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Being a Competitive Seller vs. Being a Trusted Advisor

“What are the most important personal attributes for finding the right balance between being a trusted advisor, and being a competitive seller?”

That was the question teed up by a Google sales training leader earlier this month at a Talks at Google session with Ryan Serhant. It’s an intriguing question. (The answer, not so much).  But first, some back story.

The Background

Ryan Serhant is known to most people for his reality TV show Million Dollar Listing, about New York real estate. Personally, I prefer his most recent show, Sell It Like Serhant, which also happens to be the title of his recent book, subtitled “How to Sell More, Earn More, and Become the Ultimate Sales Machine.”

Let me just say: Serhant gets a lot right – very right. He’s also extremely personable, with very good interpersonal instincts, and a compelling personal story.

A (partial) list of what he gets (very) right about sales: the idea that people want to have a personal connection; the importance of improvisation; the emotional journey of buyers; the role of buyer insecurities and the need to recognize and address them; the importance of metaphors and stories; the critical role of personal selling; and many more.

But that’s not what I want to talk about.

Back to the Question

Remember, the question raised by the sales training leader was ““What are the most important personal attributes for finding the right balance between being a trusted advisor, and being a competitive seller?”

Here’s Ryan’s answer. “Endurance, empathy, and enthusiasm.”

Huh?

He goes on to say these are the three traits he always looks for in his own hires, and they’re the keys to all sales that require just a little bit more than a good product that fits the price.

Note he didn’t answer the question. As he mentioned, he had written about those three attributes in his book, so it was a bit of a canned answer. It certainly didn’t address the “balance between being a trusted advisor, and being a competitive seller.”

But in fairness: the question itself is an odd one – it begs many more questions. It posits a tension between being a trusted advisor and being a competitive seller. But can someone be both (as the question implied)? Or is it an either/or proposition? Does it depend on the industry? On types of sales (e.g. B2B or B2C)? Is it really a choice? And if so, what kind of choice?

Serhant didn’t address any of those questions, settling for what is ultimately a fairly conventional description of the key personal attributes for successful selling of all types. It left me unsatisfied. So of course I wondered how I would have answered.

My Answer

In most industries and situations, the question is a false dichotomy: in fact, the best way to compete successfully is to be a trusted advisor to one’s prospects – to practice Trust-based Selling.

What’s my evidence? In its simplest form, if a prospect thinks I have more endurance and enthusiasm than you do, but trusts you more than me, you’re going to get the business more than half the time. (Empathy – Serhant’s third item – is also critical to trust-based selling, so no argument there).

The biggest difference between Serhant’s proposition and trust-based selling is profoundly simple:

  • Serhant is focused on the seller’s success as the end goal
  • By contrast, the end goal of trust-based selling is doing the right thing for the buyer.

In one approach, competitive success is the goal. In the other, it’s a byproduct.

The answer to the questioner’s dilemma is to reject the question. It’s not a question of balance, nor is it an either-or proposition. It is how you get from one to the other.

You don’t gain trust by being competitively successful nearly as much as you gain competitive success by being trusted.

Common Threads

Interestingly, a lot of what Serhant suggests fits equally well in trust-based selling. You have to have empathy; you have to take risks; you have to understand and appreciate emotions.

But there are tells. Serhant shares a touching story about the power of fear: how he is motivated by never wanting to go back to a dark period in his life, defined by stark failure and rejection. We can all relate.

But fear of failure is a very private, internal emotion: it doesn’t help connect us to our clients, it separates us from them. If not getting the sale is part of the fear, then we haven’t conquered it – in fact, we’ve made our clients hostage to our personal pursuit of overcoming fear.

Trust is a relationship. But competitive sales, the way Serhant defines it, is a personal adventure, with clients as means, not ends. He is very insightful about the need for connection: but he never mentions relationships.

There are differences in tactics between the two approaches, which I’ve written about at length elsewhere. But this is the bedrock difference between the goals of the two approaches from which they all flow.

At one point in the interview, Serhant notes how he consciously prioritized success over career. If your goal is personal success, being a great seller is a great way to get there.

But if your goal is your clients’ success, you will, paradoxically, end up a more successful seller yourself. Because buyers trust more those whose goal it is to help them, rather than to help themselves.

 

Trust Matters, The Podcast: How to Present Choices to Clients (Episode 7)

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Tell Your Client Why They Don’t Need You

Sell to a friend? Or not?

