Selling from Inside Your Client’s Shoes

You know the phrase, “Walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.” It’s short for empathy, understanding the Other so well you can intuit what it feels like to take a long walk—wearing their footwear, no less.

Let’s adapt that idea to selling. What if you could understand your client so well that you could intuit how it feels to be sitting in their seat in a sales meeting, sensing every nuance along the way?

Shall we give it a try?

Sales Meeting Time T-minus-10

It’s 10 minutes before meeting time. You arrive early, and the receptionist ushers you into the conference room and offers you coffee. You nervously drum your fingers on the laptop you brought to introduce yourself and your firm to Claudio and Taciana. They are CEO and COO, respectively, of the relatively new marketing automation firm C3PX. You spoke by phone with Taciana to set up this meeting. You’re optimistic, marshaling your nervous energy as you mentally rehearse your key points for the nth time.

Claudio. Meanwhile, Claudio wonders if he has time to call his 19-year-old daughter at college. Actually, whether to call her at all. Things are not well between the two of them—they haven’t been since he and his wife divorced last year. Teenage girls can be so—difficult. And it seemed like she so often took sides with her mother.

Meanwhile, C3PX is doing well—sometimes too well. Claudio just signed another line of credit extension. The good news was the firm’s credit was good. The bad news is he wants to pay down some debt, but there was always a need to invest in some new software or process. The meeting in 10 minutes may be another example—a necessary expense, but not welcome in terms of cash flow.

Claudio hopes Taciana can take the lead on this. He’s been leaning a lot on her lately. Is he holding up his end of the bargain? Or is it welcome to her—a chance to grow into the business? But what if she’s growing too fast and taking over some of Claudio’s roles as CEO?

Taciana. Taciana is running late. She’s just finished a meeting with HR, and she is concerned the experienced hire recruiting program is short of target. She wonders if she’ll need to postpone the ops team call this afternoon until tomorrow, though she did that last week as well. Is she getting a little overloaded? Does it show?

Taciana has mixed feelings about this meeting. On one hand, she genuinely liked the phone call she had with you. She felt you sounded sharp, competent, and confident. But she can’t help worrying about your service offering.

Does C3PX really need your kind of service at this point in its growth? You offer some great services, but with them comes another level of complexity. Are the benefits worth it? Should they get along for another 12 to 18 months? What if some new technology comes along and leap-frogs your offering?

Also, is this going to be yet another Taciana-solo project? “Sure, I’m the COO,” she thinks, “but that doesn’t mean I have to do everything. Am I leveraged enough? Will Claudio think I’m empire-building if I try to delegate? But if I don’t, how am I going to get time to spend with my husband? We’ve been trying to get more time together; he has a demanding job, too. I hope Claudio takes the lead in this meeting.”

Sales Meeting Time T = 0

It’s time. You take a last look at your phone just as the door opens. In walk Claudio and Taciana.

You all smile and shake hands, then pass out business cards. You each reject offers of more coffee and strategically settle into your chairs, all the while smiling and uttering meaningless phrases in non-committal tones.

The meeting commences.

Like all meetings, it commences on multiple levels. There is the overt agenda to be discussed. There are first impressions, flooding each of you as you quickly take into account the others’ appearance, sound, bearing, and manner. Are you who they expected? What’s different? What does that mean?

And are they who you expected? What did you misjudge? What did you get right? Can you afford to focus on that and pay attention to what’s being said? Do they seem a little rushed? What does that mean? Are they going to sit through your deck, or should you skip it? When should you bring up price?

You can ask them to tell you a bit about their situation, but you can’t do too much of that. These days no one has time for someone who hasn’t done their homework. Yet neither can you waste time proving you’ve done your homework. What does it mean that they placed their iPhone next to them? And so on.

Behind the Scenes

The internal dialogue is endless—and that’s just yours! What about the dialogue inside Taciana’s and Claudio’s heads? How important is this inner cacophony? And what should you do about it? Ignore it? Address it? If you choose to address it, how do you do it?

The truth is those internal dialogues are not trivial. They are important. You need to address them. Most of all this is a great opportunity cleverly disguised as an awkward social moment. You can dramatically affect the whole sale, and the whole relationship, by how you conduct yourself in the first few minutes regarding these internal dialogues.

Small Talk Isn’t Small

The idle chit-chat we engage in is a potent social ritual. The point is not to find out that you both went to Ohio State or love basketball or have kids. Those are proxies.

The real issue at stake is whether they can trust you—in a very specific sense of that word. It’s what we call “intimacy” in the trust equation. Do they feel safe being who they are in your presence? Do you laugh at the right moments—with the right kind of laugh? Do you wince at the right statements—like when Taciana mentions meeting overload? When they say, “Tell us about yourself,” do you remember that mostly they’re just being nice and then turn the conversation to them?

