I’m encamped in our local Starbucks, busy with my morning series of conference calls. Power is out at the office–the whole area is without power. It’s been out since about 10 pm last night. The power company was great in notifying us about the outage and setting our expectations about when power would be restored.
They said it would be restored at 5:45 am. It’s 7:00 am, I’m at Starbucks.
I did something sneaky. There are about 4 guys working at a big piece of electrical gear. They are switching out parts. I bought them some coffee.
They were appreciative, we talked for a while. I asked them when they thought things would be done. They replied, “Noon at the very earliest, this is a big job (and I was slowing them down).”
I said, “The power company said it would be done by 5:45 am, what’s up?”
They responded there was never any way the outage would have been corrected by that time. The job was always estimated to be completed by Noon or a little after. They didn’t know why the power company had set the wrong expectation.
I trust the estimate these guys gave me. They’re doing the work. They aren’t sitting in an office trying to “manage customer expectations.”
I wondered, Why did the power company set an expectation that power would be restored by 5:45am, when the people doing the work knew it would take until at least Noon? I suppose someone thought that people could accept an overnight outage and they could later make an excuse for a little delay.
I don’t understand the logic. I’m trying to plan my day. I need access to computers, phones, power. If they aren’t setting the right expectation, I have to keep disrupting what I do. Every time they miss their commitment, I get more upset. I wonder, why don’t they know, why don’t they tell me?
It turns out they do know, but for some strange reason they don’t want to tell me.
We see it all the time, sometimes we mis-set expectations. I’m confused about why we do this purposefully. We know we are going to make the customer unhappy. But why are we purposefully going to make the customer unhappy multiple times?
In this case, we were unhappy that power had to be shut off, but knew it was because of maintenance. We’re OK with that, anxiously looking forward to the power being restored.
But now we are disappointed again, and possibly will be disappointed again, and again, and…
Each time we set expectations and miss meeting them, we erode our relationship and trust with our customers.
Meeting expectations is how we build equity with our customers.
Are you meeting your customer’s expectations?
Henry Ford was rumored to have said, “The customer is welcome to buy a car in any color they want, as long as it’s black.” I think there’s something to that concept.
Now before you jump all over me, let me explain myself. The other day, I was meeting with a great sales team. We were discussing some tough deals. One person asked, “How do you handle a customer that asks you for 3 alternative solutions, for example, ‘good, better, best?’” I really try to avoid in my final proposals giving customers alternatives, I believe it’s our responsibility to provide the single best solution that enables them to achieve the outcomes they expect.
This requires some more clarification, so suspend your judgment for a few minutes.
I think it’s great to discuss alternative approaches and to give the customer some choices early in the sales process. It helps both you and the customer evaluate alternatives and helps them lock in their requirements and what they are trying to achieve. Presenting alternative solutions is very helpful in getting the customer to understand trade offs. It helps them better understand their own goals, requirements and objectives, and clarify their own thinking about potential solutions.
But as we get to the end of the customer buying process and they haven’t finalized on what they are trying to do, what they want to achieve, their own priorities, and how they will gain support for the solution; they aren’t ready to make a decision. If they as still asking for alternatives, we need to help them buy by helping them determine what they really want to do, how they will measure success. We need to provide the single best solution to meet their requirements. We need to provide a value based, business justified solution.
When the customer knows what they want to do and achieve, there is simply no “good, better, best.” There is the single recommendation that is the best solution we can present to achieve their goals.
Think about it from the customer point of view. Presenting alternatives creates very different outcomes and results. So how is it even possible to consider ranges of solutions? It’s an apples/oranges comparison? Are they going to go to management seeking approval for a “good, better, best” outcome? They are held accountable for producing results, for achieving certain goals. They are tasked with buying the solution that enables them to achieve that goal.
If we have alternative solutions, solving the same problem, producing the same outcome and results, it’s our responsibility to make a single recommendation for the solution we think is best for the customer. We shouldn’t confuse them–after all, we are supposed to be the experts in our products and solutions, so we should present the single solution that enables the customer to achieve the desired outcomes.
The customer already has choices–they can choose our solution, a competitor’s, or they can choose to do nothing. Let’s not make their buying process more difficult or confusing. Let’s not let them refuse to lock in on their goals and the outcomes they want to achieve. Let’s not abrogate our responsibility to provide them the solution that is best for them.