No, I’m not crazy. (Well, not because of that headline, anyway). It’s actually a serious admonition. Here’s why, and how.

———————-

I suspect you want your clients to trust you. And I’m sure you tell them the truth about why they should buy from you.

We all would like to think that’s enough for them to trust you, but of course it’s not. Oddly, what’s missing is some context that contrasts the positive reasons to buy from you with some objective truths about why they might not need you.

Consider these two sentences:

1. If you’re serious about wealth management, then you should consider whole life insurance as part of your portfolio.

2. If you distinctly need insurance coverage in addition to an investment product, then you should consider whole life insurance as part of your portfolio.

The first sentence is a form of manipulative selling – like the assumptive close (“OK, shall we start on Monday or on Wednesday?”), or inducing a series of ‘yes’ answers (“Now, I assume you want your children to be taken care of, right?”). The way it’s written, you can’t disagree without being disagreeable.

Most people get annoyed when asked a question to which there’s only one reasonable answer. And most of us consider being asked that question a reason not to buy from the asker. So – don’t do that.

Instead, ask a question that allows reasonable people to consider reasonable multiple possibilities – including saying no to some of them.

Ask Questions that Allow Buyers to Self-Select

The second sentence does that. It provides information by distinguishing between people who might find value in the product and those who might not. Phrased that way, it not only educates the customer, it allows the customer to make a decision to opt-in or opt-out. Another way to put that: it posits a real-world choice, for real people in the real world who must make choices.

Most salespeople get nervous about questions that allow clients to opt out. Not, however, salespeople who understand the power of trust.

By giving a customer knowledge that permits opting out, a salesperson is putting herself at risk. But without risk in the first place, there can be no genuine trust – only control and the illusion of choice.

The reason trust works in sales is because human beings reciprocate when they are trusted. They appreciate being treated as adults, they appreciate not being manipulated and they appreciate being given choices that help them make intelligent decisions.

And they show their appreciation by buying, disproportionately, from those who treat them that way.

Let your clients know why they might not need you. Trust them to make the right choice. Amazingly, they do so more often than not.

Trust-based Selling, Redux ca 2018

copyright Nate Osborne 2013Over a decade ago, I wrote Trust-based Selling.

As I said in the opening paragraph, “You don’t often hear those two words mentioned in the same sentence.” What that book was about was squaring the circle – explaining the apparent paradox of how you can sell and be trusted at the same time. I believe it is even more relevant today than when the book was published.

The Paradox

“Selling” is a critical concept at the core of capitalism. It’s often said that if you don’t have a sale, you don’t have a business. If you can’t sell your product or service, the market is democratically expressing itself that you have nothing of worth. Conversely, to successfully sell is in some way a validation of value.

At the same time, “selling” is at the heart of Adam Smith’s description of capitalism as based on the invisible hand of self-interest. If everyone behaves selfishly, you might say, everyone benefits from the competitive system that results.

And yet if anything seems inimical to trust, it must be selfishness. The prevailing theory of capitalism is that you may trust the system, but caveat emptor – buyer beware. We have regulations to prevent the abuse of buyers by sellers, not trusting the motives of sellers alone.

How then can we trust someone whose job, indeed whose core motivation, is to extract money from our wallet and transfer it to theirs – all the while smiling and telling us to enjoy it?

And from the seller’s side: how can you be trusted, trustworthy, when your entire job is based on getting people to do something that is first and foremost in your interest? There’s even an ethical dimension: how can you live with yourself when your job consists fundamentally of getting people to behave in ways that inure to your benefit?

It’s a paradox. Unless you think about trust.

The Problem

But first: what’s changed since I wrote the book? I’d say three things: data, process, and the internet. Or if you want to put an over-simplified big fat label on it, let’s say Salesforce.

Let me be clear: there’s nothing wrong per se about Salesforce, and there’s a ton of value in it. If you’re not using Salesforce or a similar tool, you’re in the Dark Ages.

