Is it Ever Trustworthy to Go Around Someone to Get to the C-Suite?

Today’s post is by Trusted Advisor Associates’ own Andrea Howe and Stewart Hirsch.


We just led a webinar on how to take a trust-based approach to building C-suite relationships. (We decided in the moment that we should call it the Hirsch and Howe Show.) There was a great question asked that we didn’t have time to adequately address, so we’re taking a moment to share our thoughts here.

For context, our webinar proposed three fundamental steps to building trust-based C-suite relationships:

  1. Get your “why” right: Your reason for pursing a relationship affects everything.
  2. Get your “what matters” right: Look thoughtfully and expansively at what would motivate them to engage with you.
  3. Get your “how” right: Follow trust-based best practices for (a) getting and (b) navigating the CXO conversation.

The question came up in our discussion about getting your “how” right:

What if your client below the C-level exec is blocking your access to develop a new relationship with the exec—do you ever go around him or her?

The short answer is possibly, but IF AND ONLY IF, two conditions are met:

  1. You have a darned good reason.
  2. You then do it very skillfully.

First, the darned good reason part.

The hardest work to do with this situation may not actually be the difficult conversations that are required should you choose what we’ll call a “go-around,” but rather the mental prep required to assess the situation in a trustworthy way in the first place.

What’s key is making sure you’ve asked yourself WHY you want access to the C-suite person (step 1 above), and that you’ve arrived at a good answer from a trust-building standpoint.

Let’s pause here for a quick poll: What are good reasons, in general, to pursue a C-Suite relationship? Choose all that apply:

  • So we can show them our capabilities
  • Because <insert competitor name> is in there
  • To show them we’re better than the competition
  • To secure a champion to help us expand our offerings
  • Because the lower levels aren’t listening
  • Because they’re the real decision-makers
  • Because we’re getting nudged/pressured/pushed to have more “eminence” by our colleagues
  • All of the above
  • None of the above

The answer that reflects the most trustworthy approach is … drumroll … none of the above.

Think about it: every other option is actually a demonstration of high self-orientation—sometimes sneakily-so. In other words, it’s you wanting something for your benefit, not for theirs. The same is true when it comes to go-arounds.

Going a little deeper, consider what’s often at the source of (and problematic about) each of these motives:

The Why The Source What’s Problematic
So we can show them our capabilities ·      The desire to be heard, which is often far greater than our desire to listen

·      Ego needs

·      A firm norm/assumption that this is the right thing to do

You’re leading with what matters to you, not them.


You become a hammer searching for a nail.

Because <insert competitor name> is in there ·      The desire to win/gain power <Competitor name> might be doing really well by your client. If you’re a true trusted advisor, you’ll celebrate that (gasp!).
To show them we’re better than the competition ·      The desire to win/gain power

·      Ego needs

If they’re happy with their current provider, they’re not going to believe you’re better. And you won’t convince them that you’re better by talking at them about your capabilities.
To secure a champion to help us expand our offerings ·      The desire to win/gain power While you care about expanding your offerings, it is highly unlikely that your client cares one iota about expanding your offerings. Leading with your desire to gain more share of the account/market because that’s what your annual goals state (for example) is all about you. Your needs aren’t their problem.
Because the lower levels aren’t listening ·      Avoiding rejection/embarrassment

·      Avoiding what might be hard work to improve these relationships

It’s possible they’re not listening because you’re not being effective, or because they don’t trust you—a go-around therefore doesn’t address the real issue(s), and might even exasperate things. Imagine if someone tried to go around you.
Because they’re the real decision-makers ·      The desire to win/gain power

·      Ego needs

Decisions are often left to—or strongly influenced by—those very people you are trying to go around. So the “go-around” could backfire, because the decision-maker and those in the client organization at your level are both annoyed.
Because we’re getting nudged/pressured/pushed to have more “eminence” by our colleagues ·      Avoiding rejection/embarrassment

·      Ego needs

This is a you-centric motive, not a client-centric motive. And it’s an internal issue to address, not a client issue to address.


If some of what’s in the table above seems harsh, well … our language may be too strong to apply to you. Or maybe not. Consider that you can be a well-meaning person of high integrity who likely still falls prey to some variation of what we’ve sketched out simply because you’re a card-carrying member of the human race. The mindsets we describe are actually common, and we’ve heard them from many humans.

