Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Here Comes Santa Claus...

Yes, it’s that time of year when boys and girls all over the world anxiously await the arrival of that special person in the suit who will bring them gifts and joy to finish out the year.

No, I am not talking about Saint Nick, the jolly old elf. I’m talking about the company executive who shows up in December to give away discounts to clients to close deals and make sales quotas.

You know, “Help.”

“Help” is a noun, not a verb, as in “here come ‘Help.’” It’s a term used by deal makers when their management decides they need to get involved to “help” push the deal “over the line.”

In fairness, sometimes a deal team can use an objective perspective to close out some nagging issues that the parties can’t seem to resolve. In December, however, Help usually arrives as a result of a gaping hole in the sales forecast that needs to be filled with some fast closings.

When I worked for a software company, where December 31 was the end of the fiscal year, the rumblings about Help would begin soon after Thanksgiving. If I heard that Help was coming to see me, strains of the theme to “Jaws” would start playing in my head: a pounding rhythmic pulse of foreboding.

The client, on the other hand, hears, “Here comes Santa Claus, here comes Santa Claus…” That’s because for the client, Help was an executive with a big bag full of goodies that the executive couldn’t wait to give away. And then the executive would crow about being the one who closed the deal.

If all it takes to close deals is giving away money, management should send an ATM into the negotiations instead of an experienced deal maker.

The problem with Help is: not only does the client get a bunch of money in exchange for nothing in return (which trains the client that it can get a bunch of money in exchange for nothing in return), but sometimes Help results in a bad deal.

All deals need time to develop. The more the parties talk, the more they learn about each other’s real underlying interests, challenges and goals for the transaction. Sometimes, as the deal takes on its shape, the parties find out they are misaligned and decide to hold off for a while. When Help forces a deal by throwing money at the client to get a signature, all the ingredients for success may not be mixed in and the engagement may suffer.

When making a cake, for example, one usually mixes everything together and then bakes it for 45 minutes at 350 degrees. You can’t say, “We don’t have time. Let’s fire it up for 10 minutes at 1,000 degrees and we’ll worry about sugar later.” That’s a recipe for a bitter outcome. Given the right amount of attention and time, a good deal will rise and a bad deal should fall. Unless it gets Help.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Thanks for Nothing

I’ll never forget the Thanksgiving week when I almost saved $9 million.

It was the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, 15 years ago, and I was negotiating with a software company for a license to one of their products. The price on the table was $18 million.

The salesperson called me and said, “If you sign before Thanksgiving, I’ll cut the price by 50%.”

Wow! What a deal! You’d think I’d have gone back to my chief operating officer and said, “My brilliant negotiation skills saved you $9 million! We just have to sign the contract tomorrow!”

I did not. I told the COO we would not take the offer. The contract was not ready and I would have had to call in all kinds of favors internally to make the deal happen in 24 hours during a holiday week. Instead, I told the COO: “The sun will rise and the sun will set on Thanksgiving and we’ll still pay $9 million next week. That is, if we want to do the deal.”

The salesperson was furious when he found out I wouldn’t sign right away. “You should be thanking me for saving you so much money!” he yelled.

“Thank you?” I said. “You just showed me how much you were overcharging me! And you revealed that when you said this was your ‘best price’ you were not being truthful. Thanks for nothing.”

In the end, we did not sign the deal. As a result of the salesperson’s behavior we reevaluated our needs and decided to go with another product.

It was a rookie mistake on the part of the salesperson. Offering a drastic discount does not motivate a client. It raises suspicion. A client starts to ask, “How many other deals have we done where I didn’t get that discount? How long have I been overpaying this vendor?”

The salesperson was clearly trying to meet some internal sales deadline. He must have thought a fading opportunity strategy was the best path to influence. His error was acting in self-interest. His goal was not to give, but to get. And nothing will destroy trust faster than a party’s self-interest. To paraphrase the great English sales strategist, Bill Shakespeare: self-interest is the green-eyed monster that mocks the relationship that both parties should seek to build.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

How to Blink

I can’t find a book on how to blink.

I went on Amazon and found a book called, “Blink.” It has nothing to do with blinking. Malcolm Gladwell, you fooled me!

I think I know why there is no book on blinking: no one needs an instruction book on how to blink. It’s a reflex. We just do it.

Maybe that’s why there are so many books on sales. It’s not a reflex. People have to learn.

