The Power of I’m Sorry: the Four R’s of a Trustworthy Apology

Do you remember the last time you felt like you deserved an apology but didn’t get one?  Maybe…

  • The waiter forgot about your table
  • They shipped you the wrong product
  • Your significant other embarrassed you in a group setting

Fill in your own blank.   What impact did that have on your level of trust?

As sure as death and taxes, we will mess up.  How we respond, regardless of fault, can have a monumental effect on our relationships, yet apologizing is rarely discussed in business development circles.  

I recall an audience member asking a sales trainer, “What do we do when we make a mistake”?  The trainer responded, “Be careful about apologizing.   If you admit to the mistake, you could have legal liabilities”.  While technically correct, that advice somehow didn’t feel right to me.

Shifts in thinking on this topic appear hopeful.  Even state governments, hospitals and insurance companies have abandoned legal posturing in favor of an apology approach.  “I’m sorry” legislation has been approved in 29 states and is gaining momentum.  To reduce the risk of litigation, New Jersey recently started the Sorry Works! Coalition.

Gaffes, slip-ups, and blunders present a fork in the road to relationship depth.  The proper apology, even in the most egregious circumstances, has the ability to strengthen relationships.   Even seemingly insignificant faux pas like arriving late for a meeting, mispronouncing someone’s name, or failing to include someone, present a moment of truth to building trust. 

We’re a “fix it” society.   Somehow, we convince ourselves that if we just correct the problem – without an apology – we’re back to our original balance in the trust bank account.  That’s a myth. 

So how do we build a worthy apology?

Experts like Aaron Lazare and Nick Smith, in their book On Apology, point to four essential parts of the apology, and we can remember them as the 4 R’s: Recognition, Responsibility, Remorse, and Reparation.

1.    Recognize – First, the offender must show they recognize their misbehavior by restating the offense as objectively and specifically as possible.   Repeating what happened and why will show that the offender understands not only where and how they went wrong, but why the offended is hurt.  Be direct, i.e., "I apologize for whatever I did to hurt you" won’t cut it!

2.    Responsibility – Second, the offender must accept responsibility for the action that caused offense.   No excuses here!  He can’t blame the beer or the bad mood.   The apology is all about THEM and how they feel.   It doesn’t matter if the actions were intentional or not, the end result is the same.

3.    Remorse – Third, the apology must show, sincerely, remorse for the misbehavior. Sincerity can’t be faked: we know it when we hear it.  We’ve all heard non-apology apologies.   Include a statement of apology along with a promise not to repeat the behavior.  Remember Don Imus (see  Imussed Up: Anatomy of a Failed Apology)?

4.    Reparation -The fourth essential component may be the trickiest: reparation. The offender has to give something back, atone in some way for his offense. This is easily said, but hard to do. How, indeed, do we mend a broken heart?

“The apology represents a common frailty –we are all human, we all make mistakes, perhaps even hurt someone, intentionally or not, then face the dilemma of where to go from there?” states Susan Morrison Hebble.  “For starters, the offender needs to listen, openly and earnestly.  They need to hear what the person has to say; let them talk; let them suggest what might be done to restore harmony to the relationship”. 

As Martha Beck writes, "The knowledge that one is heard and valued has incredible healing power; it can mend even seemingly irreparable wounds."

Here’s a hard truth: we must first admit that our own pride poses the biggest obstacle to apologizing.   I would propose, then, that the apology requires us to shift our focus from ourselves–our own discomfort, our own embarrassment, our own sense of guilt–to the person or people we’ve offended–his hurt, his sense of betrayal.   It requires us to act selflessly rather than selfishly. 

It is a daunting task, one that forces us to look at ourselves, at our own flaws, and then look beyond them to the person we’ve hurt.  But anyone who has offered up a real, solid, true apology will attest that in doing so they released themselves from the very pain, discomfort, and shame they’d been avoiding all along!

The 4 R’s aren’t rocket science, yet like most risk – reward propositions, they take practice.

Who do you need to apologize to? 

When You Can’t Trust Your Leadership

In my corporate seminars, I often hear the following:

Love the trust stuff, Charlie, but I can’t take that risk in this organization. Leadership talks a good game, but I don’t always believe them. People have been burned for taking risks around here.

