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Helpful Help: Part 1

helping book coverI’m sure you’ve had this experience: after talking to a client, clinic you are able to tell them exactly what they need to do to improve their situation, they agree you’re right – and nothing happens after that.

It may have been because there’s a difference between being right and being helpful.

Selling is fundamentally about helping others: helping them to improve their situation in some way by solving their problems, or enabling them to take advantage of opportunities. Yet, it can frustrate salespeople sometimes when they know they have something that will clearly help their clients, and they might even have agreement on this from the client, yet nothing seems to happen.

When that happens, we generally ascribe the problem to status quo bias, selling to the wrong person, or not having done a good enough job in selling the value of our solution. Yet, there may be another dynamic at work: how the helping process is conducted.

I’ve just finished a fascinating book, Helping: How to Offer, Give, and Receive Help, by Edgar Schein, and I’d like to explore some of its lessons to see if they apply to sales conversations.

According to Schein, the way in which help is offered has an important effect on whether the client acts on the help. For help to actually be helpful, being right is not enough – the client must trust and own the advice that is given. Trust and ownership depend on adherence to two important dynamics: social economics and roles.

Social economics has to do with the attention we pay to our relative status. Accepting or asking for help puts us in a “one-down” position (which is why we men never like to ask for directions), and offering help puts us “one-up”. No one likes to lose face and go one-down, so there is a tendency to reduce the imbalance through mistrust or defensiveness.

The other dynamic at work is that we all play roles in our relations with others; we are usually more deferential to the boss than to subordinates, for example. Violations of the expected roles are easily recognized and swiftly punished, perhaps by ignoring the person or even lashing out.

In a helping situation, there are three possible roles:

Expert. In this role, the helper has superior knowledge or skill that applies to the client’s problem, and dispenses information the client needs to hear. That’s the essence of insight selling, so what could be wrong with that?

There are two possible drawbacks. Besides putting the helper in a dominant role, the usefulness of the information also depends on sufficient upfront knowledge about the situation, including whether the client has accurately diagnosed and described the problem, whether the client can actually make the recommended changes, or whether all relevant factors are known. Of course, the sooner the salesperson launches into the expert role, the greater the chances that important information will be missed.

Doctor. This is an extension of the expert role, in that the salesperson also takes the responsibility of diagnosing the client’s needs before prescribing and dispensing the expert advice.

But anyone who has ever been to a doctor or an auto mechanic knows how disempowering it can feel to be in the client role in this situation. And, although taking the time to make a diagnosis should provide more useful information to ensure the prescription is the right one, you still run the risk that the client has not fully or accurately described the situation (possibly through a shortage of initial trust), or that the helper may jump to conclusions based on surface similarities to situations they’ve seen before.

Process consultant. This role has been defined by Schein as one in which the helper focuses initially on the communication process itself. The goal is to create a climate of equal status and trust so that the client will reveal more information. In this role, the process consultant also pays close attention to the conversation so that the client remains very proactive in the process of identifying the problems, diagnosing the causes, and planning the prescriptions. As Schein says, “…only they own the problems identified, only they know the true complexity of their situation, and only they know what will work for them in the culture in which they live.”

The key point in all of this is not that the expert or doctor roles are wrong; there is definitely a time and place for them. But the time and place for them is only after the helper has established a climate of equal status, trust, and ownership of the problem.

In part 2 of this article, we will see how to establish that climate through a process called humble inquiry.

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