If you want the business, find the spark!

I have a friend of mine who likes to use the term “spark” to describe the emotional connection between two people beginning a romantic relationship. Most of us can recall a situation in our past where all the “specifications” for a new relationship were perfectly met, but where the chemistry between the two people just wasn’t strong enough to create an authentic romantic connection.

I’d like to suggest that, as we are talking about a business opportunity with a client or prospect, some of the same emotional wiring that creates a romantic spark is going to be very influential in whether or not we find the energy to support working together.

People have said, and I completely agree, that most people make decisions based on emotions, and then rearrange the facts and logic path to support a decision they’ve already made on an emotional basis.

Here are two questions to consider as we are talking with a client or prospect about a new project they are considering:

Can we feel the emotion they are carrying for the project?

Can we find a complementary emotion in both our client and ourselves that could become the chemistry that drives our working together on that project and others to come?

The answers to these questions could help us understand how committed our contact is to this business outcome.   Often, someone may have reached out to us to discuss a project which, frankly, they don’t care a flip about.   They’re only engaging us to satisfy a commitment to someone else to “look into it”.  That’s a long way from “get ‘er done!”  On their side of the equation, there is no “spark”.   That could be a good sign that this project is a nonstarter. Wish them well, pick up your hat, and walk (maybe run!) for the door.

On the other hand, if we believe that the value proposition for the project is genuinely compelling for this company, then we need to find someone else in the organization to become our champion, someone who has the spark (maybe even created the spark) and who provide the emotional energy for the project to move forward.   Continue the conversation and probe to find that person.  If you can engage that person in the conversation, your chances for success become infinitely better.

Epilogue:  The chances for creating a winning value proposition and a long term client relationship get infinitely better if we can find the emotional “spark” for both the project at hand and the on-going consultant-client relationship between us.

 

Drive Discovery from Curiosity

Think about the last friendship you formed.

I am willing to bet that you didn’t spend a lot of time in that first conversation stressing to them what a good friend you could be, how you could bring value to the friendship in a variety of ways, how the friendship would benefit them, and what average ROI they would get by engaging in a friendship with you.

Sounds like a pretty silly way to start a friendship, doesn’t it? And yet consultants often worry that their first meeting has to convey a strong value proposition, differentiate them from any possible competitors, and lead to a series of next steps resulting in the prospect engaging them!  … and all of that in a short 30 minute meeting or email.

Instead, what you really did with a potential friend was to use conversation and questions to understand them, their hometown, what college they attended, what sports teams they follow, their hobbies, how many kids they have and what ages, and so on and so on…  If all went well, you found enough common ground to continue and deepen the sharing.  And as you framed your questions, you probably didn’t know the answers when you asked them.

Granted, a new business relationship doesn’t start out exactly like a personal friendship, but a lot of the key ingredients are exactly the same. People respond to genuine interest and curiosity about what makes them and their business unique and special. They will be pleased if you have a broad enough background to have an interesting conversation with them.  They’ll notice how well you react to their answers, anticipate the business challenges they are facing,  explore the implications of those challenges,  and inquire about what possible paths forward they are contemplating.  They will feel more like they are talking with an industry colleague and not someone who wants to open their wallet and take money out of it.

In the video which follows, I interview Kriss Kirchhoff, an experienced Angel Investor and mentor to CEO’s across the US.   Previously, Kriss was the President of ACCO Brands and a Vice President and General Manager for the Hewlett Packard Company.  In those roles, Kriss ran businesses ranging in size from $700M to over $1B.  He has formed dozens of high value relationships with consultants, and he has led teams of consultants.   Kriss shares what he believes are the key behaviors that consultants must demonstrate to build the trust and credibility inherent in a high value partnership.

Here are three important behaviors which Kriss discusses in our interview:

Demonstrate genuine curiosity with your questions.   Clients judge us by the questions we ask.  Your questions can be informed by your homework, but they should be relevant to the last thing the client said.   That said, it’s OK to come in with a prepared list of questions if relevant, and clearly supported by your preparation.  (E.g. “John, I noticed in your recent article in Forbes, that you focused on the impact of globalization on your strategy…”    Don’t lead the witness.   A lot of us think we’re being clever by “telling”, using leading questions where we already know the answer.  Most people sense that lack of authenticity in a heartbeat, instinctively resist, and we’ve taken a hit in our level of trust and credibility.