Before I can risk trusting them—how can I assess the risk? How do I know I can trust them?

First, I’ve seen several cases where leadership was genuinely asking people to do right—best long-term, transparent, customer-focused—and the employees were cynical. It wasn’t a leadership problem, but a followership problem.

But never mind: let’s assume your leaders really are not all that trustworthy. What is to be done?

In fact, this is no different from any other trust situation. If both parties sniff around each other, waiting to see who’ll take the first risk, operating from fear and a scarcity mentality—that organization will stay mired in mistrust.

Trust, like tango, takes two. One to trust, another to be trusted. And the roles can flip. It’s often true that “the best way to make a man trustworthy is to trust him.”

That suggests: if your boss isn’t trustworthy—trust him. Don’t look for a risk management mitigation metric—dive in and trust him.  Embrace the paradox.

This actually works–more often than you might think.  Because most human beings, including most businesspeople, respond favorably to being trusted. They reciprocate. The more genuine the gesture, the more reciprocation.

This feels risky. But despite what Ronald Reagan implied, (trust but verify), there is no trust without risk. The risk taken is what drives the risk reciprocated. Fake-trusting, hedging your bets, installing your safety nets, just inflames the situation.

If you still can’t stomach trusting your untrustworthy boss, then think of it this way. If you avoid your boss–avoid constructively confronting untrustworthy behavior–then you are tacitly accepting it. If you do nothing to mitigate it, you inflame it. Because mistrust is also like tango in taking two: a non-trustworthy person, and someone who avoids confronting him.

If you tolerate untrustworthy behavior, you harm your organization. Which means you are acting against the best interests of your organization. Which means you are as culpable as your boss.

I think this is largely right. Leaders are not solely responsible for trustworthy behavior. Followers have an equal obligation. Their job is to demand trustworthiness, and call it out when it’s not delivered.

A great many leaders would be appalled to find out how feared they really are.  They simply do not have an idea of the effect they are having, and do not intend the results that are resulting.    If told the truth, many of them them would gladly change.

So, who will tell them the simple truth–"Here’s what people are saying.  About you.  And I don’t believe you intend this.  Let’s talk. "  

Try it.  You just might be surprised.

Operating Transparently

The article Is Transparency Always the Best Policy? appears this week in The article is about Paul Levy, President and CEO of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, and the answer to the blog’s question, based on this sample of one, would appear to be a resounding ‘yes.’

In matters great and small, Levy has simply made it an operating practice to behave transparently. His great results may surprise many, but they make a great deal of common sense.

Transparency is one of the four Trust Principles I describe in my own work. The other three are other-focus, collaboration, and a medium-to-long term perspective. Here’s the business case for transparency.

If you are transparent about your activities, you are saying you have nothing to hide. If you have nothing to hide, then people trust what you do.

If you are transparent about what you say, then you don’t risk saying one thing to one person and another to another. You don’t appear to be two-faced; you appear to have integrity—you say the same thing to all persons. (And, it’s a lot easier to remember what you said if there’s only one version).

If you are transparent about what you think, then people can observe your thinking, and see that you are not editing what you say. They feel you are available to them, that you are not segmenting them off.

If you are not transparent in your actions, your words, and your thoughts, then people wonder about your motives. Why are you doing what you’re doing?

What is it you really mean when you say something? And what are you really thinking when you’re thinking?

Suspicion about motives colors ever aspect of trust—it affects your credibility, your perceived reliability, and the degree to which people confide in you. The antidote to a bad case of suspicion is transparency. It’s as true in the financial and regulatory world, in the world of negotiation, and in the world of accounting, as it is interpersonally.

With all the obvious advantages that transparency conveys—why aren’t we all more transparent more often?

There are a thousand answers, varying in particular, but with some common threads in general. At the root of it, I think, is fear.

Fear that others will take advantage of us. Fear that we will be misunderstood, or shamed. Fear that others will see the true inner “me” and thus steal the faux power we foolishly think we maintain by being opaque.

Transparency is both a result of lowered fear, and a cause of lowering fear. Sharing information with another encourages another to share with us. Disclosing information within a company—as Paul Levy did so frequently—begets teamwork and lowers suspicion.

