How to RULE the Sales Conversation

April 20th, 2015
Wait for it...

Wait for it…

Here’s a news flash: we sales professionals don’t actually know everything! Sometimes it’s helpful to infuse new ideas or different perspectives from outside the sales literature and blogosphere, and in that spirit, I would like to share a framework that clinical psychologists use to encourage their clients’ readiness to change.

Motivational Interviewing is a method that clinical psychologists use in their conversations with clients dealing with such problems as alcoholism and other destructive habits. The premise is that clients are ambivalent about changing their behaviors, and trying to get them to change before they are ready only increases their resistance. So, the idea is to ask questions and manage the conversation so that the client talks about their own reasons for changing and arrives at their own commitment to change.

It’s no great leap to see how this applies to sales, and this acronym devised by Stephen Rollnick, one of the developers of the approach, is a useful reminder of how we should apply similar principles in a sales conversation:

R—Resist the righting influence

U—Understand your client’s motivation

L—Listen to your client

E—Empower your client

Let’s elaborate a bit on each, as it applies to a sales conversation.

Resist: Have you ever had the feeling of feeling a tantalizing nibble on the line while fishing? It’s so hard to resist the temptation to immediately jerk the rod. It’s the same feeling we get when the client brings up a problem that we just know fits right in our sweet spot—it’s tough to resist interjecting a solution on the spot. That’s wrong for several reasons, but the most important is that the client may immediately go on the defensive, because the dynamic of the conversation has shifted from exploring and diagnosing to “selling”.

Understand: Clients buy for their reasons, not yours. If you don’t spend enough time in the sales conversation gaining an understanding of their motivations, you run the risk of prescribing an incomplete or wrong solution. Even if it’s the right solution, you may underestimate the value it delivers, which can definitely hurt you in the price negotiations to come.

Listen: No rocket science here, of course, but it’s still probably the most-ignored rule in all sales conversations. Paradoxically, it’s often your good qualities that can hurt your listening—you’re enthusiastic about your product; you’re avidly following the list of questions you prepared; you’re eager to show how well-informed and smart you are. Always remember that it’s easy to talk yourself out of a sale, but pretty hard to listen yourself out of one.

Empower: Pushing, or even just suggesting a solution can seem to be an efficient way of closing on the need, but how many times have you had an “agreement” that led to no sale? By guiding the conversation properly, you can make your solution the client’s idea, which is a great way to turn agreement into commitment. That’s why the most effective sales conversations are those in which the client tells you what you want them to hear.

In summary, don’t try to dominate the sales conversation; RULE it instead!

The Limits of Lean Communication

April 15th, 2015

Bend the RulesAs I wrote last week, lean communication is an enormously useful tool for ensuring that your communication with others adds value, briefly and clearly. But human nature is too complex to be reduced to ironclad rules.

Think of this article as the disclaimer to that one. In persuasive communication, there are always exceptions. There are definitely times when you might want or need to violate some of the rules. Let’s go through each:


The rule here is to add value to the recipient, which means framing your message in a way that is good for the other person. There are times when this rule does not apply…

  • If the situation demands instant compliance, brevity and clarity should trump added value.
  • Some pies can’t be made bigger—you want a slice that will just make theirs smaller. When you want something from the other person and there is no clear benefit to them, trying too hard to make it seem like it’s in their best interests can expose your insincerity; it’s better to be up-front about the fact that’s it’s not win-win.


The rule is to eliminate unnecessary verbiage that does not add value to the communication. But you still have to be smart about it…

  • Anyone who has a teenager knows the frustrations of dealing with excessive brevity. Keep the relationship in mind when deciding how brief to be. When EQ is more important than IQ, sometimes you have to take more time to make the other person feel heard or valued. It’s easy to cross the line from brisk to brusque, especially because it’s the other person who decides where that line is. You have to use your common sense and judgment and most of all pay attention to the other person.
  • Never forget that brevity which derives from deep thought is a totally different concept than sound-bite brevity, which is a product of shallow thinking, closed-mindedness, and snap judgments.