Connect the Dots.  Bring your experience and wisdom to the conversation.  Be a continuing learner, and take the time to reflect on the key things you’ve learned and how to convey them with real stories.  If you’re paying attention, you are building a library of powerful stories.  The story you capture today may win you an engagement ten years from now.   In the middle of an energetic dialogue, those stories will connect with something your client has said, and you will bring them up in context.  The client will realize that you are seasoned and can relate to their world.  That feeling from the client is worth a thousand PowerPoint slides.

Trust the discovery conversation, the questions you ask, and the connections you make to showcase your value.    We often overthink the best way to demonstrate our unique value.  If we’ve done a good job with preparation, asking curious questions, and providing informed reaction to customer comments, then we can usually trust that there will an opportunity to bridge into value.  (“You know, John, we had just such a problem come up in our recent engagement with Acme Inc. and here’s how we addressed it…”

I hope you enjoyed the interview with Kriss.  If you skipped over it, here’s your second chance to benefit from his experience and wisdom.  (An Interview with Kriss Kirchhoff)

Five steps to winning client trust by speaking your truth with power

Executive-640Recent research of buyers of high value solutions is telling us that those buyers first interact with providers quite late in their buying process, and come to the discussion already very well informed about the value proposition and basic functions and features of the solution.  (Matthew Dixon 2012)  When they do engage, they are more likely to make their buying decisions based on the credibility of the consultant or business development team, than the traditional focus on features and functions.

The implication of this trend is that the selling team’s ability to create a credible and trusting relationship with the prospect is their most powerful weapon in winning the business.  One major factor in winning that trust is the consultant’s ability to manage conflict in a way that is simultaneously authentic to the consultant’s beliefs and fully aligned to the client’s best interests.  

The two-minute video clip which follows considers how improving basic relationship and communication skills can make a critical difference creating that differentiating combination of trust and credibility.

Epilogue:

Consultants and sales teams can build this level of trust and credibility by:

  1.  Ensuring that they have complete mastery of the technology and business foundation of their solution. This has always been critical, but it is no longer sufficient by itself. (Block 2011 )
  2. Leveraging their business acumen to analyze the client’s current beliefs and current situation to craft a challenge which adds value in a unique and differentiating way.  (Matthew Dixon 2012)
  3. Assessing and developing their emotional intelligence and specifically the traits of empathy (seeing the world through their eyes and walking in their experience), emotional self-awareness (driving the personal confidence to challenge) and assertiveness (challenging in a way that is authentic, but does not alienate the client).  Take an EQ assessment and get help in developing these key attributes. (Steven J. Stein 2011)
  4. Employing strong communication (open and powerful questions and active listening skills) to establish credibility and demonstrate full alignment with the client’s needs and best interests. (Adams 2009)
  5. Creating a credible path to implementing the solution which is possible and coherent with the client’s fundamental business objectives and environmental realities. (Chip Heath 2010)

End Notes and Good Reads:

  • Adams, M. (2009). Change your questions, change your life: 10 powerful tools for life and work.
  • Block, P. (2011 ). Flawless consulting: a guide to getting your expertise used. San Francisco, Pfeiffer, an imprint of Wiley.
  • Chip Heath, D. H. (2010). Switch: how to change things when change is hard. New York, Crown Publishing Group.
  • Matthew Dixon, B. A. (2012). The Challenger Sale: Taking Control of the Customer Conversation. New York, NY, Penguin Group.
  • Steven J. Stein, H. E., Bock (2011). The EQ Edge: emotional intelligence and your success, 3rd Edition, Josey Bass.

 

Social Selling, An Update

Sales-Brief-Case-720Buying in the B2B space is increasingly incorporating social networking as a key component of the buying process.

The sales people who take advantage of that trend are therefore more likely to be successful than their colleagues using more traditional approaches. A recent study by the Aberdeen group found that sales professionals who were taking advantage of social selling were achieving a 16% gain in year-over-year selling revenue, four times the gain at similar companies who are not taking advantage of social selling.

The social network LinkedIn has become one of the leaders in enabling social selling for salespeople in the B2B segment. LinkedIn’s research has discovered that that sales people using their social selling service are over 50% more likely to exceed their quota, three times more likely to significantly exceed quota. As well, their sales leaders are promoted to executive levels 60% faster.

About a year ago I collaborated with a long time sales and marketing colleague Susan Tormollen to creat e a series of posts which discussed the importance of a tight alignment between marketing and sales in eliminating common disconnects across the marketing to sales interface.

In Susan’s current role, she and her team have experienced significant advantages of social selling on the selling side. Susan, as a buyer of marketing services, has also witnessed first hand the advantage seized by a company who used social selling to seek and win her business.

