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Most of you reading this are advisors, in some form or another. That’s obvious if you’re a consultant, accountant, or lawyer. Also if you’re a financial planner, account manager, executive searcher, and certainly if you’re in sales.
It’s less obviously, but equally, true if you’re in one of a thousand customer-facing roles with titles like customer (-experience, -service, -success, -relationship), delivery service, pre-sales, technical support. Even if your job has a title like operations specialist, or technical project manager, or product manager, your success hinges heavily on your ability to offer good advice – and to have that advice taken.
So what’s the Single Biggest Thing an Advisor Can Do for his or her client/customer/advisee?
It’s not “add value” (almost always a narrow financial concept, and not one that guarantees acceptance of the idea). Nor is it to “challenge” the advisee (again, a challenging idea unaccepted just annoys the advisee).
Let me suggest that the Single Biggest Thing you can do for an advisee is to help them reframe their problem definition – in a way that increases value, clarity, and commitment.
Back to Roots
One of my favorite David Maister epigrams is, “The problem is never what the client said it was in the first meeting.” A tad hyperbolic? Perhaps – but my own experience has taught me that David was far nearer right than wrong.
Let’s take a few basic examples. See if these ring true.
- A potential client approaches a financial advisor, because (s)he is unsatisfied with their own track record of managing their investment portfolio, and hopes a professional can do better.
- A potential client approaches a bookkeeper, because they don’t want to become experts in QuickBooks, but their small business is rapidly demanding more such time.
- A potential client approaches a ballroom dance studio because they want their wedding dance, to their favorite song, to go perfectly.
All three of those presenting problems are reasonable on their face. And all three advisors can probably present competent answers:
- The financial advisor can almost always do a better job of portfolio balancing and risk-profiling than an amateur investor;
- Any bookkeeper is going to be more adept and efficient at bookkeeping software than a moonlighting business owner;
- Any ballroom studio can fit a dance to almost any song.
But if the advisor chooses to respond to those problem definitions as presented, there are three problems:
- Those problems are all defined at pretty low levels of value-added; basically a make-buy decision based on perceived efficiency;
- They may be what the client thinks they want, but not what the client really needs;
- Just giving people what they ask for doesn’t do much to motivate their taking your advice. (For a whimsical but right-on example of this, see Episode 6 of the reality TV-show Sell It Like Serhant).
Redefining the Problem
But what if the advisor in each case succeeds in engaging the client in a way that jointly examines the true root issue? In many cases (OK, all, David would say), the problem definition can change.
- A good financial advisor will also ask the client questions about the names in which taxable accounts are held, about the client’s use of trusts, and about educational plans for their kids. All of those have implications for the portfolio, but each of them also has profound financial implications in their own right. Many clients in such conversations realize that their real goal isn’t just better stock returns, but something more fundamental – financial security, for example.
- A good bookkeeper won’t just demonstrate Quickbooks proficiency, but will also ask about useful managerial reports, interface with the tax accountant, and plans for online payment systems. This gets the customer to think about the use of Quickbooks, not just the efficiency with which one can manipulate software.
- A good dance studio will determine whether the favorite song is really danceable by other-than-pros, and whether something else might better fit the true goal – to receive glowing comments and feel good about themselves at the close of the dance.
Redefining the problem often makes the problem definition larger, or more holistic – like the financial planner example above. But it doesn’t have to.
The point of redefining the problem is not to up-sell – it is to get the client higher value, greater clarity about their own objectives, and thereby greater commitment to actually doing something.
It’s Not About the Advice
The biggest problem advisors have is to stop thinking it’s about the advice. Being right is table stakes, jacks-for-openers. Any subject matter expert can be right – in fact, most are. The truth is, subject matter expertise in this day and age of AI is rapidly becoming automated (think robo-advisers, offshoring, and YouTube videos).
Good advisors remember that, just because the client says the problem is thus-and-so doesn’t mean that’s the problem. Which means the challenge of advising is not getting the better answer: it’s getting the client to accept that there might be a better answer.
