I was sitting in a bar drinking martinis with my friend, Amy, on a recent Saturday night.
We were talking politics, and I mentioned the premise of my last blog post – that the confluence of affordable personal technology with a cacophony of media outlets has allowed our culture to create something new: personalized facts.
As a result, we have a new normal, at least in politics: A wide variety of facts to choose from, an ability to pick the ones we like and a jaundiced cynicism applied to those we disagree with.
Since we’re stewed daily in fact subjectivity through the popular media, I wondered about its possible impact on business, particularly selling. I came up with these three questions:
- If we have many sources of data to choose from, is there an increased temptation to cherry pick and spin our selling stories toward the edge of dishonesty in the name of showing our products in their best light? (We’re only human after all, and it’s so easily done.)
- Because we have too much data to choose from and not enough time to analyze it, do we increasingly end up creating the easiest selling story rather than the best one, because we’re time-pressed or complacent? (And how well will this cut it against a more organized competitor?)
- Have buyers reached an increased level of cynicism that makes them so suspicious of the data used to sell them stuff that they make decisions based on other factors? (If yes, how do you persuade someone like this?)
Provocative arguments, I realize.
Amy is a vice president of programming strategy for a segment of networks at Turner Broadcasting. She handles a lot of data to justify business decisions and budgets to top management (selling, in other words), so I asked her what she thought.
“Ten years ago, I got challenged on numbers and sources constantly. ‘How did you get that exactly? What media analyst did you use? How old is the data?’ Now, I never am.”
We talked about why that might be given that the amount of data and the variety of media analysts in her industry have multiplied. She could no doubt build any plausible story she wanted and justify it by making deliberate data choices. It’s easily done. But she has to have something else to get away with it: Credibility and trust.
Amy has that in spades. She did 10 years ago, too, but she wasn’t a vice president with multiple flat panel TVs on her office walls (not that I’m interested in such things). She has trusted advisor status now.
Ah, the nirvana of client relationships: Trusted advisor status. And therein lies our challenge. We want to attain it. When we get it, we want to keep it. But temptation beckons even the best of us.
Spin-enablement surrounds us in the form of mountains of data from easy-to-access sources that run the gamut on credibility and span everything from industry analysts to our marketing departments. If we’re so inclined, we can ignore true context and cherry pick our selling data in the hopes that an expert does not challenge us on it. A slippery slope indeed.
On the other hand, mountains of data also make for more time-consuming due diligence when crafting a value proposition to sell with. But time is the most ardent enemy of the sales cycle, and sometimes we just can’t be bothered.
And then there’s this scenario, which I imagine to be the most common:
A sales manager at one of our CPG clients went on a selling roadshow. Armed with diligently crafted data from his talented analyst and marketing teams, he went out to convince the largest US grocery retailers to significantly alter strategy for a particular food segment. His advice was to add shelf space for super-premium items previously confined – industry-wide – to specialty channels only and begin building an assortment starting with his brand.
His selling story included research showing yearly growth for this food segment to be 19%, far outpacing anything else in its category. Market forces practically begged big grocery to make this change. It was a killer argument delivered by a trusted advisor (whose pores literally ooze with credibility) to his most important customers.
He also has a gift for persuading with such utter conviction that when he’s finally finished with you, you believe with a rapturous certitude, similar to what I imagine is the feeling of being healed at a tent revival. (Can I get a hallelujah, sister!)
Then, a week later this happened.
The analysts, in a perfectly rational move, decided to consolidate data sources to gain consistency. A way to ensure apples to apples comparisons on many data points. An attempt to be diligent with data accuracy. And when they did that, growth for the food segment went from 19% to 3.6%, a slight lag behind category performance.
Every single one of these scenarios has dire consequences for trusted advisor status – either in attaining it or keeping it. And if it’s true that buyers are more cynical when it comes to the data presented to them, then the credibility of a trusted advisor is his only reliable currency. How long he can hold it before it’s devalued is up to him.
Roll the dice, if you must, on either the temptation to over-spin or under-achieve in ensuring you’ve got the best data in context, and hope no one notices. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned in sales, it’s that what goes around comes around.
As for the last scenario, these things happen. A trusted advisor knows that the most important thing is what he does next, now that he has the revised number.
I think my conclusion is this. Complex enterprise sales have gotten harder, because technology became easier, so data grew bigger, and media sources added an injection of subjectivity, which has maybe made buyers a little more cynical. Abstinence from subjective facts is definitely an effective cure, but it’s really, really hard to stay on the wagon. Especially if your competition is buying champagne in the bar.
Check out our Top Performer Profile on Amy Manchester, who is a true trusted advisor in the technology space (http://symmetricsgroup.com/amy-manchester-best-of-class/).