In this four minute video interview, Susan discusses those experiences and lays out some first steps for companies wanting to get on board with of this significant trend, and to capture some of the sales performance benefits noted by LinkedIn.

Epilogue:

Here are some of the next steps noted by Susan, echoing many of the ideas of our discussions last spring, but in the context of improved and fast moving capabilities available in the interconnected world:

  • Begin with a solid commitment from sales and marketing leadership to invest in the collaboration.
  • Lay the foundation by building a social selling infrastructure
  • Dedicate the time and teamwork for sale and marketing to coordinate very tightly to identify the opportunity and the key buying elements to target.
  • Create transparent and smooth handoffs back and forth between sales and marketing through the entire duration of the campaign.

Join the Conversation!

Add your ideas and comments  below.

The DNA of a Powerful Question

DNA_960“The processes used by a coach, a counselor, a psychotherapist or a guru are similar:  they build the awareness and responsibility of the client.”  (John Whitmore)

I was in my manager Bob’s office, and we were going toe to toe.  I don’t even remember the specific issue we were discussing, but I had very firm ideas about the direction I wanted to take, and he was being equally clear that he didn’t think my plan was a good one.  Finally, he stopped, looked me right in the eye, and asked, “How willing are you to completely own the outcome?”  And then he went silent and waited.

That moment was probably about 30 years ago. Yet I remember it in HD quality – where we were standing in his office, and the look on his face as he leveled that question at me.  It is as clear as if it was yesterday. With nine words, Bob had asked me a powerful question and was waiting for my response.

Powerful questions get their name from the idea that they evoke powerful levels of thought and produce significant clarity for the client. In that moment, Bob had let go of his strong advocacy for his approach, and just asked me how committed I was to my approach and the resulting business impact. Instead of granting permission, he was challenging me to think into the future, project the implications of my proposed path, and take full responsibility for my bet.  To use Whitmore’s language, he was asking me to rethink my proposal (awareness) and then take full responsibility for it.

Here are what I have learned to be the genetic markers of an exceptional question:

It demands thought and reflection on the part of the receiver.

The best questions don’t have easy answers. They challenge the listener to go deep into their own knowledge, beliefs, values, and emotions, to respond. When we ask a powerful question, we have given our client an opportunity to become more deeply aware of all of those elements, and to process how they interact relative to the goal.  Almost inevitably, that process sets off reflection and integration, will lead the client to make a connection they had not previously made.   We are giving our clients a huge gift.

It is built on the foundation of a solid understanding of the big picture, critical issues, and overarching sense of purpose.

The relevance and depth of your question reveals to your client that you have done your homework and have taken in all that they told you previously.  You cared enough to understand them.   You’ve built on that background to frame a relevant question whose answer will deepen your mutual understanding of the issue at hand.  Not only are you gathering information, but you are strengthening the level of trust that binds you and your client.

It is not driven by the consultant’s agenda.

Too often, we use questions which are leading, and which can be received as a form of persuasion through cross-examination.  People are amazingly perceptive in picking up loaded questions. Two negative results occur.  First, the client instinctively puts up barriers based on the level of distrust that the question engenders. The relationship between advisor and client moves in a negative direction. Secondly, the chances of having any really new or helpful insight are greatly diminished when the barriers have been thrown up.

It is short and simply framed.

Brevity comes from clarity and preparedness.  When we’re not well prepared, we are crafting the question on the fly.  The resulting question has multiple components, wanders, back tracks and is dumped on the plate in a heap.  Great coaches like to talk about effective dialogue as a dance.  With commitment, presence, understanding, curiosity and experience, we are able to sense the rhythm of the conversation and help our partner move to where the music is taking them.

Epilogue:

Give your clients the gift of clarity and commitment by asking them powerful questions.

Great Reads: 

Whitmore, J. (2002). Coaching for Performance: GROWing People, Performance, and Purpose. London, Nicholas Brealey Publishing.

 

 

Serve Before You Sell!

ConsultingThis month’s tip:  Add value to to your team or client before worrying about how you will be compensated for that service.  Said another way, advise and serve as if you are independently wealthy.

It was winter in 1974 and I was on temporary duty in Kansas City, attending an advanced technical school for Air Force communications engineers. A buddy and I had noticed that Hewlett-Packard created a series of very impressive technical notes that would be helpful to the technicians that we supervised. We decided to go to the local HP office and raid their shelves of all the relevant notes we could find. While we were there, we met the local district manager, and talked to him about how HP salesmen plied their craft. Mind you, that was 42 years ago, but I still remember vividly something that district manager said. He told a story about how HP field engineers often helped their customers use a competitor’s piece of equipment to make complicated technical measurements. Those field engineers didn’t earn a dime off of that service they gave their clients. But it was part of the ethic of HP at the time, that you helped your customer with whatever task was in front of them – whether or not that act of service benefited you in any way. Of course, customers did repay it, in loyalty and future business.  (HP was the industry leader in electronic instrumentation for many decades.)  But in that moment, the service to the customer was selfless and came ahead of any idea of compensation.

