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Acquiring Soft Skills: You Gotta Practice the Scales

I’ve led a fair number of trust-building workshops over the years. I’ve even written a book or three on the subject of trust. One thing hasn’t changed much: I still hear the same question, no matter who I’m speaking to, no matter what country I’m in.

“Do we really have to practice the soft stuff?”

It’s inevitably followed up with some variations of “I get it, but this isn’t going to help me close the big deal I have on deck,” or “Yes, but it’s different here,” or the classic, “This is so basic, why are we wasting our time?”

Let me answer that.

You’ve heard this one.

The New York tourist asks the cab Lyft driver, “How do I get to Carnegie Hall?”

“Practice, practice, practice,” comes the answer.

The joke is well known – but sometimes we forget how broadly it applies.

Students of classical and jazz piano and guitar often don’t like doing the scales; but most have to do them nonetheless. I remember learning to play all seven modes (Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, etc.) starting from all four fingers from the same starting fret; then moving up a fret and starting over again.

My guitar teacher told me that the next step was to do the same cycle for minor, major seventh, dominant seventh, diminished and augmented scales. “This is the point,” he somberly told me, “at which all the jazz greats picked up heroin.”

Suppose a music student tells the music teacher, “Scales are boring; I get the concept, that’s all I need. Doing scales just cramps my style and inhibits my improvisational skills.” What does the teacher say?

They typically smile and say, “Yes, the scales are boring – but you’ve gotta do them anyway. Do you know how to get to Carnegie Hall?” Etc. etc.

But what about soft skills training? Suppose a corporate training student tells the trainer, “This role-play stuff is boring. I get it, OK? It’s simple. I don’t need to do repetitive drills – it just makes me sound phony.”

What does the trainer say? What does the trainer’s boss say? What do the training department’s clients say?

We Do Muscle Memory Exercises in Music: Why Not in Soft Skills Training?

It’s my experience that, sadly, corporate soft-skills trainers’ responses are not the same as those of music teachers. Faced with resistance, the trainers are more likely to say, “Well, OK, if you say so.”

In fairness to the trainers, it’s not usually their fault. And I don’t think it’s the fault of the client organizations either. I think the blame  lies mainly with L&D organization leadership itself – for not pushing back hard enough, even for partly buying into the clients’ rationalizations that somehow you can cognitively understand your way into learning soft skills behaviors.

The truth is, there is no substitute for realistic “muscle memory” activity when it comes to learning soft skills. You simply can’t “think your way into” skills like active listening, much less empathetic listening. You can’t just memorize a set of canned “answers” to a buyer’s “objections.” You can’t just write sentences ahead of time and think you will be able to give acceptable feedback. (Go re-watch the movie Up in the Air for an amusing example of cognitive vs. muscle-memory learning).

The equivalent of scales in soft-skills training comes in several forms – role-plays, video replays, case discussions. For my money, nothing beats a “fish-bowl” role-play; two volunteers role-play a case in front of a room. When something happens – and it always does – everyone sees it, and knows it. There is no escaping the real-ness of what just transpired.

If trainers know this is true, why then don’t they insist on it just as strongly as music teachers do? Music teachers have one advantage: they are typically older than their pupils, hence in a natural position of authority; whereas trainers are often junior to, and subordinate to, the line people in their sessions.

One trainer told me of being politely informed by an AmLaw 20 law firm that there would be no role-plays in the upcoming session. “Just discuss the technique,” the partner client said, “our people are smart enough to pick it up quickly – no need to waste time on faux drama.” Right.

The Real Reason for Resisting Soft Skills Drills

As is often the case with negative behavior, fear is at the root. No one, me included, enjoys doing role-plays. I also don’t like the taste of some medicine, but if I’m sick, I know to over-rule my taste buds.

In other words, participants just don’t want to do it. Of course, they don’t say that. They say it’s boring, they don’t need it, comprehension is enough, and so on. But it’s still the L&D folks who must not let them get away with it.

I find that each of the major staff functions has a generic effectiveness issue. For IT staff, it’s speaking in jargon and over-promising. For legal staff, it’s an inability to balance risk-minimization with general management perspective.

For HR staff – in my experience – the weakness is a desire to be accepted at the Big Table. Combined with the fact that HR people have no secret vocabulary – they speak plain language – this means that clients will predictably abuse them.

And so when the students resist doing what the L&D people know perfectly well they should do – the teachers don’t push back.

This is of course my pet theory, though it is based on my experience. What’s yours?

If your students ask you how you get to corporate Carnegie Hall, tell ‘em, “Role play, dammit!”

Stop Measuring ROI on Soft Skills Training

Many, perhaps most, of our clients tend to ask us about how they can measure the returns from Trusted Advisor workshops. However, I suspect their reasons are a little opaque. More often than not, these buyers are already persuaded of the benefits. The potential clients who are truly skeptical are rarely the ones who actually call–nor are they likely to be persuaded, even by a hard-nosed ROI calculation. 

So – why are they asking?

Let’s tackle a garden variety corporate orthodoxy: the one that says your company shouldn’t do training without a measurable return on your training investment.

Variations on the theme: if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it; all training must be defined in terms of behavioral objectives; each objective must link to behavioral milestones, each quantifiable and financially ratable.

Let me speak plainly: Subjecting soft-skills training to pure skills-mastery financial analytics is intellectually dishonest, wrong-headed, useless at best and counter-productive at worst.

There, I said it.

Now let me explain – and offer an alternative.