I know I seem pretty hard nosed about this, but if we have done the right job in helping the customer lock in on their requirements, priorities and what they want to achieve, there can only be one solution we can recommend that provides the best outcomes for them, and which enables us to win.
Am I off base on this?
Try as we might, sometimes we just can’t make our goals or commitments. Managers push us for forecasts. They pressure us to hit a certain number. There are mandates about what we have to do.
We succumb to the pressure. We tell our managers what they want to hear, not reality. We may talk ourselves into believing what we’ve said. We certainly will try very hard to meet our commitments.
But in our hearts we know there’s no way. Looking at the situation pragmatically, even optimistically, we know we can’t possibly make the commitments being requested. But we make them anyway.
Time goes on. We miss our commitments. We’re a little deeper in the hole, management increases their pressure. Again we succumb and give them what they want to hear, not what we believe is realistic and achievable. We make commitments that bear no semblance to reality. We don’t know how to achieve the goals, but we’ve appeased management and gotten them off our backs for a little while.
And the death spiral continues.
Let’s face it, sometimes reality sucks!
But until we and our managers face reality, we can’t diagnose and correct what’s happening. We can’t understand what stands in our way and take corrective action.
Recently, I was reviewing the pipeline for an industrial products organization. They had been struggling somewhat, but thought things were OK. They thought the pipeline was pretty solid. After discussing the pipeline, reviewing the deals, we agreed to disqualify 52% of the qualified deals. All of a sudden, what had looked OK, looked terrible. But there was really a silver lining to what we had done. We understood exactly where things stood. We had a very accurate outlook for the business. Most importantly, we understood the precise problems we were facing (why we weren’t closing business) and we could put in place the right corrective actions.
A pragmatic, realistic assessment presented a very bad picture. But at least now we had an accurate view of what was happening, we understood why performance was suffering and we could take the right corrective action.
I see this too often. We blind ourselves with wishful thinking. We are afraid to deliver bad news. We succumb to telling people what they want to hear, rather than what they need to hear. We try really hard, but just can’t make it.
Or worse, we mask, ignore, or even solve the wrong problems.
Not long ago, another client thought their people had a problem closing business. They wanted to understand what stood in the way of closing business and correct it. After looking at the situation, I found the people had very good closing skills and relatively high win rates — at least with customers in their sweet spot. However, in responding to pressure to grow the business, sales people were being forced to look at prospects way outside their sweet spot. Sales people went after those customers, but didn’t know how to close them. Pipelines looked very good, but deals were stalled, sales cycles were skyrocketing, and win rates were plummeting. But the sales people didn’t feel comfortable telling managers the problem. They didn’t want to appear to be weak. They were afraid to tell management they had difficulties in the new markets.
Once we helped management understand this, we now could isolate the issues that were impacting performance. We refocused the sales people on prospecting in their sweet spot. We determined the requirements for success in the new markets they were pursuing (it was a combination of product fit issues, market understanding, and skills.). Management now understood the real issues faced in growing the business, and we could put corrective plans in place.
I could go on with story after story. We face similar situations in many of our businesses. Whether it’s succumbing to management pressure. Or it might be unfounded/blind optimism. Or it might be lack of understanding about the real business issues or problems. Whatever it is, until we face reality–however good or bad it is, we can’t hope to address performance issues.
So what lessons can we learn?
First and most important. For managers, it’s great to set stretch goals. It’s important to make sure people are committed to, and working as hard as possible, to making their goals. However, if we put our people under so much pressure to give us the answers we want, forcing them to distort or ignore reality, then we, collectively, will fail. We have to make sure we have realistic–though aggressive expectations of our people, and they have realistic strategies to achieve the goals. If we don’t face reality, however bad it might be, we won’t understand what our people face and we won’t be able to help remove the obstacles.
Second, regardless how much pressure our managers may create, we have to be pragmatic and realistic. We can’t succumb to wishful thinking or telling managers what they want to hear–just to get them off our backs. We have to be honest with our managers. Regardless how bad reality might be, we have to be responsible and face it. We need to communicate it to management, engaging them in helping address the issues we face. If management doesn’t want to do this, then they aren’t doing their jobs! (And I’d start looking some place else).
Reality sometimes sucks! But ignoring it doesn’t enable us to meet our goals and commitments.