Also consider that, in general, everyone’s first “why”—in other words, your rational reason for a go-around—is almost always wrong.

So, what are some good reasons for a go-around?

We brainstormed, and so far we have come up with only one clear, unambiguous reason:

The project, organization, or CXO her/himself is at serious risk—either because the lower-level person is incompetent or is sabotaging (perhaps consciously, perhaps not).

That’s it.

If your situation meets the criterion above, read the next paragraph. If not, jump two paragraphs down.

How do you go-around skillfully?

We came up with at least three best practices:

  1. Talk to people inside your firm about your plans so that you understand how other firm relationships with the client will be affected. You need a full understanding of just how much risk the go-around implies. The stakes could be high. A go-around that backfires, and upsets the CXO enough to call the firm’s relationship into question, could be very costly. Buy-in from your colleagues is worth seeking.
  2. Be transparent with the person you’re going around, either before the go-around, or immediately after, with one exception. The exception: if the person is a “bad actor”—i.e. someone whom you truly believe, based on evidence, is likely to act in an unethical way.
  3. Name It and Claim it with the CXO. Use caveats to show your sensitivity to the situation. Acknowledge that you’re taking this risk because you wholeheartedly believe it’s in her/his best interests, rather than yours. Let it be known that you’ve been (or will be) transparent with the person you’ve just gone-around. In other words, handle it with an “all cards on the table” kind of approach that belies your own sensitivity and vulnerability in the matter.

What are some viable alternatives to a go-around?

We brainstormed this, too, and came up with two for starters. Note they are not mutually exclusive:

  • Take yourself out of it. If a relationship with “the boss” is the right thing to pursue for the right reasons, but your current relationship(s) are creating a barrier, then look for someone else in your firm who could work that C-level relationship instead of you. If it’s really about what’s best for the client, then you, personally, are not all that important.
  • Work the relationship with the person who seems to be gatekeeping. This may be the hardest of all the options—maybe even harder than the go-around. Dare to put the gatekeeping issue on the table. Find out why she or he is hesitant or concerned or just plain obstructive. What’s missing in your relationship? In what ways might you not seem trustworthy enough for that person to take a risk on you? An honest dialogue could open many doors wide—including the one leading you directly to the executive. You might also discover ways to make the gatekeeper look good for being the one to bring you in to the CXO.

Now you have the Hirsch and Howe point of view on the matter. And now you know why we couldn’t adequately answer the question in the two minutes that we had on the webinar. It’s complex, with a lot of nuance, and requiring masterful mindsets as well as skill sets.

Kind of like the nature of trust.

Stop Worrying About Closing the Sale

You’ve heard the admonition “Always Be Closing.” Should you worry about it? For some of you, the answer may be ‘yes.’ But for many more – fuggedaboutit.

Here’s the truth: in some businesses, “closing” is a relevant art. Those businesses are typically highly transactional in nature (e.g. car sales), discretionary and small ticket price (cosmetics), or simple in nature (vegetable peelers). And even then (in the case of car sales), a great many of customers resent being “closed.”

But what about you? Does your business seek repeat customers? Are your benefits largely intangible? Do customer/client relationships matter? Is your ticket price higher? Is your product or service somewhat complex?

In those cases, “closing” is a dinosaur concept. You should distance yourself from it as far as possible.

Think about it. When was the last time you “closed a sale?” What’s your success rate in “closing” sales? Better yet, when was the last time someone tried to “close” you? Did it work? Was it a positive experience?

Here’s a guess at your answer. For a significant percentage of your sales, it’s hard to identify where “closing” happened – the decision just got made – or didn’t. When you do try to close, you often feel uncomfortable; worse yet, more often than not, it doesn’t work. When someone tries to “close” you, it generally doesn’t work–and when it does, you often buy despite the seller’s close, rather than because of it.

If that sounds familiar, you’re not alone. The business development role in those kinds of businesses is antithetical to “closing” as commonly understood.

You don’t need to get better at closing. You need to stop doing it.

The Cult of Closing

The concept of closing probably goes back centuries. Think of itinerant peddlers, carnival barkers, open-air markets. You can hear closing “lines” being practiced today on infomercials and in street fairs (not to mention automobile dealerships). Done well (think Ron Popeil), they’re part of the entertainment of buying.

