Early in my career, I worked for a training and development firm that developed best practices-based programs in sales and management skills for Fortune 500 companies. All the salespeople, and most of the non-sales staff, went through the battery of offerings as part of the company’s internal training process. We had to know the programs from a “here’s what’s in the box” standpoint and were expected to model the steps of the sales process outlined there. In other words, “talk the talk and walk the walk.”
One of the steps I remember most vividly from the sales training is “Earning the Right to Advance.” In the context of sales, that meant waiting for – earning – the opportunity to talk about your product or your solution. It meant proving that you understood the needs of your potential customer. It meant establishing that you were as interested in the relationship as you were in the potential sale. It wasn’t easy, learning to recognize the point when you had built enough credibility and trust to begin exploring the possibilities your solution offered. But I learned quickly that it was a critical step. It wasn’t about just making a quick sale. Earning the right to advance was vital to forming a long, trust-based relationship.
The concept of earning the right to move forward, to present your ideas, is important in so much more that the sales process. It applies to every relationship, business or personal. In my personal life, it means connecting with someone in a genuine manner. In a business setting, I’ve found it to be one of the most critical aspects of collaboration and team building. Not only does it convey respect to others – you demonstrate your commitment to not only results, but the process of getting to the results and the relationships behind it all.
How do you earn the right to advance with your colleagues and clients?
Use your ears and not your mouth. In my job with the training and development firm, I had the opportunity to grow into an account executive role from the administrative role I’d been hired for. Convinced that a corner office was my destiny, I wasted no opportunity to chime in at meetings on every topic, often ignoring the comments of more seasoned colleagues. I quickly gained a reputation as arrogant and ruthless. Only after a senior member of the team took me aside and kindly, but thoroughly, read me the riot act did I realize that not everyone saw the brilliance I believed was inherent in my ideas. For a long time afterward, I made a point of listening rather than talking in meetings and was amazed at the real brilliance of my colleagues. Thanks to a timely and well-deserved scolding, I ended up learning a lot.
Ask great questions. Watch someone you consider a good communicator in action. My guess is that you will find that person doesn’t do much talking, other than asking insightful questions. Asking thought-provoking questions requires in-depth listening. I find that providing structure in my questions gets people thinking and makes it easy for them to gather their thoughts. For example, in our consulting work I often ask something like, “What are the three things you’re doing right now that your customers value most?” I learn a lot from the answers; I learn even more when the client is unable to answer. Asking questions that get people thinking demonstrates that you’re focused on their issues and not only on presenting your solutions. The HubSpot blog is a terrific resource; this article discusses how to formulate great questions. It’s specific to sales but can be adapted to any situation.
Recently, we worked with a client who had just added an exceptionally talented member to her team. This person had been in talks with leadership for some time about coming on board, but no other staff members had any knowledge of this person until he was introduced at a company social event. He attended the team’s weekly staff meeting two days later and proceeded to offer his opinion on project after project, referring repeatedly to his work in a previous position. Not only did he talk far more than he listened, the suggestions he made were off target because he didn’t fully understand the nature of the projects underway with his new team. It was a significant misstep; he is working now to repair damage that did not have to happen.
Explore options and test hypotheses. We had a client who answered the question about what customers love most with, “They like the way we make them feel about doing business with us. They like how responsive we are when there’s a problem. They like our people.” We’d been talking with this client long enough that we felt confident in asking some more exploratory questions, so we asked, “It sounds like your customers love the way you work with them. But you haven’t mentioned that they love your product. You say they like the way you resolve problems. What if we could help you redesign your internal processes so that you didn’t have to resolve as many problems? What if the first thing your customers said was that they love your product?” By listening and using the client’s own feedback as a springboard, we were able to get them thinking about and eager to learn about the solutions we could offer.
We move fast all the time. Asking questions, listening, and reflecting all take time, time we don’t always believe we have. But think about the answer to these questions. Will you get another chance with a client when you offer solutions that don’t match their issues because you didn’t take the time to understand their situation? Do you have time to repair a broken relationship? Do you have time to start over with an employee, a customer, or a valued friend when you moved too fast or just didn’t take the time to earn the right to move forward?
We do better when we make the time.