That conversation made a huge impression on me and it was a key influence in my deciding later in my career to join HP as one of those field engineers.

Jagdish Sheth,  in his book, Clients for Life (Jagdish Sheth 2000) coins a term he calls “selfless independence”.  He says this: “It is a foundational attribute for anyone who aspires to become a trusted adviser to their clients.  Without selfless independence, you lack substance as a client adviser – you’re just another expert for hire. With it, you are able to inspire both respect and loyalty from your clients.”

What about the independence piece of the equation?

When we are independent, we take the position that is in the best interests of the client. Sometimes, that is not what the client wants. They may have seized on another approach which they love, but which we know from our expertise is not the right solution for them. We are much more persuasive in that discussion if we are courageous in our approach.  Patrick Lencioni, in Getting Naked (Lencioni 2010), talks about the debilitating impact on our effectiveness when we fear losing the business.  Someone who is independently wealthy does not fear the loss of an individual deal. Think about the last negotiation you were in.  When you knew you had another alternative, you could be more assertive in the bargaining, and your counterpart in the negotiation always seemed to sense that.

Acting from a spirit of financial independence frees us to “give away the business”, to consult first, and sell later.  Demonstrating that generosity (both in tangible and intangible ways) builds trust and loyalty.  By going to service first, we are demonstrating what we know and what we can do in an immediately valuable way.  We are building credibility in our expertise.

Epilogue:

“Consulting is a relationship business. A special product may make you competitive. Differentiated services may make you distinct. But only carefully crafted relationships will create a breakthrough firm.”  (Weiss 2003)

Three great reads: 

Jagdish Sheth, A. S. (2000). Clients for Life: how great professionals develop breakthrough relationships. New York, Simon and Schuster.

Lencioni, P. (2010). Getting Naked, a business fable about shedding the three fears that sabotage client loyalty. San Francisco, Jossey-Bass.

Weiss, A. (2003). Million Dollar Consulting: The professional’s guide to growing a practice. New York, McGraw-Hill.

 

 

The first question: What do you really want? (What is compelling you to act?)

Line of ForceI was frustrated.

Over several meetings, we had come to a detailed understanding of the learning outcomes the client hoped to achieve in a series of workshops on relationship building skills.

I had been able to draw strong lines between the pains they were feeling and the workshop designs.  We had talked in depth about how the programs would improve the outcomes her sales force was achieving.

As we wrapped the last meeting, the client seemed poised to close the engagement, and just asked for some time to review the proposal with the VP of HR.

And that was the end of the road….

Several months later, despite multiple attempts to revive it, the discussion had gone cold.  The client wasn’t responding.  The opportunity was dead.  Stone. Cold. Dead.

What had I missed?

One of the gifts we give our business colleagues (note that I didn’t say “prospect”?  See note below.)  is clarity about what they want, a realistic sense of where they are, and well their current actions are working for them to close that gap.  The transition of this opportunity from live and engaged to cold and dead, made me question if we had been as clear about the opportunity, and whether the benefits were as compelling as I had thought.

Question One:  “What change do you truly want?”

“What will be different?  How will you know?  How will the firm’s position be different?  How will your stature and success be different?”  Probe around every dimension of their future vision that you can think of.  Probe around the emotions:  “How will it feel to be in this future vision?”  (See my earlier blog article around empathy and emotion.)

Question Two:  “How well is your current approach working for you?”

This simple, open question lets them tell you in their own words, what their current state is.  If you have done your homework, you already have a working hypothesis of their business issues.  This hypothesis will serve you later as you probe around their initial answer.  But what you don’t know now is the inside story, the business impact and the emotional impact on them and other key stakeholders.

Question One minus Question Two equals The Gap

That gap between desired future state and their current state and current efforts provides the business case and emotional energy (think compelling event) for what they must do to bring the change to life.  Without that emotional energy, they won’t have the courage and the will to win (or even engage) the internal battle for funding, project priority, etc.

Salesmen, beware!

When we are helping clients articulate their future vision, it is too soon to reveal the future you hope for them, and your recommended path to get there. Once you assert your value proposition and unwrap your solution, you have ended the discovery discussion.

