Can You Tell the Truth About Being Self Interested?

The other day I was teaching a seminar, and someone phrased the following question:

I understand your point that, in sales, we should pay attention to the other person, focus on their needs, subordinate our own ego, and so on. But I have a hard time squaring that with honesty. After all, I’m in business to make money. They know that as well as I do. Isn’t it disingenuous—even dishonest—for me to pretend I’m totally focused on them, and not on myself?

That’s a very relevant issue to lots of people, and very well stated.

The answer in many ways boils down to one word—timeframe.

If I’m in a romantic relationship for sex, I’d better plan on some dinners, flowers, conversations and companionship on the way there. (And vice versa, by the way).

If I’m going to rely on friendships, then I’d better be prepared to invest in them over time.

If I want to have high energy and good health, then I’d better be prepared to forego the chocolate cake cravings from time to time, and to exercise sometimes when I don’t feel like it.

In other words, the desire for immediate gratification is often the enemy of longer-term happiness. Sad but true. In one study (maybe a reader can help me remember where/when), five year-olds were analyzed according to their ability to defer gratification (“one cookie now, or two in an hour”). Their subsequent lives were then traced over decades. Those kids who chose more later were notably happier, more successful, more stable later in life.

So it is in sales.

If I insist on closing every deal; if I insist on metricizing every little aspect of my sales process and tying rewards to each part; if I am constantly evaluating the discounted present value of the next ten minutes of conversation so as to decide whether to qualify or flush the prospect—then I am not a deferred-gratification salesperson, I am that greedy kid saying “me want cookie now!”

And people react to us accordingly. People who expect sex too early in relationships tend not to get it. People who never invest in their friends lose them. People who can’t resist the extra piece of cake get fat.

Back to my student.

The apparent conflict between self-interest and customer orientation evaporates if we look at the right timeframe. If all I can see at any point in a sales conversation is the likelihood of closing, then I am a “me want cookie now” kind of salesperson.

But if I’m willing to invest in the relationship—to let go the incessant attachment to outcome, to enjoy the ride as well as the destination, to qualify leads occasionally as opposed to constantly, to drive my reward from the total package rather than the quarterly pieces, to live in the relationship not the transaction—then things get better.  In fact, all things get a lot better.

It’s a bit of a paradox: the best short-term results do NOT come from trying to manage the short-term, but from managing in the long term. Your own best sales results come not from trying to sell the other guy, but from helping him get what he wants.

Your own self-interest is truly served by serving the other. And that’s the honest truth–about which you can be honest.

The contradiction is only in how you phrase the problem. Phrase it in the longer term.