Building Relationships and Selling

“Lets be clear.”

A colleague recently forwarded to me some insights from his CEO about selling at the executive level. Selling your product or service and building a trusting relationship with an executive are not always compatible goals. Since so many of us are trying to do both and to balance the sometimes contradictory goals, I thought I would also share the observation with you.

“I met recently with John Doe, CEO and Chairman of a Fortune 500 company.

John started the meeting off by observing that we both had something to sell to each other, and that when we were in sales mode, we should just be clear and declare that’s what we are doing. Although we spent most of the meeting exchanging views on leadership, each of us did take some time to switch into sales mode, and we made it clear when we were doing so. John’s opening made it safe for both of us to do that. It also made it easier for us to have a useful and productive exchange of views on other issues because the overhang of sales was removed.

My takeaway: there is great power in simply declaring the obvious. Whether it’s asking for the business, delivering a tough message, highlighting a difference of opinion – these are all situations that call for great transparency. Too often, it feels easier to be opaque and indirect – John’s approach reminded me just how much frankness and candor can be the lubricant of a great conversation.”

Frankness and candor a great ingredients for building a relationship.  How do you use them?

Sales Organization Phases

I heard an interesting talk this morning at the CFO Forum hosted by Broadpeak Collaborative in downtown Chicago.  The speaker was John Aplin, Managing Partner of CID Capital. During the talk, John described the two different phases in an organization’s development.

The first phase is the entrepreneurial or creative phase.  Those who have been in start-up organizations or have worked with them will easily recognize this phase. They are characterized by a creative drive to solve problems and a lack of organization or management controls.  As John observed, it is at this stage in a company’s life when legends are created.  It is the stories of amazing herculean feats to close deals with key customers that live on in organizations and shape their culture.

It is also in this creative phase that the seeds are planted for the “control crisis” that occurs as organizations reach the point when they need to evolve to the next phase – the administrative or maintenance phase.

At some point organizations reach the point as they continue to grow when they cannot maintain the quality and service levels that they want to provide to their customers.  In order to maintain the expected level of quality they need to create and build the repeatable business processes that can be measured and managed.  These business processes not only allow a company to continue to grow but also are essential for that growth.  They also plant the seeds for the next crisis. The “stagnation crisis” occurs because companies become too internally focused and too married to their business process that they can no longer change.

While this description of a company’s life cycle is not particularly unique, I had a sense of hearing it again for the first time as I think about the challenges that face business owners and sales leaders as they lead their team and about the work that I do with these teams.

The sales team is, in most cases (all?), the group that will hold onto the creative phase and resist evolution to a mature and business process focus the longest. They frequently work shoulder to shoulder with the heroes and heroines of the corporate legends who got it done for their customers, who brought in the tough deals against the odds.

They are close to the customer and sometime during their past sold for organizations that had become too bureaucratic.  They have felt the pain first hand when they cannot deliver for the customer.  They are the customers’ protectorates and advocates, being unresponsive are their greatest fear.

But even here, even in sales, at some point a company needs to introduce a level of structure and yes, a process to continue to grow.  Or perhaps, I should say especially in sales.  At an individual level, the best sales people recognize that much of selling is a disciplined process – calling and following up, qualifying opportunities.  These are not random occurrences but refined sales techniques that the best sales people have developed over time.

The trick is to introduce this discipline across the organization without stifling the creativity that is also so much a part of the developing relationships with customers. So what is an organization to do? Step lightly. Collaborate with customers, and with the sales and marketing team.  Recognize that less maybe more, especially as you begin the journey.  Minimize what is required and back that up with metrics and evidence that proves to the whole team, why what is required is a better way. Encourage and incorporate innovation into the process.  Maybe even build a process to keep listening to the customer in order to fend of the ‘stagnation crisis’.

People can survive their life crises by enduring them, companies cannot.  If companies do not face their crises, they will flounder and collapse. There is an uneasy tension between creative and administrative that constantly needs to be rebalanced. Face the uncertainty, take a step forward but don’t stand still.