The willingness to be transparent in negotiation helps the other party figure out what it is that you want—so the paradoxical result of taking a risk is that you increase the odds of getting what you want.

Transparency is an invitation to collaboration and connection. It lowers fear, it increases trust.

It feels like taking a risk, but it’s really risk-mitigation in disguise.

Operating transparently isn’t just a hospital procedure.


The Open Letter Main Street CEOs Should Write to Wall Street

Dear Wall Street CEO:

You’ve been taking it on the chin lately. On the other hand, the only CEO Obama has fired recently came from my side of town–Main Street—so maybe you’re not so bad off.

I have a proposition for you. For both of us, actually.

I, a Main Street CEO, am going to show you, Wall Street, how to create some real value out of “thin air.” I know, you think that’s your schtick, but hear me out.

From here on out, I propose to tell the truth about our earnings.

It’s that simple. We tell the truth about our earnings–warts and all. You come to believe it. You then no longer shave your estimates of our quarterly earnings, because we will no longer smooth them by moving things offsheet, or by tweaking policies from our financial subsidiaries.

Call it the “truth factor.” It really isn’t, though. It’s simply reversing the “suspicion factor” you’ve always had in place. Remember “quality of earnings?” Well, we’re going to provide the highest quality of all; not conservative accounting, but transparent accounting.

That’s the kind of financial value creation I know you understand. But let me go further—this policy is also going to create real value—as in higher productivity, lower costs, greater customer retention, high quality, better customer service—all that good stuff that actually drives business. Here’s how.

This morning, I’m going to announce company-wide that we are no longer including short-term incentives in our performance assessment plans. Here’s why.

Every sentient businessman knows that the dumbest way to run a business is to change plans every 3 months. The smartest way to run a business is to develop a long-term plan, based on long-standing business principles and policies and on core values. Then execute on it.

It is long-term plans, executed well, that produce the best short-term results—quarter after quarter after quarter.

But somehow, in my firm and nearly all others on “Main Street,” we lost track. It started out by our saying, “if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it,” and “what gets measured gets managed.” So we started measuring everything quarterly (OK, I admit–way shorter than quarterly).

Maybe we got that from you guys.

Now, it pains me to admit this, but somehow—I know, it sounds crazy—we just flat lost track of the simple idea that long-term management produces the best short-term results. And we started thinking that because we were measuring short-term, we had to manage short-term. After a while, nobody would take a 3-week risk. Or honor a 4-week deal. Or sign up for a 6-month customer plan.

Like I said, dumb. But it’s the truth. It’s what we did.

But no more. From now on, we’re managing for the long-term. That doesn’t mean we’re giving up on metrics—precise metrics are critical for all kinds of things, like trend analysis and trouble-shooting. It’s just that using them like a steel cable linking to performance pay and quarterly earnings is not going to be one of those uses.

Our CFO is going to stop focusing on quarterly numbers within and without the firm. Internally, we are going to very clearly explain the long-term basis for performance assessment and goal-setting we will be using. After that, anyone found to be rewarding behavior solely for the sake of short-term numbers will be hauled before the management committee and asked to justify it in strategic terms, or to explain, "What part of long term management for performance do you not get?"

And mark my word, our earnings will go up. Because long-term management fosters relationships, trust, continuity, efficiencies, effectiveness, scale economies, customer loyalty, and employee engagement. And that makes money the old fashioned way–by creating real value.

Externally, you and yours are going to have deal with greater earnings beta from us. The quarterlies are going to be more volatile. But we’re done interpreting numbers for you.

From now on, you have to be good enough at what you do to discern the underlying pattern and explain it (hint: it will be generally NorthEast). We’ll tell you up front our policies, and show you over time how we live up to our pledge of transparency.

So my question to you, Mr. Wall Street, is do you have the guts to play the new game? My cards are on the table, as of this morning. Where are yours?


Regulatory Policy 2.0 : The Real Meaning of Madoff

[First of a two-part Blog Post]

Madoff has been a late-night TV comedy staple for some time now. While his victims surely don’t appreciate the humor, most of use have relegated him to cafeteria conversation, alongside Lindsay Lohan and the Oscars.

