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Dec 4 16

Customers Aren’t Widgets

by David Brock

I’ve always thought sales is more science than art.  I believe selling is a set of disciplined processes, many of which can be “engineered” to optimize our ability to engage the right customers/prospects, with the right conversations, at the right time.

Whether it’s a recruiting/onboarding process, talent management/people development, account/territory management, opportunity/deal management, pipeline/forecasting, prospecting, time management, performance management, defining/communicating/delivering value, and on and on; driving performance and more predictable outcomes is a what all modern sales professionals and leaders can achieve.

We develop these by with strong, purposeful strategies, based on deep understanding of customers and what is most effective in developing and growing relationships with them.  We develop these by identifying those things we must do to consistently produce results for our customers, our organizations, and the people in both the customer and our organizations.

We’ve seen individuals and organizations not doing these things in consistent, systematic, disciplined ways fail.

In recent years we’ve increasingly leveraged technology, both to improve productivity, but to automate as much of these processes as we can.  Even to the point that some commoditized or repeat buys are completely automated on the customer and supplier sides.  We are starting to see the capabilities of AI (I prefer the Augmented Intelligence descriptor to the Artificial Intelligence descriptor) enabling us to do even more in all areas of sales and marketing.

However, we are repeatedly see descriptions of selling becoming more like that of a manufacturing line–input a prospect at the beginning of the process, move them step by step through our sales machine, and at the end we spit out a paying customer.

We’ve developed predictable models of moving these customers through the process in very high volumes/velocity.  Disciplined inbound/outbound programs, SDRs to AE to Demo to someone else to Proposal to Close to Customer Success Teams.  One begins to see images of assembly lines with customers on a conveyor belt moving from station to station.

The problem is, customers are not widgets.

Each individual is different.  While they may hold similar jobs in similar companies, they are individuals with differing dreams, aspirations, fears.  Their companies are different, even though they may be head to head competitors, each company has a different culture, differing strategies, differing priorities.  How things get done in each is different.  Buying groups are different–independent of any vendor interaction, they struggle among themselves and within their own organizations.  Too often their projects or buying journeys end in nothing being done.

For those of you with strong manufacturing/agile backgrounds, we call this variability–and high variability is the killer of efficient and predictable processes.

Perhaps the most subtly arrogant assumption of this assembly line mentality is that we are in control.  The customer is in control, and always has been.  They have their own processes they must undertake.  To be successful, we have to align with their process, not force them through our factory.

For complex B2B customer buying processes, they are, very often, they are ugly and unpredictable.  They often end in failure or abandonment.  Increasingly, more people are involved–according to the CEB, it’s now at 6.8.  In complex B2B buying processes, it’s easy to understand this challenge–they probably don’t buy frequently so they don’t know how to buy, the buying process is a diversion from their day jobs, and there are a lot of people with different priorities/interests.  Even professional buyers struggle with these issues within their own organizations.

Layer on top of this, things change as they go through their buying process, people may change, priorities may change, needs/requirements may change.

And it’s different from customer to customer, situation to situation.

Then finally, these buyers are people, not objects.  They don’t necessarily behave rationally, they have ambitions, fears, ugly unpredictable things called emotions.  They may be concerned with things entirely outside the buying decison (a kid’s soccer game, putting away money for a college fund), but which impact them in the process.  Things like trust, relationships come into play.

All this adds on to the variability–the enemy of this manufacturing line orientation to selling.

Fortunately, our manufacturing colleagues have already seen much of this in dealing with inanimate objects.  They’ve seen in some processes variability can’t be predicted or eliminated.  They’ve developed highly adaptive and agile processes.

Rather than objects going down the assembly line with each station doing it’s function (e.g. get a meeting, do the discovery, do a demo(hopefully related to the discovery), present a proposal, ask for the order….), they look at the process differently.  Things like clustered work cells, where teams work together accomplishing multiple tasks and able to respond to changes/variability in real time–widget by widget.  In manufacturing, they’ve focused on developing workers skills to understand and solve problems, to think critically, to leverage teams to address these challenges.

One of the key things these manufacturers have learned is you have to put the authority to making decisions about how to address problems on the manufacturing floor, with the people dealing with the issues.  Having to always go up the food chain to gain approval destroys productivity, increases expense, increases waste, and decreases quality.

We can learn a lot from these techniques, incorporating concepts of adaptability, agility, collaboration, real time problem solving, and delegating decisionnmaking  into our engagement with customers.