In general, you want to transfer what’s in your head with as little chance for misunderstanding as possible, except in these cases…

  • There are benefits to ambiguity, imprecision and wiggle room in communication. When the idea you’re proposing is likely to be opposed by the other person, it’s not a good idea to begin with the bottom line up front, because of the risk that they might immediately stop listening or listen only to poke holes in your argument. In such cases, the shortest distance between two persuasive points may be a loop that starts from where they are and gradually circles back to your point of view.
  • If your listeners are already on your side but your logic is less than airtight, being too clear may expose your weaknesses. Am I advocating fudging? What do you think? You may find this distasteful, but it’s the foundation of marketing and advertising; let your conscience be your guide.
  • When clarity crosses the line to being “brutally honest”, it has definitely gone too far.
  • When it’s not worth your time: My friend Gary told me a story about being at a conference with a colleague who had an inflated opinion of his own speaking ability. After he spoke, he asked Gary what he thought of his presentation. Gary replied, “Of all the presentations I’ve seen today, yours was definitely the most recent.” The fellow beamed and strutted away.

In another context, George Orwell wrote six rules for writers that align with brevity and clarity, but probably the most important is his last: “Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.” In that spirit, strive to add value, briefly and clearly—except when it contradicts your more important goals, common sense, or good taste.

Selling Upward: Persuading the Powerful

April 13th, 2015
What can you do for ME?

What can you do for ME?

In order to get anything done in business, you have to persuade at all levels, but the highest stakes apply when we’re trying to convince the powerful—by definition, they’re the ones who control most of the resources you want. And if you want to convince the powerful, you have to realize that even though they put their pants on one leg at a time, they do think differently—and adjusting to those differences can make you more effective.

Quite simply, the more powerful think differently than the rest of us. According to Heidi Grant Halvorson’s book, No One Understands You and What to Do About It, putting someone into a position of power changes how they relate to other people. I’ll explain how and what that means to you if you are selling upward, whether internally to your own executives, or to high-level decision makers in a B2B sale.

According to the research cited by Halvorson, when people have power:

  • They act more selfishly. In one clever study, researchers observed the correlation between the model of vehicle and the likelihood of cutting someone off at a 4-way stop. Drivers of cars such as Mercedes and BMWs cut off other drivers 30% of the time, compared to 7% for drivers of lower-status cars.
  • They have less empathy for the person they’re talking to—except when empathy matters to their purposes. You may go into that big presentation hoping you’ll make a favorable impression on the big shot, but chances are they won’t pay much attention to you as a person at all. Halvorson says, “It’s not so much that they think they are better than you as it is that they simply do not think about you at all.”

The upshot of these two points is that the “A” of lean communicationAdding value—applies more than ever when persuading the powerful. Adding value, as I wrote last week, is “communicating useful information that produces improved outcomes for both parties while preferably preserving the relationship.”

As Halvorson puts it, “For the powerful, your instrumentality is key. Frankly, it is all that matters. What can you do to help powerful people reach their goals?”

She goes on to say: “Instrumentality isn’t about being nice—it’s about being useful.”

So according to Halvorson, the relationship is not only secondary, it’s irrelevant. I would not go that far, but I would agree that the best way to be seen as a person and to develop a relationship with someone of greater power is to first focus on adding value to them, and make that a prominent and early piece of your message. If you don’t show them briefly and clearly (the B and C of lean communication) that you can be useful to them, you won’t have much more opportunity to make that impression or develop that relationship. If you want to make a good impression, begin by talking about what’s important to them.

This takes us back to outside-in thinking and preparation: what do you know about what’s important to the other person? Do you know their goals, opportunities and challenges, and can you credibly connect your proposal to those?

Be useful, my friends.

The ABCs of Lean Communication

April 8th, 2015

Toy blocks isolated on whiteI’ve written before about applying lean manufacturing principles to business communication[1]. Although manufacturing and communication are two totally different activities, both share the goal of producing maximum value with minimum waste. In this post, I’ve tried to simplify it even further, and I’ve come up with the ABCs of lean communication.

