and logic as their career end up having to self-psychologize to remain effective—yet another distasteful venture for a content lover.

The Source of Our Fears

Most professionals were attracted by the intellectual aspects of their career. They were bright, with good minds, and the professions worship intellectual achievement. Since clients are often from the same profession, both buyers and sellers share the same delusion—people buy solely through a process of rational decision making. No self-respecting in-house counsel or vice president of strategy would admit to hiring an external advisor based on vague criteria like trust or chemistry.

And so both parties contribute to the myth that services them both: clients buy value propositions, packages that deliver positive net present value, and providers who make the best business case. If one firm loses, they can feel secure that it was probably not their fault—it was just price. And price is the easiest reason for the client to give to the also-rans. The delusion continues.

To contemplate that things don’t work this way is a threatening idea to professionals. It suggests clients aren’t buying their expertise, but their personalities—which feels unfair and rather scary. Since the seller is often the deliverer, it suggests that rejection is far more personal than it is for the seller of a widget. Finally, to lose is the ultimate failure. It means your expertise, the thing you have prized all your life, just wasn’t good enough. And by extension, neither were you.

No wonder professionals loathe the need to sell.

Overcoming Fear and Loathing

Unfortunately, the sales world is all too full of salespeople willing to teach professionals how to sell. They and their professional clients buy into yet another myth: the idea that sales is sales and best practices cut across all industries. And so sales programs that teach closing techniques to manufacturer reps and clothing suppliers founder when they try to close chief financial officers.

What’s true of closing is also true of sales cycles, CRM systems, pipeline analyses, and sales efficiency programs. What works in “regular” businesses falls flat in professional services, and it accentuates the already bad taste in the mouth for selling.

This deep psychological aversion to selling cannot be overcome by behaviors, tips, techniques, processes, and tools alone. It must be addressed at the mindset level. While you can partly act your way into right thinking, in the fog-sculpting world of professional services, you must also think your way into right acting. It starts with re-conceiving the very purpose of selling.

The Purpose of Selling Is…

In most businesses, that is a simple sentence to finish. The purpose of selling is to get buyers to buy the seller’s products. Both buyer and seller know this, and they easily accept the rules of the “game.”

In the professions, we need a very different purpose—that of client service. By this view, the purpose of selling is to make the client better. The sale is not the goal; the sale is a byproduct of successfully helping the client improve. The sale is an indicator, not an objective.

Taking this definition seriously has serious implications. It means transactional selling is all wrong—transactions are just points along the way of a relationship. It means we don’t compete with our clients—we collaborate with them. It means our timeframe must be long, not short.

Most of all, it means we don’t sell by selling. We sell by successfully helping the client to see new possibilities and trusting that the clients we help will, with predictable regularity, prefer to do business with us. It means detaching from the outcome of the transaction and trusting in a broader pattern of human behavior.

If that sounds like selling based on trust, that’s exactly right. It’s the same powerful dynamic recognized in concepts such as customer loyalty. The economics of trust are compelling.

Perhaps best of all, though, is the message this viewpoint offers the professional. Rightly conceived, the only difference between selling and delivering is getting paid. When we think of sales that way, the fear and loathing can slip away—we are all comfortable with client service as a model for delivery. Selling is the same: the right way to sell professional services is to aggressively do good, and then, at the right time, ask to be (well) paid for doing so.

That view of selling isn’t to be feared. It’s a view we can feel good about, while generating a powerful business model at the same time.

Are You Worthy Of Your Clients’ Trust?

Most salespeople will agree – there is no stronger sales driver than a client’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 clients trust you. A “no” answer will virtually guarantee they don’t.

The Acid Test Of Trust In Selling

The question to you 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 client’s short-term interests ahead of your own. Assuming you sincerely did so, this indicates low self-orientation and a long-term perspective on your part, and is a good indicator of trustworthiness.

If you have never, ever, recommended a competitor to a good client, then either your service is always better than the competition for every client 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 clients’; which says, frankly, you can’t be trusted.

