Honest self-interest: Embrace it: It’s the only honest option

Ilike to ask groups of salespeople two basic questions: “How many of you would say that you are customer-focused?” Hands fly up.

That’s followed by, “How important is honesty as it relates to your ability to foster trust with customers?” Eyes roll (as in, “duh!”).

Then I ask: “WHY are you customer-focused?” The response comes back, “Because it’s good business.” I pause and let them take in that simple exchange.

It’s not altruism…and that’s OK (and honest)
And so begins the salesperson’s personal journey to discover the greatest contradiction in sales: The “customer first” mindset that’s coded at birth into salespeople’s DNA may be the greatest barrier to their success.

First, this is not an article about customer service policies or the need for responsiveness in getting back to customers quickly and the like. That’s something else entirely. This is about the way customers process and react to the signals they get from salespeople, second-by-second, inside the customer interaction.

Honest self-interest goes against our natural wiring
Customers form a second-by-second trust reaction in response to six different signals that salespeople send. And when salespeople send a signal that actively reinforces or passively allows the customer-as-master paradigm, they trigger a negative trust reaction.

But when they signal honest self-interest, they trigger a positive one. Makes sense, doesn’t it?

Unfortunately, 100 percent of salespeople (statistically at least – we’ve been measuring for years) are born with a ‘customer-as-master’ gene. It colors every – EVERY – interaction and, I believe, is much to their detriment. Ironic, isn’t it?

‘Thanks for your time’ is just the tip of the iceberg
I talk often about the pervasive “Thanks for your time” or its several variants because it’s the most common expression of the master/servant way of thinking. It’s also just the tip of the iceberg.

A more dramatic expression can be seen in the qualifying conversation.

Here’s why: When a prospective customer sends a vendor, supplier or sub-contractor an RFP, or in some way throws a potential opportunity at them, there is one assumption the prospective customer always makes: the vendor is going to do what the prospect asks!

An example: Mark Williams sells for Alpha Software Company. He received the voicemail below:

“Hi, this is Frank Mikalski from Peachtree Manufacturing in Atlanta. We’re looking at replacing our ERP platform and would like you guys to come and demo your system for the selection team. Gimme a call so we can schedule a time that works.”

These kinds of ‘opportunities’ present themselves all the time (RFPs, etc.) to salespeople. And they have to be qualified.

The only way to position a qualifying interaction
Now’s the moment of truth. Before Mark and his colleagues agree to jump on a plane, he has to call Frank to qualify the ‘opportunity.’

Let’s say Mark opens the conversation as follows: “Hi Frank, Mark Williams from Alpha Software returning your call about the demo. Could I ask you some questions about your situation?”

Because Mark ‘passively allowed’ the customer-as-master paradigm he did nothing to change Al’s assumption that he’d be making the trip. As a result, there’s no way Frank is going to sit still for an in-depth qualifying conversation, because all he’s expecting is questions from Mark in anticipation of his visit. When Mark starts asking serious qualifying questions, Frank is going to get impatient (“Why don’t we cover that stuff when you’re here?” he’ll reason).

Here’s a version that sends an honest self-interest signal. Note how Mark does it without sounding unresponsive.

“Hi Frank, Mark Williams from Alpha Software returning your call about the demo.

First, thanks for calling; sounds like the kind of thing that could be a good fit for Alpha.  However, what I’d like to suggest – before we decide to schedule a visit – is that we maybe carve out half an hour or so on the phone so that I can step back and get a little better sense of the big picture of what you’re trying to accomplish. Then we can figure out from there what makes the most sense for both of us. Obviously, it might make sense for us to fly on down and demo, but I’m thinking before we commit to doing that we’d probably both benefit from a little more in-depth phone conversation. Does that make sense on your end?”

Stop actively reinforcing or passively allowing the customer-as-master paradigm. Commit to sending ‘honest self-interest signals’ in every interaction and watch your world change.

-Jerry Stapleton is the founder of Delafield-based Stapleton Resources LLC (www.stapletonresources.com). He is also the author of the book, “From Vendor to Business Resource.”

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