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.

Reframing – Deliver Your Feedback with a Twist!

manhattan-with-a-twist_600There is a traditional Taoist story of an old farmer who owned a horse, which he used for transportation and for working his fields. His neighbors thought him quite wealthy because he owned a horse.

One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. “Such bad luck,” they said sympathetically. “Maybe”, the farmer replied.

The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. “How wonderful,” the neighbors exclaimed. “Maybe,” replied the old man.

The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses. He was thrown, and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune. “Maybe,” answered the farmer.

The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son’s leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out. “Maybe,” said the farmer.

At each turn of the story, the wise old farmer knew that whether the new event was good or bad depended entirely on a future context of what would happen next.

Imagine a situation where client brings you an issue or an opportunity. Through your feedback and questions, you help them pick it up, turn it over, look underneath it, look behind it, and help them develop a complete picture of the opportunity, and to gain a variety of perspectives on how best to approach it.

Great advisors do just that by assisting their clients in evaluating their existing context and envisioning new perspectives that could dramatically change how they might interpret and act on future events.

This act of helping clients conceive such a new context is called “reframing“. It literally means helping the client create a new frame of reference which will enable them to create a new set of possibilities for action. It is the ability to put a commonplace event in a new frame that is more useful, effective, or enjoyable.   Why is this so important?

Reframing can be the pivotal element in the creative process.

When an advisor incorporates reframing into a client discussion, the advisor is helping the client see their own experience and resources from a new perspective. That new language enables a new solution. That is vastly more valuable to them than being handed a solution based solely on the consultant’s experience. Because the new frame is a refinement or extension of the client’s earlier work and insight, they will be much more motivated to embrace it and implement it.

So, then, what do great advisors need to deliver a successful reframe? What might we hear to gauge our level of success?

We need the depth of experience, knowledge and insight to help them explore what different frames might exist and how the available options might be different under those new frames. “This consultant had a broad understanding of my industry, and our challenges. His questions and responses reflected that depth.”

We need self-awareness of our own frames, biases, perspectives, and favored approaches. With that clear, we need to check our biases at the door. We need the patience to engage with our client in a process of curiosity, dialogue and discovery, before we drive straight to our preferred frame.  “I did not feel this consultant was being honest with me. From the moment she walked in here, she was pushing for her solution.”

We need to be able to ask powerful questions that enable our client to see their existing frames and assess how well those frames are working for them. “She asks lots of really provocative, relevant questions.”

We need the active listening skills to reflect back what we see and we hear in a way that helps the client become aware of their own existing frames. “When he feeds back what he heard, I see my questions and ideas in a new light. His feedback always produces more thought.”

Epilogue: In his outstanding book, Clients for Life, Jagdish Sheth sums up the power of framing this way:

“Framing is the essence of synthesis. It organizes and explains complex phenomena by reducing them to a few simple dimensions. A good frame (or framework) highlights the most relevant aspects of the issue or problem shows how they interrelate and then connects to your overarching purpose or goal.”

Wouldn’t you like to give that gift to your clients?

Manage Conflict! (or it will manage you)

Met-the-enemyConflict is a fact of life for most people. In a 2008 study, CPP found that 85% of workers in the US experience conflict to some degree and 29% report that they experience it “always” or “frequently”. (CPP 2008)

Constructive conflict is well accepted as a key indicator of high performing teams. In a comparative study of five globally accepted team effectiveness models, Korn Ferry, a leading authority on leadership and talent, found that four of the five frameworks featured conflict management as a key issue for effective teamwork. (Michael Lombardo 2001)

CPP found that when employees are trained how to manage conflict, over 95% of those people say that it helped them in some way. A quarter (27%) say it made them more comfortable and confident in managing disputes and 58% of those who had received training said they now look for win–win outcomes from conflict.

41% of employees think older people handle conflict most effectively. Seven out of ten employees (70%) see managing conflict as a “very” or “critically” important leadership skill, while 54% of employees think managers could handle disputes better by addressing underlying tensions before things go wrong.

But, when it goes bad, it goes bad in a hurry.

In the same research, 27% of employees reported that unmanaged conflict led to personal attacks, and 25% of them saw it result in sickness or absence.  Almost ten percent saw it lead to a project failure.

Hmmm…..

What can consulting leaders do to model and teach this critical skill within their teams?

Here are five steps you can take now to help your teams benefit from constructive conflict and avoid the negative results of poorly managed conflict

1.  First, assess where you and your teams stand. Consider these questions and discuss them with your teams:

  • How passionate and unguarded are team members able to be in discussing issues?
  • On a scale from “exciting” to “boring”, how do team members experience their meetings?
  • Do team members prioritize the toughest issues for attention, or avoid them?
  • How comfortable are team members in challenging one another about conclusions, plans, and approaches?