That would be a big mistake.

L’affaire Madoff will dramatically affect our approach to regulation. And in this case, our first instincts—can you say, ‘Sarbanes-Oxley 2.0’—would be the worst. We need Regulatory Philosophy 2.0. Here’s why, and how.

The Latest on Madoff. The headlines this past weekend screamed one thing: Madoff Bought No Stocks for 13 Years. ‘Look how brazen he was, how could the SEC miss that, no way his sons weren’t in on it all along, etc.’

It was no surprise to readers of this blog.

On January 17, I wrote, in a blogpost titled Madoff—Investment Fund or Virtual Reality Game

It’s beginning to look like Bernie Madoff’s business model had less in common with a hedge fund or investment management firm than it did with an online virtual reality game. Sort of a Sim City for investors. The money sent in was real: everything thereafter was from Oz…
…[It] was bupkus. Virtual reality money. Sim City money. Monopoly Money. In the real world, it didn’t exist except in Bernie’s bank account and a computer program.

This was not a case of sophisticated hedge fund managers in Greenwich or rogue currency traders in Hong Kong. The SEC was not out-gunned, outsmarted, or out-manned. This was not a Danny Ocean operation.

This was as simple as a Nigerian inheritance email spam scam. Gimme your bank account number and I’ll send you money. A garden variety mugging. Like a good magician, Madoff got us to look one way, while he swapped card decks.

Overnight, this recasts the regulatory task facing the SEC. We can no longer rely on traditional regulatory philosophy: we must get personal, human, and trust-based.

Regulatory Philosophy 1.0. Regulation (and not just in the financial industry) has become driven by three models—separation, compliance, and transparency. None of them stopped Madoff—in fact, they enabled him.

Separation. Think building walls—to legally and physically separate potential co-conspirators. Think traditional anti-trust laws. Think separating accountancies and consultancies. It is a heavy-handed, expensive, and sub-optimal way to regulate.

Madoff used this to his benefit—claiming his brokerage and investment management businesses were separate because, ‘after all, they had to be.’ Therefore FINRA could claim “it wasn’t my job.” Madoff knew FINRA would make that claim; in fact, he depended on it.

Compliance. This approach turns legislation into a blizzard of administrative processes, which must be complied with. Think check-boxes, filed copies, no-later-than dates, renewal requirements. All monitored and tracked in the latest systems. This approach is less heavy-handed, but equally oppressive—and mind-numbing to boot.

Madoff used this also to his benefit. You want forms? I’ve got forms. But the data was itself bogus.

Transparency. Lawyers, financiers, mortgage brokers and credit card operators love transparency-as-panacea. Coupled with a convenient belief in efficient market theory, this enables people to blame those who didn’t read the small print (Rick Santelli, are you listening?).

Madoff used this to his benefit too—blitzing investors with day-trader-like “records” of trades (bogus). We have come to measure “transparency” by the pounds of documents “disclosed,” rather than by their truth or import.

If we focus only on outrage at Madoff and at government bureaucrats, our politicians will do what they’ve always done: legislate more structural boundaries, design more and more checkbox procedures, and require publication of more minutiae. And thus we’ll enable Madoff 2.0–even faster this time.

Regulation 2.0.  There is a better way.

It is based on a simple fact–people are human. People are good and bad, trusting and non-trusting, sometimes all at the same time. Systems don’t commit fraud, people do. In this case, one Bernard Madoff.

Yet our existing regulatory processes are entirely non-human. Walls, processes and transparency are mechanical things. Devised by people, they can be broken by people. And being inhuman–we don’t trust them.

Our existing Philosophy of Regulation does not engender trust. To trust our institutions, we have to return to a simple principle: trust is inherently human. We have taken the human part of trust out of regulation, and we’re paying the price.

Tomorrow’s BlogPost: Why we need to build regulatory policy more around personal trust.

Management is Still Fighting the Industrial Revolution

Let’s think big picture today.

Ideas lead technology. Technology leads organizations. Organizations lead institutions. Then ideology brings up the rear, lagging all the rest—that’s when things really get set in concrete.