I define lean communication as giving the other person the information they need to make a good decision, with a minimum of time and effort. Ideally, a conversation, presentation or a written communication will meet three tests:

  • It must add value, leaving the recipient better off in some way.
  • It must be brief, because attention spans are short and working memory is limited.
  • It must be clear, so that they can glean useful ideas that they can put into practice immediately.

What does it mean to add value in communication? It’s communicating useful information that produces improved outcomes for both parties while preferably preserving the relationship. This implies three important ideas:

Lean defines value simply as anything the customer will pay for. By analogy, value in lean communication is defined as any information the listener finds useful, usually to take action or make a decision.

Second, while it’s certainly possible to communicate so that only one party improves their outcomes—such as a boss giving clear commands—it’s not sustainable in the long run. The word “both” recognizes that you have your own purposes for the communication, as you should, but you will be more effective and influential in the long run if you develop the habit of focusing on the needs, desires, and perspectives of the other person.

Third, I say “preferably” because sometimes the demands of the business or the situation will necessarily harm the relationship.

Adding value ensures that your communication is effective, but it’s also important that it be efficient, because everyone has limited time and mental resources. It has to be brief and clear.

Adding value begins with outside-in thinking, which the psychologists call perspective taking or cognitive empathy. The usefulness of your communication will be directly correlated to your understanding of the other person’s needs, wants, and existing knowledge. As Stephen Covey says, “Seek first to understand, and then be understood.”

Regardless how useful your message is, if your explanation is too long-winded it won’t add value because it won’t get heard. Being brief is your best chance at ensuring that your message will get through, because time is pressing and attention spans have withered away to almost nothing. But brevity is not just about efficiency—it also improves the quality of your message because it takes deep thinking to be able to distill your ideas into concentrated form. That’s why the paradox is that brevity takes time; you have to do the hard work so your listener does not have to. So, even though brevity is mostly about reducing waste, it’s actually another form of added value. Being brief also makes you sound much more confident and credible, which supports your purpose.

There are two approaches to cultivate the habit and discipline of brevity: BLUF and SO WHAT?

BLUF stand for “bottom line up front.” Give them the main point first, and then back it up with your logic and evidence as needed. It works for two reasons. For you, it forces you a clear conception of your own core message, which you often don’t know until you try to summarize it. For the listener, hearing the point you want them to accept helps them organize the incoming information, and it often creates its own brevity because they will stop you when they’ve hear enough.

In any communication, there is so much that could say, but only a small bit that you should say. Your mind is full of knowledge, some of which is integral to your key message, some important, and much that is interesting but irrelevant. SO WHAT? is your mental filter that ensures the first comes out, the second is available if necessary, and the last two stay in your brain.

While brevity focuses on shaving time from your message, clarity focuses on removing mental effort to understand it. Brevity and clarity can clash or cooperate. It’s possible to be too brief, because of the curse of knowledge. You don’t remember what it was like not to know what you know now, so you might leave out information that the other person needs to fully understand the situation. Besides leading to misunderstanding, the main cost to you is that when the other person does not understand your logic or your explanation, the default answer is likely to be NO, because they won’t make the mental effort to understand and they won’t admit it’s unclear to them.

But brevity and clarity can also cooperate, because stripping out unnecessary detail can make the structure of your thinking easy to follow. But just to make sure, it’s a good idea to surface your logic[2], which is making your logical argument explicit and providing signposts in your conversation. Tell them the structure of what you’re going to say, such as there are three reasons we need to do this. “The first is, the second reason is, etc.”

The second tool for clarity is the language you use. Speak plainly and directly, and don’t try to sound smart by using terms others won’t understand. It helps to make abstract concepts clearer by using concrete examples, but be careful you don’t insult the intelligence of your audience—which brings us full circle to the idea that knowing your audience is key.

Want to be known as a great communicator? It’s as simple as ABC: Add value, Briefly and Clearly.

[1] Lean Communication

Lean Communication: Delivering Maximum Value

Lean Communication: Reducing Waste

Lean Communication: Pull

Lean Communication: Making Work Visible

[2] A wonderful phrase I learned from Bruce Gabrielle in his excellent book, Speaking PowerPoint.