There are are sprinklings of truth in the rush to measure soft-skills ROI – but they are surrounding a germ of falsehood at the heart of the matter.

The ROI-behavioral view of training is fine for pure cognitive or pure behavioral skills. If your focus is on teaching Mandarin to oil company execs, mastering the report generation functions of CRM systems, or teaching XML programming, you can stop reading this now.

But if you’re talking about communications skills, trust, customer relationships, listening, negotiation, speaking, giving and receiving feedback, consultative thinking, influencing, persuasion, team-building and collaboration, then read on.  There are at least four problems with measuring “return” on these kinds of programs.

First problem: definitions. We evaluate golf coaching by lowered golf scores—neat, clean, unarguable. But try defining “good communication.” Or trust. Or negotiation. You might as well define the taste of water, or the quality of love. To accept behavioral indicators (“she smiles, she touches me”) is to miss an essence.

Second: causality. All causality is unprovable, though we know when to accept it anyway. “I had 3 lessons with a golf coach, and cut my score by 8 strokes. It was the coaching—you can quote me!”

But what if I take one course in trust, and another in listening. Suppose my sales go up next year by 50%. Which course did it? Or did my company’s 70% growth have something to do with it? Or my happy new marriage? Too many variables.

Third: the Hawthorne effect. (Or, the Heisenberg Principle in physics). Sometimes the act of measuring alters the measurement of the thing being measured. If I know I’m being graded on listening, I’ll do whatever it is I think that you think makes me look like I’m listening. Which destroys real listening.

If you hype net-promoter scores, many will game the scoring – thus reducing the genuineness that underlay the original idea.

Fourth: the perversion of individual measurement. Most soft skills deal with our relationships to others. The drive to individually behavioralize, then metricize, has the effect of killing relationships by focusing on the individual – an ironic outcome for relationship-targeting training.

Suppose a course teaches focusing more on the customer, listening, helping others achieve their goals, helping teammates grow – worthy objectives, found in many programs.

The usual reason to define those results financially is to evaluate them financially. Thus someone – somewhere between the CEO and the person getting trained – is responsible for deciding to do more, or less, relationship-building programs – by using short-term individual measurements, often with short-term incentives.

Hence the perversity: training people to focus on relationships, by measuring and rewarding them individually.

“The more unselfish you are, the more money we’ll give you for being unselfish.
“The more you get rated as providing ‘excellent customer service,’ the more we’ll pay you” (which leads to pathetic begging by CSRs)
“The more you focus on others, the more we’ll pay you.
“Quick, get over here, I want to genuinely listen to you so I can raise my quarterly bonus and get promoted.”

Raise this perversity to the level of an industry over decades, and you can understand why pharmaceutical and brokerage companies have accrued such low ratings on trust.

So what’s the answer? Simple. And you don’t even have to give up your addiction to metrics.

Just measure subjective rankings.

Ask people these simple questions, over time:

1. Would you do that training again?
2. Would you recommend others attend?
3. Would you include it in your budget?
4. How do you rate that training compared to these other five programs?

You can run regressions, chi-squares and segmentations on that data to your heart’s content – as long as it’s measuring subjective data in ranking terms. Just stop trying to monetize interpersonal relationships by measuring ROI on soft skills training.

And for those of you still interested in seeing some data – I recommend our Trust360 multi-rater assessment tool. It’s not going to measure your ROI from a soft-skill training, but when you run a program as a before and after, you’ll be able to see and track key, measurable changes and improvements as a result of a soft-skill program. We recommend running a Trust360 in advance of a program and then again, for the same group, about 6 months later. Our clients who have done so have seen measurable results that still focus on the changes in soft skills, how the program and the Trust360 provided key insight to allow participants to really get to the root of the trust-building in relationships.

Give it a go – talk to us about it. What’s the downside?

 

Sample Selling Without Giving Away the Whole Store

Sample selling isn’t just for ice cream and perfume. I have argued that it works for intangible services, mainly because the seller has expertise beyond the buyer’s range, and sample selling makes it appear less threatening.

But not everyone buys that. Consider a phone conversation I had not too long ago. It went like this:

“I know you recommend sample selling for intangible services, Charlie,” the caller said, “but I have to tell you, I think that’s naïve.”

“I followed your advice,” he continued, “I gave them a great idea; but I didn’t get the deal. Worse, they stole my idea; now they’re making it a practice area. You can’t trust everyone; you can’t give away the store.”

The Three Myths of Giving Away Too Much

My caller is not alone in his fear of being taken. And as the saying goes, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.

Yet he is the architect of his own misery. He has fallen prey to three mistaken beliefs. And while you can’t think your way out of all tough situations, this is one where you can.

Myth 1: Ideas, Like Shoreline, are Limited. I’ve heard it said there are really only seven jokes—all others are variations. I have no doubt that’s true: but there is no end to standup comedians telling no end of those variations. Limited categories don’t preclude infinite instances.

Myth 2: Ideas are the Scarce Resource. As a consultant, I originally bought into the idea that corporate strategies were invaluable; if discovered by competitors, they could bring the company down.

This turned out to be a conceit. In truth, you could give an entire industry public access to each other’s written strategies, and due to a combination of hubris, incompetence and the inertia of culture, very little would change as a result.

As the NRA might put it, “ideas don’t change businesses—people do.”

Myth 3: They’re Out to Take My Stuff. Yeah, some are. And they are the people who believe that ideas are limited and that access to ideas alone is valuable. See myths 1 and 2 above.