Doubtful? Think the Catholic church.

Or, think the history of capitalism. The Industrial Revolution, depending on who’s counting, ran roughly the 19th century. As sweepingly mapped in Alfred Chandler’s classic The Visible Hand, the development of management followed the development of industry.

In his view, by 1920 the major lines were laid down. From 1920 to 1960, the theory of management basically just caught up to reality.

From the 1960s to basically today, it hasn’t changed a whole lot more, except for new approaches to strategy and process engineering. Most approaches to ‘strategy’ just quantified and clarified pre-existing notions of corporations competing for dominance against each other. The advances were incremental, in the application of sharper theories, models, metrics and data-crunching.

Today, just like in 1920, the reigning ideology of business is competitive, linear, behavioral, measurable, and quantifiable. Set financial goals. Define organizations, processes and procedures in cognitive terms. Convert all resources to financially fungible terms. Define finer and finer levels of behavioral objectives. Put financial incentives in place. Install sensors to micro-measure results. Step back and watch the machine run, tweaking the cheese rations as necessary.

What this view of business is NOT is everything that’s happening at the front of the chain—the technology-to-organization reality that drives all else.

It does not recognize cross-corporate borders, fluidity, collaboration, transparency, humanism in any serious sense, community, ethics, politics and the economics of the commons. All of which are critical business issues today.

We are stuck with a belief system rooted in the late 19th century.

Segue-way to a most interesting article by Gary Hamel in the February 2009 Harvard Business Review, titled Moon Shots for Management. Hamel, when at his best, is arguably the most creative business strategist extant; and here he is very, very good.

He reports out the results of a 2008 group brainstorming exercise aimed at nothing less than re-inventing management. From Management 1.0 to Management 2.0.

The article lists the Top Ten ideas from the group, including the following:

• Ensure the work of management serves a higher purpose
• Reconstruct management’s philosophical foundations
• Reduce fear and increase trust
• Reinvent the means of control (less compliance, more shared values)
• De-structure and dis-aggregate the organization
• Create a democracy of information.

And so on.

These are indeed Big Ideas, and it’s about time. Our old ideology is not only behind the times, not only holding us back, it is positively destroying value going forward.

We cannot afford another Sarbanes-Oxley bill to prevent the next Madoff. We cannot afford billions to simply re-capitalize Detroit. We cannot afford to teach people competitive dogma in a world that demands collaboration. And we cannot enforce ethics through processes and controls.

People like Hamel (and me, in this regard) are trying to reform ideologies. That is not easy, since the very terms of discussion are of and from the reigning ideology. How do you talk about things that people cannot conceptualize, given the tainted nature of the very language we use?  (A simple example: how to free the word ‘strategy’ from the unconsciously inferred adjective ‘competitive’)? 

Say "higher purpose" and "philosophical foundations" and you get glazed looks in most companies.  That is not a meausre of its craziness, but a measure of the power of the reigning ideology.  Copernicus sounded crazy too; but he wasn’t.

These ideas are directionally very right. I won’t say they have to come true. But I suspect Hamel would agree with me that if they don’t, we will not progress very far, if at all.


Day 5 of 5: Trust-based Business Development in a Recession: Principle 4, Transparency

This is Day 5 of 5 in our week-long series of selling in a recession using the Four Trust Principles. Today’s principle is Principle 4—make transparency your first instinct, except when being transparent is illegal or hurtful to others.

Transparency helps business development in a recession in three ways.

First, it gives information to your customers, suppliers and partners so they can generate new ideas about how to work with you—to cut costs, create new service offerings, or alter their own practices to align with your products or services.

Second, emotional transparency enables empathy—always important to selling, but especially now. Empathy deepens personal relationships, which build better business relationships. And relationships formed under times of stress are the strongest.

Finally, transparency is the antidote to suspicion. In a recession, bad behavior goes up. Buyers are more suspicious of sellers’ motives. Transparency eases their mind about the motives behind your actions, your words, and your intentions. Transparency helps your sales.

As you read through today’s suggestions list, you’ll probably notice that the main reason we don’t practice transparency is fear—fear of being taken advantage of by competitors, by employees, and by customers. Now is the time to remember the adage “the best way to make a man trustworthy is to trust him.” You receive the behavior you expect.