Just as smart manufacturing executives have, done, we can invest in hiring people with these capabilities, providing skills around critical thinking, creative problem solving, collaboration.  We can trust our people to make the right decisions in real time.

But there will always be that wonderful gap.  The single thing that makes selling the most exciting profession in the world.

Customers aren’t inanimate objects.  They aren’t widgets.  They’re people!

We and they have all the quirks, insecurities, imperfections that make each person unique.  We change our minds, we aren’t logical (as Mr. Spock discovered decades ago).  The more of us that get together on a project, the more challenging it is in managing the various agendas, priorities, and perspectives.

We can systematize many things.  We can become more efficient and more effective.

In the end, the wonderful thing about selling is it’s people dealing with people!  Think of the poor folks in manufacturing that are just dealing with widgets.


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Dec 1 16

My Dad

by David Brock

Please forgive a momentary departure from my commentary on the state of business, leadership, sales, marketing, and customers.  This post is dedicated to my Dad — and Mom, since they have been inseparable in making my sisters and me who we are.  In a couple of weeks they will celebrate their 65th anniversary.

Dad’s 92 years old.  I wanted to take an opportunity to celebrate he and mom, and to let them know the impact they have and continue to continue to have on  me, my sisters, their friends, community–and the world.

While I refer to Dad in much of this post, it’s really Dad and Mom.  It’s their complementary capabilities that have been so important in shaping who we are today.  They are part of what Tom Brokaw has called the Greatest Generation, being children of the depression, going through 3-5 wars, and growing into a new century/millennium.

First, Dad has the most unusual background.  Until mid-high school, he was raised in India and schooled in a boarding school in the mountains of Northeast India.  Growing up, my friends’ fathers would talk about trudging 2 miles to school in snow, Dad would talk about riding an elephant 100 kilometers in the Himalaya’s.  He was a gymnast in college, but immediately on graduation went into the Navy to be trained as a landing ship officer for the invasion of Japan at the end of the war.  In entering the program, they were told 2 of 3 would not survive.  Despite that, he felt it his duty to serve his country.  He went through Korea and Vietnam in the service, with the Coast Guard.

He never talked very much about his experiences in the wars, it’s only been in the past 10 years that I’ve begun to understand the impact of the wars, particularly Vietnam had on him.  He went through experiences no human being should ever go through.  Understanding his experience has helped me understand, appreciate, and value all who serve in their country’s militaries.

ch17-09In the military, he was a true hero, as the rows of medals on his uniform indicated.  But I learned more of his heroism in talking to some of the Admirals he served under and the people he served with.  His real heroism was in how much he cared for his people, their welfare, and their ability to accomplish their mission.  They always came first.

He left the military in the late 60’s for a very successful career at executive levels in business.  But still his path was different.  He and my mom traveled and lived all over the world as part of his work.  Their passports have the stamps of more than 110 countries–mine is just a paltry 50+.  Those experiences shaped their thinking and how they raised us.  Until going to college, my sisters and I moved with them.  We learned how to adapt, we learned to appreciate different worldviews, cultures, and people.  We learned to be curious and open to different ideas and perspectives.  Our global travels made us much more appreciative of our own country and our responsibilities as citizens.  These experience have made me a better person today.

Dad was typical of his generation, he was the breadwinner.  He went to work, mom spent much of the time raising us, particularly since work often meant months on assignment somewhere on a ship or building something in a remote location somewhere in the world.  Men of his generation were trained not to show emotion, but it was in the way he behaved, the way he taught us, the way he encouraged us that showed how deep his love of us is.

My earliest memories were of puzzles.  He was always buying me puzzles.  The first time, I would put together the puzzle looking at the picture.  After that, he would turn the puzzle upside down, I’d have to put it together looking at the gray cardboard backs and the shapes of the pieces.  At the time, I thought of him as a sadist (I had quite a sophisticated vocabulary at 3-4 years old)–it was only years later I realized he was teaching me how to think, problem solve, and figure things out.  Later he would bring me science experiments.  Every week, he’d buy a new one and give it to me to learn and figure out.  He and my mom instilled the love of books, reading, learning, and being incessantly curious.

In my teenage years, he taught me the value of hard work.  Professionally, he was an engineer and a builder.  That translated to projects around the house.  I learned how to be a carpenter, mason, laborer, and landscaper from weekend construction projects around our houses.  I don’t know how many thousands of bricks I laid, yards of concrete I mixed, poured and finished, or how many thousands of wheelbarrow loads of dirt, sand, gravel, cement, and concrete I muscled across our yards and houses.  That training helped me with part time jobs through college, and to understand what hard work really is.