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

  1. The client was trivially important to you;
  2. You were going to lose the client anyway;
  3. You don’t have a viable service offering in the category;
  4. 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 client would 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 This Is 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)
T = trustworthiness of the seller (as perceived by the buyer)
C = credibility
R = reliability
I = intimacy
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 when screening 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 someone who is 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, and 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 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.

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My Client Is a Jerk

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 the early stages of a project.
  • 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, yet often shows favoritism to someone else or another team.

Fortunately, there is a common thread to all of 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. The client is unlikely to accept it as a problem statement. It’s highly subjective, and it’s quite unverifiable.

People in a position to hire outside professionals typically have achieved some degree of success in life. While it’s popular lately to describe the prevalence of “a**holes” in business (see Robert I. Sutton’s book, The No A**hole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t), 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, which is 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 about fear and bad behavior 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 and judging us. We’re afraid of clients judging us, 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, or “The dog ate my homework,” or “It was a bad hair day.” More to the point, we might say, “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’s.”

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 the future. And that is a lesson best kept to yourself.


Again, 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 client no longer seems 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:

  1. 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 and then detach yourself from the results. You don’t own the outcome.
  2. 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.
  3. 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 statemen? 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.


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Buddhist Capitalism vs Competitive Selling: the Power of Trust and Collaboration

When you think of capitalism, you probably think of competition as a central, driving force. We have enshrined the value of competition in our antitrust laws. We view competition between providers as a way to increase innovation and reduce costs; in today’s parlance, competition is what yields creative disruption.  Adam Smith is frequently (and somewhat inaccurately) cited as the prophet of competition in his concept of the “invisible hand.”

At a micro-level, we have also glorified competition. Athletic competition is seen as a metaphor, as well as a proving ground, for competition in business. Businesses line up to sponsor major athletic events and athletes.

And nowhere in business is competition more revered than in sales.

The truth is much of what we think about competition is dysfunctional, suboptimal, and actually destroys value. By contrast, what I’ll whimsically call Buddhist Capitalism shows another way that adds more value. I’ll explore this theme first at the business world level, then at the sales level.

Business Competition in the Real World

In the real world, pure competition leads directly to monopoly. Competition is inherently unstable, resolving to dominance of one more powerful firm over all the others. What we call “competition” in the modern Western world is a finely tuned mix of rules and regulations, as well as a few customs, that serve to keep behavior within socially acceptable bounds.

If you doubt this, think of what the U.S. economy would look like in the absence of the FTA, the FDA, the FAA, the SEC, or the FDIC. Or just look back a few decades in the history books. Maintenance of a state of competition depends enormously on the power of the referees.

Pure competition, even where regulatory regimes are strict, rarely exists. There are imbalances of labor, education, geography, and a hundred other variables. The point is in nearly every industry, there is an imbalance of power, exploited by one party at the expense of the weaker parties. “Competition” in the real world is more or less about zero-sum games, with one party holding the stronger hand.

The definitions of “capitalism” have been hijacked by extremist theoreticians in recent years: people such as Milton Friedman, Ayn Rand, and Alan Greenspan, who believe in a moral purity produced by competition. (Never mind that an ethics built on selfishness isn’t worthy of being called ethics in the first place.)

Buddhist Capitalism

By contrast: imagine an economy relatively unencumbered by laws and regulations, but where trust and custom abounded. An economy with not nearly as many lawyers, but with fewer legal battles. An economy where the frictional costs of competition (and the regulation of competition) are lower, and innovation is higher.

You get such an economy when you introduce the concept of trust and collaboration. Zero-sum games shift to 1+1=3 games. Stephen MR Covey Jr.’s book The Speed of Trust is all about this: when trust is present, speed goes up and cost goes down.

If my Buddhist friends will forgive me the crude colloquial language, I’ll call this Buddhist Capitalism. What I mean is that it focuses on collaboration, not competition; on getting along harmoniously rather than vanquishing; on letting go attachment to outcome rather than obsessing over goal achievement.