Nonetheless: Salesforce and its CRM ilk have enabled some negative and regressive tendencies in those who wish to sell. In particular:

  • They can depersonalize sales. I don’t just mean spending time on the screen instead of talking to people: I mean the belief that you can reduce all relevant human interactions to datapoints, and by collecting and analyzing them per se, gain better relationships. The power of the tool seduces people into thinking that by collecting indicators, we have gained that which the indicators sought to indicate. To paraphrase Kierkegaard: CRM systems are like a “for sale” sign in a store: you go in to buy, and find out it was only the sign that was for sale.
  • They focus overly on the sales process. Sure, you can describe ‘sales’ as a process. You can also describe it as a noun, a relationship, a transaction, a profession, and many more things. To focus solely on process is to think of sales as a linear, logical, deductive kind of phenomenon. Sales is much more than that. Yet every sales model you can think of begins with finding a lead, and ends (in a left-to-right depiction) in ‘closing.’ It is by its nature seller-centric – not customer-centric. It’s often noted that the percentage of person-to-person time has declined in recent years: we forget that this means the relative importance of that time is increased – not decreased.
  • Their overt purpose, goal, objective is to get the sale – and then get more sales. They concretely embody the self-interest that Smith spoke about – and don’t mention the ‘greater good’ that he meant by the “invisible hand.”

The convergence of data, process and the internet represented in modern CRM systems promotes an impersonal, process-oriented, seller-centric view of sales. Just as social media have turned out to be Trojan horses weaponizing some of our worst instincts while wrapped in undeniably valuable forms, so has CRM handed salespeople a double-edged sword.

Squaring the Circle

The good news is: it doesn’t have to be that way. And you don’t have to get rid of your CRM systems either. All you need is a few changed behaviors – and some fundamental shifts in mindset and belief systems. Paradoxically, making these changes will actually result in more sales, not less. But only if you embrace the paradox.

Here are a few of those changes:

  • The goal of most selling is to make the sale. The goal of trust-based selling is to help the customer; a sale is an outcome, not a goal.
  • “Closing” is anathema – that’s all about the seller. The joint agreement to do a transaction that benefits the buyer is what we should seek.
  • In trust-based selling, the right time to mention price is when it is useful to the customer to know it.
  • In trust-based selling, you don’t “handle objections” – you jointly explore the fit of the solution.
  • In trust-based selling, hard-sell is not a sin – wrong-sell is.
  • In trust-based selling, you don’t seek sales – you seek good decisions by the buyer (if this is your priority, you’ll actually get more than your share of such decisions).
  • In trust-based selling, the acid test is whether you’d be willing to refer the customer to a competitor – if the competitor has the better solution.
  • In trust-based selling, a sale transaction is just one event along the path of a relationship.
  • In trust-based selling, the default mode of presentation is transparency.
  • If everyone sold based on trust, we’d need fewer regulations, and Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand would be a lot more efficient.
  • In trust-based selling, the time-frame is lifetime. Assume that you will meet this customer again, along with his or her customers, cousins, bosses and LinkedIn friends, and that every interaction is evident to all of them instantly. That’s your reputation.

Trust-based selling relies on the proposition that people return good for good, and bad for bad. If you treat a customer respectfully and with trust, and they happen to need what you are selling, the natural response is to buy it from you. And if they don’t presently need what you’re selling, guess who they’ll remember and come back to when they do need it.

You can bet on it. And you should.

That proposition is not only an ethical template – it is a business model.

 

Trust Matters, The Podcast: How to Manage an Untrustworthy Client (Episode 5)

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Can You Ethically Sell to a Friend?

Maybe you have a college classmate in a company your firm would like to sell to.   Maybe a neighbor down the street works for an organization you wish you could sell to. Maybe you’ve become friendly with someone in a client company for which you’d like to do further work elsewhere in the organization.

Can you sell to a friend?  Should you? And even if the answers are ‘yes’ – how do you go about doing it?

The Ethical Quandary

Let me make a guess: the reason you’re reading this article in the first place is that you feel somehow squeamish about these situations. Part of you feels it’s unfair to take advantage of a friendship for the sake of sales, that it cheapens your friendship. More importantly, you’re concerned you might put your friendship at risk by appearing to use it for your own commercial gain.

Worst of all – you’re worried what your friend might think of you.

Well, rest assured: there are some times when it’s wrong to sell to a friend – and there are some times when it’s right. There are ways to tell the difference. And there is a way to do it that minimizes any risk. And when you follow these rules, any ethical quandary disappears.

Let’s be clear. If you’re coldly using a personal connection solely to get business, but you pretend otherwise, and you don’t truthfully much care about the consequences to your friendship, then you are indeed behaving unethically. And we struggle not only to be clear about our own motives, but with how it will appear to our friend. So, how can it be done ethically?