The above examples are all from sales, but the problem is the same if you’re implementing a CRM system. The client wants it to do what the old system did: your job is to get them to see that the new system can accomplish much more, of more basic objectives.
Here’s how you don’t do it:
- Tell them you’re the expert and you know better than they do
- Show them a financial comparison of their idea and your idea
- Tell them about all your past clients who successfully took your advice.
Instead, take a page from the one profession that is built on getting people to take advice – therapists of one form or another. (This most definitely includes your best friend, when you go to them for tough life advice).
What do all good therapists do?
- They listen to you; not for clues about how to define the problem or add value, but to understand how you view the problem
- They ask questions: not 20-question-game deductive queries aimed at winnowing down the solution set, but rather aimed at getting you to see your own true objectives and motives
- They care: their objective is for you to get better, on your terms, not theirs.
Because the truth is, most of us are suspicious of our own problem definitions – even as we are defensive about them. It is not easy to get people to take advice: we all are resistant. The solution to resistance is first to find common ground – but first on their ground, not ours. Done right, we become first unthreatened, then open, then grateful and committed once we see and can accept another problem definition.
This stuff is simple. That doesn’t mean it’s easy, by a long shot. In my view, getting your advice taken is a lot harder than getting the advice right in the first place. That’s why good advice can be copied by AI; but human interaction is the provenance of getting your advice taken.
It starts by helping people redefine their own problems – on their terms.
I got an email from, Ralph, the 50-ish owner of a small consulting firm. He had three competing offers to buy his practice, and a few complicating life factors. He wanted advice, and asked if we could talk.
I don’t do much coaching or consulting, and he almost surely couldn’t afford my rates. Nor am I an expert in life planning, or in valuations.
But I said sure, call me in the morning, we’ll talk – no charge.
We had a very good chat for about 45 minutes.
I think I helped him. I know it was useful for him to talk to a third party able to comprehend his situation. I believe he’ll make a better decision, and I’m sure he’ll feel better about it. Value was created for him in our talk.
But How Does Free Advice Help the Advice Giver?
But what about me? I knew going in there was no chance of a sale from him – not now, not in the future, not anytime. And my rate was zero. Was this a foolish, impetuous, soft-hearted, flakey thing to do?
No. I like doing nice things, but I’m not a saint. Nor did I consider Ralph a pro bono case.
Sure, it was a nice thing to do. But, I would argue – it was also good business.
Sometimes a sales lead that we would otherwise screen out can be a good marketing investment. Sometimes you can do well by doing good. Sometimes we need to blur the line between sales and marketing.
“Ralph” will never buy from me (though other Ralph’s have done so). But he will remember what I did for him; even more, that I was willing to help.
Remember: Ralph invested time in searching for alternatives, chose me, and felt strongly enough to seek me out. He spent time to find out who I was, what I did, whether and how I might be useful to him. He was probably willing to pay for consulting. He was an educated, willing buyer, a near-client with influence on other potential clients.
For me, he was not a qualified sales lead. Instead, he was one helluva marketing resource.
Ralph now knows me – the sound of my voice, how well I think on the spot, the way I interact, my sense of humor. He knows me better than one of 200 people in an audience for a speech; much better than 500 people reading this blog, or an article of mine.
Total investment: 45 minutes. Most sales people will tell you that’s an extravagant waste of sales time, an inefficiency that is off-scale. Just think of the waste in extrapolating such activities to scale!
But most salespeople would be wrong. This is not about efficiency in selling: this is about effectiveness in marketing. (And let’s not forget, I also learned some things about valuations).
Let’s say Ralph will tell a dozen people about our discussion. Those are people who understand what each of us do, and who are first-degree connections to Ralph. That’s a powerful testimonial. Sounds like a reference to me; better yet, one freely given.
The choice is not between being “good” or making money; they often go together.
Try, for just a few hours per month, shifting your sales practices to subsidize your marketing by investing in a lead.
Don’t get lost in charge-back accounting and tit-for-tat favor-record-keeping. The benefits will eventually accrue to your firm, and to you personally. Both.
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“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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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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.
Over 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.
“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.
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.
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