It’s far from crazy. The lesson of the Prisoner’s Dilemma work in game theory is that a collaborative strategy always, always beats a competitive strategy if played long term. Research shows that collaboration produces more innovation than solitary introversion. Collaboration and trust build on each other, increasing knowledge of both parties to the point where they can jointly add value, cut costs, and reduce risks.

It may sound like a Beatles song—the more you give, the more you get—but it’s no less true for being musically suggestive.

Buddhist Selling

What does all this have to do with sales? Selling is just the micro-version of the same thing. We as human beings have a primal desire for survival, which can easily revert to competition. But we have an equally strong desire for connection, collaboration, and cohesion.

Except for pure commodities (and not even water or electricity is a pure commodity), buyers prefer to buy from sellers they trust. Trusted sellers have their customers’ interests at heart, ahead of their own. They play the long game because they know that the best way to long-term success is through their customers’ success, and, therefore, no particular sale is worth sacrificing the long-term relationship.

Trusted sellers are also not attached to a particular outcome. They don’t keep meticulous score at a detailed level, and they are willing to let their agenda be influenced by client needs. Finally, they keep no secrets from their customers because they see their interests and their customers’ interests as one and the same, and the value of shared information to both parties exceeds the value of secret information privy to just one party.

Of course, these attitudes are hard to come by in a world that prizes competition. Sellers everywhere are taught to compete not only with their competitors, but also with their own customers (that’s not a joke – go read Mike Porter’s Five Forces model of competitive strategy). Not getting a sale is considered bad form, if not unacceptable. Metrics in sales are short-term, incentives are largely extrinsic, and motivation basically consists of war chants.

But a seller who can “think Buddhist” will outperform a competitive seller over time because customers prefer to deal with sellers they trust. And they do not trust people who are in it for themselves.

The ultimate irony: by being willing to forego a sale and do the right thing, the “Buddhist seller” will end up selling more than the competitive seller.


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Why Your Clients Don’t Trust You – and How to Fix It

Do your customers trust you? Be honest, now, this is not an in-house survey. Do they believe what you say? Will they cut you a break if you goof up?  Are they happy to share information with you? Do they go out of their way to refer you?

Can you honestly answer ‘yes,’ to yourself, in the dead of night, to those questions?

If you’re trying to sell your services, you already know the value of being trusted. Being trusted increases value, cuts time, lowers costs, and increases profitability—both for us and for our clients.

So, we try hard to be trustworthy: to be seen as credible, reliable, honest, ethical, other-oriented, empathetic, competent, experienced, and so forth.

But in our haste to be trustworthy, we often forget one critical variable: people don’t trust those who never take a risk. If all we do is be trustworthy and never do any trusting ourselves, eventually we will be considered un-trustworthy.

To be fully trusted, we need to do a little trusting ourselves.

Trusting and Being Trusted

We often talk casually about “trust” as if it were a single, unitary phenomenon—like the temperature or a poll. “Trust in banking is down,” we might read.

But that begs a question. Does it mean banks have become less trustworthy? Or does it mean bank customers or shareholders have become less trusting of banks? Or does it mean both?

To speak meaningfully of trust, we have to declare whether we are talking about trustors or about trustees. The trustor is the party doing the trusting—the one taking the risk. These are our clients, for the most part.

The trustee is the party being trusted—the beneficiary of the decision to trust. This is us, for the most part.

The trust equation is a valuable tool for describing trust:

But where is risk to be found? How can we use the trust equation to describe trusting and not just being trusted? How can we trust, as well as seek to be trusted?

Trust and Risk

Notwithstanding Ronald Reagan’s dictum of “trust but verify,” the essence of trust is risk. If you submit a risk to verification, you may quantify the risk, but what’s left is no longer properly called “trust.” Without risk there is no trust.

In the trust equation, risk appears largely in the Intimacy variable. Many professionals have a hard time expressing empathy, for example, because they feel it could make them appear “soft,” unprofessional, or invasive.

