Lean Communication

Asset or annoyance?
Lean Communication - Sales

Lean Communication for Sales: Talk Less, Sell More?

I’ve written almost 40 articles about lean communication, and hundreds of articles about sales, but this is the first time I’ve written about lean communication as it applies to sales. Is it possible that talking less can help you sell more?

To better answer that question, let’s first look at what buyers need, and then consider how well salespeople are meeting that need.

The principal purpose of a buying process is to produce an effective decision at the lowest possible cost, and that requires a lot of information, some of which is readily available on online and some which can only come from talking to a sales rep. But buyers would prefer not to talk to salespeople if they can help it. By now it’s a well-known fact that buyers are up to 60% of the way through their decision process before they contact a salesperson, according to the CEB.

Why do buyers avoid talking to salespeople as long as they can? According to The Challenger Sale, “…the celebrated ‘solution sales rep’ can be more of an annoyance than an asset.” In lean terms, that statement simply says that salespeople are seen as providing more waste than value.

The bigger and more complex the decision, the more information needed, and the more opportunity for waste in the process of acquiring it. At every step in the buying process, there is a tremendous amount of waste, including:

  • Unclear understanding of their own needs
  • Time and effort to uncover the information they need for a decision
  • Differing internal perceptions of needs and priorities
  • Effort to clarify ambiguity—much of it deliberate
  • Incorrect information
  • Delays in obtaining answers to their questions
  • Information that is not tailored to their unique situation
  • Sitting through 43-slide presentations to get the answer to one or two crucial questions
  • Risk of making the wrong decision

And it’s not just buyers. Deep in their hearts, even though they would never say it, CEOs wish they could get rid of their sales forces. They cost a lot of money and they can be difficult to manage. Yet salespeople are not going away, despite all the predictions that the easy availability of information on the internet would make the sales profession wither away. That’s because they still serve a critical function: they provide information to help buyers make decisions—decisions that improve the buyers’ business and personal outcomes.

Salespeople are still needed because they add value, by communicating useful information that improves business and personal outcomes, while preserving the relationship. The first is essential, the second highly desirable. In the long run, it’s the product that delivers value to the customer, but it can’t do that until it’s chosen and implemented. And for that, it needs a salesperson.

But salespeople still have to do better. If they want to keep adding value in the final 40%, or—even better—get brought in sooner, lean communication can be a powerful asset. Look at it this way, if you are a buyer who has to undertake the time, effort and risk to make an important decision, how would you respond to a salesperson who:

  • Has a sincere desire to create value
  • Thinks and communicates from your side of the desk
  • Is prepared to answer your most pressing questions, and does so candidly and completely
  • Is transparent about their intentions
  • Gives you only what you need when you need it to make the best decision
  • Keeps things simple
  • Does not waste your time
  • Listens and actually responds to your concerns
  • Lowers your cost and risk of making the best decision

I truly believe that lean communication and sales are a perfect match, and in the next five blog posts, I will show how each of the five principles of Lean Communication can significantly boost your results and your relationships: Value, Organization, Waste, Making Work Visible, and Pull.

Who knows, maybe you will be seen as more of an asset than an annoyance!

Other posts in this series:

Lean Communication for Sales: Value

Lean Communication for Sales: Top-Down Communication


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Lean Communication

Lean Communication: Standard Work

In lean manufacturing, standard work means documenting the best practices of how the work gets done to establish a baseline for further improvement. The benefits are reductions in variability and making it easier for new people to learn the process. The same idea can apply to communication, particularly for complex topics and long presentations.

It can sometimes feel intimidating to try to figure out the best logical structure for a large mass of data that you’ve accumulated, and it is hard work if you try to reinvent the wheel each time. But fortunately, just as fiction writers know that there are only a few standard plots, lean communicators know that lean conversations and presentations tend to follow one of just a few established patterns.

Standard work pays off for both you and your audience in two ways. First, it’s efficient. It saves you time because having a small library of mental templates can make it easier to organize your thoughts without having to reinvent the wheel each time you think and communicate. It makes things easier on you mentally as well, because it reduces the number of decisions you have to make during preparation. As lean expert Dan Markovitz writes, “Jon Stewart said that it took him six years to write his first 45 minutes of material. Now, with a rigidly defined process (and, to be fair, a team of writers), he creates 30 minutes every single day. The structure, and the standard work you define, enable you to manage the unpredictable crises.” Standard work also saves time for your listeners because they don’t have to waste time trying to figure out your logic—they already know what to expect.

Standard work is also effective, in that it improves the quality of your thought. Just like a checklist, it frees your mind for more complex thoughts, and it allows you to refine and hone your approach over time as you learn what works and what does not.

(In case you think standard work will cramp your creative style, a guy named Shakespeare did OK following the same 5-act structure in all his plays.)