By the early part of the twentieth century, the concept had gone mainstream. The concept of “always be closing” was taught in the well-regarded Xerox Sales approach and many others.

It lives on today. Here’s what Amazon’s search algorithm produces when the word “sales” is linked to a related term:

Sales 421,684

Sales price 80,996

Sales leads 26,337

Sales close 17,336

Sales meeting 15,201

Sales buyer 12,206

Sales pitch 11,688

Sales presentation 4,610

Clearly, the idea of “closing” is alive and well in sales. But that doesn’t mean it’s right for you. The higher your average sale price, the more complex the sale is, the more relationship-driven it is, and the longer it takes – the less “closing” is likely to help you.

What Closing Is

Did you ever notice that all sales approaches seem to use arrow diagrams? It’s because they conceive of sales as a process that is linear and rational.

Here is typical language, taken from an 8-step version of a product sales process model:

The sales person checks that, if they can meet the specification, then the customer will give them the sale (‘If I…would you…’ trial close). After dealing with any objections, the target solution is presented:

  • Show features that meet customer needs (in priority order).
  • Show additional advantages.
  • Describe benefits that the customer is really buying.
  • Explain how it works (but don’t over do it!).
  • Confirm that they are comfortable with all of this.

The customer now makes the final selection of the product to meet their specification and criteria and hence solve their problems.

The sales person summarizes benefits (Summary Close), asks for the sale (using their favorite close), discusses any logistics detail and reassures the customer that they have made a good decision.

There are two critical assumptions buried in this approach:

  1. The purpose is to get the transactional sale
  2. Buying is a sub-category of rational decision-making.

These assumptions are what make you as a professional squirm in your seat when trying to “close” a real-life professional services client.

Motives Matter

Why do (most) automobile salespeople try to close you?

  1. To qualify you as a lead, so they can focus on likely-to-buy customers.
  2. Because if you walk out the door, you probably won’t come back.
  3. Because they feel you need that little “push” to make a decision.

The first reason is all about them, not you; they come across as selfish and manipulative.

The second is only a disguised version of the first.

The third infantilizes you, the buyer; fine for the emotionally needy, but not for most competent buyers.

Of all the components of trust, the most important is low self-orientation. Think of low self-orientation as client focus for the sake of the client, not for the sake of the seller. Most client focus is the client focus of a vulture; when we find someone who actually seems to care about us as an end, not as a means, we are positively inclined to trust them.

This is the first major problem with closing: it is inherently seller-oriented. It is all about this transaction, here-now. It casts the buyer in the role of means to the seller’s ends. It makes the customer an object.

It’s bad enough when you’re buying a car. How much worse is self-orientation when you’re an accountant talking to a CFO? A publicist talking to an artist? A consultant talking to a CIO?

Motives matter. Closing is an inherently selfish perspective. To close is to put your needs ahead of the client’s. That doesn’t work.

How Clients Buy

The other assumption buried in “closing” is the belief that buying is about rational decision-making. (Ironically, the old-time closing techniques stay purely emotional–see infomercials for an example; the rational add-on is one from modern corporate sales models).

If they haven’t bought, so the logic goes, there must be a reason. If I can uncover the reason, I will remove the blockage to their buying. Repeated attempts to close (the ABC rule, Always Be Closing) make sense based on this logic.

But it’s not quite right. As Jeffrey Gitomer puts it, “the buying decision is made emotionally, and justified rationally.” Lawyers, consultants and accountants think this doesn’t apply to their clients, but it most often does.

In almost all cases, you know more about your service offering than the client does. That’s why they’re buying from you. But they don’t want to become experts in your area of expertise–instead, they want to find an expert they can trust. Their need is not to make a rational decision–their need is to feel comfortable with a rational decision they have to make.

Unfortunately, the “closing” model plays right into three of the largest problems professionals have:

  1. We talk too much about ourselves.
  2. We talk too much about our product or service offering.
  3. We push too fast to move to action steps.

When buyers buy, it isn’t because their objections have been met, or they have been persuaded by rational arguments. It’s because they’ve gotten comfortable with the decision. If they come to feel they trust you–that you have their interests at heart, you understand their concerns, you can be relied on, you will have a commitment to dealing rightly with the inevitable unforeseen circumstances–then they will hire you.

