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Selling with congruence

As I start to write this I wonder if I am simply recycling old material. After all I have written about the conscious business approach to setting up new business relationships before and before that.

But I recently came across an old article by Neil Rackham, of SPIN fame, called Avoiding the Traps in Selling Profesional Services (available here or email me if you can’t find it). Neil talks about the need for people selling professional services to be competent, concerned and full of candour.

Is selling professional services the same as selling generally? I think so: as we move towards a meaning-based economy, where more and more traditional, and tangible, products are commoditised, then each day service becomes more and more the only true differentiator.

Professional services involve helping the client understand their needs, as well as meet them. Again, in a meaning-based economy, helping someone understand their needs is increasingly a key part of any service.

So lessons that apply to selling professional services increasingly apply to selling anything.

And what are those lessons? For me, good selling is fundamentally about creating better relationships. Long-lasting, meaningful relationships.

To do that the first step is to get away from some of our own assumptions about the buyer-seller relationship.

For example, I think many business relationships start off on the wrong footing because there is a perceived imbalance of power.

It is easy to fall into the trap of believing that a corporate buyer has all the power. They may believe this, but do they really?

Think about it.

They can say yes, or no, to your offer.

But so can you, to their terms.

Perhaps you think you need them; but do you really? And do they also need you?

They can hurt you or help you – damage or build your reputation. But can they really? Or is it just that you imagine they can?

My experience is that the powerful corporate executive isn’t really as powerful as they may pretend.

They can strut. Show off their toys. They can shout and storm. But at the end of the day they’re simply an employee. They don’t own anything. Instead, sometimes their lives are owned by the corporation.

To achieve anything they need the buy-in of their colleagues, their bossess, their shareholders.

Often they need to follow a process. Simply to arrange a cup of tea or buy a paper-clip.

So, first, can you reset your perception of the relationship?

I like to assume that the person I am dealing with is simply another human being. Just like me, trying to make their way in the world. Living within the constraints of their world, and trying make things better, for themselves, and for others.

In other words, I’d rather approach this person with unconditional respect. Whatever their initial behaviour.

Working inside a corporate organisation is difficult.

It is frustrating: it isn’t easy to get things done.

It is scary: there’s a lot of pressure – and a lot of misused power.

So approaching this person with empathy – putting oneself in their shoes – can be a real help. We all know what frustration is like. And fear. Empathy is about seeing the world from their eyes, walking in their shoes. Experiencing that frustration and fear and seeing the world through that lens.

In selling, as Neil Rackham points out, candour is also essential.  In conscious business we might use a different word: congruence.

In selling, as in all relationships I value, I must be honest. If I don’t know something, or if can’t do something I must tell the client. Congruence helps build relationships – not least because we all detect its opposite: inauthenticity.

Being honest and open is also essential so that my company can be held to account for delivering the service I am selling. When I am selling I am responsible for helping the client gain the value they need from me. If I set things up wrongly at the beginning, I will surely jeopardise later success. Theirs and mine.

I also need to tell clients what I think and how I feel about our relationship, especially about this power imbalance if it exists. That last may be very hard. Certainly, it may not be something we are used to doing.

By I think it is the secret to successful selling – to creating that real, long-lasting relationship.

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Service or product?

I was planning to post on the topic of purchasing decisions today, when by coincidence I saw Jeremy Litchfield’s interesting post on consumer responsibility. Isn’t it great when things fit together like that?

One aspect of taking this responsibility is whether we decide to buy services or products. I was faced with a choice over the weekend of buying a “thing” or a “service”. Both served exactly the same function (to make some of my data safe).

Products clearly have a quite different environmental profile from services. A product requires energy and raw materials to manufacture and transport. A service, delivered over the internet, for example, has low transportation cost. And the incremental cost of providing it may be small because of economies of scale and the fact I share the tangible components with many other people.

I considered the environmental impact of both – and the service won hands-down. But I still felt myself so drawn to the “thing”. A strong emotional pull that I couldn’t fully locate, but I knew was real. What was this all about?

The thing was nice and shiny and I could imagine it arriving and the fun of unpacking it. The service was a software download – and pretty intangible and almost “grey”, in my mind.

Something about “having” the thing – on my shelf, in my house – was also attractive. I guess this is the same thrill that collectors have. Not something I thought I suffered from, but I when I looked I could really experience it.

There were some additional benefits to the service – the “thing” would quickly become obsolete. Whereas someone else would have the problem of ensuring the service always took advantage of the latest technological advances. And, of course, if the “thing” broke I’d be the one dealing with the problem.

But I also felt some fear around the service – the idea of tying myself into a long-term contract was getting under my skin. My preference is not to load myself with financial commitments. I guess I am not alone in that, especially right now.

In this case the burden of owning the “thing” seemed negligible; whereas I felt I was imprisoning myself in the service deal – probably for life.

In the end, I found another way and bought neither. Hooray for a simpler life!

But my point is that there are habits around this kind of purchasing decision. Perhaps my example was trivial. If we are talking about the difference between car ownership or car sharing, then yes, as Jeremy points out, we need to take responsibility.

But, in my opinion, we need to do that fully: we as consumers, and also the businesses that serve us, need to become aware of these emotional and psychological factors if we are to have any collective hope of changing our behaviour. Some clever people are already looking at this – look at Live|Work’s work for Streetcar, for example.