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“What are the most important personal attributes for finding the right balance between being a trusted advisor, and being a competitive seller?”
That was the question teed up by a Google sales training leader earlier this month at a Talks at Google session with Ryan Serhant. It’s an intriguing question. (The answer, not so much). But first, some back story.
Ryan Serhant is known to most people for his reality TV show Million Dollar Listing, about New York real estate. Personally, I prefer his most recent show, Sell It Like Serhant, which also happens to be the title of his recent book, subtitled “How to Sell More, Earn More, and Become the Ultimate Sales Machine.”
Let me just say: Serhant gets a lot right – very right. He’s also extremely personable, with very good interpersonal instincts, and a compelling personal story.
A (partial) list of what he gets (very) right about sales: the idea that people want to have a personal connection; the importance of improvisation; the emotional journey of buyers; the role of buyer insecurities and the need to recognize and address them; the importance of metaphors and stories; the critical role of personal selling; and many more.
But that’s not what I want to talk about.
Back to the Question
Remember, the question raised by the sales training leader was ““What are the most important personal attributes for finding the right balance between being a trusted advisor, and being a competitive seller?”
Here’s Ryan’s answer. “Endurance, empathy, and enthusiasm.”
He goes on to say these are the three traits he always looks for in his own hires, and they’re the keys to all sales that require just a little bit more than a good product that fits the price.
Note he didn’t answer the question. As he mentioned, he had written about those three attributes in his book, so it was a bit of a canned answer. It certainly didn’t address the “balance between being a trusted advisor, and being a competitive seller.”
But in fairness: the question itself is an odd one – it begs many more questions. It posits a tension between being a trusted advisor and being a competitive seller. But can someone be both (as the question implied)? Or is it an either/or proposition? Does it depend on the industry? On types of sales (e.g. B2B or B2C)? Is it really a choice? And if so, what kind of choice?
Serhant didn’t address any of those questions, settling for what is ultimately a fairly conventional description of the key personal attributes for successful selling of all types. It left me unsatisfied. So of course I wondered how I would have answered.
In most industries and situations, the question is a false dichotomy: in fact, the best way to compete successfully is to be a trusted advisor to one’s prospects – to practice Trust-based Selling.
What’s my evidence? In its simplest form, if a prospect thinks I have more endurance and enthusiasm than you do, but trusts you more than me, you’re going to get the business more than half the time. (Empathy – Serhant’s third item – is also critical to trust-based selling, so no argument there).
The biggest difference between Serhant’s proposition and trust-based selling is profoundly simple:
- Serhant is focused on the seller’s success as the end goal
- By contrast, the end goal of trust-based selling is doing the right thing for the buyer.
In one approach, competitive success is the goal. In the other, it’s a byproduct.
The answer to the questioner’s dilemma is to reject the question. It’s not a question of balance, nor is it an either-or proposition. It is how you get from one to the other.
You don’t gain trust by being competitively successful nearly as much as you gain competitive success by being trusted.
Interestingly, a lot of what Serhant suggests fits equally well in trust-based selling. You have to have empathy; you have to take risks; you have to understand and appreciate emotions.
But there are tells. Serhant shares a touching story about the power of fear: how he is motivated by never wanting to go back to a dark period in his life, defined by stark failure and rejection. We can all relate.
But fear of failure is a very private, internal emotion: it doesn’t help connect us to our clients, it separates us from them. If not getting the sale is part of the fear, then we haven’t conquered it – in fact, we’ve made our clients hostage to our personal pursuit of overcoming fear.
Trust is a relationship. But competitive sales, the way Serhant defines it, is a personal adventure, with clients as means, not ends. He is very insightful about the need for connection: but he never mentions relationships.
There are differences in tactics between the two approaches, which I’ve written about at length elsewhere. But this is the bedrock difference between the goals of the two approaches from which they all flow.
At one point in the interview, Serhant notes how he consciously prioritized success over career. If your goal is personal success, being a great seller is a great way to get there.
But if your goal is your clients’ success, you will, paradoxically, end up a more successful seller yourself. Because buyers trust more those whose goal it is to help them, rather than to help themselves.
Over a decade ago, I wrote Trust-based Selling.
As I said in the opening paragraph, “You don’t often hear those two words mentioned in the same sentence.” What that book was about was squaring the circle – explaining the apparent paradox of how you can sell and be trusted at the same time. I believe it is even more relevant today than when the book was published.