The Brother-in-Law Test

Imagine you’re watching football (your version of ‘football,’ of course) on the couch with your brother-in-law who is over to visit for the holiday weekend. At a break in the action, he asks you, “Listen, your company works in the widget services business. We’re thinking about buying some widget services; who do you think we should be talking to, and what should we be careful about in talking to them? And should we be talking to you guys?”

Most likely, your first response is not “Boy, have I got a deal for you!” You’d probably say something like, “Well, there are several things to think about. We do widget services of course, but there are others as well in that business. The first thing you need to think about is the scale of involvement you want; and next is probably the complexity of your customer base. Depending on those answers, you might want to talk to us, or to someone else.”

In other words, you’d probably approach your brother-in-law in the manner of a trusted advisor – someone who applies his expertise with the best interests of the client in mind. You place the long-term interests of a close relationship (family in this case) over the short-term interests of your business.

And, if you knew your firm wasn’t the best choice for your brother-in-law, you’d probably tell him as much. The point is, you’re more attached to your long-term relationship with family than you are to a sales transaction at work.

So – what’s the difference with a friend?

Selling to a Friend

The correct answer is – there shouldn’t be any difference. If your services aren’t the best fit for your friend’s company, then you shouldn’t be pitching her. And if you really do have the best solution for your friend’s company – then you should be selling it, if only because you’d like to see your friend and her company do well.

The real question isn’t whether you should treat a friend like a brother-in-law – it’s why you would treat any customer any differently?

How to Do It

Notwithstanding all the above, it can be socially awkward to sell to friends – as much for the friend as for you. Relax, you don’t have to jointly take an ethics course. All you have to do is Name It and Claim It.

Acknowledge the issue out loud, and the elephant in the room disappears. You might say something like, “Look, I realize it could be awkward for us as friends to do business; I have no intention of jeopardizing our friendship, so I’m making this suggestion very mindfully.” Or, “I initially hesitated to raise this given our friendship, but realized I’d be cutting you off from something valuable if I didn’t speak up.”

To sum it up: if you wouldn’t sell it to your brother-in-law, don’t sell it to your friend. And if you would sell it to either one, say so, and say clearly why you’re doing it. If it’s the right thing for your friend to buy, then it’s the right thing for you to sell – to your friend as much as to anyone else.

Trust Matters, The Podcast: Stepping Up To The C-Suite Client (Episode 4)

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Why You Should Refer Your Competitors to Your Clients

(I dug this out of the old chest; it still holds up).

Refer your competitors to your clients in the sales process.

Yes, I do mean it. This is not a sarcastic title, or a clever trick. But I’ll warn you: your motives will affect your outcome.

Step One—check your objective. Is it:

a. To get the sale, or
b. To do the right thing by the customer.

Now multiply by 10 times – the next ten similar sales opportunities.

  • If your objective is always “get the sale,” then well before number ten, everyone will know you’re in it for yourself, short-term. You’ll have a reputation. You’ll win about the same percentage as your market share—say, 30% for sake of discussion.
  • If your objective is to do the right thing by the customer, then well before number ten, everyone will know you’re in it long-term, to help them. You’ll have a different reputation. And (can you say “paradox”?), your own success rate will get better—say, 40% or higher.

Option b doesn’t mean you’re not in it for yourself—just that it’s not your primary objective, and you’re willing to trust a longer-term process.

Step Two—admit you’re not always the perfect choice for every customer. (If this feels hard, and your market share is less than 100%, consider the implications of believing you’re always the best: either your customers are very stupid, or you can’t sell a perfect product.)

Let’s review. Your objective is to help your customer (which also gets you better sales numbers), and you admit that your product isn’t always the best.

Step 3: Therefore: shouldn’t you offer your customer informed advice about other alternatives? Shouldn’t you refer your competitors as a possible alternative?

The best reason to do this is—because it’s the right thing. But there are ancillary reasons:

  • Being willing to refer a competitor is the most direct indicator of your having the customer’s interests at heart. It makes it look like you care (note: don’t try faking this). 
  • In those rare cases where you convince someone against their better interests to use you instead of someone better suited for them, odds are that everything will unravel and you’ll regret it. Take one small loss and consider it an investment in good will.

