Trust, Sales and Getting Real: Interview with Author Mahan Khalsa

Mahan Khalsa is one of the more respected names in the field of complex sales. When I set out to write Trust-based Selling, there were three books foremost in my mind; Let’s Get Real or Let’s Not Play, Khalsa’s 1999 book, was one of them.

FranklinCovey bought his business, and he went on to head their Sales Performance Group. More recently, he has become the head of Ninety Five 5, which combines sales techniques with change management and the science of expert performance.

A Harvard MBA, he splits his time these days between Colorado and Hawaii.

CHG: First of all, Mahan, thank you very much for speaking with us here today. I have long admired your work from afar, and I’m personally delighted to make the connection.

I want to focus mainly on trust as it relates to sales and business change, but let’s start more broadly. I did not start off in sales, and neither did you, if I’m correct? How did you come to be involved in the field of selling?

MK: My first encounters with selling were painful. I was working my way through college and needed a job, and took a position as a door-to-door salesman. I’ve written about it at greater length but I’ll summarize it by saying one of the happiest days of my life was when I got a job in a factory. I promised myself that I’d never be involved in sales again.

What I had experienced was abusive to both buyer and seller. Both were sullied. I don’t project my personal history on others who have had great experience in sales right from the beginning – or overcame early negative experiences in route to great success. That was just my experience.

I actually made it through college, and found myself the director of a residential yoga and meditation community. We arose at 3:30 a.m. each day, took a cold shower, and did two-and-a-half hours of yoga and meditation. I would have been happy doing yoga and meditating all day long.

However, part of the lifestyle was to take what you gained from your morning discipline and apply it in the everyday world. We had a lot of energy and motivation but lacked knowledge of how to run businesses. To remedy that, I was fortunate enough to get accepted at Harvard Business School, which was nearby.

Following my MBA, I founded a computer systems company. When it came to the moment when we actually had to sell something, that was a crisis and a conundrum. On one hand, it was my company, I felt it was up to me to bring revenue in. On the other hand, my experience in sales had led me to believe that you could be either a salesperson or a spiritual person but not both.

The combination was tricky. There were times I felt very honorable—and failed miserably. There were times I was successful in getting immediate revenue—and compromised my values and probably my long-term relationship with the customer. There were times I thought I had it all together—and still fell flat on my face. Yet eventually, everything started to come together. Not only was I successful at that which I once feared and hated, it became what I most enjoyed.

I thought others might benefit from what I had learned. I designed and taught a course for Arthur Andersen partners, which was successful and over time became the firm’s worldwide model for face-to-face selling.

Luckily, one of my later clients was FranklinCovey. They valued what I brought to the table enough to purchase my company in 1999. It has been an excellent relationship for all concerned. My Sales Performance Group colleagues and I have worked with tens of thousands of salespeople and consultants from some of the world’s most successful companies. The Helping Clients Succeed coursework has been taught in over forty countries in nine different languages. We have coached and consulted on initiatives involving many billions of dollars of sales.

Despite our success something important was missing. Companies weren’t getting as much of the sustained improvement we all hoped for. As it turns out, training, by itself, no matter how good it is, starts fading the moment the trainer leaves. Several of us formed Ninety Five 5 LLC. Ninety Five 5 concentrates on execution and measurable results, using training as only one part of a systemic improvement initiative. We’ve been able to build on the well received content developed with FranklinCovey and produce impressive results with companies willing to move beyond sales training to get serious about real world sales transformation.

CHG: The subtitle of your book originally was, “The Demise of Dysfunctional Selling, and the Advent of Helping Clients Succeed.” What did you mean by ‘dysfunctional selling?’

MK:. I count as dysfunctional those actions and behaviors that ultimately serve neither seller nor buyer. Since most people are both sellers and buyers in their lives, most can fill in their stories of what this means. Put in all the things you hate when sellers try to manipulate rather than serve your interests. Put in all the things you hate when buyers ask you to do things that don’t seem to make sense to either party or that aren’t likely to result in them deciding in your favor or even deciding at all. Put in all the things that detract from rather than aid in producing both the results and relationships to which both parties aspire. Unfortunately, the lists can be long.