Try trusting your customers by being transparent.

Here are 16 ideas for improving sales in a recession by being transparent. Please add your own—on this post, and on all five of the days’ posts.

1. Once you develop your plans for addressing the recession, share your information and concerns with key customers, including how your plans could affect the relationship. This can create an intense, positive discussion.

2. If you have layoffs that affect customers, let them know immediately, together with succession plans for customer contacts. And don’t try to shut off customers from dialogue with their former contacts in your firm; give closure room to work. If you’re afraid of what the employee will say, then you have bigger problems to work on—trying to hide it will only make it worse.

3. If you come up with an approach to the economy that could help other companies—yes, even competitors—share it publicly. Be the company that cares enough about people to share the innovative ideas that could help pull us all out, or reduce the pain that individuals will bear.

4. Share your cost structure with your customers. This will eliminate any suspicions they have about your pricing. They will also appreciate your candor, and come to trust you more.

5. Don’t BS your customers about where your own company stands—financially and otherwise—because you’re afraid of looking bad or making your clients/partners worry. Tell it like it is. They can handle the truth. Leave spin control to the ordinary companies out there. When fear rules the land, truth-telling serves as an anchor to those who don’t know what to think.

6. Share personal information about your staff with potential clients. Pictures and bios make it far easier for customers to know who they’ll be working with, or who they’ll be speaking with on the phone. Human to human. It makes it all personal. If you’re holding back because search firms might poach good people, remember—in a recession there’s not a lot of hiring going on. Right now, making customers feel safer is more important than holding rare hiring raids at bay.

7. In sales conversations, compare your product or service to others. Include all relevant information—the good, the bad, and the ugly—to help your customers make informed choices. Do not even think of spinning it—you cannot spin and be transparent at the same time. Realize that some buyers will go with your competitors as a result of what you’ve shared. Deal with it. You’ll end up with more and better in the end.

8. During your next client visit, ask yourself, is there an elephant in the room? A hidden objection, a pricing concern, a weakness, a broken promise? Take the risk; do the counter-intuitive thing and say something like, “Hey, I might be way off-base about this, but if I were in your shoes, I might be wondering … Is that an issue/concern for you?” You have to unlearn some old bad habits to be transparent. But there are few faster ways to build trust.

9. Now is the time to ask for feedback from your clients. Honest feedback. Really honest feedback. Now is also the time to offer feedback for your clients. Honest feedback. Really honest feedback.

10. Tell the truth about your own emotional reality. If you’re stressed/worried/anxious … saying so will build intimacy. We’re not advocating a public panic attack; we all have to manage our emotions well during tough times. But to an extent we’re all in a similar boat right now and being real about it has its own rewards. Not the least of which is you are far more likely to get the straight scoop from your client about his/her reality, which puts you in a much better position to be of service.

11. Consider sharing information about your backlog, prospective orders, or plans as they affect vendors and suppliers. In a recession, having advance, non-binding discussions about the future is invaluable to those who sell to you. Help them, and they will help you. Clam up and refuse to discuss, and you just frustrate them. We normally avoid this kind of disclosure out of fear for losing some competitive edge. That fear is vastly over-stated, and more than compensated for by the supplier loyalty you engender by being willing to open with those who serve you.

12. Your company wants to purchase a complex piece of equipment, but it’s too expensive. Your vendor wants to sell it to you, but doesn’t know how to make it less costly based on your specs. If you are both transparent—why you need it, what it’s worth to you, what it costs them, and how they make it—then together you can find a way to make it cheaper. That’s collaboration—but what enables collaboration is transparency.

13. Share information about your product development plans. Amazon just got slammed on their own blogs for giving their customers no advance warning and no price break for the new Kindle. Amazon will do just fine, thank you, but who needs the bad publicity? Yes, that’s the industry norm in electronics—but that hardly makes it right to tick off your existing customers in a recessionary time.

14. When your client asks you a question such as, “Do you have experience in…?”, answer honestly and completely. If you aren’t right for a project, it’s ok. Put your scarcity mentality—which drives your fear of losing the sale—on the back burner. It’s better to address that up front, then for your client to find out later. You should always do this; but in recession-based times of fear and suspicion, the power of transparency in service to the customer is magnified.

