Meeting Your Customers’ Value Metrics

This weekend I read two things. Each influenced me, but the combination kicked me hard.

One was a post by Chris Brogan on website best practices. In it, he critiqued his own website, concluding that he had some work to do.

In my experience, most good professionals have good things to say, though they (we) are not very good at persuading their clients to listen to them. And the toughest client for all of us to convince is—ourselves. We are great at diagnosing issues in others; not so good at seeing the pattern in the mirror. Bravo Chris.

The other piece was by Jeff Thull. I’m honored to be one whom Jeff asked to review the 2nd edition of his classic Mastering the Complex Sale. I was impressed the first time I read it, and reading it on a plane ride Sunday brought on that same rush of ‘oh wow’s yet again.

To grossly over-summarize: Thull has written the book on how to sell (and buy, and manage) in an era where needs identification itself is too complicated for the buyer alone to determine.

Brogan plus Thull: what a combination. And that got me on the subject of value metrics and customer benefits.

What My Customers Ask Me: and What I’ve Been Answering

Most of my customers ask me ‘can you point to results of increased trustworthiness in your client organizations?’ And reading Brogan and Thull today, I had to admit: I’ve done a poor job of answering that question.

First, if I’m honest, I generally don’t raise the subject. If it does come up, I have as often as not steered the discussion elsewhere. “Trust itself doesn’t even have a universal definition, how can it be measured,” I say. “Over-measurement of trust can destroy trust; metrics are overdone; and if the trust is working, you’ll know it through some major metrics like revenue, cost and speed.”

Yeah, I know. All true; but I wouldn’t find it too satisfying either. It sounds defensive. What it isn’t, is collaborative and useful.

Ouch: hey Chris, was it this hard for you to admit your website could be improved?

What I Should be Answering

Great insights, I have found, are usually simple: rarely easy, but usually simple. Jeff Thull’s Big Insight is that most sales these days assume the client knows what’s wrong, and largely how to solve the problem. Hence most sales processes aim at teasing out needs statements from clients.

That is profoundly wrong, and has been for some time. David Maister said years ago that ‘the problem is never what the client said it was in the first meeting.’ The problem definition has to be developed collaboratively. And problem definition is just the barest beginning. Thull’s work is the mental and process roadmap for redesigning supplier-buyer relationships in their entirety.

In my simple small example, what I need to do is to engage my potential clients in discussions about how they measure value; what their metrics are; and whether (or not) my service offering affects those metrics. If there’s no match, it’s my job to explore with them whether the issue is their metrics or my service offering—all done with an attitude of curiosity and a willingness to be agnostic about the outcome.

So, one of the battlegrounds is measurement. I’ll start by getting rid of the ‘battleground’ metaphor and remember this is all about a joint exploration of how to fix the world, one little product and service offering and organization at a time.

Thanks Jeff for the structured big-picture thinking, and Chris for the cold water in the face. Once again, I have met the enemy and it is me.

To present, past and future clients of mine: let’s talk about how you think about the value of trust.

Why B2B Salespeople Love Value Propositions – But Shouldn’t

I wrote yesterday about how value propositions play a role in B2B sales analogous to models in economics. Useful, but not to be confused with what really happens.

In the real B2B world, buying decisions are far more emotional than salespeople—or buyers!—like to admit. And while salespeople will admit the truth of this, only the really natural salespeople actually incorporate it into their selling.

Why is that? Why are B2B salespeople afraid to bring emotional connectedness to the sales game? Even when they acknowledge its power?

Let me clarify what I’m talking about. I’m not talking about shooting the breeze, ‘how ‘bout them Bulls,’ or commenting about the kids’ pictures on the bookshelf. I’m not talking about cheap fake intimacy, scripted active listening, or golf outings.

I’m talking about genuine concern for the whole-person well-being of the buyer as individual, and the buying organization as a group. Why do most sellers find it hard to go there?

It’s partly about fear, of course—it usually is. But in this case, something else is at work. It’s an inner conflict that too many salespeople contain within themselves: a battle between the desire to help other people, and the feeling that they must betray those same people to serve the capitalist imperatives of their corporate parent.

In other words: most salespeople think they are fundamentally at war with their customers. They think that business is a zero-sum game. They feel that “good social skills” exist ultimately to con the customer. (A study once showed that insurance salespeople all felt trust was very important, but they themselves were extremely untrusting of others).