Most professional sellers have good intent. They know manipulation and deceit hurt rather than build long-term sales success. They know that building trust is essential to both creating and capturing value. So they eliminate a lot of what would otherwise be dysfunctional—no surprise there. Yet most also consistently engage in actions that are not value adding–for them or for their customers. Even when great intent is present, there is a lot of room for improvement in eliminating dysfunctional behaviors.

CHG: I notice your recent editions changed the subtitle to “Transforming the Buyer/Seller Relationship.” Anything noteworthy behind that change?

MK: The new title goes to the essence of what we are about – creating a substantial improvement in the mutual success and satisfaction of both buyers and sellers. We feel there are ways of interacting that better benefit both parties and that doing so is a good contribution to the kind of world we want to live in.

CHG: I asked Neil Rackham if there was one, over-arching biggest single problem in the field of selling, and he said yes—for him it was the tendency to jump to solutions before having completed the questioning process. Do you yourself find an over-arching ‘missing link’ in the field of sales?

MK: I would certainly rank “pre-mature solutions” at or near the top of my missing links list. Almost all of us have room for big improvements in our ability to “seek first to understand” before we “seek to be understood.” And the challenge is being able to gain access to and skillfully develop that understanding with the key decision makers and influencers, many of whom seem to be hidden away from those who are trying to understand them.

Looking a little more holistically we could say the missing link is the ability to successfully blend excellent inquiry with excellent advocacy – to do a superb job of matching our story to the client’s story. Good inquiry is essential and most often the more undeveloped portion of the balance – and it is still only part of the equation. I’ve seen people get good at inquiry and still not be able to convert on advocacy.

I’ve also changed my view a little bit on what the true missing link is. I now feel the biggest over-arching problem is that 80% or so of all salespeople fail to get substantially better, year after year. They may get more comfortable; they may make the minor improvements they need to make just to stay even. However, as Geoff Colvin states in Talent is Overrated,

“Extensive research in a wide range of fields shows that many people not only fail to become outstandingly good at what they do, no matter how many years they spend doing it, they frequently don’t even get any better than they were when they started.”

The need for growth in most companies never stops; unfortunately, the growth of sales people does. That creates a “growth gap” that most companies try to fill with quantity (more salespeople) rather than quality (better salespeople). The missing link is not more good stuff, it is getting good at good stuff.

CHG: A fascinating insight. To that point, you have talked about how you integrated sales with change management and the science of expert performance. How did you come to make that connection? And what is the link with sales and change management?

MK: We hold two beliefs that happen to be backed by considerable data, research, and direct experience:

1. Deliberate practice is the key to improvement.

2. A supportive environment is the key to deliberate practice.

Deliberate practice, while not a particularly sexy phrase, is the term commonly used in the science of expert performance to describe the single most common and powerful attribute of top-flight performance in almost any field. It contends that the quality and quantity of mindful practice and application is what separates star performers from the decent, average, and poor performers. (Geoff Colvin’s aforementioned Talent is Overrated is a good read on this topic).

Deliberate practice is not ordinary practice. As Edward Deming once said, “It is not enough to do your best. You need to know what to do and then do your best.” So the quality of the practice and application is as important as the quantity of practice – and the quantity is essential.

What I find liberating and motivating about the research is that everything, repeat everything, we need to do in order to get really good at sales is learnable – if we are willing to practice. It doesn’t have to do with our DNA, our native IQ, our personality type or social style, our years of experience. If we are willing to engage in a high number of repetitions of quality practice we can become as great as we want to be. That’s powerful.

CHG: That really is powerful. I’ve always felt that people’s capacity for change is grossly under-estimated, but I confess I like hearing your scientific tone in expressing that truth. Reminds me of Gladwell’s 10,000-hour rule. How can companies encourage it?

MK: If an organization feels a strong need for its salespeople to keep growing their performance, and they see deliberate practice as a key lever to realizing that growth, the next issue is how to align the organization to make deliberate practice a way of life that is encouraged, expected, and rewarded.

