Saturday, July 10, 2010

Are you Bob?

From the newsletter this week:

By Charles H. Green, Contributing Editor

Short-termism is a leading cause of bad sales health. It's made worse because it's insidious: you don't always know, or notice, when you're suffering from it. This article identifies some symptoms of short-termism, and tells you what you can do
about it.

Bob's Story

Suppose you're Bob. Imagine hearing in the course of a week:

"Bob, how's the ABC follow-on job coming? It's been on the lead list for six weeks now. How come no movement?"

"Bob, are we going to see some numbers from ABC this quarter? Hate to see it push into the next."

"Hey Bob, you gotta ask for the sale, you know?"

"Hey Bob, I'm thinking now that I sold that big XYZ job, I just might get promoted this cycle, instead of Q1 next year.

"Hey Bob, how come ABC hasn't got back to you yet from that meeting? Do you think they're pushing back on price, like I said?"

"Hey Bob there's an RFP from QED Co. I know it's a long shot, but your ABC job isn't looking too good, maybe you should bid it."

Since you're not really Bob, you can easily avoid temptation. But if you've ever been where Bob is sitting … well, let's imagine what he's thinking:

I knew I should have low-balled the early numbers…

I bet the competition is in there stealing it from me…

My career depends a lot on getting this sale…

If I could just move them along a little faster…

What was I thinking? I should have just moved along…

We all know what comes next. Bob succumbs in one of a number of ways. He calls to subtly guilt-trip the client. He fishes for "objections" he can then "handle." He suggests that perhaps the price is negotiable. He hints that the competition is not entirely ethical. He may even do some version of begging and whining.

The effects are predictable, too. Those actions actually reduce the odds of Bob getting the sale: they cause the client to feel pressured, annoyed, turned into a means to Bob's own ends, and generally disrespected.

Bob shoots himself in the foot; short-term selling claims another victim.

The hardest thing about changing short-term selling behavior is not identifying the causes, or even solving the problem. Instead, I would argue, it is in noticing the drivers and the symptoms. Because the drivers and symptoms show up not in our clients, but in ourselves.

Causes and Effects

Before examining symptoms, let's focus on the underlying cause of short-term selling and how it plays out in client relationships. Then we can identify the early warning symptoms.

Short-term selling comes from a mismatch between the pace of a client's decision-making, and our desired pace of the client's decision-making. Typically, of course, we want the pace to be faster than that which the client appears to desire.

Our unfortunate response is to attack the client's pace as too slow. The client's equally unfortunate (but entirely predictable) response is to dig in their heels and push back. Paradox. Stalemate. Short-termism kills another deal.

The root cause, ultimately, is our insistence on time as a relevant dimension. It is not a relevant dimension, except to us. Time is money? Only to the seller.

To the buyer, haste makes waste. A bad decision made quickly is made no better, and a decision made too quickly is more likely to be bad. To the buyer, the relevant criterion is the rightness of the decision—not its speed.

When a seller feels time pressure from a buyer, it is fundamentally unsettling. It screams, "I'm not in this to get it right, for you—I'm in this to get it done, for me."

Drivers and Symptoms

A firm that is truly client-focused, collaborative, and long-term oriented isn't so troubled by a client's pace of decision-making. Such a firm is focused on helping the client to make the right decision. And here a huge paradox comes into play.

Clients who feel their suppliers are focused on solutions, rather than timing, are not only more likely to buy from those suppliers, but they are also more likely to buy quickly from those same suppliers. Measuring and managing the wrong thing—timing—actually results in damaging the very metrics being measured.

This means that firms obsessed with reducing sales process time are actually contributing to an increase in sales process time. Firms who loosen up and focus not on time but on good client results will contribute to a decrease in sales process time.

The truth is, this only looks paradoxical to a sales process engineer. To any observer of human behavior, it makes perfect sense. Human beings respond positively to people who help them, and they respond negatively to those who make them feel manipulated or used. No surprise there!