“Selling” is a critical concept at the core of capitalism. It’s often said that if you don’t have a sale, you don’t have a business. If you can’t sell your product or service, the market is democratically expressing itself that you have nothing of worth. Conversely, to successfully sell is in some way a validation of value.
At the same time, “selling” is at the heart of Adam Smith’s description of capitalism as based on the invisible hand of self-interest. If everyone behaves selfishly, you might say, everyone benefits from the competitive system that results.
And yet if anything seems inimical to trust, it must be selfishness. The prevailing theory of capitalism is that you may trust the system, but caveat emptor – buyer beware. We have regulations to prevent the abuse of buyers by sellers, not trusting the motives of sellers alone.
How then can we trust someone whose job, indeed whose core motivation, is to extract money from our wallet and transfer it to theirs – all the while smiling and telling us to enjoy it?
And from the seller’s side: how can you be trusted, trustworthy, when your entire job is based on getting people to do something that is first and foremost in your interest? There’s even an ethical dimension: how can you live with yourself when your job consists fundamentally of getting people to behave in ways that inure to your benefit?
It’s a paradox. Unless you think about trust.
But first: what’s changed since I wrote the book? I’d say three things: data, process, and the internet. Or if you want to put an over-simplified big fat label on it, let’s say Salesforce.
Let me be clear: there’s nothing wrong per se about Salesforce, and there’s a ton of value in it. If you’re not using Salesforce or a similar tool, you’re in the Dark Ages.
Nonetheless: Salesforce and its CRM ilk have enabled some negative and regressive tendencies in those who wish to sell. In particular:
- They can depersonalize sales. I don’t just mean spending time on the screen instead of talking to people: I mean the belief that you can reduce all relevant human interactions to datapoints, and by collecting and analyzing them per se, gain better relationships. The power of the tool seduces people into thinking that by collecting indicators, we have gained that which the indicators sought to indicate. To paraphrase Kierkegaard: CRM systems are like a “for sale” sign in a store: you go in to buy, and find out it was only the sign that was for sale.
- They focus overly on the sales process. Sure, you can describe ‘sales’ as a process. You can also describe it as a noun, a relationship, a transaction, a profession, and many more things. To focus solely on process is to think of sales as a linear, logical, deductive kind of phenomenon. Sales is much more than that. Yet every sales model you can think of begins with finding a lead, and ends (in a left-to-right depiction) in ‘closing.’ It is by its nature seller-centric – not customer-centric. It’s often noted that the percentage of person-to-person time has declined in recent years: we forget that this means the relative importance of that time is increased – not decreased.
- Their overt purpose, goal, objective is to get the sale – and then get more sales. They concretely embody the self-interest that Smith spoke about – and don’t mention the ‘greater good’ that he meant by the “invisible hand.”
The convergence of data, process and the internet represented in modern CRM systems promotes an impersonal, process-oriented, seller-centric view of sales. Just as social media have turned out to be Trojan horses weaponizing some of our worst instincts while wrapped in undeniably valuable forms, so has CRM handed salespeople a double-edged sword.
Squaring the Circle
The good news is: it doesn’t have to be that way. And you don’t have to get rid of your CRM systems either. All you need is a few changed behaviors – and some fundamental shifts in mindset and belief systems. Paradoxically, making these changes will actually result in more sales, not less. But only if you embrace the paradox.
Here are a few of those changes:
- The goal of most selling is to make the sale. The goal of trust-based selling is to help the customer; a sale is an outcome, not a goal.
- “Closing” is anathema – that’s all about the seller. The joint agreement to do a transaction that benefits the buyer is what we should seek.
- In trust-based selling, the right time to mention price is when it is useful to the customer to know it.
- In trust-based selling, you don’t “handle objections” – you jointly explore the fit of the solution.
- In trust-based selling, hard-sell is not a sin – wrong-sell is.
- In trust-based selling, you don’t seek sales – you seek good decisions by the buyer (if this is your priority, you’ll actually get more than your share of such decisions).
- In trust-based selling, the acid test is whether you’d be willing to refer the customer to a competitor – if the competitor has the better solution.
- In trust-based selling, a sale transaction is just one event along the path of a relationship.
- In trust-based selling, the default mode of presentation is transparency.
- If everyone sold based on trust, we’d need fewer regulations, and Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand would be a lot more efficient.
- In trust-based selling, the time-frame is lifetime. Assume that you will meet this customer again, along with his or her customers, cousins, bosses and LinkedIn friends, and that every interaction is evident to all of them instantly. That’s your reputation.