Of course, it’s that kind of risk that drives trust. We are wired to exchange reciprocal pleasantries with each other. It’s called etiquette, and it is the socially acceptable path to trust. Consider the following:

“Oh, so you went to Ohio State. What a football team; I have a cousin who went there.”

“Is it just me, or is this speaker kind of dull? I didn’t get much sleep last night, so this is pushing my luck.”

“Do you know whether that was a social media reference he just made? Sometimes I feel a little out of the picture.”

If we take these small steps, our clients usually reciprocate. Our intimacy levels move up a notch, and the trust equation gains a few points.

If we don’t take these small steps, the relationship stays in place: pleasant and respectful, but like a stagnant pool when it comes to trust.

Non-Intimacy Steps for Trusting

The intimacy part of the trust equation is the most obvious source of risk-taking, but it is not the only one. Here are some ways to take constructive risks in other parts of the trust equation.

  1. Be open about what you don’t know. You may think it’s risky to admit ignorance. In fact, it increases your credibility if you’re the one putting it forward. Who will doubt you when you say you don’t know?
  2. Make a stretch commitment. Most of the time, you’re better off doing exactly what you said you’ll do and making sure you can do what you commit to. But sometimes you have to put your neck out and deliver something fast, new, or differently.To never take such a risk is to say you value your pristine track record over service to your client, and that may be a bad bet. Don’t be afraid to occasionally dare for more—even at the risk of failing.
  3. Have a point of view. If you’re asked for your opinion in a meeting, don’t always say, “I’ll get back to you on that.” Clients often value interaction more than perfection. If they wanted only right answers, they would have hired a database.
  4. Try on their shoes. You don’t know what it’s like to be your client. Nor should you pretend to know. But there are times when, with the proper request for permission, you get credit for imagining things.”I have no idea how the ABC group thinks about this,” you might say, “but I can imagine—if I were you, Bill, I’d feel very upset by this. You’ve lost a degree of freedom in this situation.”

While trust always requires a trustor and a trustee, it is not static. The players have to trade places every once in a while. We don’t trust people who never trust us.

So, if we want others to trust us, we have to trust them. Go find ways to trust your client; you will be delighted by the results.


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Caution: Sales Experts May be Hazardous to Your Sales

Neil Rackham’s classic SPIN Selling book is famous for many reasons – the depth of research, his clarity of thinking, the deeply commonsensical conclusions he draws. It’s a great book, and deserves all the acclaim it’s gotten over the years.

Yet I’ve always been amused and delighted by a small item he mentions almost in passing: the fact that certain techniques developed for small-item selling – notably closing – actually backfire when applied to larger, more complex sales. In other words, “sales expertise” of a certain kind may actually be hazardous to your sales health.

That may not seem like much of an insight, over 25 years later. Since the book’s publication in 1988, we have seen major growth in thinking about B2B sales, as well as the transformative impact of the Internet on the sales function. Nowadays no one would be caught dead trying an “assumptive close” in a modern B2B sales interaction.

Now, that may seem obvious too, to most everyone. Yet does that mean all sales expertise these days works, more or less? I think not. In fact, there still remains a glaring assumption at the heart of almost all sales systems which, if not properly understood, will actually decrease your sales effectiveness, just as much as improper closing techniques.

It is the assumption that the point of selling is to get the sale.

What is the Point of Selling?

You may think the “point of selling” is obvious. What else could the point of selling be, except to get the sale? And I’m not talking about the difference between single transactions and repeat business, either. I’m talking about the very purpose, the underlying goal, aim, objective, of the salesperson, sales process, and sales function. What else could the purpose be, except to get the sale?

The alternative purpose of selling, I suggest, is – to help the customer.  That is not a trivial distinction – it’s meaningful. It’s also a powerful distinction, and one that’s not easy to achieve. But if you do achieve it, you’ll do better on many dimensions – including sales.  