These projects, also, taught me the joy of really accomplishing tough goals, how to finish the things I started, and not give up.  The work was physically tough, but the fun of doing it together and seeing what we accomplished was amazing.  By the way, the projects continue.  Last year, we were visiting them for the weekend.  I noticed some “materials” at one side of the garage.  When I walked into the house, Dad said, “I have to build stairs up the back hill this weekend.”  I knew the “I” meant “We,” and it was great doing something together and seeing what we accomplished.

All through this, Mom and Dad instilled the belief that I could do anything I set my mind to.  They instilled the discipline and work ethic to do the hard work to achieve what I wanted, to never give up, to continue to learn, and always improve.

They also instilled a sense of caring and community as they raised us–whether it was our activities at church, scouts, or community projects.  They taught us that it was our obligation to contribute to others and in doing that we would grow as well.

They instilled the set of values and integrity that guide each of us now.  I think the only time I ever saw my dad genuinely angry with me was when he caught me in a lie.

As we became independent adults, they have always been there and supporting us.  Even though the whole family is scattered around the world, we’ve always been incredibly close and always “there” for each other.  It’s through Mom and Dad, that we learned these lessons.  These continue, as the families grow with a wife, brothers in law, nieces, and a nephew.  When any of us need anything, we swarm around to help each other.

It’s become part of our DNA or value system to do this with each other, and we’ve learned to expand those values to what we do with our with our friends, colleagues, customers, clients.

They’ve always been proud of us and what we accomplish–even though they may not agree with what we were doing.  There have been one or two jobs I’ve had or a couple of projects/causes, where I know Dad felt uncomfortable or did not agree.  Despite that, he has always been proud of what I (we) did and our commitment to whatever it was we chose.

I’m not sure I realized or appreciated much of this as I was growing up.  I think unconsciously I did, but perhaps have not verbalized it.  I have realized the truth in Mark Twain’s words,

“When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.”

At 92, he has become a genius and an inspiration.  I only hope that I can be part of the man–he has been to me and the family.

I hope what I stand for in these articles, how I work with clients, colleagues, friends, how I contribute to the community, and the example I try to set–though sometimes fail;  in some way reflects well on the values and love Mom and Dad have instilled in me.

These 1400 plus words, don’t come close to expressing his and my mother’s impacts on my life, those of my sisters, our family, and others.  They could never express my appreciation for what they have done and what they mean.

Thank you Dad and Mom.  I love you.


 PS, Mom, I’m writing a post about you, soon, so don’t let Dad’s head get too big 😉

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Nov 30 16

“Are You Happy With Your Current…….”

by David Brock

Why do so many prospecting calls start with the questions, “Are you happy with…….?”  Substitute whatever solution category you sell.  It could be any variety of sales and marketing automation tools, your banking relationships, your website, your janitorial services.

My answer is always, “I’m ecstatic with it!”  After all, if I wasn’t happy and it was something important to me, I’d be doing something about it.

But a huge number of prospecting calls start with this question.  Inevitably, when I proclaim how satisfied I am, the sales person goes silent.  The majority are stumped.

They struggle with a few other questions about whether I’m happy or not, but the call comes to an uncomfortable silent point.  They are searching for unhappiness and don’t know what to do when they don’t discover it.

The call finally becomes one of uncomfortable silence, I’m waiting for them to catch my attention, but they don’t know what to say because they have only prepared to deal with those that express unhappiness.

Inevitably, you hear a disappointed, perhaps confused or stumped voice, timidly saying “Thank you,” then hanging up.

But what a huge lost opportunity!

Let’s start breaking this down:

  1. First, “Are you happy….”  is a close ended question.  We never get people engaged and talking about themselves and their businesses by asking an opening question that has only two responses—Yes or No!  Our purpose in prospecting calls is to engage the prospect, learn, identify opportunities of shared interest.  This happens through insights that provoke a, “I’d like to learn more” response or open ended questions about things we know should be important to the prospect.
  2. The people responding in the affirmative, are probably doing something about their unhappiness–at least if it’s a priority.  They may be well into a buying cycle, and if they haven’t already discovered you (in which case you wouldn’t be making the call in the first place), they probably have a number of alternatives they are already considering.  Inevitably, you have to mount a huge, “come from behind” effort to get into consideration.
  3. The “Are you unhappy” question is always about a product, solution, or vendor—at least 99% of those I get.  From this very first sentence, we are starting the conversation in the wrong place.  We are making their unhappiness all about what we sell and the alternatives.  It’s simply a variant of the product pitch.  We already know customers don’t care about us, they don’t care about our products, they don’t express their unhappiness in terms of what we sell.  Customers’ happiness or unhappiness is always expressed in terms of their ability to achieve their business and personal goals.  They are expressed in terms of problems they are having in doing those things, opportunities they would like to seize but, for various reasons, can’t.
  4. If we are going to ask the unhappiness question, it can’t be around a solution or implementation, but about themselves and their business.
  5. We have to be prepared to deal with the “happy,” or “not unhappy” response.  It is human nature to resist change, after all, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”  Just because they are “happy,” or “not unhappy,” doesn’t mean they shouldn’t change.  If we can’t engage the customer in a discussion of what they want to do, but can’t; what they could do, but were unaware of; what they dream of doing, but don’t know how; what they must do, but were unaware of the threat; then we miss huge opportunities to serve them, to create value, to grow our relationship, and to sell!
  6. At the risk of being redundant and crass, being “happy” is an objection.  Objections are always opportunities for us to learn.  And in that learning, we and the customer may discover opportunities in which we can engage them.  In the very least we can understand why they are happy with what they are doing, who their supplier is, and perhaps ask if there is anything on their “wish list” for doing things new.  While the prospect may not be unhappy with the way they are doing things now, or their current solution or vendor, there may be things they are missing and are simply unaware of.

The “Are you happy with your current…” question is dull, lazy, and a waste of everyone’s time.  If you want to engage your prospects, if you want to increase your hit rate on prospecting calls, do the work to understand what might captivate your prospects’ imaginations and start there.

Wrapping this rant up, perhaps the only remaining question is, “Are you happy with this post….”  (Sorry couldn’t resist.)

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Nov 30 16

Don’t Confuse Leadership With Titles, Everyone Leads!

by David Brock

Too often, we look at a person’s title, CEO, EVP, SVP, C-Level something or other, Vice President, Director, Manager; confusing the title with leadership.

In the best of all worlds people in executive or managerial roles would be great leaders.  In reality, that’s not always true, sometimes in my most pessimistic moments, rarely true.

We tend to mix the concepts of “manager” and “leader,” where they represent distinctly different behaviors, attitudes, and competencies.

Jim Collins defines leadership characteristics of Level 5 leaders as including:  Humility, will, ferocious resolve, the tendency to give others credit while assigning blame to themselves.

Other words that describe various leadership characteristics include empathy, caring about their people, high integrity, trustworthy, visionary, patience, transparent, focus, confident, passionate, authentic, curious, decisive, honest, consistency, great communicators, visionary, driven, ethical, inspiring, persistent, constant learners, goal driven, risk takers/managers, purposeful, are great role models.  The list goes on–in reality, leadership means something different to everyone, which may possibly be part of the challenge we have in making sure our organizations have great leaders.

Likewise, the responsibilities of managers may include things other than being great leaders (in fact many managerial job descriptions I read don’t include leadership in the description.)

However, when we see individuals in positions of responsibility, those having teams of people reporting to them, we have an expectation they are leaders-when they may not be.

But here’s the real opportunity.  Leadership isn’t restricted to those with leadership and management titles.

Leadership can be exercised by anyone–even if they are not responsible for managing anyone but themselves.

Leadership is particularly important for sales people.  Those qualities we identify for great leaders are the very same qualities of great sales people. To be effective in working with our customers, to gain the support we need from people within our own companies, to help our colleagues and peers so they, in turn, help us; we have to exercise leadership.

Perhaps, I’m a little naive, but I believe great leadership is infectious.  We recognize and are inspired by great leadership.  We start to model our behaviors through the examples they set and the behaviors they display.  In turn, we influence others.

Leaders also gravitate to each other, they recognize success can’t be achieved alone, so they actively culture relationships with other leaders to amplify their impact and drive for shared success.  Finding great leaders in our customers, whatever their title, is critical for what we as sales leaders are trying to achieve for/with our customers.  Finding great leaders in our own organizations, whatever their title, enables us to drive higher levels of performance and accomplishment for everyone in the organization.

Great leaders aren’t passive, waiting to be led, instead they lead, they inspire, they motivate–everyone around them including those with greater titles.

Are you taking your opportunities to lead?

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