Think this is suicidal? Try forwarding this blog to your existing clients, saying how crazy I am, and that you would never be so stupid as to point them to anyone but yourself, because…because…well, you try and explain it.

If you agree with me, and you are a buyer of goods or services, consider forwarding this blog to your suppliers, asking them to educate you regarding choices in their industry. And see how they respond.

  • The best ones have already done so. The next best will meet the test and give you some great info—be good to those suppliers, they just took a risk to help you.
  • And those who tell you there’s no need to review because they’re the best—well, you know what to do.

How do you say the words? Try this:

“We both win if you make the best decision. Given my understanding of your situation, if you haven’t already done so, you should also be talking to X and Y. If you do so, it’ll help our discussions.”

Is it a trust thing? You betcha.

Seduced by Tools and Processes

One of my favorite newsletters comes on Sunday mornings from Andy Paul. It’s called The Weekly Sales Fix. (He also does a great weekly podcast). While he focuses mostly on large B2B sellers, his thoughts this week mirror what I’ve also been seeing in smaller B2C marketers. 

The overall thought is an over-reliance on tools and processes.

First, Andy’s take on it:

I’ve been in sales for 4 decades….

We’ve all read about the various research findings that paint a dismal picture of the state of B2B sales. 

Low quota attainment rates. Falling close rates. Increased ‘No Decision’ rates. Buyers saying they find no value in their interactions with sales reps.

However, I believe that the fundamental reason these problems exist is that we have taken our eyes off the ball.

Too many in sales are trying to substitute process, methodology and technology for the fundamental and irreplaceable human connections that are at the heart of the B2B sales transaction.

The true science of selling is not about metrics. It’s about the science of mastering the human to human interaction.

Unfortunately, sales people today aren’t being sufficiently educated about the human element of sales.

The more time I spend in sales, and the more time I invest in working to help other sales people, the more clearly I’ve come to see that the keys to success at any level in our profession are directly tied to mastering a small handful of basic human behaviors.

Be human.

Ask great questions.

Listen slowly.

Deliver value.

You can make it more complicated than this. But, why would you?

Because, no matter what sales process, technology or methodology you utilize, your ability to win ultimately boils down to mastering those four behaviors to build functional and effective relationships with your buyers.

Simplicity.

Well said, Andy. Now let me apply those same thoughts to what I’ve been seeing on the smaller business side. 

I get (and I bet many of you do too) a lot of emails and LinkedIn requests that completely ignore Andy’s advice. 

  • Someone sends me a LinkedIn request; they look interesting, so I accept. Within hours, I get a message telling me about their services and suggesting a call or a meeting.
  • Someone sends me an email – it says a bit about their services, but absolutely nothing about me or my business, much less why I might be interested. Worse, they assert that they’re relevant and can help me. Worse still, they suggest a call or a meeting to explore how they can help me.

The Seductiveness of Tools and Processes

On the B2B side, the sheer power and connectedness of today’s CRM-and-related systems is impressive. As with all tech, things are getting digitized and interconnected. You can track and link to virtually unlimited amounts of things, including your own (automated) ‘content’ and customers’ responses.

The seduction is this: the belief that Because You Can, Therefore You Should. 

  • On the B2B side, because you can micro-identify potential buyers, their past behaviors, their likely interests, and monitor their reactions to anything you might put out, therefore you should do all the above. 

No, you shouldn’t. Because as Andy Paul points out, the approach touches precisely zero of the four factors Andy calls “keys to success.”

  • On the smaller business side, the seduction is that because you can easily invite me to join you on LinkedIn or ID me on a targeted mailing list and send me the equivalent of your brochure at zero cost, therefore you should do all the above. 

No, you shouldn’t. Because if your response to an invitation acceptance is to send me a pitch, you’re committing the business equivalent of asking for sex on the first date. It’s just not done. It’s rude. 

Worse, it pretty much doesn’t even work. The law of large numbers won’t help you.  If your strategy was to micro-target desirable buyers with all your great screening tools, then offensiveness actually backfires on you: not only is the potential market smaller, but your bad reputation spreads more thoroughly.      

Whether you’ve been seduced by processes or by tools, you are 

a. Not being human

b. Not asking great (any?) questions

c. Not listening slowly (if at all)

d. Not delivering value 

With great tech comes great temptation: Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. As Andy says, keep it simple, and keep it human.