To see why this is a meaningful and powerful distinction, let’s first explore what it would mean to have a different purpose for sales – a purpose other than to get the sale.

Design Implications of Helping the Customer as a Goal

Suppose your primary purpose was to help a customer. What exactly would you do differently?

You’d be less concerned about whether you won or lost the sale. You’d spend a little more time on situations where you thought you could help – and a little less time where you thought you couldn’t. You’d take more time with leads to help them determine the best way for them to find and receive help; and you would often refer them out to other providers where you thought they might get better help.

You’d seek out slightly different leads and targets than if you focused solely on where you thought you could sell. You’d view your competitors differently – as alternative offerings to help your customers get what they need. You’d give up time and expertise on occasion, if you felt it would help your customers advance a key cause.  Conversely, you might be quicker to embrace value-billing in cases where you clearly bring value to the table.

You’d talk less about your own capabilities, and more about what would be good for your customer. You’d be naturally curious about what your customer needed, and what would make their business better. Your curiosity would extend outside and beyond your own company’s service offering, to include those of other firms.

If your organization similarly supported a goal of helping the customer, then the metrics you operate under would be changed as well. Instead of an emphasis on quarterly sales results, progress against closing, and forecasted probabilized backlog rates, you’d see consumer-focused metrics which spoke to customer performance and result of that performance. Noticeably absent would be much of the fine-toothed combing by lawyers enumerating the thou-shalt-nots of the relationship.

Operationalizing a Customer-Helping Goal

Looking at the above list, you’re probably having three thoughts:

  1. “Not a bad list, actually, we could do with a bit more focus like that,”
  2. “Yes, but you have to make money,” and
  3. “Yes, but you can’t be letting customers just take advantage of you.”

Note that thoughts two and three have an implicit assumption: the assumption that if you don’t focus on getting the sale, then you probably won’t get the sale. And that’s where the miracle happens: because precisely the opposite is true.

People don’t like to be told what to do. People don’t like to feel controlled. People respond positively to a sense that they are being listened to, and to people whom they feel have their best interests at heart. We respond positively to generosity, and negatively to greed. We tend to return favors, and to avoid those who have burned us.

In short, we reciprocate. The lessons of game theory, marriage therapy, and political organization all point in one direction – favors done, attention paid, and interest shown all beget the same in return. This simple truth is deeply embedded in our simplest human interactions (think handshakes, smiles) and our most complex ones as well (cultural affinities, political alliances).

And the main result of reciprocation is – more reciprocation. If you listen to me, I will listen to you. If you treat me well, I will keep coming back. If I buy from you and you respond well, I’m likely to keep buying from you.

Unless, that is – the seller gets selfish. All bets are off to the extent we perceive the seller as completely self-oriented, selfish, manipulative, driven only by his own needs. If we as buyers feel objectified, treated solely as walking wallets by the seller, then we reciprocate – we coldly calculate the value of the seller to us, and become willing to walk, in part because we also feel insulted by such behavior.

The Paradox at the Heart of Great Selling

The best sales come from interactions where the sale is not the goal, but a byproduct. Where the sale is a natural outcome of an attitude of other-focus, genuine concern, and focus on the other. Where the attitude is long-term, not transactional, and built on an assumption of win-win, rather than of scarcity.

There’s a paradox here. The best selling comes when you stop trying to sell, when you simply focus on doing right by the customer.  This doesn’t mean you turn into a non-profit charity. There is still a role for profitability metrics, CRM systems and funnel statistics.  But they must become subordinated to the broader goal – helping your customer.

Dial those metrics back 90%, lengthen their timeframe, and don’t think of them while interacting with customers. I know, you’re worried there are customers who’ll take advantage of you, those who are just looking for a free ride? Yes, though not nearly as many as you think. And those who act that way are the ones you gift to your competitors anyway.

If you help your customers, they’ll help you. That’s a rule that doesn’t need your thumb on the scale to work. Don’t force it. Make customer help your goal.