That’s where the field of change management or “systemic alignment” comes into play. Leaders in organizations have many levers they can pull that will influence what behaviors their people adopt and apply. Coordinating how and when those levers are pulled is a key to moving a sales force rather than just the top 10 – 20% who will make sure they will grow no matter what is happening around them.

CHG: I like the idea that you focus heavily on beliefs: you highlight five (my favorites: ‘move off the solution,’ and ‘world-class inquiry precedes world-class advocacy’). This focus on beliefs, and on relationships—your subtitle is “Transforming the Buyer/Seller Relationship”—seems to me to have, for lack of a better term, a spiritual bent to it. Am I right?

MK: I would say the focus on beliefs is practical, powerful, sometimes transformational, and for most people, under developed. I might go as far to say that sales is the process of understanding and influencing beliefs, our own and those of others. I’ve not thought of it as spiritual per se, though depending on how someone defined “spiritual” it may have a fit.

Most of us have heard the phrase, ‘people buy based on emotion and justify with facts (or rationale).’ Various neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists have given scientific support for this conventional wisdom.

I would modify the statement a bit and say people decide based on beliefs – what they believe to be good or bad, right or wrong, useful or not, meaningful or not important, high ROI or low, and so on. How they see the world through their beliefs determines what they do–which in turn determines the results they get. Those beliefs could be emotional, or based on what a person believes to be fact – whether those beliefs are corroborated by empirical data or not.

For many people, the beliefs that underlie their actions and decisions are unconscious or at least not clearly articulated. And when selling to multiple people, the beliefs may be conflicting as well as unclear. So the better job we do of understanding, articulating the key beliefs the client needs to resolve, both intellectually and emotionally, the better job we are likely to do demonstrating how we and our solution can address those beliefs. Understanding and clarifying beliefs goes to the heart of inquiry and addressing them goes to the heart of advocacy.

Too often both our inquiry and advocacy deal with the so-called ‘facts.’ However, as a University of Michigan study claims, “facts often do not determine our beliefs, but rather our beliefs (usually non-rational beliefs) determine the facts that we accept.”

Or as Annette Simmons claims in The Story Factor, “People make their decisions based on what the facts mean to them–not on the facts themselves. The meaning they add to facts depends on their current story [their beliefs]. Facts don’t have the power to change someone’s story. Your goal is to introduce a new story that will let your facts in.”

So yes; I believe the focus on understanding and addressing key beliefs is critical to helping clients succeed.

CHG: Stephen MR Covey, Jr., author of The Speed of Trust, is a colleague of yours. What do you think is the most powerful point he makes about trust?

MK: I think his most powerful point is that trust can be built on purpose. It doesn’t have to be an accident of circumstance or personality mesh. Trust with others – and in ourselves, for that matter–can be exercised like a muscle. When you apply Deliberate Practice to consciously build trust, trust becomes a reality with more and more people in more and more situations – to the benefit of all concerned.

CHG: Let’s focus on trust. It’s easy to get lost in various permutations of trust, but how do you see trust’s role in selling? In change?

MK: It’s hard to come up with something more original than the obvious – when you have trust everything goes faster, costs less, and produces superior results (usually). Typically, we find that three things flow together, up or down: trust, value, and the flow of meaningful information. If you have two you can usually get the third. Trust is hard to measure, and value is a lagging indicator. However, the flow of meaningful information (beliefs and facts) from the right people (decision makers and influencers) is a good leading indicator of whether trust exists and value will follow.

CHG: Let me just interrupt there, sorry. In my jargon, what I hear you saying is that transparency is a driver for increasing the odds that a would-be trustor will perceive a would-be trustee as trustworthy—thus creating trust. Yes?

MK: A little complex, but yes. As you say, there are many definitions, permutations, elements to trust – it has multiple and complex equivalents. Your trustworthiness equation is certainly a good, well-tested definition. People have to trust that what you will do will really get them the results and relationships they want, they have to trust that you will actually do what you say you will do, and trust that what you do will be performed in their best interests – or that your best interests are best served by helping them get their best interest met, which indeed certainly seems to be the case. Blinding flash of the obvious – to gain trust, you have to be trustworthy.