15. It’s a naked world— can’t really hide anything anymore thanks to emails, meetings at Starbucks, cell phone records. You may be practicing transparency unintentionally. But “oops” moments make you look deceitful, especially in sales. So, don’t do that. Don’t say or write anything you wouldn’t mind everyone reading in the newspaper. Honesty and lack of spin in sales in suspicious downtimes is so refreshingly counter-intuitive that your sales will increase.

16. Shareyour product development plans with your customers before the products are ready for prime time. The software industry long ago figured out that the benefits of letting customers develop their beta releases vastly outweighed the competitive advantage accruing to a customer. People are more likely to buy what they’ve had a hand in developing—if you give them the chance. If you’re in professional services, sharing the early version of a new service offering with potential clients will give you invaluable insight, help educate your buyers, and increases trust. More importantly, your willingness to share your imperfections "early and ugly" says a lot about who you are.


That’s the end of this weeklong series of using trust to improve selling in a recession. Link back to the beginning of the series here. And feel free to add your own ideas throughout.



SubText Messaging

Recently I had a conversation with a friend. He asked me what I thought about a marketing piece he sent me the day before. After our conversation,which was tedious, we analyzed it. Here is part of the conversation we had, and the same part of the one we didn’t have:

Sam: What did you think of that piece I sent you yesterday?

Subtext: I’m looking for your big picture thoughts

Me: I liked it

Subtext: Uh. Oh. He wanted me to give him comments.

Sam: Well – what did you like about it?

Subtext: Please give me a little more – your big picture comments.

Me: I didn’t read it that carefully – I did think it looked good

Subtext: I feel really badly. He looked at something for me and gave me exactly what I asked for. I should have done more.

Me: [getting defensive] – I didn’t realize you wanted me to provide comments – I can do that. Isn’t it out already?

Subtext: I really would like to fix this – and I still feel badly – maybe he’ll give me another opportunity to make it right.

Sam: Yeah – it’s out already. Never mind.

Subtext: All I wanted was a couple of thoughts, and he’s trying to make a whole project out of it.

After another couple of minutes of this conversation that went nowhere, we stepped back and I asked what he really was asking. I asked him for the subtext. And I told him mine.

We quickly reached an understanding, and avoided further misunderstanding. He didn’t care that I hadn’t really read it. He just wanted a little more of the big picture comments.

I had felt badly that I hadn’t read it and given him deeper comments, and he didn’t even want them.

How much easier it would be if all our conversations were the subtext, rather than the text. If we were simply transparent and said what
we really meant.

When I do role plays in workshops I facilitate, I often will stop the action and ask: "What do you really want to say?" That gets to the subtext.

Instead of texting each other, maybe we should start subtexting.

Transparency and Selling

President Obama directly links transparency to economic performance.

In his inauguration address, he asserted “…those of us who manage the public’s dollars will be held to account, to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and do our business in the light of day, because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government.”

Lately transparency has been in short supply.

Offices for sale. Ponzi schemes. The former mayor of Baltimore has just been indicted on charges that she accepted illegal gifts, including gift cards intended for the poor that she allegedly used instead for a holiday shopping spree.

Whether with respect to government, or to building client relationships, transparency is at the very root of trust.

That may seem obvious. Motherhood and apple pie. But for those of us with a career background in sales, transparency requires deprogramming. We were taught:

• Never share a weakness
• Never admit a competitor strength
• Never share cost information
• Always get as much margin as you can
• Don’t share information that could decrease your ability to close a sale

Oh yeah, and be customer focused.

What goes around comes around. In the long run, the truth inevitably bubbles to the top. You can get credit for saying it—or blame for resisting it.

As Charlie Green said in a HuffingtonPost piece, “If we see someone as being transparent, then nagging questions about motive disappear. We no longer speculate about, ‘What’s in it for him? What’s the hidden meaning? Why’d he say that? Is he lying?’ and so on. We accept the person at face value for what they say, even if—sometimes, particularly if—what they say reflects imperfection. That works in sales and in politics.” 

