I had a conversation with BigCo., Inc. They want their B2B salespeople to become trusted advisors.
They felt (correctly) that greater trust levels with their customers would result in greater intra-customer market share, and greater profitability. And they’re right.
But then they described their implementation plan. It consisted of breaking down the objectives into finer and finer components, matching them up with accountable org units. Pretty standard practice.
As we dug deeper, a pattern emerged. The higher penetration levels, for example, were broken into more sales calls, more proactive ideas, and greater time spent up front. On the face of it, that sounds perfectly reasonable: if penetration were to increase, you’d probably see these changes in activities.
Confusing Cause and Effect
The problem is – simply increasing the number of sales calls won’t do a thing; they have to be good calls. Simply offering more ideas won’t do a thing; they have to be decent ideas. Simply spending more time up front won’t do a thing; the time has to be well-spent. And simply assuming good calls, decent ideas, and well-spent time does not make it so.
I know, it sounds perfectly obvious in the telling. But I’ve found that BigCo’s story (actually a composite of several clients) is very common. It may even be the norm.
BigCo has managed to confus KPIs (key performance indicators) with CSFs (critical success factors). They have confused correlation with causation. They have confused measurements with the things being measured. And since we live in a management world that uncritically worships metrics (“if you can’t measure it you can’t manage it”), this confusion has critical and strategic implications.
Especially when you’re trying to implement a values-driven strategy – like becoming trusted advisors.
Measurement and Management
Just because something looks obvious in the rear view mirror doesn’t mean it was obvious when you first came up on it. Case in point: BigCo’s flawed logic in their approach to trust-based selling.
Increasing penetration requires more sales calls, they thought; and they’re probably right. Their mistake lay in thinking that “more sales calls” was a cause. It’s not – it’s an effect.
“More sales calls” may be a KPI, but it’s not a CSF. It may be an outcome, but it’s not a driver. “More sales calls” is a metric – it is not the thing that “more sales calls” is intended to measure. That “thing” is something like “more high quality interactions driven by mutual curiosity.”
This confusion between actions and measurements, causes and effects, KPIs and CSFs, is not only common, it’s becoming rampant. It’s a real issue not only for old-line businesses, but for new era businesses as well. Let’s look at some examples.
Gaming the Numbers
We’re all familiar with the salesperson who knows how to tweak an imperfect system to maximize his commissions at the expense of, say, the company’s gross margins. “Hey, I’m just following the incentives you built in.” That salesperson seized on a metric that imperfectly measured the company’s intended sales behaviors. (The proper management response would be not to change the metric, but to insist on a higher set of principles that overrule one misguided number).
Next time you get a customer service operator on the line, check to see whether they conclude by saying something like, “May we say that I gave you excellent customer service today?” You are experiencing a system that is driven by metrics to the point where operators shamelessly beg for ratings. The metrics have been pimped out to serve a goal other than the customer service they were meant to measure.
See for yourself. Go to Amazon, and search for books under any significant topic you like (e.g. sales). Make sure you’re sorting on relevance. It’s amazing how many books are rated over four stars (out of five). The reason is simple: we have been taught to look for ratings. Of course, the emphasis on ratings suborns all kind of perjury, misleading, and even outright falsehoods.
It’s not just books. Look at the flood of ‘recommendations’ on LinkedIn. Look at the massive follow-me-I-follow-you dynamic on Twitter and other media. Or just look at your own behavior; what do you do when a friend asks you to rate a book, to promote a blogpost, or to recommend them. In Dave Eggers’ 2013 best-seller The Circle (still #2992 on Amazon as I write this – another metric), there is monstrous grade inflation on all metrics in his Facebook-Google fictional internet firm of the future.
Much of this comes down to our obsession in business with metrics. It goes back to the invention of the spreadsheet and the success of books like Reengineering the Corporation. All numbers all the time are our secular business religion.
The Wages of Confusion
The “so what” is big indeed. Assume that any metric, almost by definition, has to be a pale reflection of the “thing” that is to be measured. We accept anniversary gifts as tokens of our love; market share as an indicator of competitive success; and, in the case of BigCo, numbers of sales calls as indicators of trusted advisor relationships. But we all know an anniversary gift does not a marriage make.
The only way to become trusted advisors to your customers is to gain the trust of your customers. You do not cause trust by increasing the number of sales calls; rather, greater trust causes more invitations for you to call on prospects. Doing the dishes doesn’t cause a great marriage; instead, a great marriage results in you doing the dishes willingly.
Confusing KPIs with CSFs causes KPIs to be artificially inflated. We know this intuitively, and so we discount them – while still trying to get higher scores on more of those discounted-value KPI metrics. We all know the game is rigged – but we keep playing it faster and faster.
What’s at stake is nothing less than how we implement things like “better client relationships.” You don’t get there by measuring metrics and deluding yourself that you’re addressing root causes. You get there only by understanding what it takes to interact with your very human customers – and then doing it.
Do that, and the numbers will take care of themselves.
This article first appeared in RainToday.