Those who are out to take your stuff are co-conspirators in a joint exercise of self-delusion. They’re like thieves bent on stealing counterfeit cash. Go find some fresh air to breathe.

 

Sample Selling without Giving Away the Store

Let me acknowledge that there are certain businesses where idea theft is quite real. Chemical formulae in the pharmaceutical industry, novels in the publishing industry, code in the software business—I’m not talking about these cases. They are covered by patent, trademark and copyright laws. There are still lawsuits, but by and large the rules and case law are very well developed.

I’m talking about marketing, change management, business strategy, process change methodologies, sales processes, communications, systems implementation—the world of complex, intangible services. Like jokes, there may be a limited number of categories—but there is an unlimited number of applications.

How do you avoid falling prey to the myths? How do you not give away the store? Here are three tips to remember.

Sample Selling Tip 1: Present Ideas Collaboratively. The context in which you present an idea is critical. Don’t waltz in and dump an idea on your client’s desk; first they’ll reject it, then they’ll tweak it, then come to believe it’s theirs—leaving you to stew in your own juices. (That’s best case; most likely, they’ll ignore it.)

Instead, go back three steps and engage your client in a general conversation; let the idea emerge in context, between the two of you. Don’t be obsessed with ‘ownership’ of the idea unless you already have a patent.

You might say something like:

“Susan, I was thinking about the XYZ problem we discussed Monday. Does that situation ever arise in other divisions? I’m wondering if it’s really a process problem, or a people problem; can we bounce this around for a while?”

If you’re really smart—and evolved; see Tip 3 below—you’ll let your client discover the idea.

Sample Selling Tip 2: The Real Sample is Problem Definition. The idea of ‘sample selling’ is a bit of a misnomer. The real sample you’re giving the client is not a sample answer, but a sampling of how it feels to work with you.

You do this by continually asking—with the client—“what problem are we trying to solve?” You might say something like:

“Joe, we’ve come up with some great ideas in the business process arena. As we’ve talked, some related issues have arisen in the talent side of the business. Could we schedule some time to work those issues together?”

Then repeat Tip 1 above.

Sample Selling Tip 3: Rebalance Humility and Confidence. You need humility. Not humility about your ability—humility about your uniqueness. You are not Einstein (unless you are); you aren’t the only one with ideas. And frankly, your ideas are probably not unique either.

You need confidence. Not confidence in your ideas—confidence in your ability to spot an infinite number of problem areas in your client, and confidence in your ability to generate more ideas to address each problem. It starts simply with seeing opportunities for improvement.

Above all, you are the one with the client relationship; in that, you are unique. So—go define problems, and generate ideas collaboratively.

You’ll get credit—but more importantly, you’ll get repeat business.

Yes Trust is Down – But Trust in What?

New headlines daily grace the front pages (or screens) of our news outlets that make us question just how far our trust in (fill in the blank) has fallen. Whether it’s politicians or social empires like Facebook, it seems that as individuals we are now in a constant state of “well who shouldn’t I trust now?”

In many ways it’s very true, but it begs an even more important question – if trust is so far down today, what does that really mean?

You can’t throw a brick into the Googlenets these days without hitting some survey that bemoans the current low state of trust in society. And while there’s a lot of truth to those surveys, there’s also a lot of uncritical thinking and sloppy theorizing.

There are also some powerful ways in which trust has actually increased in recent times, and even more in which trust has stayed broadly the same.

Some Basic Trust Definitions

Much writing on trust neglects to make two simple distinctions. The first is that between trusting and being trusted; both are required for trust, and they are quite distinct. Trust requires a trustor and a trustee – they are different, and asymmetrical. One requires taking a risk, the other requires, broadly speaking, a moral virtuousness. “Trust,” properly speaking, is neither one of those things: it is the result of an interaction between the two of them.

The second distinction is between personal and institutional trust. Personal trust is by far the stronger of the two. You may trust Google to find a babysitter to interview, but you don’t trust Google itself to babysit your infant. And you’re a lot more likely to put your life on the line for your children than for your Coke/Apple/favorite brand. (A notable exception is national patriotism).

Most of the surveys that decry the decline in trust are talking about institutional trust. And it’s true: our “trust” in many, perhaps most, of our political institutions has declined. Ditto for most professions, the police, banks, retail stores, and established religion.

And yet…

If Trust is So Far Down, How Come—

  • you entered your credit card number online last week – at least once – from your mobile;
  • some of you use auto-complete on your mobile to fill in forms, perhaps even including your credit card number;
  • you share so much private information on Facebook (even after all the recent news);
  • you use Lyft, Airbnb, or another sharing economy app;
  • you paid your property taxes online;
  • you may have paid for Amazon to deliver via FedEx a camera that shows your front door.

These are all small examples of how the world has become far more linked. Many of us wouldn’t have considered doing these things ten years ago. These are small counter-examples of increased institutional trust. And, they are examples of trusting, the propensity to trust; at the same time, they suggest that we assign some pretty high levels of trustworthiness to other actors.

At the same time, there are many examples of both personal and institutional trust that have remained largely the same, without much fanfare. For example, you probably still:

  • Ask your neighbor to hold your mail for a few days
  • Fly on planes
  • Don’t look right or left when the light turns green (though you should)
  • Drink the coffee / eat the food at nearly every restaurant in the world without thinking
  • Ask a stranger at the beach to watch your stuff for a minute while you go to the bathroom.