In Place of Closing

The very concept of “closing” is misplaced in professional services. It presumes a transactional, seller-centric, linear, rational model of decision-making about a product or service. Instead, what is needed is a client-centric model of arriving at a level of trust in the seller.

What does that look like? Probably a lot like what you do when you’re successful:

  1. A focus on the relationship, not the transaction
  2. Ample selling that applies competence to the problem itself, rather than talking about qualifications (I call it Selling by Doing, not Selling by Telling)
  3. A lot of listening–open-ended, plain old, paying attention for its own sake
  4. Envisioning–helping the client envision an alternative view of reality, in rich detail.

As always, with trust, there is a paradox. If you stop closing, you’ll close more deals. But only if you do it for the client’s sake. You actually have to care about the client.


An earlier version of this post appeared in RainToday 

Deposits and Withdrawals at the Trust Bank

I’m going back and re-reading Chris Brogan and Julien Smith’s excellent new book Trust Agents.  At #25 on Amazon’s sales ranking, it’s “only” at 425 tonight. Look for a review upcoming on the book from this blog.

One of (many) points it re-emphasized for me was the nature of trust value creation.

How often have you said something like, “I can’t ask that question, or discuss that topic, or have that conversation—we haven’t established enough of a trust relationship yet.”

Maybe you think of trust in the way you think of deposits at the bank: you need to make enough deposits before you can make withdrawals.

But trust relationships only follow that metaphor up to a point. Trust is, after all, a relationship; it takes two to tango. One-sided “deposits” don’t build a relationship–they make a relationship uncomfortable.

If all you do is do favors for someone, you don’t create trust—you create guilt. In order for trusted relationships to work, you need to allow the other party to discharge some of the accumulated obligations that you create by being trustworthy and trusted.

If you allow the other party to do you favors—to trust you in turn—you actually deepen the relationship. Asking someone a favor—far from drawing down on deposits at the trust bank—actually builds the net trust between you.

It’s an issue of balance between deposits and withdrawals, and of activity in the account. If the balance between deposits and withdrawals is roughly equal, that’s good; gross imbalance is not good. And the level of activity has to be maintained; a stagnant account negates all the deposits.

Yes, it’s good to make “deposits” in the “trust bank.” But withdrawals are equally important. All trust “accounts” are truly joint accounts. Both parties have access to it, and both parties must play their roles.

If they do, then double-entry bookkeeping does not apply to trust accounts. Some other law of multiplicative value applies.

The trust bank operates by those multiplicative laws.

Selling Without Making Buyers Feel Sold (Part 1 of 2)


(This post was originally published in

One obvious purpose of selling is to persuade buyers to buy what you are selling. Most people have no trouble agreeing to that proposition.

Yet the harder you try to get people to do what you want them to do, the more likely they are to push back, resist, and generally behave contrarily.

Again, I think most people would agree.

Put those two statements together, and we can easily see selling as an ongoing struggle to get people to do what we want without making them feel that we are trying to get them to do what we want. Selling has at its heart a struggle to reconcile these two truths. You want to sell. They don’t want to be sold.

When two truths collide, one tends to lose, or they both tend to get watered down. But the way out is not to give up one goal (to sell) or the other (to not cause the feeling of being sold); it is to fully recognize both and transcend the apparent paradox.

It can be done. Here’s how.

The Tension Between Sellers and Customers

This paradox is hardly new. Sellers have palpably felt since time immemorial the tension to selling. Most sellers resolve the tension by one of three strategies:

  1. Defaulting to Truth One: hard selling 24-7 to anyone who comes within feeding range
  2. Defaulting to Truth Two: being nice and giving away money, relying on the hope that guilt will induce a sale
  3. Living With It: internalizing some form of denial, schizophrenia, or multiple personalities.

But there is another way.

The Other Way to Sell: Time, Gifts, and Trust

People resist being sold. But people love receiving gifts. In fact, receiving a gift induces a sense of obligation on the part of the recipient. Which suggests a strategy of "feels like" gift-giving might be the best form of selling.

For services businesses, there is an analogue to gifts—it’s what’s called sample selling in product businesses. Sample selling in the services might mean brainstorming, a small project, a "lunch and learn," a webinar, a series of articles, a series of conversations for which you don’t bill time, or sharing of some previous work.