But what if we could make parts of the sales process a reflex? A reflex is an action that is performed in response to a stimulus without conscious thought. Imagine what an awesome salesperson you could be if you were selling without even thinking! Can we really teach people how to make sales a “reflex”?


And that’s what every good salesperson knows: there is no response you should give to a client without conscious thought. Because the first thing you have to do is listen. Active listening requires effort. It requires concentration. It requires analysis.

In short, selling cannot become a reflex. It’s a complex activity. And it’s hard.

So beware of anyone who tries to sell you the “secret” of selling (N.B: if it’s advertised it’s not much of a secret) or a “fast-path” or “sure-fire” way to sell. Each sale is as unique as the buyer.

What you can do, however, is develop good habits. While not as automatic as a reflex, a habit may be the next best thing. Here are three that will improve your results as a sales person:

  • Do what you said you’d do when you said you’d do it. If you get in the habit of always following through on your commitments, you’ll build trust with your clients. Trust grows accounts.
  • Shutup. Stop trying to sell and listen more. Get in the habit of asking questions, not making statements. You can’t provide a solution unless you understand the problem. When clients perceive you are trying to understand their issues and help them succeed, it builds trust with your clients. Trust grows accounts.
  • Admit the truth. If you made a mistake, admit it. If the competition is better at something, admit it. If you get in the habit of being truthful and transparent with your clients, you’ll have greater credibility. Credibility builds trust with your clients. And, guess what? Trust grows accounts. 

Friday, September 29, 2017

The Lady of the House

I remember the first time I got a phone call from a salesperson asking to speak with “the lady of the house.” (Remember those days? When your telephone hung on the wall and rang?)

Though I married the “lady of the house” 31 years ago, this was already an outdated opening line. It echoed of black-and-white TV shows from the 1950s where a vacuum cleaner salesman in a suit and fedora was standing on someone’s front porch selling door-to-door. Today, asking for “the lady of the house” would be properly derided as sexist, perpetuating negative stereotypes of women.

From a sales perspective, though, the question had logic: I want to speak to the buyer, the person with the problem that my product can solve. The vacuum salesman wanted to sell to the key decision-maker on buying household appliances.

It’s a fundamental principle of sales that I find many salespeople today don’t appreciate, namely, that having a conversation with a client employee is not “selling” unless that employee has the authority to make a decision and buy. If you’re pitching your product or services to anyone other than the person who can and will make a purchase decision, it’s a waste of time.

“Can” and “will.” And you need both criteria.

“Can” means the individual is empowered to commit the organization to enter into a deal. That individual controls the P&L, has a budget and/or manages the “buying process,” such as a procurement professional.

“Will” means that, given the appropriate criteria, that individual will make a decision to do a deal. They are ready to buy. The criteria may be meeting specific requirements or determining that your value proposition (better/faster/cheaper) has merit.

More simply put, you can’t close a deal with someone who can’t and won’t make a buying decision!

So when putting together your power map of the client organization, be sure you’ve identified who the “buyer” is. Validate why that person is the “buyer." Maybe it’s been made clear in an RFP. Maybe you’ve tried to sell to this company before. If you’re not sure, ask. “Can you tell me what the process is for us to get this to signature?” (Read “The Five Hows of Sales” for other questions to ask yourself. Knowing you are selling to the right person will save a lot of wasted time and allow you to focus on understanding the client’s goals and building your relationship so you can collaborate on how to make the client successful.

And, for the record, “the lady” of our house did not buy our most recent vacuum cleaner. I did.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Look What She Made Me Write

One of the most important attributes a person needs to be successful in business is the ability to make a decision.

One of the most important attributes a person needs to be a successful leader and role model to others is the willingness to be accountable for that decision.

So I was disappointed when I heard the song Taylor Swift just released. Ms. Swift has, for several years now, tried to be an example of and promote empowerment among young women. As a father with a similar mindset for my three adult daughters, her messages and actions often resonated well with the guidance I provide to them. From her public persona, Ms. Swift shows strength and decisiveness and a keen acumen for managing her own career, providing a good role model for young women, whether in entertainment or business.

But her new single, “Look What You Made Me Do,” undermines the very notion of empowerment and decision-making. The message of the song is that the actions of others have forced Ms. Swift to change, become tougher, and seek revenge. What could be less empowering than to take action because someone else “made” you act? It undermines the core of free will and personal independence to claim someone “made” you do something.

A decision is choosing an option and deciding to act on it. Or not. Regardless of the situation, one always has a choice. Do something (whatever “something” may be) or do nothing. Choosing not to act is a decision to do nothing. Strong, independent people make decisions based on a perception that one choice is better than another. Strong, independent people can't be "made" to make a decision.   