In fact, an enormous amount of daily life consists of little examples of trust: mostly social and personal, but also institutional. Don’t let the headlines make you forget it.

Where Trust Really Is Down

That said, trust really is down in a few areas, and it’s important to be clear about just where.

First, there are indeed some ways in which people are less inclined to trust institutions than we used to be. But even here, read with a grain of salt. When people say they don’t trust Target (for example), they often mean something like “I don’t trust Target’s IT systems to ensure that my credit card doesn’t get compromised.”

Note this is an issue that didn’t even exist a decade ago. Also, it’s an issue affecting pretty much any large organization involved in financing. Also, and most important, check how many people stopped shopping at Target because of concerns about credit cards.

Saying “trust is down” without specifying “trust to do what?” is akin to a non sequitur. You might as well say “love is down” without grounding the statement in divorce rates, dating sites or something else concrete.

The most important way in which trust really is down is in what Eric Uslaner calls generalized trust. As measured by the General Social Survey for 50-some years, it basically asks, “By and large, do you think people mean well, or can’t you be too careful?” In other words, it is a generalized propensity to trust strangers.

On this measure, there is indeed a very gradual, but nonetheless real, decline over the years. High levels of propensity to trust have been linked to education and optimism. Low levels of propensity to trust have been linked to pessimism and low exposure to out-groups.  It is a true, important, and sad, statement that trust in this sense has indeed declined in the US, and in most western world countries.

And that is indeed something to be concerned about, far more than whether “trust” in the financial industry is down x points on a survey last quarter.

Question Obsession: The Consultant’s Nemesis

Do you go into sales meetings – even meetings with your existing clients – with a slew of prepared questions? Do you constantly find yourself asking question after question in a meeting?

You may be thinking, “Duh, of course. Aren’t we supposed to? How else are you going to demonstrate value added, explore hypotheses, prove your expertise?”

But let’s explore this apparent no-brainer. The fact is, Question Obsession can actually be detrimental. Lets explore why and how.

Consultants and salespeople (especially consultative sellers and sellers of consulting) have learned one mantra, and we love repeating it. It is the mantra that says, “Listen first; talk later.” In other words, it’s all about the question. Ask a great question, the logic goes, and all else will fall into place.

That is the great lesson of Sales and Consulting 101. And I have no beef with it.  The problem is – if you never graduate from 101, you will end up in quicksand because an obsession with questions alone ultimately leads nowhere.

The Obsession with Questions

There’s good reason for the Sales 101 and Consulting 101 lesson of focusing on questions. Go no further than Neil Rackham’s SPIN Selling, in the case of sales, or Peter Block’s classic Flawless Consulting for consultants. Each one shows with wisdom and data that artfully posed questions generate dialogue and interaction, and that is always superior to pre-emptively beating up the client with the answer.

Of course, we often forget our 101 lesson and go into meetings with answers blazing. But that’s not what this article is about. This article is about the downside of obsessing with questions. It’s what happens when we turn the 101 lesson into a mantra, and we begin to focus on questions alone.

Is questioning an obsession? Try doing a web search on “Top Ten Sales Questions;” you’ll get millions of results.

Now ask yourself whether you recognize these themes:

  • Should I ask open-ended or closed-ended questions?
  • Should I ask about implications or needs?
  • Should I ask about the client’s opinions or offer “challenger” questions?

As one sales website puts it, “Get the answers to these questions, and take action based on those answers, and you’ll get the sale. It’s that simple.”

No, it isn’t.

The sales version of question obsession manifests in lists. The consultant version of question obsession manifests in the Great Keystone Arch Question—what is the central supporting element?

You can recognize this form of obsession because it leads consultants speaking among themselves to say things like, “If we can set the data up right, we can frame the discussion such that when we finally pop the Keystone Arch Question, the whole logjam will be released. They’ll feel the pain, envision the solution, and fall all over themselves in a rush to buy our solution.”

No, they won’t.

That’s because good questions are necessary—but not sufficient. You have to have them, but they won’t get you to the end zone.

If all you do is focus on questions, you’ll end up obsessed with yourself, with your solutions and products, and with how clever you are. That’s called high self-orientation, and it will kill trust and sales both. Question obsession is quicksand for salespeople and consultants alike.

Beyond Question Obsession

The narrow purpose of a question is sometimes to get an answer. But there are broader purposes to most questions, and certainly a broader purpose to the art of questioning itself. One is to create a greater sense of insight for the client. Two others are to improve the client relationship and to give the client a sense of empowerment.

These goals are best accomplished not so much by focusing on the “what” of the question but on the “how.” Some examples:

  • Questions to create insight: Consultants often come up with “insights” that only an MBA could understand or that leave the client feeling helpless. These are not useful insights. We don’t want to leave our clients saying, “Gosh, that’s really smart. How will I remember that?” Rather, we want them to say, “Oh, my gosh, of course! it’s so clear when you put it that way, isn’t it?” Our objective is to create insight, not to demonstrate that we have it.
  • Improve the relationship: The better the relationship—buyer/seller or consultant/client—the better everything else gets. Innovation, profitability, time to market, and insights all improve with relationships. Great questions allow the parties to get closer together, more comfortable sharing the uncomfortable, and more willing to take risks by collaborating. Questions such as, “Let me ask you, if I may, do you personally find that scary?” have nothing to do with “content” insight, but they are critical to advancing the relationship.
  • Create client empowerment: The point of all this questioning is not, ultimately, to understand things. It is to change them. And change will not happen if the client feels the insights are threatening, depressing, or out of his control. The key to action is to help the client see ways in which they can change, take control, own, and improve their situation.