Here are six suggested standard structures that you may use. When you use these regularly with the same people, they will learn to expect things presented in a certain way, which can remove a tremendous amount of waste from the process.

Topical is the simplest, but can also be the most powerful. In effect, the structure is a pyramid. The main point, might be: “We need to do X.”

  • Reason #1 plus supporting detail
  • Reason #2 plus supporting detail
  • Reason #3 plus supporting detail

Problem/solution structure. Many proposals are the solution to a problem.

  • What is the problem?
    • Description
    • Root cause
    • Consequence
  • Criteria for solution
  • Alternatives considered
  • Recommended solution
  • Implementation plan

Opportunity/investment: If there is no immediate pressing problem to be solved, but an opportunity to be seized, you can lay it out in the way the mind considers an investment proposal:

  • What is the opportunity?
  • How much is the investment?
  • What are the risks?
  • What’s the return? This does not have to be expressed in dollar terms, but the more you can quantify it, the stronger will be your argument.


SCR: This stands for Situation, Conflict, and Resolution. Also known as the story structure, it’s very powerful because our minds respond to stories. The SCR structure is not technically “lean”, because it saves the punchline for the end, but it does have great flow, so if the story is well-told, it can save time and reduce waste by engaging attention very well.

  • Situation describes the present context of future goals,
  • Conflict describes the issue that needs to be addressed and its consequences, and
  • Resolution is the “happy ending”.

YTT stands for Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow. is useful for situation updates or regularly scheduled reviews. Here’s where we started from, here’s where we are today, and here’s where we need to go tomorrow. It has good flow, and is useful for brining everyone in the room up to a common level of knowledge…

  • Yesterday: Describe the origins of the situation
  • Today: What is the current state, and why it’s not satisfactory
  • Tomorrow: What needs to happen and what the benefits will be

Your Boss’s Favorite Structure: No, this is not a joke. Many executives have developed their own preferred structures for receiving information with which to make decisions. You should pay close attention to the questions they ask when you or others present, and figure out the pattern. By using this pattern, you will win and they will win.

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Some things are worth repeating
Expression - Lean Communication

Repetition, Repetition, Repetition

In its purest form, lean communication is about making every word count, so in that sense repetition is just a form of waste. In fact, unnecessary repetition can even subtract value. For example, the old third T: “Tell them what you told them” can sound condescending to an intelligent audience. Or if they already got your point, they’re going to get restless and tune out if you belabor it by adding yet another example.

So in its purest form, the lean communication hero would be like the guy who, when his wife complained that he never said “I love you”, replied: “I told you I loved you when I married you. If anything changes, I’ll let you know.”

If you’ve already said something once, isn’t it a form of waste to repeat it? It may seem that way, but that’s like thinking that only the last blow of the sledgehammer cracks the concrete. If you remember that the most important requirement of lean communication is to add value, you can see why repetition can sometimes be essential. Value doesn’t happen just because it’s uttered; it has to be heard, understood, agreed and remembered. Any one of those things may not happen the first time you say something: they may have not paid complete attention, they may not have fully bought into your logic, they may be thinking of the consequences of what you said, and so on. So, if you said it and it did not have its full effect, what you said only once is waste unless you repeat it as often as it takes.

When done right, repetition is the ally of persuasion because of the mere exposure effect, which says that we tend to develop a preference for things just because they’re more familiar. Familiarity seems less risky, which is important because new ideas represent change, which can be scary at first but seem less scary as we grow accustomed to it.

Churchill said it best:

“If you have an important point to make, don’t try to be subtle or clever. Use a pile driver. Hit the point once. Then come back and hit it again. Then hit it a third time – a tremendous whack.”

Going beyond day-to-day business communication, repetition is one of the most fundamental instruments of inspirational and memorable oratory. In 1940, Churchill could have said, “We shall fight everywhere we need to.” Instead, he said:

We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills.

Martin Luther King could have said: “I have a dream, and in it I see the following (bullet points)”

Instead he said “I have a dream…” eight times. Was that wasteful? He said “Let freedom ring” eight times. Was that wasteful? He said “Free at last!” three times. Was that wasteful?

So repetition has its place even in lean communication, and it’s probably more important than ever because your listeners are so easily distracted. But if you decide to use it, you need to be smart about it so you don’t irritate your audience. Keep the following two rules in mind: First, pay close attention to the reactions of your audience and offer to go over parts that seem to be missing the mark. Second, when you do repeat your point, try to say it in a slightly different way.

Did you get all that? If not, go back and read it again.

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Lean Communication

Lean Bite #8: Wants vs. Needs

You make people happy by telling them what they want to hear, but you provide long-term value by telling them what they need to hear. They might want to hear they’re doing a great job, but they might need to hear how they need to improve. They might want to hear the path forward is going to be easy, but they need to hear how difficult it will be so they can prepare for it. The highest value information you can deliver is a real insight that changes the way they view the world, and most people don’t want that.

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