2.  Communicate! Make it clear in what you say and how you act, that conflict is normal and necessary, but unmanaged conflict is costly in many ways.

3.  Teach your team to communicate. Establish rules of engagement that help teams manage conflicts in a productive way. Focus on asking great questions, and getting everyone involved in formulating the answers. Encourage the shy ones to speak up and tell the aggressive ones to pipe down. Help your team develop emotional intelligence and relationship skills. Pay particular attention to empathy and assertiveness.

4.  Focus on issues and not people. When conflicts turn personal, turn them around to return to the issues that count. Teach your teams the analysis skills that enable the root cause analysis skills to identify the most important issues.

5.  Ferret out the “elephants in the room”. Chris Argyris calls an elephant an “undiscussable”.  Undiscussable topics become that way in order to “avoid surprise, embarrassment, or threat.”  In other words, a taboo. When elephants are running free in the room, the credibility of the organization and that of any leaders within sight are at significant risk.

Help your people stop avoiding conflict and become world-class at it.  In doing so, you and your clients will get their best, and they will develop a skill that will differentiate them (and you) for the rest of their careers.

End Notes:

Argyris, C. (1988). Managing with People in Mind, Harvard Business Review Press.

CPP, I. (2008). CPP Global Human Capital Report: Workplace Conflict And How Businesses Can Harness It To Thrive.

Michael Lombardo, R. E., Cara Capretta, Victoria Swisher (2001). FYI for Teams. Minneapolis, MN, Lominger International.

 

How to Conduct a Black Hat Decision Review

black-hat-500A Black Hat Decision Review is a great way to get all the perspectives, pro and con, on the table and to enable your team to make the best possible decision, with your most important risks considered and mitigated.  (By the way, “your team” can include you and your customer.  That’s the best way to become an “advisor”.)

This process is based on the notion of parallel thinking, popularized by Edward DeBono, in his book, Six Thinking Hats. A brief description of DeBono’s ideas follows below.

Here are the steps in a Black Hat Decision Review:

  1. The proponent for a decision presents the case for moving forward. Chances are they will present a logical and optimistic case, include the new thinking involved, and highlight the emotional side of a positive outcome.
  2. All but one member of the reviewing team then meet separately and brainstorm every possible risk they see that would inhibit success. They meet for about 10-15 minutes, and focus on defining the risks, represented by DeBono’s black hat.
  3. The proponent and one additional team member meet separately and also consider all the possible risks.
  4. The whole team comes back together. The proponent and partner present all of the risks they saw. The remaining team members present their decision killers, one at a time, taking turns, one issue at a time.
  5. The team rank orders the risks from greatest risk to lowest risk.
  6. The teams split up again, this time considering the actions they recommend to mitigate the most significant risks they discovered in the first phase of the exercise.
  7. After 10-15 minutes, the teams reconvene. The proponent and partner present their action plans first. The remaining team members present their actions next.
  8. With all risks visible, and lots of input on ways to mitigate the risks, the entire team decides whether or not to move forward with the proposal, and what detailed actions they must take to optimize the probability of success.

Here’s why it works:

DeBono’s Six Thinking Hats model discusses six “thinking hats”: White (facts and figures), Yellow (optimism), Red (emotion), Black (risks of failure), Green (innovation) and Blue (planning) hats.

Instead of ping-ponging around between facts, optimism, pessimism, emotion, logic, and planning aspects of a decision, the team synchronizes their thinking to consider one perspective, or “hat” at a time, until all perspectives have been examined and all team members’ inputs have been considered. The approach makes it much safer for all concerned to name the risks and deal with them, instead of sweeping them under the rug under the onslaught of optimism.  The Black Hat Decision Review shortens the due diligence process by focusing primarily on the Black Hat, or risk.

Why just focus on Black?

Advocates for a particular decision, will instinctively focus on the positive aspects and the path forward. Because they are advocating, they may often short change or ignore entirely the topic of risks and probability of failure.   The black hat focus makes it easier for team members to feel safe in expressing critical or contrarian ideas, and thus allows for more complete “due diligence” and a better, more-informed decision.

Credit where credit is due!

Thanks to Brad Milner, Managing Partner at TechCXO LLC, for allowing to me adapt his Black Hat Deal Review for a broader audience.  Brad wows consultative sales teams with this approach, and invariably they are excited about its power and relevance to their success.