Trust-based selling relies on the proposition that people return good for good, and bad for bad. If you treat a customer respectfully and with trust, and they happen to need what you are selling, the natural response is to buy it from you. And if they don’t presently need what you’re selling, guess who they’ll remember and come back to when they do need it.
You can bet on it. And you should.
That proposition is not only an ethical template – it is a business model.
Some of you are partaking in the annual ritual of watching Christmas movies – most notably the perennial It’s a Wonderful Life. This is not about that movie.
Instead, I want to remind you of an interesting lesson from the seasonal also-ran, Miracle on 34th Street.
Nominally a cute tale about the existence of Santa Claus and the power of belief (featuring a starry-eyed 6-year-old girl, and the comic relief of the US Post Office dragging in all those letters to Santa as proof-of-existence), it has a hidden gem buried within about the power of trust-based selling.
The “real” Santa (a kindly old man who is or is not deluded) is employed by Macy’s in its flagship store as, of course, Santa. Santa is nearly fired by a numbers-driven Type-A middle manager for suggesting to a shopper that she buy the toy from Gimbel’s across the street. (The cynical shopper confounds the manager by congratulating him on “this wonderful new stunt you’re pullin’.”)
This “stunt,” of course, is the Acid Test of Trust-based Selling: the willingness to refer a customer to a direct competitor, if that is the right thing to do for the customer. But it doesn’t end there, with a whimsical sappy Santa.
Macy’s President happens along and instantly realizes that Santa’s customer focus is far more effective for Macy’s than the conventional approaches to sales. He announces:
…not only will our Santa Claus continue in this manner…but I want every salesperson in this store to do precisely the same thing. If we haven’t got exactly what the customer wants, we’ll send him where he can get it.
No high pressuring and forcing a customer to take something he doesn’t really want. We’ll be known as the helpful store, the friendly store, the store with a heart, the store that places public service ahead of profits.
And, consequently, we’ll make more profits than ever before.
If you focus relentlessly on the customer, you-the-seller will do just fine. Even better “than ever before.”
The good news is you don’t have to believe in Santa Claus to do this. You just have to follow the Four Trust Principles:
- Customer focus for the sake of the customer
- Long- not short-term timeframe
Sometimes we view this as a paradox: relentlessly focusing on the Other ends up serving You as well – but only if you do it genuinely, rather than as a means to an end.
Paradoxical yes, but a Truth well-known to most who delve into human relationships. You get back what you put out. Do unto others. Pay it forward. Be the change you want. And so forth.
Truly a message for the season. And not just for sellers.
I got an email. It was from a 50-ish owner of a small CPA firm – call him “Jose” – with three competing offers to buy his practice, and a few complicating life factors. He wanted advice, and wondered if we could talk.
I don’t do much coaching or consulting, and he almost surely couldn’t afford my rates. Nor am I an expert in life planning, or in valuations.
But I said sure, call me in the morning, we’ll talk – no charge.
We had a very good chat for about 45 minutes.
I think I helped him. I know it was useful for him to talk to a third party able to comprehend his situation. I believe he’ll make a better decision, and I’m sure he’ll feel better about it. Value was created for him in our talk.
But what about me? I knew going in there was no chance of a sale from him – not now, not in the future, not anytime. And my rate was zero. Was this a foolish, impetuous, soft-hearted, flakey thing to do?
No. I like doing nice things, but I’m not a saint. Nor did I consider Jose a pro bono case.
Yes, it was a nice thing to do. But, I would argue – it was also good business.
Sometimes a sales lead that we would otherwise screen out can be a good marketing investment. Sometimes you can do well by doing good. Sometimes we need to let sales leads bleed into marketing budgets.
“Jose” will never buy from me (though other Jose’s might). But he will remember what I did for him; even more, that I was willing to help.
Jose is someone who cared enough to identify alternatives, choose me, and seek me out. He spent time to find out who I was, what I did, whether and how I might be useful to him. He was probably willing to pay for consulting. He was an educated, willing buyer, a near-client with influence on other potential clients.
For me, he was not a qualified sales lead. But – he was one helluva marketing resource.
He now knows me – the sound of my voice, how well I think on the spot, the way I interact, my sense of humor. He knows me better than one of 200 people in an audience for a speech; much better than 500 people reading this blog, or an article of mine.