It’s not what you ask; it’s how you ask it. All three of these broader objectives have little to do with the content of, or the answer to, a business question. Instead, all of them focus on the outcome of the question-answer interaction. From this perspective, it is not what you ask that is important, but how you ask it. We need to get past the Q&A outcome, which is just about knowledge, and focus on the outcome of the interaction, which is how we help our clients drive change.

Avoid the quicksand: get past questions for questions’ sake, and focus on real business outcomes.

Competing with Colleagues

When I wrote The Trusted Advisor with David Maister and Rob Galford, it became reasonably successful within several months. (Amazingly, it still ranks #11,014 – as of this morning – on the list of all books on Amazon. That’s all books, including Harry Potter (#218), Capital (#16,000), etc. I’ll take long-sellers over best-sellers any day of the week).

With its success came a happy problem: how to parcel out the leads between the three of us? Let me be clear, the book wasn’t drowning us in leads; any one of the three of us could have happily fielded all inquiries. And while we wanted to be fair to each other, we were also all of us very clearly in competition with each other.

So the question: how do you compete with colleagues?

Competing with Colleagues

What if one of us got a lead based on the book? Did we have any obligation to pass it along to the other two? If so, how?  Should we establish a quota system, whereby each of us would get every third lead?

Should we let the market dictate things, and let whomever the client had reached out to handle the response? What if the client had written to all three of us?  Should we all respond confidentially, or in some sense share our responses?

The problem was not unique to us, though it seemed so at the time.  You may face a similar problem within your organization – who gets the lead? Who gets to present?

Or, you may come face to face with an  old friend who has changed uniforms and now works for a competitor. In any case, the tension is much the same – the sensation of being a colleague feels intensely in conflict with the sensation of being a competitor.

How do you resolve it?

The Solution

The answer to the problem came to us fairly quickly, on reflection, and I documented it as part of the Four Trust Principles in my later books. The answer lies in true focus on client needs.

In our case: we agreed that we should all respond similarly to all client inquiries, regardless of to whom they were addressed. In all cases, we would say words to the effect of:

The Trusted Advisor was written by the three of us. I suspect that each of us could do an excellent job in response to your query, and each of us would handle the work slightly differently. You would be best served by having discussions with each of us, and making up your mind on that basis.

We will each be candid with respect to our own strengths and weaknesses, and answer questions to the best of our ability about the others. Each of us will respect your decision, and we are each committed to you making the best decision possible for you.

The best decision for you is what all three of us seek, and each of us will do our best to help you reach it, regardless of your choice.

This solution made everything easier. It kept our relationship collegial. It removed any awkwardness about responding to clients. It removed any awkwardness that clients might experience in choosing whom to talk to.

And, of course, it resulted in the best decision for clients, as each of us have our own particular skills and drawbacks.

So what’s the answer?  Grindingly relentless focus on client service, and the willingness to pursue that logic wherever it leads.

How You Use Your Smarts Is What Attracts Clients

 

“It’s not what you know; it’s who you know.”

You’ve probably heard that. But – you’ve also probably heard the exact opposite.

You’ve heard, “You’ve got a limited amount of time to impress them; use it.” But you’ve also heard, “Let the client do most of the talking.”

And you’ve probably heard, “You’ve got to be just a little smarter than your client.” But you’ve probably also heard, “Don’t think you know more about your client’s business than your client does.”

So, what’s the role of smarts? How important is it to be smart? In fact – what does that even mean?

To define terms, I’m not talking here about emotional intelligence, political savvy, or so-called street smarts. I’m talking about what we usually mean by “smart” in business, which generally boils down to three things:

  • Native intelligence, IQ-ish talent
  • Subject matter mastery
  • Industry knowledge

But let’s also be clear: being smart is less about what kind of smart you are and more about how you use your smarts. And usage, in turn, deconstructs into timing, amount, and context.

Kinds of Smart

I’ll use “IQ” as shorthand for some measure of native intelligence, mindful that there’s a lot of debate about its validity. IQ is seen as an innate form of smarts—you’re supposed to be born with it.

People with high IQs tend to think highly of high IQs, but that doesn’t mean everyone else does. In fact, if clients perceive someone as more clever, sharper, quicker, adept than them, it can be perceived as a negative—particularly if you’re selling.

“Watch out for this one,” the client thinks. “He might pull the wool over my eyes and outwit me.”

Subject matter mastery is different. It’s not an innate kind of smart; it’s derived from experience.

“I could be as smart as him,” thinks the client, “if I had chosen to work in that area.”

In fact, it’s that mastery that clients seek. A client hires a lawyer who knows the law precisely because the client doesn’t know it as well. A subject matter expert with a slightly lower (perceived) IQ than the buyer is even better. They are seen as knowledgeable but unthreatening.

Like subject matter mastery, industry smart is derived, not innate. But unlike subject matter mastery, its presence isn’t a plus so much as its absence is a minus. Clients, particularly those in professional and financial businesses, look down on “generalist” subject matter experts and functional specialists. There’s a general feeling that “our people won’t accept advice coming from you unless you have industry smarts” (though the speaker usually refers to ‘our people’ and not to himself).

In general industries, it is believed that management is management and sales is sales, that the know-how is transferable across industries. That isn’t the case in the professions—rightly or wrongly. You won’t win fighting that feeling; it runs deep.