An earlier version of this post was published at





New Sales Book: Willing to Buy

One of the (mixed) blessings of being a published author is that other aspiring authors send you manuscripts to review (with the hope I’ll promote them). I try to respond when possible, but even then I never promise to recommend a book without first reading it; and most of the time, I don’t.


But then every once in a while a little gem comes along. Such is Willing to Buy: A Questioning Framework for Effective Closing, by Dan Schultheis and Phil Perkins. The authors don’t have a big publisher behind them, nor a sophisticated social media campaign.  What they do have going for them is a very good little book that gets a few important things very right.

I was so pleased to have been given the chance to see this book in its infancy that I agreed to write the forward to it. And since the book has just been published, I’d like to share that forward with you. Do yourself (and the authors) a favor: check it out.


In Willing to Buy, Dan Schultheis and Phil Perkins have staked out a small but important piece of territory in the sales kingdom, and have brought to bear a powerful searchlight. The book illuminates a lot more than just the nominal area of focus.

The area this book focuses on is the qualification and disqualification of prospects. While the authors touch on other parts of sales – presentations, lead generation, pricing – the focus is on one key aspect, namely: if you can better identify the ‘dry holes,’ you’ll be able to spend more time and effort on sales that are likely to produce results.

But if that’s all this book said, it would be indistinguishable from a hundred other arguments in favor of sales efficiency – arguments that focus on discipline, metrics, systems and processes, and screening algorithms. However, this book goes two steps further.

The first Step Further is a carefully defined, holistic framework for thinking about the issue.  The framework is built around the idea of a customer’s Willingness to Buy. It has Four Pillars, each of them eminently commonsensical and leading to rich questions.

In short, it makes a great deal of sense, and leads to sensible conversations. It has muscle and brain, not just analytical rigor.

The book is largely about exploring and explaining those Four Pillars.  But I want to focus on the Second Step Further. Because this book isn’t your typical one-sided, self-aggrandizing, greed-feeding sales book.  This book comes at things from a far better perspective – the perspective that sales is a joint activity.

I’ve always believed in my own work on integrating sales and trust that the best sales are those which are first and foremost of benefit to the customer, and only then also of benefit to the seller. Most sales books (and most salespeople) approach sales from the zero-sum point of view, the competitive strategy point of view, in which one plus one always equals something very close to two, and selling is about transferring funds from the wallet of the buyer to the wallet of the seller. It is precisely this attitude which has led to such a bad reputation for the field of sales.

Instead, Schultheis and Perkins recognize throughout the book that the interests of buyer and seller are far more intertwined than in opposition; a great sale is one that benefits both parties. Further, the authors are quite right that an educated buyer is going to make a better decision – and a better decision is in everyone’s best interest.

Almost in passing, Schultheis makes a great point: sellers almost always have more experience selling than buyers have experience in buying.  A “zero-sum” seller views this as an opportunity to do end-runs around a hapless buyer.  But a seller using the Willingness to Buy approach will view this as an opportunity to add value to the buyer.

The payoff of the Willing to Buy approach is not that the number of dry holes is pared, or that the investment in lost sales is reduced. Instead, the payoff is that buyers are given the wherewithal to make intelligent buying decisions. In many of those cases, using this process helps the buyer sharpen the internal case for purchase – and it follows, with great predictability, that buyers will disproportionally give the sale to the seller who helped sharpen the case.

But that’s not all. Sometimes the clarification of the buyers Willingness to Buy results in the realization that the buyer is, in fact, not ready to buy, for any of dozens of reasons. Contrary to popular sales belief, this is not a bad thing – this is a thing to be proud of and even grateful for.

You might ask, how can losing a sale be a good thing? Well, there is the narrow efficiency argument; the sooner you figure out a non-sale the sooner you can stop investing in it.  But the more important reason is by helping a buyer to get to that position, you have created trust.