Total investment: 45 minutes. Most sales people will tell you that’s an extravagant waste of sales time, an inefficiency that is off-scale. Just think of the waste in extrapolating such activities to scale!
But most salespeople would be wrong. This is not about efficiency in selling: this is about effectiveness in marketing.
The return is that Jose will tell X people about our discussion. That’s X people who will hear first-hand about a 1-to1 interaction. That’s a powerful testimonial.
The choice is not between being “good” or making money; they often go together.
Try, for just a few hours per month, shifting your sales practices to subsidize your marketing by investing in a lead.
Don’t get lost in charge-back accounting. The benefits will eventually accrue to your firm, and to you personally. Both.
The hardest thing about describing Trust-based Selling to Americans is the idea that the first step in selling has nothing to do with selling. They just don’t get it. Maybe this will help.
I’m an American, and had moved to Paris as an expat, to be senior in-house counsel in Europe for my global firm. The dossier included oversight of our litigation, disputes and risk management.
I inherited a very large piece of pending litigation: we were one of the several defendants — the lead plaintiff was a large French bank. The case had been going on in the course of Germany for several years — but it was then dormant.
I got from the files the name of my in-house counterpart at the bank — whose office was near mine in Paris — and invited him to meet over lunch. The ground rule was–no discussion of the case or its details or merits, since I had no background on the matter and there was no activity then or on the horizon. We did in fact meet up — had a fine and proper French meal including a good bottle of wine — and parted company.
The case ran on in Germany for a year and a half or so. Eventually the local lawyers for both sides called to say that it was time for a settlement, but that they were at an impasse and there was no prospect for fruitful discussions.
I went back to my phonebook. I called the bank’s lawyer in Paris, got caught up on the current status, and asked for a meeting. In a Paris conference room, in about an hour, a successful resolution was reached.
To the French, relationships are vitally important in the conduct of business of all kinds. This could not have happened if we had been coming together for the first time. (The American mis-apprehension about the rudeness of French shop-keepers, waiters and taxi drivers is misplaced — they simply don’t know or have any relationship with a new arrival. By taking the time to be courteous and conversational, ahead of the desire to transact business, the entire atmosphere can be changed. And even more so when you become a repeat customer.)
We Americans, with characteristic brevity and impatience, have an urge to “get on with it.” We consider this a virtue, despite the fact that this approach will often leave us frustrated and will yield sub-optimal results. Neither does this alter our belief that we are results-driven. But the truth is: slowing down rather than rushing to finish in time to catch the afternoon plane will often yield a better outcome.
By extension, I have used variations on this approach even in the American context — where the investment of a small amount of time and effort is often seen to bear fruit.
Jim is not alone. One Japanese bargaining technique (as per Riding the Waves of Culture, a great book) is to wait until the Americans have confirmed their return flights before demanding an additional item or making a small concession in their position. The urge to hold to a preset plan is so strong that the Americans will jump at the offer rather than reschedule.
The point is not just that Americans are prisoners to our own US-centric views of culture, but that we are mistaken even about our own culture. The simple powerful truth, anywhere in the world, is that people prefer to do business with those with whom they have some kind of relationship. The mechanics of that differ; the principle does not. Tons of sales are left on the table in the US because of an inability to deal with relationships.
Want to sell? Then first Stop Trying to Sell.
This truth is no less truthful for being a truism: People don’t care what you know, until they know that you care.
The best sales begin with relationship. Deal with it.
This post first appeared on TrustMatters.
It may be the dirtiest little secret in professional sales. The lie we all love to tell ourselves. The truth we just hate to face up to. What secret/lie/truth is that?
The myth of the subject matter expert as key to sales success.
Sources of Mythology about Subject Matter Experts
There is no shortage of prognosticators about the increasing importance of subject matter expertise. You’ve probably seen a lot of it:
- You may have heard from The Challenger Sale folks that if you’re not coming up with new insights about your customers’ business, then you’re a relationship wimp.
- You may have seen the article Top Ten Trends in Sales and Business Development, which lists the rise of the subject matter expert as number one on the list.
- You may have read the Canadian Professional Sales Association article The Rise of the Subject Matter Expert, which says B2B organizations are increasingly turning to subject matter experts.
What all of those pieces have in common is an underlying view of the buying decision as rational, calculating, value-based, and economically driven. And that’s Just. Not. True. That’s the dirty little secret.
To be precise, it’s not that buyers are irrational. Nor are economics or rational thought irrelevant. But the role we ascribe to such thinking is profoundly mislabeled by an awful lot of sales “experts.”