They are hardly crazy to think this way. The reigning strategic model of our time is based on Five Forces of competition, including competition with our customers and our suppliers. Salespeople, whose job it is to make nice with customers, are simply internalizing the contradiction—no surprise if they feel schizophrenic.

As a result, they are torn. They know they have powerful skills—they can seduce buyers. But they believe those skills must be deployed on behalf of their company—and therefore against their customers’ interests. Hence to sell well is to harm the people they sell to.

Psychologically, there are only three resolutions for this dilemma. Some salespeople give in to the dark side and simply accept that their role is to move the merchandise, gain share of wallet, get the sale.

Most, I suspect, just live with the contradiction and suppress thinking about it.

But the really great salespeople rise above it. They realize that the best short-term performance comes not from managing short-term, but from managing long-term.

That means relationships–not transactions. And relationships mean emotional connections.

The great salespeople ignore the sales managers’ pleas to tweak end of quarter numbers, because they are truly in it for their customers. They know not only that long-term relationships are more profitable, but also that you don’t get them by re-inventing value propositions on every sale.

You get relationships the same way you get them in the real world. You take risks, you invest, you absorb the minor irritations, and subordinate your ego to the larger good of the relationship.

The best salespeople have opted out of the “competition” game. They do not obsess about “closing,” and don’t worry too much about short-term metrics. They don’t constantly ask themselves how they’re doing, but rather whether they’ve been doing enough right for their customers and for the relationship. They know that sales are simply the fruit on the tree of relationships.

They are other-oriented, not self-oriented; more collaborative than competitive (at least, with their customers). And above all, they don’t shy away from deeply emotional selling. Because they care—big time and long term. And it pays off.

Those people don’t sell by economic value propositions. They sell by personal commitment. They have resolved the schizophrenia problem by squarely opting for the side of the relationship, and realizing there really is no contradiction between doing that and enjoying great economics.

And paradoxically, they do better as a result. Not because they try harder to do better. But because doing better is the byproduct, the side-benefit, of doing the thing that val-prop selling just doesn’t do.

Trust-based selling just works.

Why Value Propositions are Overrated

Freud famously wondered, ‘what do women want?’

B2B sales people wonder, ‘what do buyers want?’ Unlike Freud, however, they think they know the answer.

The received wisdom is, of course, that buyers want “a compelling value proposition.” As John Caddell puts it in “Another kind of value proposition

The term “value proposition” has been in vogue in business-to-business sales for twenty years or more. In short, it means that a product for sale must, in essence, create more money (in increased revenue or reduced costs) that it costs to purchase. “If you buy my widget for $x, you’ll get $5x back over the next 10 years,” or something like that.

…The value proposition is a very logical concept. That is its beauty and its limitation.

Just one problem, as Caddell points out: it’s demonstrably not true.

Or, to be more precise, it explains far less about buying behavior than most B2B sellers like to believe. So—truth notwithstanding, the economic form of a “value proposition” remains front and center in B2B sales.

Jeffrey Gitomer puts it nicely: “People buy with their heart—then justify it with their brain.”

The late Bill Brooks, with Tom Travesano, neatly summarized a brilliant survey of several thousand buyers thusly: “People prefer to buy what they need from people who understand what it is that they want.” Not much said there about value propositions.

What “value proposition” doesn’t usually convey is precisely this sense of emotional connection. Caddell notices this too in his recent “customer anthropologizing:”

I haven’t heard one customer say, “I would recommend Company Y because we were able to increase our inventory turns and thereby reduce working capital requirements.”

Instead, they say things like, “I really like that they are easy to reach and work hard to solve my problems when I have them.” Or: “They could have nickeled-and-dimed me when I had to make some changes during implementation, but they didn’t do that.”

In other words, what sticks with customers, and makes them recommenders, are things like “reliability,” “caring about my business,” “saving me time,” “making me smarter.” In other words, the deeper, emotional, fuzzy stuff.


Yet, there’s even more. Sellers can be persuaded they need to be more emotional. But then they confront a next-level problem.

They think being friendly is the opposite of making money, and turn a simple concept into an unnecessary, fake ethical dilemma. They say either:

1. I can’t get too close to them—I have to make the sale, or
2. If I get the sale by being close to them, then I’ve conned them.

Such unnecessary angst.

It seems we may need Freud after all.

Stay tuned for the next installment in the story of Value Propositions gone astray.