I don’t usually use this forum to critique music and the arts, but her message comes at such an interesting time where our culture seems to have lost the notion of “accountability.” And Ms. Swift has such a powerful impact on that culture that, well, look what she made me write!

Our newspapers and televisions are, almost daily, full of examples of people in government, entertainment or industry who try to shift the blame for their bad decisions or comments to others: “I don’t recall,” “I was taken out of context” and “It’s not true” (until facts emerge to show it is true and the story changes). These are among the phrases that have become routine responses to the question “Why did you do that?” or “Why did you say that?”

In the 70s, a television character named “Geraldine” (played by comedian Flip Wilson) would find herself in a scandalous situation and defend her actions by saying, “The Devil made me do it!” The line always evoked a laugh because Geraldine had, by that time, made so many bad decisions that attributing them to “the Devil” was ridiculous. Geraldine had made her choices but refused accountability.

One can debate the true message of the song because Ms. Swift sings about how the bad behavior of others has made her stronger, so there arguably is a message of empowerment. Maybe. If that’s true, a better title would have been “Look What I Decided To Do.” That title better evokes a theme of independence in making choices. Yes, it’s not as catchy. I suppose that’s why I am in sales and not a songwriter.

Monday, July 31, 2017

A Fistful of "No"

Derek Jeter can’t say no. At least, not the right way.

During the ceremony at Yankee Stadium to retire his jersey number (2), Jeter’s nephew, Jalen, asked if, when he plays for the Yankees, he could wear his uncle’s number. Jeter said, “No.” The exchange was recorded in a widely-viewed video.

As soon as Jalen started to whimper, Jeter realized he’d made a mistake and tried to explain that no one can wear his number because it’s being retired. Too late. The emotional tide for Jalen had turned.

Because he doesn’t have children, Jeter didn’t know the proper way to say “no” to a child. It’s a powerful word that literally can change emotions in a heartbeat. That’s why saying “no” the right way to a client can make all the difference in how you work through difficult issues. I have found, for example, that instead of saying “no” I can often solve the issue by giving the client the option to see what “yes” would look like. For example:

Client: “Can you cut the price by 10%?”

Me: “Yes, I can, if we make some adjustments to the proposal. I’d have to reduce the number of managers I am using on the engagement, which may increase the risk of a delay. That means we’d have to revisit our milestone commitments. I know you said hitting the schedule was the most important concern for you, but if price outweighs timing we can figure out what a revised schedule looks like.”

Rather than hearing “no” in this exchange, the client, instead, is hearing “I have to weigh my priorities.” The client actually gets to choose which direction to go in, and giving options is a powerful way to work through an issue.

But, I have learned, sometimes you do just have to say “no.”

During an engagement I had with a large telecommunications company, we were negotiating rates for our consultants. The client was pressing for a rate reduction for a specialized group of technology experts. We said we couldn’t cut those rates. The client persisted. They wanted everyone at the same rate. My colleague, Russell, who had been the delivery lead for this client for several years, was getting frustrated. Russell was of a size that he could have had a successful career as an NFL linebacker had he not chosen consulting.

I tried to show them what “yes” would look like. They ignored me and pressed their demand. I tried to reason with them. Russell sat by quietly fuming, growing frustrated by their persistence and my inability to just deliver the answer. Finally, Russell had enough. He raised his arm and brought his fist crashing down on the table and bellowed, “No!”

That’s all he said. The client was startled, then relaxed. It was the answer the client was waiting to hear. Russell’s decision to deliver a fistful of “no” ended the discussion.

The lesson I learned that day was that delivering a “no” requires tailoring the answer for both emotion and custom. I had the experience to know different ways to deliver a “no.” Russell was familiar enough with this client’s usual negotiation style to know which way would actually be effective.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Everybody is Selling!

Imagine a company spending millions of dollars to research, develop and produce a valuable and well-respected product, then spending millions more to market it, and then putting the entire customer relationship in the hands of a 12-year-old on a bike.

Sounds like a pretty stupid way to do business, doesn’t it? Well, that’s how the billion dollar newspaper industry worked for decades. The newspaper’s relationship with its customers was through untrained young kids flinging the paper onto subscribers’ porches/lawns/bushes. And if the kid didn’t do a good job, there was no “governance” process where they sat down with the customer and explained why they failed their service delivery commitment. The customer simply canceled their subscription and went to the competition.