So, let’s get it right.
There are two types of thinking, there are two stages in B2B buying (which largely correspond to those types), and there are two logical roles in the buying process (necessity and sufficiency). When we get it right, those all drop into place, including the role of subject matter expertise.
Two Types of Thinking
Daniel Kahneman, in his book Thinking Fast and Slow, outlines two types of cognition. The first, System 1, is fast, is intuitive, and jumps to instinctive reactions or conclusions. System 2 is the slower, logically deduced, careful check. His book (and his life’s work) consists of showing over and over how much our lives are controlled by System 1, contrary to popular belief.
A similar point is made by Jonathan Haidt in his brilliant book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Religion and Politics. He uses the metaphor of the elephant and the elephant driver. The latter thinks he is in charge, but in fact the elephant pretty much does what the elephant wants.
If you prefer the same idea in a far more accessible and practical manner, read Josh Waitzkin’s The Art of Learning, in which he explains how he became a junior globally ranked chess champion and then a world champion in the martial art Tai Chi Chuan.
How’d he do it? He learned the link between thinking fast and slow thinking; he learned when and how to use the elephant and when to use the elephant driver. He drilled over and over the most minute movements, strategies, and counters until they became subconscious and he could trust them with “fast thinking”—thereby reserving his “slow thinking” to focus on that one, single differentiating move.
The point is not that one is right and the other wrong. They are both necessary to human functioning, but they play different roles.
Two Stages in B2B Buying
David Maister originally observed that most B2B buying processes proceed in two stages: screening and selection. In the screening process, staff people typically “round up the usual suspects,” putting criteria on spreadsheets and evaluating who should be in the “final four.” That is a prototypical rational process—think spreadsheets, analysis, and quantitative tools—which is why it’s delegated to junior staff.
Then there’s selection. Selection is heavily instinctive, intuitive, and non-rational. Selection is done by senior people who are experienced, have confidence in their judgment, and have the track record to back it up. But of course they don’t claim clairvoyance or rely on gut feeling. No, they rationalize their instincts. To put it prosaically, people decide with their hearts, then rationalize the decision with their brains.
Two Logical Roles: Necessity and Sufficiency
Some things you must have in order to get other things. On the other hand, some things are all you need. Writing a term paper may be necessary to get an A in the course, but writing a paper alone isn’t sufficient to get that A. We often mistake necessity for sufficiency. And subject matter mastery is a classic example.
In B2B sales, it is pretty much necessary to have and demonstrate subject matter expertise. In fact, such expertise is specifically looked for in the screening process assigned to junior staff. The absence of subject matter expertise is often justification for being removed from the final list of firms invited to present.
But subject matter expertise is far from sufficient (the same is true of low price). You’ve seen plenty of cases where neither the lowest price nor the highest technical ability got the job. Instead, the job frequently goes to the seller who is “good enough” on technical (and price) terms, but who clearly has a better trusting relationship with the client.
Interestingly, often this is not stated. In fact, it’s even denied. Selection decisions, which are made with the intuitive, “fast thinking” mind are often rationalized by referring back to the “slow thinking” rational criteria that were employed during the screening phase.
Putting It Together: Revealing the Dirty Little Secret
The dirty little secret is that subject matter expertise plays two important, but precise and limited roles. The first is to screen out uncompetitive offerings up front, so that time is not wasted on providers that are least likely to win. This role is finished once the finalists are selected.
The second role is to rationalize the decisions that are made by the “fast thinking” mind, the “elephant” mind, the subconsciously competent mind that has absorbed experience and can trust its own intuition. Here the rational mind is the handmaiden of instinct and experience.
The buyer may tell you and everyone else that you won the job because of your expertise and credentials and that competitor B lost it because they weren’t as brilliant as you. But don’t you believe it.
You won because you were good enough on the expertise side of things and the client loved you. That means they felt you had integrity, they could get along with you, they could be honest with you, you’d be straight with them, and that if there were problems, they could work them out with you—and not with those other folks.
The dirty little secret is the same thing that popular girl told you in high school when you invited her out and she said, “Oh, I’m so sorry, I’m busy Friday night.” She wasn’t busy; she just didn’t want to go out with you. “Busy” was the socially acceptable excuse of high school dating. “Expertise” is the socially acceptable excuse of B2B buyers.
You gotta have it, but don’t kid yourself that it’s enough.