Timing: When to be Smart

The time to show your IQ smarts is before you meet. Show it in your resume, qualifying documents, and your website’s “About Us” section. That’s because IQ smarts are the only kind of smarts that are potentially embarrassing to the client. The client doesn’t want to be over- or under-estimating you in real time; they’d prefer to know what kind of person they’re dealing with up front, in advance of meeting you. That way they feel much more in control, which is a good thing.

Once you’re in a meeting or interacting with the client, never mention IQ smarts again. Don’t bring up your resume, your degrees, your globe-hopping upbringing, or the brilliant circles in which you travel unless, of course, you’re asked a direct question.

You also want to show a little bit of subject matter smarts and industry smarts in advance of a first meeting or interaction—enough to assure the client they won’t be wasting their time and that they might well benefit from meeting you.

In short: be IQ-smart before you meet. And in face-to-face meetings, be subject-matter and industry-smart.

Amount: How Smart Should You Be?

No one likes to feel condescended to. Fortunately, it’s easy to avoid being condescending in subject matter and industry smarts. The main place to worry is in IQ smarts. If you really think your IQ is so much higher than your client’s, remember that your client is likely to resent or fear you if you make a point of it. Go work on your emotional quotient.

For subject matter and industry smarts, there is no natural upper bound. You’re being hired in part for your expertise, and your client will respect high levels of knowledge of your industry without fearing it. Your biggest challenge here is to be gracious in revealing how smart you are.

Context: Being Gracious about Your Smarts

The single most common sales error regarding smarts that professionals make is to think they have to show how smart they are. They somehow believe that a goal of client interaction is to demonstrate how smart they are. This is almost always unfounded, and frequently it accomplishes the very opposite of what’s desired. It makes the client feel you are self-centered and ego-driven and that you’re only out to make the sale.

Instead, the rule should be to use your smarts as necessary in support of the right thing for the client:

  • If it’s useful to mention that a particular recommendation has been followed successfully by three other clients, then say so. But if you say so just to demonstrate your clout, it’s better to leave it unsaid.
  • If it might be useful to the client that you know so-and-so, a big industry player, then mention it. If you do it only to prove your industry smarts, don’t.
  • If a question is asked to which you clearly know the answer, answer it. But if it’s another question that was asked, and you’re piling on to that question to answer another one, unasked, stifle yourself.

Following that simple rule demonstrates that your driving motivation is client service, not the pursuit of the sale and not your search for ego gratification. And if you’re worried about not knowing the answer to an occasional question, remember a client would rather hear an honest “I don’t know” than a transparent struggle to fake your way through an answer.

The smart call is to use your smarts only in service to your client.

Living Inside a Pariah Company

A while back I wrote a very critical blogpost about Volkswagen. I was, of course, hardly alone in doing so; the scandal they incurred at the time created major tremors in the business world.

But in the years since, I’ve been trying to think in different terms – in particular, what must it have been like to be an employee of VW in those difficult days? What is the view from inside the glass, looking up and out? What tensions must it have caused people – and what could they have done?

The Pariah Organization

My good friend Matt Nixon started writing a book a year before the VW incident, tentatively titled “Pariahs: Hubris, Reputation and Organisational Crisis.”  I happen to be re-reading it now.

Matt has the credibility to write this book: an MBA, he spent over a decade in consulting (Accenture, Towers Perrin), then another decade as a VP at Shell Oil and later an MD at Barclays. He knows something about whereof he speaks. Combined with a classical English education and a wide network, the book makes for illuminating reading.

Matt suggests that being a pariah organization (think “outcast” and “exile”) is a phenomenon on the increase (just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you, it’s really true).  He also points out that pariah-dom is about much more than individual moral failings – it is trackable at an industry level (another gut feeling ratified by data).

He provides some diagnostics and descriptive models to identify and predict pariah-like conditions in organizations. Particularly telling is his critique of “false metamorphosis,” the consultant snake oil of “transformation” that has been overblown. True change, he suggests, requires a lot more, and is a lot more uncommon.

But what about VW’s employees? As Matt notes from other pariah organizations, a great many people in such companies feel bewildered and unfairly treated.  They see themselves, and their company, as largely ethical, and remain quite positive about staying with the organization they are part of.

The overwhelming criticism of their organizations feels like torches and pitchforks.

At a time of crisis, Matt suggests employees go through a predictable sequence of emotions – shock, followed by anger and shame, swinging back to resurgent loyalty, and ending in a blend of guilt, responsibility, and denial. He talks as well about three “tribes” of employees: Loyalists, Mercenaries, and Heroes. The three tribes react differently to the four phases.

What Can Be Done?

Matt’s book has some great insights for organizations and leadership. For me, for this post in particular, I want to focus on what an individual at VW could have been thinking about, what they could do, and what we could have done to support them.

Human beings are delicate creatures. We process information that is critical of us in very self-protective ways. We will take advice from a friend that we would never take from a stranger.

As outsiders, this means we have to temper criticism with the recognition that exceeding few employees assume personal guilt. The vast majority feel very little personal accountability for the sins of the organization, and personalizing accusations doesn’t help them come to grips with any objective truth.

The increasing demand for personal civil and criminal accountability of leaders in pariah organizations is, I think, a good thing. But it must be tempered by some focus on responsibility – our criminal justice systems are easily inclined to focus on the underlings, and not the leaders. Indiscriminate demonization of employees is counter-productive. In the VW case in particular, the role of culture and corporate environment seemed a strong contributor, rather than a simple case of “bad apples.”