I think that in inquiry, a key skill is to consciously, with our words and behavior, create a container of safety where people can freely express what they think, feel, believe to be true. And if the container is really strong and expansive, they will allow us to question, examine, and offer alternatives to those beliefs. Most only are willing to do that if they feel the information they share will be used for them rather than against them – they have to trust our intent, our purpose in asking questions.

I sometimes say intent is more important than technique – perhaps another way to express the old axiom that people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. The good news is that you can get crystal clear on your intent and how it is mutually beneficial, and you can practice becoming completely congruent with that intent before picking up the phone or walking into a room.

CHG: I find people first want to know the ‘magic phrases’ to use, and it’s really not a matter of words only.

MK: You can communicate your intent without even saying a word. When people can sense that your intent serves their best interests, they are willing to open the trust valve at least a little. If that little bit is rewarded, they can risk a little more, and so on. If the risk is continually rewarded, trust grows. Of course, as you well know, all the hard earned work can vanish suddenly if the bond is broken. So constant attention to language and behaviors is critical – and learnable, and improvable.

As far as the role of trust in change, I feel the key is that if everyone in the organization feels the best way of improving our numbers is to focus first on improving our client’s numbers, the basis of trust will be institutionalized. Jack Welch once said,

One thing we’ve discovered with certainty is that anything we do that makes the customer more successful inevitably results in a financial return for us.”

To create a trust based organization everyone has to believe that our self-interests are served by helping our customers reach their self-interests. When that belief permeates an organization and is backed by action, process, and rewards–not just value statements–trust can become a competitive advantage.

Often, in large organizations, the further away executives are from the customers, the more they focus on salesperson activity or quantity based leading indicators (numbers of calls, number of proposals) versus quality based leading indicators (flow of meaningful information). Perhaps they don’t trust the quality can be improved and that pulling the quantity lever is their best choice. They concentrate on improving the seller’s numbers (high self-orientation) rather than the buyer’s numbers (high other-orientation) and they put into place reward and reinforcement systems to reflect that emphasis. As buyers we can feel where that focus is placed, and ironically, when it is on the seller’s numbers rather than our own, we are less likely to take action to improve their numbers.

Customer focus is not just a tag line. It is a passionate, all consuming orientation that can guide everything we do. Importantly, it helps us stay away from what I called “dysfunctional” selling and push back with both courage and consideration when customers ask us to do–or to not do–things which would help the client succeed.

CHG: You have the ear of a lot of people—some of whom even read this blog! What would you suggest are the top few things people can do as individuals to increase trust in the workplace?

MK: Well, of course before I’d want to give someone any advice, I’d want to make sure they wanted it and would want to understand their specific situation. And I’d want to make sure I was following my own advice before I’d advance it to others. So here are three things I tell myself – and we at Ninety Five 5 tell each other.

1. No Guessing. If people are going to trust you to help them get what they want, need, and value, you have the obligation and right to understand their beliefs as to what that really means. Remember, beliefs are often unclear or not well articulated. If you guess about what they want, don’t have mutual clarity on the outcomes and rewards, don’t understand what has or will stop them, don’t know how they will make a decision, or what resources they will apply to getting a solution that meets their needs, you will likely miss the (undefined) target and trust will suffer.

2. Say it, Do it. Build the power of your word. You don’t have to say, “I promise.” If you say it, it is your Word, and your Word is your bond. If you say it, do it. Period. If you find it is going to be a challenge to meet your word, communicate the difficulty to the other person. Let them agree to a change or say they need you to meet your word. If you need to meet your word, meet it. Period.

3. Be Clear. Be crystal clear on your intent and how it serves the interests of the other person(s)–even as it serves your own. Before any interaction, clear out any internal or external pressures that might cause you to be incongruent with that intent. Let your intent manifest with clarity and congruency through what you say, how you say it, what you look like, and what you do. Be so clear that it becomes easy and natural to be fearless, be flexible, and have fun.

Or maybe just be the kind of seller you would love to have if you were the buyer. One you could really trust.

CHG: A perfect note to end on. Thanks so much, Mahan, it’s been very enlightening.