Yet, we’re trained to go in come back with information that will close the sale. Hunt it, kill it and bring it back to eat.

• What if, instead of dancing around an answer we don’t know, we just admit we don’t know?
• What if, instead of promising something we probably can’t deliver, we admit that and then tell them what we can do?
• What if, instead of offering “teaser” pricing and then covertly getting it on the back end, we share our cost structure?

These examples are counter-intuitive—downright treasonous in some circles.

Without the pretension, void of false promises and out on a limb – we are, admittedly exposed, naked and vulnerable.

But wouldn’t you rather buy from a seller who is willing to show you his cards, even if—perhaps because—you both know it might cost him the sale? That visceral reaction works in reverse when transparency dominates relationships (think Madoff, Blagojevich).

Transparency creates a powerful pull toward you. It also, by the way, lets you sleep easier.

Lessons in Sales from John McCain

As far as I know, John McCain has never sold for a living. Though you could argue that insofar as he’s a politician, he’s never done anything else.

Whether or not you believe all politicians are salespeople, some do it differently than others. McCain “sells” in a particular way.

It’s an approach to selling that most salespeople instinctively avoid, but that many of the best salespeople have learned to seek. It’s an approach Hillary Clinton is belatedly coming to recognize.

It’s simple: be transparent.

As Howard Kurtz writes in Accessibility Opens Doors to McCain in the Washington Post,

Reporters rarely quote his aides because the man himself is available to react to just about everything. And that "infinite" access, says Boston Globe correspondent Sasha Issenberg, helps the Arizona senator.

"He’s pretty good road-trip company," Issenberg says. "The guy stays up on sports, movies and what’s in the news. I’ve had the ability to have extensive conversations with him — often Socratic dialogues — about the issues. He’s a richer candidate in stories written about him than other candidates are in stories written about them."

How candidates treat reporters shouldn’t matter in the coverage, but it does.

William Kristol, writing an ope-ed for the NY Times called Thoroughly Unmodern McCain, makes a similar point:

John McCain is a not-so-modern type. One might call him a neo-Victorian — rigid, self-righteous and moralizing, but (or rather and) manly, courageous and principled.
Maybe a dose of this type of neo-Victorianism is what the 21st century needs. A fair number of Republican and independent voters seem to think so, if one can infer as much from their support of McCain at the polls. But, amazingly, a neo-Victorian straightforwardness might also turn out to be strategically smart.

McCain has been the only Republican candidate who hasn’t tried to out-think the process. Perhaps out of sheer necessity, after his campaign imploded last summer, he simply picked himself up and made his case to the voters in the various states.

Meanwhile, the other G.O.P. candidates are creatures of our modern age of analysis and meta-analysis, and their campaigns have sometimes been too clever by half.

There’s a reason transparency works: and a lesson for those would would fake it.

The reason transparency works is it reveals motives. Unlike appeals to qualifications, credentials, experience, testimonials, track records and competence—transparency speaks to intent.

If we see someone as being transparent, then nagging questions about motive disappear. We no longer speculate about what’s in it for him, what’s the hidden meaning, why’d he say that, is he lying, and so on. We accept the person at face value for what they say, even if—sometimes, particularly if—what they say reflects imperfection. That works in sales, and in politics.

And here’s the lesson for those would would fake transparency: you had better be really, really good at it, because, if you are caught faking transparency—all bets are off. There’s virtually no recovery from being found out intentionally lying about being truthful.

The best way to be transparent about your motives? To be sure your motives are clean in the first place. We don’t like someone who’s being transparent in order to gain something (like the Presidency). We want transparency as an end in itself—a principle, a value, not a means to end.

Here’s how it’s done, from Kristol again:

There was a serious moment when BBC correspondent Justin Webb asked why McCain kept bringing up global warming — not a popular cause with many Republicans, particularly in Michigan, where resistance to fuel-efficiency standards is strong.

"You’ve got to do what you know is right," McCain replied.

"You could lose as a result," Webb said.

"There’s a lot worse things than losing in life," the former POW said.

Transparency sells. The “trick” to using it is to live your life in a way you don’t mind being exposed.

Then just be who you are.