Do you have the emotional courage to raise your eyebrows when Claudio says, “Teenagers—am I right?” and invite further comment should he choose to go there? When one of them raises price concerns, do you respond with curiosity and say, “Tell me what’s behind that concern?” Or do you reply with a canned defense of your value-for-price? Do you have the nerve to say, “I’m sensing a little bit of stress from each of you. Is this decision a source of concern to you?”

This isn’t about your value proposition. It isn’t about proposing challenging questions or asserting your qualifications. But it’s critical. The buyer/seller interaction is many things, but it’s first and foremost human. First impressions matter, and not just about clothes and looks.

What buyers want is to feel at ease, trusting, and confident they can be authentically themselves with you and not have to look over their shoulders when dealing with you.

Buyers make up their mind about this subconsciously, and they do it very quickly. Trust in this sense doesn’t take time; it takes courage, connection, and empathy. Don’t be afraid to let your guard down. Doing so shows others that can do the same with you from the get-go.

This article first appeared on RainToday.

Read Part Two of this post, here. 

Disclosure Is Not Transparency

Transparency, most of us would agree, is a positive thing.  And disclosure is an obvious way to get there.

But transparency and disclosure are not the same thing. And confusing them can actually harm transparency.

So – what’s the difference between disclosure and transparency?

Transparency and Trust

Besides “able to transmit light,” the dictionary defines transparent as:

  • easily seen through, recognized, or detected: transparent excuses.
  • manifest; obvious: a story with a transparent plot.

In the simplest business terms, “transparent” means you can tell what’s going on.

If the link between transparency and trust isn’t self-evident, here are a few citations to help clarify it:

If I can see what’s going on, I know that I am not being misled. Motives become clear. Credibility is affirmed. Transparency is indeed a trust virtue.


Disclosure is a time-honored tool of regulators to achieve transparency. Food and pharmaceutical manufacturers are required to disclose ingredients, medical authors are required to reveal payment sources, the SEC frequently proposes disclosure as a tool, and so on.

Certainly you can’t find out what’s going on if information is actually hidden.  So disclosure is a necessary condition for transparency. But it’s hardly a sufficient one.

I don’t have much to say about the cost/benefit trade-off of greater disclosure in pursuit of transparency. Sometimes the benefit is obvious, other times not so much, sometimes not at all.

What’s more interesting to me is how the blind pursuit of disclosure can actually reduce transparency – even reduce people’s awareness of the distinction.


Is it possible to have too much disclosure? So much disclosure that information gets lost in the blizzard of data?

On the face of it, disclosure is the handmaiden of transparency. But if disclosure becomes the end rather than the means, if regulators and consumer advocates become fixated on indicators rather than on what they indicate, then disclosure can actually become self-defeating.

Lawyers know that massive responses to discovery requests can overwhelm opposing counsel. Cheating spouses know that the best lies are those that disclose the most truth. Consumer lenders know to fast-talk the disclaimers at the end of radio ads, much like the small print on the ads and loan statements.

If disclosure isn’t accompanied by an ethos of transparency, it can be positively harmful. It is like crossing your fingers behind your back, taking movie reviews out of context, or word parsing a la “it depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.”

A trustworthy person, team or company will not settle for disclosure, but seek to offer transparency. A competent regulator will always remember that disclosure is just evidence, and partial evidence at that. And a wise buyer will always look for the spirit of transparency that may, or may not, underlie the act of disclosure.

Trust relies on both data and intent.


In Netflix We Trust

This post is not about piling on Netflix (or its new spin off, Quikster). You can read elsewhere about the movie rental company’s bad decisions, their business prospects, or—more entertainingly—their Twitter handle being owned by a ‘Pot-smoking Elmo.”  Ditto for parsing Netflix CEO Reed Hastings’ apology.

What I want to talk about is: How Fast Is Your Mirror?

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall

Dorian Gray had a picture that told him the truth about his age.  Snow White’s Queen possessed a magic mirror that told the truth about her beauty. But what kind of mirror do we have for a bonehead moment?

Over time, some of us come to recognize some of our errors. Sometimes.  (Lifelong denial is not uncommon.)  But if you’re a business leader, the pressure is enormous to get it right, right away.

The pressure is worse today. When Johnson & Johnson became the poster child for responsible behavior during the Tylenol scare in 1982, we forget that several days passed before the national recall. Yet Netflix felt it had to apologize overnight for its moves.

What kind of mirror can tell us overnight that a way of doing business, a major decision, an unchallenged assumption was dead, flat wrong?  And what sort of mirror is good enough to convince us overnight?

Who can reverse their self-consciousness overnight after being hit in the face with a bucket of icy reality-water?

How fast is your mirror?

Does it Take Time? Or Objectivity?

There’s a saying that ‘time takes time.’ Meaning, the passage of time is required for some shifts to take place, and there’s no hurrying it.

Remember when Michael Richards (Kramer of Seinfeld fame) went racially ballistic in a totally offensive comedy routine?  That was November 20, 2006. Later that night he went back on stage to apologize, and two days later was doing a hastily-arranged public apology on the David Letterman show—which, as I recall, was in some ways more acutely embarrassing than the incident itself.