You have helped a buyer articulate a business case for something: it may or may not be ready for prime time, but that means the buyer will either make a better case in the future, and/or has avoided making a fool of him- or herself now.  It means the buyer and seller have developed a relationship, instead of the all-too-frequent dropping off the radar screen that happens with most sales leads. Most CRM systems, if they’re honestly kept, will have more “died” entries than “lost” entries, and nearly all the “died” entries represent residual guilt on the part of the buyer for not having closed the loop, and resentment on the part of the seller that they had been “left hanging.”

By honestly having discussions with the buyer about whether or not this is a good buy, a seller positions him or herself for the future – not only with this buyer, but with any other buyer in that company to whom Buyer 1 might speak; or any buyer outside the company to whom Buyer 1 might refer you.

There are not a great deal of salespeople who develop a reputation as being trusted advisors – but for those who do, this is a great way to get there.  Help your customers make better decisions, for their sake.  If you do so, you will get more than your share of the sales – but they will come about as a byproduct, a collateral benefit, and not as a goal.

By helping buyers understand their own Willingness to Buy, you first help them, which in turn helps you. The seller is the experienced party in the buy-sell relationship; to borrow an air travel metaphor, it is incumbent on us to give the oxygen mask first to the buyer, before using it ourselves. That way everyone has a safer flight.

How To Become A Trusted Advisor: 5 Surprisingly Common Myths About Trust

A big Trust Matters welcome to Ago Cluytens, whose guest blogpost follows. Ago is not only a sales expert, but also a past buyer of B2B and consultative services–he has worked both sides of the sales street. Ago is also Practice Director EMEA for RainGroup, a highly respected sales training, consulting and research organization.

Ago’s comments are based in part on an interview he and I recently conducted; a link to the interview itself is embedded in the blogpost.


If you are reading this blog, there is little doubt that you’re bought into the idea that trust is a cornerstone foundation of doing business today.

You probably already know how to build trust with prospects, clients, colleagues and peers. How to position yourself as a trusted advisor. You understand the basic dynamics of how trust is acquired, expanded and sustained over time. And you probably have a good idea of how, and why, trust is lost.

Trouble is, what you think you know may be wrong.

In a recent Hangout with Charlie, we covered five surprisingly common myths about trust. Five axioms that are universally accepted, almost without question. Five so-called truths that sound logical and reasonable – but are, unfortunately, plain wrong.



#1. Trust takes a long time to build

There are those who believe that trust takes a long time to build. They talk about it being a journey, often one of many weeks and months, before trust is there. And once it is earned, it can be lost in the blink of an eye (see next myth).

The truth is, we often rely on a small set of indicators to decide whether we trust someone or not – almost instantaneously. We look at their professional credentials. Their network and the people they associate with. The firm they represent. Their educational background and experience.

And based on those factors, especially in business, we make a decision to trust someone very quickly. It doesn’t take that long – in fact, if it did, almost no business would be done in the world today.

#2. Trust is lost in the blink of an eye

Another stubborn myth is that trust is hard to gain, but easy to lose. In our conversation, Charlie raised an important point – once we trust someone, really trust them, it’s often very hard to stop trusting them.

Think about it like this: imagine you’ve had a positive, enriching and mutually rewarding working relationship with someone for many years. For whatever reason, something goes wrong. Would you stop trusting them instantly? Or would you give them “the benefit of the doubt”, see how they handled the situation and then decide whether or not to continue trusting them in the future ?

My guess is it would be the latter – relax. Once trust is gained, it’s not all that easy to lose.

#3. Trust is about “the soft stuff”

As a former corporate manager and executive, I’ve been in many situations where I’ve had to make an important buying decision based on relatively little input. Often, no more than some online research and a couple of meetings with potential vendors.

Yet, I (and others like me) have made decisions to allocate significant budgets, resources and corporate investments based on a single question: do I trust this person?

In truth, when you are selling something non-tangible like professional, financial or technology services, putting trust in the bank is very much like putting cash in the bank – a very wise investment with tangible, measurable benefits and returns.