As employees, the challenge is to see this as a “Santa Claus” moment: as in, “there is no…”

This did not happen in a vacuum; as Matt notes, the cult of leadership is partly to blame for obscuring the truth that corporate cultures “eat strategy for breakfast,” not to mention well-intended but impotent compliance programs. It’s critical to employees – for their own psychic health, as well as that of the organization – to be constructively schizophrenic.

They need to both feel secure in their own good intentions and, at the same time, be able to objectively see how things could have gotten to this point. As Henry Mintzberg angrily points out, this kind of phenomenon is best seen not as a scandal, but as a syndrome. And only insiders have access to the “real” story.

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Moral outrage has its place in the reform of business. So does shaming, by bringing business issues outside narrowly proscribed economic boundaries and into the social realm as a whole.

But blame and shame are two-edged swords, and very hard to control. At a social level, their overuse just promotes entrenched ill-will; look no further than the current state of US national politics.

At an individual level, blame and shame keep us from seeing and accepting reality, as it is. In a very real sense, as my friend Phil McGee puts it, “Blame is captivity – responsibility is freedom.”

As we look at more recent scandals/syndromes, we need to balance our outrage with a sense of respect for other individuals, and our defensiveness with a willingness to see things as they are.

Best Practice for Opening a Sales Call: Bring a Risky Gift

How do you open a sales call?

Do you strive to establish credibility? Thought leadership? Make a positive first impression? Establish trust rapidly?

There are lots of answers to that question, and I’m going to suggest most of them are sub-optimal. And, I’m going to suggest, there is one single Best Practice way to do it. It’s called Bring a Risky Gift—BARG for short.

Why Your Opening Sales Conversation is Critical

First, let’s be clear. This question is more important than it used to be – not less important. Many sales authors are fond of noting that the sales process is becoming far more composed of pre-meeting interactions – collecting data from websites, emails, search engines and the like. They then draw the wrong conclusion – that the actual sales meeting itself is declining in importance.

The opposite is true. As long as complex B2B buying decisions are made by human beings – that is, protein-based entities who are the products of eons of emotional and social evolution – we require some kind of personal interaction before making a major decision. Let’s call that the sales meeting.

The fact that less total time is taken up by face to face meetings these days simply means that those meetings’ relative importance in the entire sales process has increased, not decreased.

A Metaphor

Let’s say you and your spouse or significant other are invited to dinner at the home of a business acquaintance. It’s your first time meeting them in a primarily social context. What must you do?

You know the answer to this one. On the way there, you stop at the liquor store and pick up a nice bottle of  wine. It’s what you do. The culture of gift giving in a thousand forms (including simple gestures of respect) is deeply embedded in every culture, including modern western business culture.

By doing so, you fulfill a minor cultural obligation. The host thanks you, and the evening begins on a fractionally higher note than before you walked in with the gift. But notice – this is more obligation than generous gesture. The downside of not bringing a bottle of wine is probably greater then the credit you get for doing so. You’re supposed to do this.

But imagine this. On the way to the liquor store, you say to your SO, “I think they went to northern Italy last year. What if we bought them a really nice bottle of Barolo, with an Italian looking gift card?“ and maybe you spend a few dollars more than you might have otherwise.

What happens when you present the gift? Notice – there is a risk here! It’s possible they are alcoholics. Or perhaps it was Spain they went to, not Italy. But here’s the magic: you actually get more credit for having taken that risk – even if you were wrong – than you get for buying the conventional, safe Napa cabernet.

What happens if your host really is an alcoholic? They are likely to say, “You know, we don’t drink, but that’s very thoughtful of you – we’ll save it for our next guests who do.“

And if it was Spain they went to? They are likely to say, “Ha ha, we used to confuse Spain with Italy too,“ or, “No, it was Spain, but with wines like this Barolo, we’re thinking Italy is our next destination – have you been?”

The point is: yes, you get credit for bringing any wine, but not much more than for fulfilling an obligation. You get serious extra credit for having been willing to take a risk – even if you’re wrong! It shows you are willing to be vulnerable in service to the client.

The act of showing vulnerability and taking a risk first means that you are playing the role of the trustor – the one who initiates a trust relationship – rather than waiting to passively play the lower-risk role of merely being trustworthy.

The possibility of being wrong is critical to that extra credit: it says to your host, “I may be wrong here, but I have put serious thought into this, and I’m willing to accept the gamble that I could conceivably be wrong; I trust that you will appreciate my well-intentioned gesture and the quality of thought that went into it.”

Now let’s see how that metaphor plays out in opening up a Sales conversation.

BARG to Open the Conversation

First, notice that you rarely get an opening sales conversation without already having established serious credibility. B2B buyers don’t waste their time, they’ve done their homework on you, and you have established enough credibility to get this meeting.

Do not waste their time by launching into a demonstration of how smart you are. It is annoying, and they’ve already acknowledged that point. Continuing to do so is all about you, not them. Worse, it’s rude. Any sales author who tells you you should open a sales conversation by establishing your credibility is oblivious to the serious emotional undercurrents happening in these moments.

That includes authors who suggest you should open with a breathtaking demonstration of how you are able to challenge their thinking. If that’s all you lead with, it is not only rude, it is insulting and arrogant.

Insights are great, but they must come well-packaged in the emotional wrapper of respect and etiquette. That’s where BARG comes in.

