Trust-based Selling, Redux ca 2018

copyright Nate Osborne 2013Over 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.

The Paradox

“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.

The Problem

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.