#4. Trust has to be earned – not given

We often look to others to earn our trust – as if it is something that is exclusively ours to decide whether we give it or not. The fact is, we often have to give trust first in order to receive it later.

There is something extraordinary about how our own actions impact the behaviors and actions of others. When we decide to trust someone, we very subtly invite them to do the same – and often with the desired effect.

#5. Trust is about reducing risk

Trust and risk are often used in the same sentence, as if they are two sides of the same coin. Where there is some truth to that (often, trust is lost when a risk gone wrong is handled poorly), there’s more to it than meets the eye.

The notion of risk is part and parcel of doing business, and trust is not merely a risk reduction mechanism. In many cases, trust is built or enhanced through risk. We start trusting someone more once we’ve seen how to handle a tricky situation. We decide to trust them based on how they have overcome an obstacle or particular challenge in the past (also called “references” or “case studies”).

Trust is not solely about reducing risk – it’s about a complex interplay between both when they interact, grow and – when things go very wrong – destroy each other.

In this post have taken a deeper look at five surprisingly common myths about trust. But I’ve also left out one important truth: the most important factor in building trust is you.

You are what makes others decide to trust you. Your behavior. Your actions. Your mistakes and how you handle them. Meaning that, in the end, whether or not you become a trusted advisor is very much down to you.

How Not to Write a Rejection Letter

This post was originally published on The Get Real Project.
I got a rejection letter recently from a committee for one of those mega-conferences, letting me know my speaker proposal had not been accepted. The letter was unbelievably polite. And therefore so very painful to read. Here’s what they wrote, and what I wish they had written instead.

Version 1: The letter I received

(The text in italics is what I was thinking as I read it.)

Dear Andrea:Thank you for submitting a presentation proposal for the XYZ Annual Conference being held <date> in City, State. (Uh oh. Not good.)Each proposal was given careful and deliberate consideration.(In other words, mine wasn’t selected.) We strive to offer a balanced program of educational sessions at the conference and select the proposals that best fit the overall programming framework of the conference. (So mine didn’t stand out, or give you what you wanted.) Please understand that we receive many proposals with several on the same topic. (I know what’s coming. Please just say it.) Exceptional proposals are turned away each year for the simple reason that we have limited speaking slots.(Please, please just say it.) Your proposal was not selected this year. (FINALLY.) However, your interest in offering your skills, background and knowledge is greatly appreciated. (Yeah, you say that to everyone.)Once again, thank you for your submission. (Sigh.)

They meant well; I know they did. This is a really well-run conference with hundreds of speakers and probably thousands of proposals. The problem as I see it: they fell prey to the two big traps that so many of us do (myself included) when we have to deliver bad news:

(1) Take way too long to say what needs to be said, and

(2) Say it overly politely, and formally, when a little humanity would do a world of good.

Version 2: The letter I wish I had received

(The text in italics is what I would be thinking as I read it.)

Dear Andrea:

I wish I had better news. (Uh oh. Not good.) I’m sorry to say your proposal for ABC Topic was not selected this year for the XYZ Annual Conference being held June ##-##, 2014 in City, State. (Well, bummer.)

I know proposal submissions take time and I realize you may be disappointed. (They do … and I am!) At the risk of sounding formulaic, I can tell you with the utmost confidence that each proposal was given careful and deliberate consideration. (I hope so!) We work hard to design a balanced program of educational sessions at the conference and choose the proposals that best fit the overall programming framework of the conference. (That makes sense.) We receive between #### and #### proposals each year, often with several on the same topic. (I bet choosing is a really tough job.) As a result, exceptional proposals are turned away each year for one simple reason: limited speaking slots. (I get it.)

Although your proposal was not selected this year, rest assured your interest in offering your skills, background and knowledge is greatly appreciated and I appreciate your interest in making our conference a success. (Thank you!) I hope you’ll consider us again next year. (I think I will!)

Once again, thank you. (You’re welcome.)

There’s a lot of the same text in Version 2.

And a world of difference.