Sample selling works even better in intangible services than in businesses that have "hard" products. The best way for a client to learn how to work with you is to let the client work with you. Create a sample experience.

But that’s only half the problem. The other half: if you set out to give a gift with the express intent of inducing guilt-based buying, you’ll get the reverse—outraged backlash at what is perceived as bait and switch, duplicity, two-facedness.

A gift has two features: it is open-ended, and it implies an ongoing relationship. (Think of Don Corleone in the movie The Godfather: "Perhaps, sometime in the future, and that time may never come, I will call upon you for a favor.") It is non-specific. It is not legally or logically binding, but it carries huge emotional obligation.

When we try to use the language of the market: "If you give me this, I will give you that" or "If you do this for me, I will do that for you," things change. That is the language of a contract, of money, of transactions.
The trick is for the seller to give up attachment to the specific short-term outcome of a particular gift to a particular buyer in a particular timeframe. The seller needs to give a sample as a gift, a generally social-obligating offer, not as a hard-obligating transaction.

Applied to selling, this means a strategy of loosely controlled sample selling is far more powerful than a tightly controlled strategy of transactions.

In simple terms, if you’re generous as a policy to a sensible group of people in the short term, many of them will buy in the long term.

Part 2, tomorrow: Why this kind of selling is so hard; how to do it; the paradox of great selling.

Buying Decisions: Stepping on the Value Scale

The phone’s not ringing.

The deal’s not closing.

What went wrong?

If you’re in a selling role for any period of time, you know the feeling of an opportunity slipping away.

We’re inclined to accept the client’s explanation at face value or write our own stories about why we’re losing the deal.

We were too high. The competition had a capability we didn’t. The timing wasn’t right.

Often times, we know in our gut that these are only part of the story. We often accept these as answers because they are concrete, tangible or quantifiable; we can package them and tie them in a bow – they are clean.

The truth is often messy, intangible and more personal; which is why the client is reluctant to share them with you.

So–what really did go wrong?

What if we take a 30,000 foot view of a simple question: what’s the role of the seller?

a. Make a sale?
b. Provide a ROI for the client?
c. Reduce Costs?
d. Improve efficiency?
e. Meet customer needs?

Yes, yes and yes. But the common thread woven through all of these reasonable responses is … to create value.

Neil Rackham, author of Re-thinking the Sales Force and SPIN Selling summarized his years of research: “The only single ‘truth’ that seems to be holding true for all sales forces is that they have to create value for customers if they are to be successful. Just communicating the value inherent in their products isn’t enough.”

But–what is value? How do we measure it, and what is its impact on sales revenue and profitability?

Let’s remember a simple formula: Benefits – Costs =Value

We tend to think of costs synonymous with the price we charge–for example – $1,250 plus tax – while disregarding the costs of the “hassle factor." Likewise, we tend to think of benefits as things that help the customer close a needs gap–improve efficiency, reduce costs, increase customer satisfaction. We discount a critical but less apparent value, i.e. – the way we engage with the client prior to actually making the sale – the process.

The hassle factor on the cost side, and the engagement process on the benefits side can significantly tip the scale in either direction. And your perceived trustworthiness has a lot to do with the balance of the scales.

Read the full article here.


The Etiquette of Selling

There is such a thing as etiquette.  It isn’t just about Emily Post and table settings, either. 

Etiquette is the rules of the Game of Association Between People.  All people, everywhere. And while not all the rules are written, you violate them at your risk.

One of those rules is that intimacy has a pace and a sequence.  Some things are done only after other things, and usually with a certain elapsed time. 

I know you’re thinking of romantic relationships at this point, and that’s fine; it’s a pretty good case in point.  Some things you don’t say or do until other things are said or done.

We forget that exactly the same rules apply in sales.  Which is precisely the point made by Michael Holt, CEO of the design firm gardyneHOLT in Auckland, New Zealand in the following email he shared with me. 

Michael met a financial planner at an Expat Show in Shanghai.  He spoke for perhaps 15 seconds with the person—let’s call him Joe Planner–and exchanged business cards.  He later received a letter from Joe.  Here is Michael’s reaction:

Hello Joe Planner,

Thanks for your email and I did look at your site. Very comprehensive, although I must say, I am usually put off by obvious stock photography rather than real images of your firm, your people, your office, your clients.  I feel that stock images are trying to hide something.