Drivers. Now, we can catalog a few system-wide drivers that lead to short-termism. To list just a few suspects: sales quotas, sales contests, exhortation to cut time for time's sake, metrics that emphasize time over quality, promotion criteria that focus on sales numbers at the expense of relationship quality, bonus systems based mechanically on sales numbers at the expense of relationship quality, and the daily drumbeat of "what have you done for me today" that accompanies time-based sales pressure.

Note: there is nothing wrong per se with any of the above. Like anything else, the issue is one of balance vs. excess. The most common victim of short-term driven sales is relationship quality. No firm needs to ignore timing—the problem is being obsessed with it to the exclusion of client focus and relationship quality.

Symptoms. Firms don't sell, people do. Firm processes may drive behavior, but the behavior shows up at the individual level. Let's go back to Bob and identify what happens when Bob succumbs to short-termism. It boils down to this—Bob becomes fear-based. He suffers from:

  • Fear of not getting the sale, which translates into fear of peer pressure, lower commission/bonus, fear of disapproval, fear of job insecurity, and a host of other very personal factors
  • Fear of losing advantage
  • Fear of momentum reversing
  • Fear of a competitor winning
  • Fear of losing to the "no-decision" competitor
  • Fear of fear itself, wanting to just close a deal rather than live in limbo

Every single one of these fears, of course, is about Bob. Not one single fear, of course, is about his client. Which suggests an obvious solution for Bob: he should focus on his client's needs, not on his own.


It's tempting for Bob to succumb to the firm's systemic short-term bias and turn to whining, begging, and guilt-tripping to get his way. Even if Bob is able to see the dysfunction in this behavior, it's tempting for him to blame the firm, and to identify all the incentives lined up in favor of short-termism, for driving Bob to do the wrong thing.

But our Bob, fortunately, is not a rat in a maze, driven only by mirrors, flashing lights, and cheese. Our Bob also has some influence in the matter. And so he chooses to take a few actions on his own, unilaterally.

  1. Remember the paradox: if you act in your client's interests, your client will be more disposed to work in yours. Let nature take its course; don't put your thumb on the scale of human relationships.
  2. If your client isn't making a decision, there is some reason why. You just don't know what it is. Rather than speculate, go find out. Talk to your client about their perspective.
  3. What's your objective? If, in the instant you read those three words, you thought, "Why, to sell the deal, of course!" then go back and rethink it. Your objective should be to help your client. Period.
  4. Your client is not obsessed about you. You are obsessed about you. Get over it.
  5. You may or may not get this sale. All you can do is improve the odds that you'll get x percent of y sales over time with this client, and you do that by solving the client's issues, for them and with them. The numbers will take care of themselves.
  6. The long run is far more profitable. Working with the client fosters innovation, creativity, goodwill, engagement, deeper discussions, and more influence. Why would you destroy all that by wheedling for a deal on your terms?
  7. Yes, timing is important. Just not all the time. Time takes time. The time to check timing is at strategic review, not in daily temperature-takings.
  8. This is your career. Will your career be built on relationships and collaboration? Or will it be built on short-term opportunism? Your career is at stake in your response right now.
  9. Your client would like to make a decision, too; they just want it to be the right decision. Put away the stopwatch, and settle in to help make the best decision—whether you win or not.
  10. If you worry about what your boss will say, give them this article and sincerely ask for their help in applying it to the present situation. They may even thank you for it. In any case, the discussion will tell you what they think and probably therefore what you think about that. Both would be good to know.

Don't be a short-term seller. Short-term sellers sub-optimize their careers away one nibble at a time. Be in it for your client for the long run.

Charles H. Green is a Contributing Editor of RainToday, and a speaker and executive educator on trust-based relationships and trust-based selling in complex businesses. He authored Trust-Based Selling and co-authored The Trusted Advisor. He also leads Trusted Advisor Associates. You can reach Charles at

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