(It should go without saying that the wrong answer to, “so, tell us about yourself“ is to launch into your prepared deck about yourself. They were merely being polite by asking that question; you should not take it as any more than a pleasantry, which the rules of etiquette suggest requires only a 30-second answer.)

Here’s what you should say after the minimal pleasantries are complete:

Thanks for having us here. It is apparent to us, having looked through a lot of available information about you, that you are truly expert in [insert something] [insert something more]. It would be arrogant of us to claim that we know more about these areas than you do.

However— we do know a thing or two about similar situations, and one thought arose as we looked over your circumstance. It seems to us – please correct me if I’m wrong – that [X] might be a critical issue for you. Is that the case? And if so, could you tell us more about how X plays out in your business?

Two things: first, note that X had better be a meaningful, thoughtful insight.

But second, and frankly even more importantly, X had better be possibly wrong. If it is an absolutely 100% safe hypothesis, then you get no credit for having taken a risk. If you cannot be wrong in your hypothesis, then you are refusing to show any vulnerability. You are refusing to take the first step in creating trust. That is simply a variation on “I’m smarter than you are, and I’m going to start off by showing you why and how that’s true.”

There are two possible answers to your risky gift, and they are both good:

  • The first answer is, “you’re totally right – anything you have to say about that critical issue, we are very interested in hearing.”
  • The second answer is even better. “You know, most people think of X as the big issue, but the fact is – it’s really Y.”

In which case, you respond with, “Oh my gosh, I see it now – of course you’re right. Please, tell us more about Y, and how that plays out for you.“

And of course they will be happy to tell you about Y: because you have demonstrated vulnerability, you are showing sincere interest in what they have to say, you are focusing on them not on you, and you are demonstrating the willingness to learn from them.  At that point, the polite thing for the client to do is to answer your question of them.

If you think these rules of social propriety are vague and imprecise, think about how you respond when someone extends a handshake to you: how often do you spurn them and turn away with a cold shoulder? Pretty much never. You can make serious book on the hard-wired social responses of human beings in these situations – we are extremely predictable.

Insight by itself is worse than useless if not wrapped in the package of social propriety. BARG is that wrapper. It triggers hard-wired responses of etiquette, respect and other-focus in an ever-ascending spiral of reciprocating exchanges between two trusting and trustworthy parties.

To close the loop: should you open a Sales conversation with credibility? With a first impression? With insight? With rapid trust creation?

The answer to all of those questions is Yes. What’s critical is how you do it. And how you do it is BARG—Bring a Risky Gift.

 

Being Offensive vs. Being Offended – and Trust

When you offend someone, someone is offended. That seems obviously, trivially true. But the two are very different events – each touching on a part of the human experience, and each teaching us something about trust.

The Social and the Psychological

Disrespecting someone is a social violation: it is not a nice thing to do. It goes against the rules of etiquette and ethics (most of if not all ethical precepts have to do with our relationships to others). Every society has its rules about how to respect others, and to violate them is a serious matter.

To disrespect someone is a matter of one of two things – ignorance, or deliberate malice and rudeness. Both are matters of personal choice.

Being offensive and disrespectful, then, deals with the social side of being human.

Being disrespected or offended, on the other hand, is an intensely personal event. It is experienced one person at a time, as an interior phenomenon.

Being offended and disrespected, then, deals with the individual side of being human.

How do we integrate, as human beings, these two realms? Where are the ’shoulds’ in our social behavior, and in our individual behavior?

The answer is a little paradoxical: We should strive not to offend or disrespect others. At the same time, we should also strive to not feel offended, or disrespected, for long. In other words, we should strive to be kind socially, and to feel free psychologically.

We should respect others, yet not take personally others’ disrespect of ourselves.

The second is often the harder of the two. Here are a few contrasts to help make the point.

  • Religions teach us to be good to each other – the social message. Twelve Step programs remind us “pain is inevitable; suffering is optional” – the psychological message.
  • MLK fought for human rights – the social side. Viktor Frankl reminds us that “human freedom is not a freedom from but a freedom to” – the psychological side.

What’s Trust Got to Do With It?

Quite a bit, actually.

In contrast to almost all you read about ‘trust’ as some all-inclusive thing, keep in mind this simple fact, obvious to anyone on reflection:

Like tango, trust takes two. Trust is a relationship between a trustor and a trustee. The trustor initiates trust by taking a risk. The trustee then responds by being trustworthy. The roles then shift, and the players reciprocate. Rinse and repeat, etc. etc.

First, the trustee side: If you disrespect or offend others, then others will not trust you. You become untrustworthy. Disrespect and offensiveness affects the trustee.

Using the Trust Equation, you will have low Intimacy scores, because others will not confide in you. You will probably have high Self-orientation scores as well (a bad thing), because you’re likely acting out of willful anger or resentment, or willful ignorance – all of which are about you, not about the Other.

Being offended works the other side of the trust dynamic, that of the trustor: it renders you incapable of trusting others. You cannot initiate a trust relationship if you live in fear of being disrespected or offended.

Being chronically prone to offense means you are not free to act fully as a human. Rather than risk being hurt, you choose never to engage. You will never enjoy trust-as-relationship if you cannot trust-as-action. Victimhood destroys trust as much as  rudeness.

The Human Conundrum

And so the sociological and psychological, aka human, conundrum. You should never disrespect others. And you should never allow yourself to (remain) feeling disrespected.

You should always be trustworthy. And you should also never depend solely on the Other to initiate a relationship of trust.

May you not offend, nor be offended. And both are entirely your choice.