A lot of technology companies today are not too far removed from that short-sightedness. They spend millions pursuing work with their clients. When they land a huge systems integration engagement or managed services contract, they send in a delivery team untrained in how to handle a customer relationship. I am not talking about the account executive or the project manager; I mean the developers facing off with the client day in and day out.

Years ago, when I was a newspaper editor, I recognized the absurdity of how the industry cut costs in delivery. The lesson I took from that into my role in sales has been a powerful tool in winning business: when you work for a services company, there is not a “sales department.” Everybody is selling! From the CEO who appears on the financial talk shows to the first-line developer who works in a cube alongside the client, every interaction is a sales discussion. Each one builds on your company’s reputation for reliability. If my first-line delivery team is with the client enthusiastically solving problems every day, my job is so much easier. The praises of the quality of my team echoes through the halls to the C-suite and the conference room where I am pitching my proposal.

Investing in sales and relationship management training for the people who actually deliver what you sell pays tremendous dividends: better referrals, better overall customer satisfaction, easier to sell new business, easier to resolve conflicts. Sure, you can save some money by just training your people how to throw the newspaper on the lawn. But when your product lands in a mud puddle, don’t be surprised when your client switches to the competition.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Ryan Gosling Stole My Wife

Last Friday night, my wife and I decided to go out to dinner. I came downstairs in jeans and a t-shirt with plans to get a pizza. I didn’t even shave. After all, we’ve been married for over 30 years. How much effort do I need to make? It’s the same woman I see every day!

My wife, on the other hand, looked beautiful, as she always does.

Outside, a car horn honked. In the driveway was a red Ferrari and Ryan Gosling was behind the wheel. He knocked on the door. My wife opened it and Ryan Gosling handed her a bouquet of flowers. Ryan Gosling offered to take her to a 5-star French restaurant.

Off she went.

Thirty years of marriage and, in one day, Ryan Gosling stole my wife.

Fortunately, not a true story. (I’d be heartbroken!) But it can happen to you with your clients.

You have a relationship for 3, 7 maybe 10 years and it’s gotten comfortable. You’re on autopilot. The work gets done, maybe not with the same zest and sizzle as in the first year or two. But no one’s complaining. Suddenly, the competition knocks on the door. The competition gets a meeting. The competition starts whispering sweet nothings in the client’s ear, such as “data analytics,” “robotic processing automation,” or “lower cost of ownership.”

Next thing you know, the competition has your client in the passenger seat and they’re driving away.

Incumbency is one of the two hardest things to sell against. (I’d be interested in comments on what you think the second is.) And complacency is the Achilles heel of the incumbent service provider.

Remember: if you don’t treat your old client like a new client, they soon will be an old client.

How you handle dates with your significant other is up to you. Just watch out for Ryan Gosling!

Friday, April 14, 2017

No More Threes

I never expected a professional basketball player to be the inspiration for a lesson in client service.

In business there’s an old adage: you get what you measure. For example, if a company is measuring how many days it has gone without a safety incident, efficiency may suffer. Workers may do things more slowly or with undue care because moving quickly and having an accident would ruin the company’s safety record. So the company measures safety and it gets safety; but at the expense of efficiency.

When negotiating contracts with clients, I see this challenge arise when we are developing the service level agreement. This is the part of the contract that lays out how the parties will measure the performance of the services, such as system uptime; how fast we respond to issues; or number of transactions processed per day.

I take a great deal of care discussing service levels with clients because sometimes what the client asks to measure will not reflect how well the delivery team is doing. The client may complain that the services are inefficient, and that may be because we’re measuring safety! So I strive to focus the measurements on what matters most to the client’s desired business outcomes.

This week I smiled when I read a story about a decision NBA player Moe Harkless made in the last days of the season. Harkless plays for the Portland Trailblazers and has a contract with certain performance incentives. One of them is a payment of $500,000 if his 3-point shooting percentage is at least 35% for the season. On April 4, Harkless decided: No more threes. Why? His percentage for the season stood at 35.05%. One missed 3-pointer would take his average below 35% and cost him a half-million dollars. That’s an expensive brick!

Consider that Harkless was not being measured on number of games won. So the Trailblazers could lose a game without consequence to Harkless because that’s not how he’s measured. Once he hit 35% he’s met his service level. And the owners got what they measured, 35% 3-point accuracy, even though what they really want is wins! The 3-point clause did not make Harkless less competitive, however. He switched to driving to the basket. He was still going to take shots; just no more threes.

