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Pssst…..Isn’t It All Really About Self Interest?

by David Brock on September 8th, 2010

We seemed embarrassed to admit it, or we are trained not to say this, but selling isn’t selling really about Self Interest?

Despite all the things we say about being customer focused, what we really want is for the customer to buy what we are selling.  We want to win, we want to beat the competition, we want to achieve our goals, beat our quotas and earn our commissions.  We want to be successful. 

It’s really all about Self Interest…..but what’s wrong with that?

Isn’t business, and life, really about Self Interest?  We choose our relationships based on how they make us feel.  We work in companies based on what we get out of it, not only pay, but they do things we are interested in, they represent what we like.

Our customers are the same way.  They work in their own Self Interests.  They want to achieve their goals, they want to get a promotion, they want want to be successful.

It is human nature to be Self Interested.

Where we get confused, when things start getting complicated or going wrong is when we work with people where our Self Interests Aren’t Aligned.

We are unhappy in our jobs when the expectations of management and the strategies of the company are not aligned with our Self Interests.

Self Interest in sales is very challenging.  If, in serving our Self Interest, we are pushing something on the customer that doesn’t serve their Self Interests, the customers resent it.  They feel pressured, they may feel manipulated.  Conflict arises when Self Interests are not aligned.

But what if we aligned our Self Interests with those of the customer?  What if by focusing on the Self Interest of the customer, we could also satisfy our own Self Interest?  When what we are trying to achieve–sell our solution—aligns with what the customer is trying to achieve—solve a problem, we have no conflicts.  We work in tandem with the customer, each of us satisfying our own Self Interests.

We aren’t interested in nice meetings and conversations (unless that’s in our Self Interest).  We aren’t interested in working with customers who cannot help us satisfy our Self Interest.  We aren’t interested in customers who don’t have problems we can solve.  We want to disqualify all opportunities that don’t serve our Self Interest.  There’s nothing wrong with that–afterall customers feel the same way, they don’t want to waste time with people who don’t satisfy their (the customer’s) Self Interest.  We aren’t going to hurt their feelings, we’re just being human.

There’s another thing about Self Interest–it’s about people, what each of us wants, what each of our customers want.  Our companies and those of our customers really represent the aggregated Self Interests, goals, and dreams of all the employees, stakeholders, and shareholders–but there is really no Self Interest in companies.  Sometimes in selling we forget about this.  We focus on the customer’s–the company’s—goals, objectives, and problems.  We forget about the people who are doing the buying.  We don’t understand each of them, their Self Interests.  If we don’t understand their Self Interests (otherwise known as What’s In It For Them), we may have difficulty in aligning our Self Interests.

There’s nothing wrong with Self Interest–as long as our Self Interests are aligned with those with whom we work and with those of our customers.

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  1. David,

    I agree that sales is really about all parties meeting at the intersection of everyones self-interest.

    Self-interest is what drives all behavior.

    • Thanks for joining the discussion Alan, flattered to see you here! There’s nothing wrong with self interest as long as we focus on creating value ant the intersection of everyone’s self interest. That creates a win for all! Regards, Dave

  2. I feel the quote “There is no thing as a selfless good deed” is very fitting in most everything we do.

    Everything we do is for our own sake. Even if it is only because we feel good about doing it or that we like seeing others happy.

    In sales we can use this just like you say, find customers thinking about what they need and make sure there needs serve your solutions.
    That way you got a win/win, you make money and the customer solves their problem.

    Thanks for the great article Dave!

  3. Dave, I find this is tricky stuff to write about. One thing I’ve come to appreciate more is the role of time.

    The longer the time involved, the more you can say it makes sense to do something “selflessly.” Selflessly, that is, in the short term; in the long term, those things come back to you and end up being ‘selfish,’ or at least serving our self-interest.

    This is what Goldman used to mean by “long-term selfish,” back when Goldman actually practiced what they preached. Alas, they are hardly alone in having succumbed to the IBGYBG philosophy of life; so have the arenas of employment, customer relationships, and even conversations.

    When time gets shortened, then selling is driven from relationship territory to transaction territory. And it’s a helluva lot harder to align self-interests as a series of one-night stands than it is to have the luxury of a relationship over time.

    I find no trouble at all agreeing with you the longer the time-frame you suggest. The shorter it gets, the more twitchy I get.

    What do you think of the time dimension in this issue?


    • Charles, thanks for the thought provoking comment. I have two, perhaps, opposing responses. When I originally wrote the article, I think implicitly I was thinking of building long term relationships and, while I didn’t know it, was thinking of the long term selfish concept.

      Now here’s the crazy part, sometimes all we want is a one night stand, a transactional relationship. If self interests are aligned between the buyer and seller, then we have the perfect relationship and a great transaction. So I think the principle of alignment of self interests is independent of time–at least in the sense that you refer to.

      Taking a counterexample of the “longer term perspective,” one might consider the failure rate of strategic partnerships and alliances. Depending on which surveys you believe, the failure rate is somewhere between 60-72%. In the work we’ve done in this area, at the core all these failed strategic alliances is an absence of alignment between partners (really an absence of alignment of self interest.).

      The problem is that relationship and relationship over time may be a “self interests” of one of the parties in the relationship. If the other party has purely a short term and selfish view (self interest), then clearly the self interests aren’t aligned. An example of this is the sales person pushing for an order this month because she wants a bonus, and the customer wanting to take a more thoughtful and considered approach to analyzing the alternatives. Here the self interests clearly aren’t aligned and conflict is introduced into the transaction/relationship.

      It’s really an interesting idea, time is an element of self interest, each of us may have different needs or self interests with respect to time. But if self interests including time based self interests are aligned, it doesn’t matter whether it is a short tem or long term issue.

      Defining self interest from everyone’s point of view, defining it richly, and aligning self interests, while easy to say (and makes great headlines for blog posts), is really the root issue. Aligning interests is not trivial even between two individuals, but then overlaying that with aligning interests between large number of people in two enterprises (I have my interests, I have to align with my boss, she has to align….. My customer has his self interest, he has to align with his boss…..)

      On a bit of a tangent, I think this is why the issue of rich collaboration is so important as we look at buying and selling in the future. Rich collaboration is really the process of identifying and aligning interests in a complex environment.

      Am I completely off my rocker or does any of this make sense?

      Thanks so much for raising the issue. It’s really the most important thing we can be talking about. Regards, Dave

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