However, in response to your email, you say that you "remember that we spoke about ways to help me save."  Umm… no we didn’t, Joe. I’m sure that your email is a form letter and you’ve just put it out to me along with many other people.  Do you think that you can build a relationship with me, in offering a customized and tailored service… by commencing with a form letter? Do you think I’ll feel that you’ve given me any more thought than entering me into your sales follow up database?

Can you think of something more critically important to me that my future financial well-being, and yet you want me to trust you with that when you have an incorrect recollection of our opening conversation?  Of course I understand that you’ll have met many people at that event, but why state then that you remember our topic of conversation when you don’t?

I feel that you are following up to a pile of received business cards, including mine, and you’re being a good sales guy by doing the numbers game work. That’s fine and perfectly normal… for a commoditized and process-driven business process.  Except of course, that I’m a person, and not a box.

As it happens, I have a complex set of financial arrangements centering around establishing branches of my firm in 2 countries overseas right now, and where I’ll be living with my family from next year.  All this amidst global financial insecurity.  I’m looking for a partner and advisor that treats me with respect, that asks more than it sells/tells and that doesn’t insult my intelligence with form letters.

Best of luck,

Michael Holt

Michael is simply voicing what we all know as customers.  There is a law of etiquette in sales. Some things you don’t say or do until other things are said or done.

Joe didn’t follow the law of etiquette in sales.  In return he received the predictable consequence–in this case voiced by Michael.

I think Michael said it pretty well.
(BTW, he tells me he didn’t hear back from Joe Planner.)  

Why Testimonials Are Over – Rated in Sales

How would you like to have Stephen R. Covey write a glowing book-jacket quote about you and your business?

What a great testimonial, right? Covey’s book The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People has sold 5 million copies since it’s copyright date of 1989. It is still—still—ranked number #85 on Amazon’s total rankings (including Harry Potter, etc.), and #1 in several sub-categories.

So a referral from Covey ought to be worth a ton. And by extension, references in general ought to be valuable, right?

Well, yes and no. And as usual, the no is more instructive than the yes.

Take the case of a new sales book: Sales Blazers, by Mark Cook. Right there on the cover, it says, “Sales Blazers is one of the most important books you will ever read.” –from the foreword by Stephen R. Covey.

"One of the most important books you’ll ever read. " That’s what Covey says, to you and to me, right there on the cover.

Now I don’t know about you—your reactions could be different than mine, to be sure—but for me, when someone tells me, flat-out, in a mass media outlet, that he knows what I will believe to be the “most important” anything in the world—watch out. That’s a red flag. I am already suspicious.

Now I’m thinking, ‘how dare you claim to know what’s important to me—much less “most important?”’ This is like TV ads that address me in the second-person singular as “America.” (“America, we know you love sports. That’s why we created pocket couch potato…”)

Lesson one about testimonials: all the testifier’s fame is put at risk if the testifier claims knowledge he doesn’t have—in this case, knowledge about me.

So now I’m predisposed to be suspicious when I check out the book. I note in the foreword that the author used to work for Covey’s son, at Covey’s company in Salt Lake City. Self-interest rears its ugly head like Putin flying over Alaska. Is this going to be an objective review? Cui bono?

I check out the (three) online reviews on Amazon. The first two are by people living in Salt Lake City. What a coincidence. (And, surprise, they’re positive).

Now I’m ticked off before I open the cover.

When I finally look at the book, it’s all about how leadership can improve revenue for a sales team.

OK, fair enough. I believe that. And I see the link between leadership and team performance. I also believe Covey knows something about that, so now he’s regaining a little credibility with me.

But as I read on, I notice the book is all about selling and revenue and achieving sales goals. Nothing about customers.

I mean nothing! I go to the index. There are 2 entries on “competitor,” and about 13 on "rewards". But “customer?” Not a one.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with leadership, revenue goals, or sales success. They’re all very relevant to sales, obviously. A book about it is perfectly valid.

But in my case—me, personally—I happen to believe very strongly that sales should be ultimately all about the customer. I mean by that—the end goal, purpose, meaning and intent of sales—is to improve life for the customer; and that if you do that, you too will succeed wildly in selling.

