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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 RainToday.com.

 

 

 

 

Why Pulling Yourself Up by Your Own Bootstraps is Hard

I used to suffer from a particularly bad version of one part of the human condition—a tendency to see things as all about me. I tried like crazy, in many ways, to pull myself up by my own bootstraps. I’ve gotten, well, better; but it wasn’t because of my bootstrap pulling.

I also reached a difficult point once years ago in studying the pedal steel guitar. I was taking private lessons from a real master, and trying very hard on technique. He gave me tons of advice (including most particularly to lighten up), and I tried my darnedest hard to take it all—pulling myself up by my own bootstraps. I never did get better, and finally sold my guitar a year ago.

Pulling On Our Own Bootstraps Just Burns Leather and Calories

Think about the physics of pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps. It’s an impossibility–which of course is why we like it as a metaphor. But life is not a metaphor, while it is constrained by physics.

So—why doesn’t bootstrap-yanking work? And why do we keep trying it?

The Pedal Steel Story

In my guitar case, the immediate cause was clear. I was trying too hard. I’d try to play free and easy—I’d try so, so hard. Which of course was the problem. 

My hands would cramp up, I was trying to so hard.  And I knew trying so hard was the problem. That made it worse, because I knew it was ‘just’ a mental issue. Which made me worry more, which made me try harder. (Substitute golf if you prefer a more conventional metaphor).

It was a vicious circle; a negative feedback loop as bad as any that Jimi Hendrix generated. And knowing the problem didn’t help solve it. It was not one of those unconscious incompetence things. My knowledge got in the way. It was one of those “you can’t solve a problem at the same level the problem was created” problems.

I still love pedal steel music. (Everyone knows Jerry Garcia’s lick on Teach Your Children, but Garcia knew he was a rank hack by Nashville standards: go listen to every note played by Tom Brumley on Buck Owens‘ original version of Together Again.) I just don’t try to play anymore.

The Life Story

In mid-life, I became aware that a lot of my problems were caused by my tendency to overly see things around me as being about me. In the terms I later developed in the Trust Equation we use at Trusted Advisor Associates, I suffered from high self-orientation.

A few years ago I suddenly remembered something I used to say back when I was “in it.” When someone close to me would say something critical about me, and I took it way too personally—even though I knew I was taking it too personally–I would describe the condition as “like having someone point a gun at my head and telling me to calm down.”

At the time, I was just trying to explain to people why I felt paralyzed to think my way out of my self-obsession. Now, in the rear-view mirror, I see it differently.

I see now it was the perfect metaphor, because the metaphor, and my own use of it, were both stuck squarely in my old paradigm. Because everything was about me, I just didn’t have the tools to imagine something that wasn’t about me. My prison was self-limiting because it was self-defining. 

The Bootstrap Story

You can’t talk about this sort of issue in a linear kind of way; you have to deal with metaphors and paradoxes. Gödel’s incompleteness theorems probably apply here, though frankly the math is beyond me.

I’m reduced to platitudes, which I find reassuring in their simple memorability. In addition to “you can’t solve the problem at the level it was created,” I like:

·    When you dig yourself into a hole, first, stop digging;

·    A lawyer who defends himself has a fool for a client;

·    Try not thinking about pink elephants, and

·    You empower what you fear.

My only solutions boil down to three:

1.    Give up. Really. Just stop. If it’s not meant to be, stop fighting. Universe 1, you 0. You’re really not at the center, after all; act like it. Just go be you.

2.    Laugh.  Make sarcastic jokes about it. Get a kick out of your insanity. Find the sick humor in it all, and focus on the humor, not the sick.

3.    Ask for help. Not with the problem, but with the meta-problem. Then accept it. See step 1.