In my situation, I began to question whether I had moved to the close too quickly.  Or perhaps I had failed to accommodate the visions of other individuals who had to agree with the need and the value proposed.

True advisors have the patience and discipline to divorce themselves from their favored outcome and path at this point in the discovery.  They must trust the client to envision the outcome that’s going to work the best for them.  Further, they must trust themselves and their solution enough to believe that, at the right time, they can describe a realistic path that will be simple and compelling.

Epilogue:

As advisors, we use questions and dialogue to help our clients develop greater clarity on both current state and future state.   By doing so, we earn their trust.  That trust gives us permission, later, to help them inform, or even challenge, their vision.  Once the vision is clear, then we can help them evaluate a number of possible paths forward, including that offered by our solution.

By framing our prospect as a colleague, more than a potential buyer of our stuff, we are less likely to trigger the emotional resistance we all have, to being sold something.

This is much easier to say, than to do.  Credibility as a colleague means that we really do understand their business – lots (probably years!) of experience and personal homework on their industry.  Hard as it is to come by, that core business acumen is at the foundation of our power as advisors.

I never said this was easy.

Business Development: How much is enough?

SellingWhen I speak with consulting colleagues who are solo’s or small companies, one of the topics that comes up a lot is,  “how do we balance our workload between generating new business and delivering the business that we have already sold?”

When we’re in delivery mode, we often become totally consumed, and we just don’t get around to doing the routine business development activities such as keeping in touch with former clients and approaching new ones. We wind up paying the piper for that when our current work is finished and we’re on the bench until we can generate more. With sales cycles getting longer, that means lost opportunities, and big swings in our revenue production.

But how much business development is enough?

To answer that, let’s begin by considering a simple case study:

Let’s say that we offer a one-day business planning workshop and we charge $5,000 for customization and delivery. We would like to sell an additional 12 workshops each year (one a month) for a revenue increase of $60,000. How much additional selling activity should we plan for, to meet this goal?

First we need to look at our buying and selling process:

Situation: The buyer has realized they have a problem with business planning and they would like to provide some training to help their people improve.

Activity: They begin to look out through all the marketing and information sources that are available to them. They find us! They do some preliminary evaluation, most likely from our web site. That goes well, and we look like a good fit.

Positive Decision: They decide to hold an initial exploratory meeting

Activity: At the first meeting, we mutually share information about the need and our capabilities. They’re considering capability, value for money, and our ability to implement. We’re considering our solution fit, whether they have access to enough budget to pay us, and whether there is adequate urgency to the business need that we think they will make a timely decision.

Positive Decision: We mutually agree to a complete evaluation of the need and our solution. (Sales people would say we have qualified the opportunity.)

Activity: Over a number of meetings, the buyer makes a detailed assessment of our capability, pricing, and ability to implement. As the seller, we are continuing to test whether our earlier decision to quality the opportunity remains valid, i.e. solution fit, availability of budget, and likelihood of a timely decision. We know from experience this activity requires about a month.

Positive decisions: 1) The prospect chooses us. 2) We continue to believe that this is good business. 3) We execute a contract.

Disclaimer: Very few buying and selling processes are this simple or this linear. But this simple model is still useful to answer the question, “How much activity is enough”. Bear with me…

That’s nice, but how much incremental business development activity do we need?

Answer: We need to design our marketing campaign to result in six initial meetings every month.

How’d we get that?

Let’s say that we know from experience that we win about half of the opportunities that go through a detailed evaluation. That’s a probability of 1 in 2.

Let’s also say that we know that about one out of every three initial meetings results in a detailed evaluation. That’s a probability of 1 in 3.

We got the estimate of six meetings by multiplying the two probabilities from the two steps and then inverting. 1/3 time 1/2 equals 1/6. That gives us the probability of a single initial meeting turning into a contract being 1 in 6. To get one contract, we need to hold six initial meetings.

Because real world situations are messier than this example, you should probably “round up” your estimate of the initial meetings you need. Keep track of your experience and refine your goals accordingly.

And here’s the hard part!

Plans are great but we have to execute. We need to hold ourselves accountable to creating those six meetings, and monitor how well we are progressing them through decisions to evaluate, and decisions to engage.

Month after month…

Want to know more?

The smartest guy on the planet on this topic is Martyn Lewis, president of Market-Partners. If you’re interested in a deeper dive, check out his informative white paper, written from his 20 years of experience consulting on this topic: Managing the Business of Sales

Register below for our free webinar to ask your questions in a live meeting of your colleaues and share your knowledge and experience with them.

Net-net: Never, never, never stop selling. Benches have splinters…