You don’t have to agree with my view on that, nor do Covey and Cook (and evidently they don’t).

But—if you’re going to tell me, in a mass medium, what I, me, personally, am going to consider one of the most important books I’ll ever read—then you’d better be right.

And in my case, he was wrong.

This looks like a decent book on leadership and sales force management. Is it "one of the most important books I’ll ever read?" No way, no how, not even in the ballpark with a ten-mile pole, not a chance, you-gotta-be-koidding me.

And that’s the trouble with testimonials.

If you’re asked to give a testimonial, restrict yourself to statements in the first person. If you solicit one, don’t over-estimate the impact.

But—the heck with you Charlie, you might say—’Is it working?’

See for yourself at Amazon’s ranking: At this writing, it was ranked #298,332.

For comparison, see the Top 100 sales books on Amazon, where the #100 sales book is currently ranked #27,000. Not even close.

Don’t over-estimate the power of testimonials.

And don’t squander your own precious credibility by claiming to know the customer when you don’t. A reputation is a terrible thing to waste.



Why Laughter Might Win the Proposal

Quick: in your sales and internal presentations, do you use too much humor? Or not enough?

Your first reaction may be, “probably not enough. Then again,” you might think, “ I’m not too great at jokes—and the last thing I want is to have some lame attempt at humor fall flat. My clients are serious about their business, and I wouldn’t want them thinking I was being cavalier about it.”

That reaction puts you square in the middle of most presenters I’ve seen. The claim that “business is serious” masks a deeper truth—what if I fail? And heaven forbid we fail.

So we take the low-risk route.

Result: pandemic boredom.

Enter author Adrian Gostick and humorist Scott Christopher, in their new book The Levity Effect  They argue that:

Some salespeople mistakenly worry…that humor dilutes their message, makes it less urgent and torpedoes credibility. Nothing could be further than the truth. Sending a message with levity demonstrates a clear understanding of the principles of effective communication. It also shows the audience you value their time enough to want to entertain and connect with them and make it worth their while.

They give the delightful counter-example of Linda Kaplan Thaler, CEO Kaplan Thaler agency, who was pitching Panasonic about a shaving product.

As the business meeting began, Kaplan Thaler and her team sat around a conference table with the executives… The Panasonic brass was expecting a formal presentation, but instead Kaplan Thaler smiled and said, “Pretend I’m one of the guys.” Then she proceeded to sing, “Shaving sucks, shaving sucks, like a Band-Aid getting stuck, why does half the human race tear the hair out of their face …”

After sitting through days of drab pitches, the executives were very quickly snorting and hooting in appreciation of the zany song.

“They loved it, and we got the business. They said, ‘You didn’t have the best strategy, but you had the most entertaining way to do it. So we figured you guys are going to be a lot of fun and more entertaining to work with.’”

Next time your firm does a win-loss analysis, include three variables on the survey:

a. Did the winner, whomever it was, have the lowest bid?
b. Did the winners rate higher on relationship, or on value?
c. Did the winner seem more fun to work with?

(Probable answers:  a. no;  b. relationship;   c. yes)

Are you Hard Selling or Wrong Selling?

“Sell” is a four letter word to most customers. And, less consciously, to most sellers as well. It is not an easy thing to pursue a profession that the dictionary—which after all simply documents what people really mean by a word—pronounces as mean-spirited.

Consider these entries and examples in the dictionary definition of “sell”:

· Sell out
· Hard sell
· Cheat, hoax
· To be employed to persuade or induce others to buy
· To force or exact a price for
· To accept a price for or make a profit of (something not a proper object for such action):
· Sell down the river
· Sell (someone) a Bill of Goods

Common to all those definitions is the root reason people find ethical issues with selling—the absence of a relationship context.

If you’re Robin Crusoe on a desert island, you can be said to live in a non-ethical environment (leaving aside animal rights activists and strict vegetarians for the moment). You cannot behave unethically if there is no relationship to an Other to be violated.

There are more than a few echoes of non-relationship thinking in sales: you can find it in people who define sales as “the fine art of separating the customer from his wallet.” You can also find it in technocratic, process-driven approaches to selling; they have sucked the soul out of sales by removing the relationship component entirely and replaced it with metrics and motivational incentives.