So before you and the client leverage some form contract or previous deal to measure delivery performance, have a conversation. What matters to the employees? What matters to leadership? What determines business success? Measure those things that will help your client feel like they are “winning” in their business. Because they’ll get what they measure.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

I'm Not Gonna Say Anything!

Warren Beatty was in a quandary.

At the Academy Awards ceremony last Sunday night Beatty, the Oscar-winning actor/director/producer, was on live TV giving out the biggest award at the biggest event for the industry he has been a part of for over 50 years.

And he didn’t want to do the wrong thing.

By now what happened with the Best Picture award is old news. (If you’ve been asleep since Saturday, Beatty and his “Bonnie and Clyde” co-star, Faye Dunaway, announced the wrong movie to win the Oscar.) What’s interesting to look at from a business perspective is how his split-second decision changed the way the mess unfolded.

Beatty knew something was wrong from the moment he read the card in the envelope. In fact, he looked to see if, perhaps, there was another card. Then he paused and contemplated how to handle the situation.

I don’t know what I would have done under the same circumstances (do any of us?); but we do know how his decision took what could have been an uncomfortable moment for him and a few people backstage, and turned it into an epic blunder impacting him, the production teams of “La La Land” and “Moonlight” and causing cringes throughout the entire audience, including millions of people watching on TV.

Think about it: he knew the card was wrong. It had Emma Stone’s name on it, not the name of the producers. Why would Beatty know that’s wrong? He has one of those cards! He won Best Picture as producer of “Reds” in 1982.

What could he have done differently? In the moment he could have said, “I’m sorry, this is confusing. The name on this card doesn’t seem right.”

Someone would have come out from backstage, maybe the now much-maligned accountant who handed him the card, and said, “Sorry, wrong card.” Then the right name would be announced. The right people would have come on stage. The right people would have dealt with the mishap. And Beatty would be viewed as a hero for stopping what would become the greatest embarrassment in movie award history. (I’d say “award history” in general, but Kanye West coming on stage to challenge Taylor Swift and Beck is still pretty high up there.)

However, rather than raising his hand and potentially looking foolish doing something that no one at the Academy Awards has ever done (that is, stop the ceremony and say, “I think there is something wrong here…”), he decided, in that moment, “I’m not gonna say anything!” He punted. He showed the card to Faye Dunaway, who gleefully announced “La La Land” as the winner.

The rest is awkward television history.

Interestingly, Beatty still gets the blame, though Dunaway actually announced the winner. As well he should. He saw a mistake and chose not to say anything. And it became a bigger mistake.

A valuable lesson in decision making to make us better business people in serving our clients: If you see something wrong, say something right. Bad news doesn’t get better with time, and mistakes don’t get solved by passing the problem on to someone else.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Shut Up and Wait

Too often, sales people don’t know when to stop selling. There is an old adage for this (as there often is for practical advice): “If you’re still talking after the client says ‘yes,’ you’re buying it back.” The idea is that once the client agrees to move forward, there is no need to keep explaining why they should move forward! In fact, you might undo their decision.

I have found a related behavior among sales people, and that is the desire to get to a final answer in the room. While working on an important issue, we try to persuade the client to consider our point of view and the client disagrees. Our perspective is so obvious we can’t believe the client is not agreeing! We try again and again to persuade, and the client holds firm.

If the answer to the problem is that obvious, and the client is a rational business person, the client will eventually agree.

They just want to agree in private.

If a client puts a point of view on the table, and is suddenly asked to take it back, often there is a fear of losing face. Especially if they are so clearly wrong. The next step for the salesperson is to design a way for the client to back off their position and not hurt their standing or status. In sales, this is called “building a golden bridge” to allow the client a glorious retreat.

If you don’t know how to build a golden bridge, here’s some simple advice: make your point, and then shut up and wait.

Often the client will go into a caucus with the team, come back and agree with you. The time alone allows the client to rationalize a change in position. Perhaps they will seek other changes in the deal to balance their decision and give legitimacy to the change.

This occurs in personal relationships as well. A discussion can get emotional and people lock in on positions. Once the situation cools down, and everyone can think rationally, the answer becomes clear. The key is to make it easy for people to agree with you and solve the issue. If we focus on being “right” or “winning the argument” a client (or significant other) will remember our behavior solving the issue more then they will remember the solution.

Don’t strive to be the smartest person in the room; strive to be the best problem solver in the room.