He could have benefited from more time.  Watching sausage-making destroys the appetite for sausage.

On the other hand, if the end-game is revised perspective, maybe there’s a better way than to watch paint dry and the hands on the clock turn.  Maybe your truth-mirror is another person—someone you can trust.

I don’t know Reed Hastings, and I don’t know if anyone on his management team could have told him his decision was flawed—more interestingly, that his apology was half-baked.  Remember, Netflix stock may have dropped from 300 a few months ago, but Hastings had brought it there from 20 less than 10 years ago.  Whoever wouldst play Hastings’ mirror role had better have a lot of gravitas.

Who’s Your Mirror?

If the proverbial hits the fan, whom do you call? If the world suddenly is telling you you’re a bozo and that just makes you’re even more convinced you’re right–to whom would you listen to tell you otherwise?  The wrong answer would be “no one.”

Who’s your mirror?


I’m Sorry IF I Upset You

Don’t you hate the “IF” in that phrase? It’s like the canned, fake apologies we receive from call center employees reading from a script. Yet we hear “I’m sorry if I upset you” or something just like it over and over again from business colleagues and yes, even friends.

What is an apology?

What is an apology and when should we provide one? A few years ago, I ran across an expert, Lee Taft, a Dallas lawyer also educated in ethics and religion at Harvard Divinity School, and who was recently highlighted in the Dallas Morning News. He takes a holistic approach to dispute resolution, and an apology is at the center. He believes that “if someone is at fault in causing harm, the party causing the injury should offer a fault-admitting apology, an explanation of what happened and reparation.” His five step process, explained on his website, includes: Remorse (experience of sorrow/regret), Explanation, Apology (expression of remorse), Accommodation (reparations) and Lessons Learned.

When I acted as a mediator, I was amazed at how fast an apology led to a settlement. Of course, the lawyers feared that an apology was an admission of responsibility (and it was), but in reality it was more than that. To the person receiving the apology it meant that the person giving it actually felt sincere remorse, and wasn’t going to do “it” again to someone else. That assumes, of course, that it was a sincere apology, pretty much following Lee’s formula, rather than just going through the motions.

More apology on the web

Getting to know Lee got me thinking more deeply about the topic, and I looked into what’s available on the web on apology. Here are some great sites with valuable contributions on the subject: It’s got everything you wanted to know about apologies. A section called “Apology Central” even has pages on “how to apologize” (complete with ads somehow related to apologizing); “Apology Ideas” for sharing ways to apologize; and an “Apology Board” where people can post their apologies for others to learn from.

Those who created this site say they are “a few friends and colleagues who have always been on the lookout for the perfect apology.” They created the site because “we’re human, we tend to screw up on occasion, and we inevitably need to deal with the problem.” They’ve even created an Apology Blog. One of the things I like most about this site is that both the developers and the contributors seem to be into acknowledging the offense that needs an apology, rather than simply making excuses. And they give advice on how to say you’re sorry in a variety of situations. So, next time you mess up, take a look at the How to Say I’m Sorry page. This site devotes a full page to articles about apology in the context of disputes in a variety of legal settings. It was there that I discovered Vivian Scott, who wrote the best titled blog I’ve seen on this topic: “I’m Sorry You’re Such a Crybaby Isn’t Really An Apology”. In fact, I liked the title so much that I called Vivian to learn more. Turns out she authored “Conflict Resolution at Work for Dummies” and has other writing to her credit. In “Crybaby” Vivian says that when she “hears an apology laden with sarcastic tones or Ill-chosen words [she tries] to give the speaker the benefit of the doubt and assume the reason he’s delivering such a lousy apology is because he’s uninformed about the must-have attributes of a real one.” Her blog is a must read for the four elements of a real apology. If you ever wanted to know how to write just about anything, take a look at this site. I’ve hyperlinked the apology page, and there’s so much more here.

It’s Personal

I’d like to share an additional perspective on apology. Inspired by numerous encounters with those plastic call center apologies, I’ve suggested to my coaching clients a distinction between the need for an apology (which includes acknowledging what happened and taking responsibility) and the need for simply the acknowledgment and taking responsibility without feeling and expressing remorse. Lee Taft’s apology approach includes: “the party causing the injury” should offer the apology. To me, an “injury” occurs when there is personal harm. I define “personal” pretty broadly – something like when the action we do or words we say have a negative impact on others – their jobs , their finances (like affecting a bonus), their lives, their health, and even their egos. In business, there are things we do that merit apologies, and other things that merit only the acknowledgment and taking responsibility portion of apologies. When there is a need for an apology, follow the advice of the experts and give a complete and sincere one. If not, acknowledge what you did, take responsibility and move on.

If you have anything to add, or other suggestions of where to find great advice for apologies or blogs on the topic, please post!