Such approaches go well beyond garden variety “immoral” sales behavior. If I know I’m tricking you, I may feel guilty, or not—but I know enough to pretend otherwise in most situations, I know enough not to admit it to certain people—I know I’m violating a serious social norm by cheating or hustling my fellow man. I am still rooted in relationships, even if I choose to violate them.

It’s completely non-relationship based selling that is non-ethical, or unethical. Those approaches treat the customer as Robinson Crusoe might treat a coconut—perhaps essential to his existence, but with no meaning beyond the nurturance of Crusoe himself. The customer as fodder, or as poker chips.

As the late Herman Kahn of the Hudson Institute once said in typically outrageous fashion, “There’s nothing wrong with killing a million people; what’s wrong is killing them without thinking about it.” If you can stand his exegesis, the man had a point.

When selling is decoupled from human affairs, it is desensitized, sanitized, de-humanized; and it becomes an awful thing. The crucial human point of commercial contact—the sale—becomes an occasion simply for extraction of monetary value.

There is danger in over-metricizing process. There is danger in over-using terms like “human capital” which dehumanize humans. There is danger in the perversion of terms like “loyalty” and “relationships” into statistical detritus. There is danger in thinking that physicalist “explanations” like today’s neuro-noun buzzword are somehow more “real” than poetry.

There’s nothing wrong with hard sell. What’s wrong is wrong-sell, done without thinking. And selling without relationships is wrong-sell.

Buy With the Heart, Justify With the Brain

People buy with the heart, and justify their decision with the brain.

I’m not the only one to make that claim (for another, try Jeffrey Gitomer).

People in “sophisticated” businesses—information technology, Wall Street, law, accounting, consulting—tend not to believe it.  They think business people make business buying decisions in a rational, deductive, linear, data-based, cost-benefits kind of a process.

These people are sellers and buyers of sophisticated sales management and sales training systems.  Their models are variations on “consult with a customer to find a need, get the customer to articulate it, package a solution, and show the customer how the solution fills the need.”

Fine, except it assumes:

a. The buyer can articulate the need
b. The buyer is willing to articulate the need.

Frequently, neither is true.  I recall (can someone help me out on this?) a study of relocations of corporate headquarters, identifying how many moved the HQ closer to the chairman’s home, vs. how many moved it further away.  Care to guess the outcome?

Educated people in powerful businesses (oil, investment banking, capital equipment) will generally tell you they make decisions based on the rational model described above.

Here is a delightful counter-example from a few years ago about an oil industry executive, making an important personal purchase decision—how to select a high-end, bespoke English tailor, courtesy of Thomas Mahon’s blog English Cut:

It’s funny how things from the past can do two things- (A) come back and haunt you, or (B) come back and help you.

Last week I measured up a new customer, who has a senior position with one of the largest and most successful oil companies in the world. He was a very charming fellow who only knew about me through reading English Cut.

He chose me not just because he felt I could give him true bespoke (which I certainly hope I can), but the deciding factor was that he is originally a Cumberland native, like myself. So that put his mind at rest. People go with who they know.

As we were discussing the final cloth choices on his two suits, we stood by the window looking out onto sunlit Savile Row and Anderson & Sheppard’s old premises. When my customer told me which line of business he was in, I remarked that when I as working at A&S I used to cut for the chairman of his company, in other words, his boss.

He than stood back in astonishment. I didn’t know if this meant he thought his boss was the best dressed man on the planet, or the worst, so I was fairly nervous there for a moment.

But then he told me the story. When he first started working with the chairman several years ago, he was in a business meeting on a private jet somewhere over the Atlantic. When my customer had finished discussing some business details, the chairman leaned over the table, took off his glasses and said, referring to his accent, “You sound just like my tailor.”

So be nice to everybody. You never know who may be talking about you.

The customer’s original “deciding factor” was the geographic origin of the tailor—a connection with his own.

The punch line, from which we conclude the tailor had a customer for life, was that the customer’s boss had also hired the tailor.

You come from my part of the world, and my boss uses you.  Sold.

Lesson 1. You won’t find that one in a standard sales process model.

Lesson 2. You can’t build that one into a standard sales process model.

Lesson 3. What you can do is what Aristotle pointed out: character is a habit.  Be nice, competent and of service to everyone—as a habit.  Then when the uncontrollable comes around, you’ve got a reference.