Every week as SmallBizLady, I conduct interviews with experts on my Twitter talk show #SmallBizChat. The show takes place every Wednesday on Twitter from 8-9pm ET. This is excerpted from my recent interview with @Tim_Hurson. Tim Hurson is founding partner of ThinkX, an international speaker and author of the new book, Never Be Closing. He creates innovative strategies for Fortune 500 and FTSE 100 organizations worldwide. For more information, visit thinkxic.com.
SmallBizLady: Most people think that closing your client is the main purpose of a sales call, yet you decided to call your new book Never Be Closing. What’s different about the way you look at it?
Tim Hurson: In today’s market, the old mantra “Always Be Closing” just doesn’t work. Everyone knows that a first sale is far more expensive to make than subsequent sales. So what’s important is the relationship, not the close-at-any-cost approach. People don’t remember you because you closed them. They remember you because you helped them. And to help them, you have to understand where they want to go, what’s in their way, and how you can offer them support. It’s really not that complicated. Clients aren’t dumb. They can tell pretty quickly where your priorities lie. If you’re focused only on the sale, you’re focusing on your needs, not theirs. It’s something like an archer trying to hit a bull’s-eye 100 meters away. If she sites in on the bull’s-eye, she’ll miss. Gravity will pull her arrow down. But if she sites above the bull’s-eye, her arrow will arc smoothly and hit dead center. It’s the same with developing business. Aim for the sale, and you probably won’t hit the bull’s-eye. Aim above the sale, for the relationship, and you will.
SmallBizLady: If “Always Be Closing” is dead, is there a new mantra?
Tim Hurson: It’s not so much a mantra as a way of looking at the world. “Always Be Closing” sees the sale as the end of a relationship. But it’s really the other way around: the relationship is the beginning of the sale. That’s particularly true for business entrepreneurs. If you want to develop ongoing relationships, “Always Be Useful” makes a lot more sense. And the interesting thing is that it’s so easy. You can deliver usefulness simply by giving your client a new perspective on their issues. In other words you can deliver Understanding. You can be useful by referring them to connections that can help them, even if those referrals don’t directly earn you money. We call that Sourcing. And of course you can be useful by making a business transaction, offering your clients products or services that meet their needs and earn you money. We call that Exchanging. Those three things Understanding, Sourcing, and Exchanging—U-S-E—are the essence of being useful in a business context. If you do those things consistently, your clients will remember you and come back to you time after time.
SmallBizLady: Your book is designed for sellers. What does it have to offer the small business owner or new entrepreneur?
Tim Hurson: Never Be Closing is designed for sellers. But ‘sellers’ aren’t just professional salespeople. Both my co-author and I come from the world of small business, where we had to sell every day—even though we never thought of ourselves as salespeople. You could say we were ‘accidental’ salespeople.
If you’re an entrepreneur looking for investors, you have to compete in a busy marketplace to get their attention. You have to get them to say yes to your request for a meeting. You need to identify what’s unique and novel about your idea, and you have to communicate your message. If you’re a small business owner, one of your biggest concerns is developing clients, suppliers, and new partners. You need to demonstrate that you can connect them to resources, tools, and people that can make their businesses sing, and that you can develop a mutually supportive web in which everyone prospers. If you’re a consultant, you have to connect with and build trusting relationships with your clients and often with their stakeholders. All these situations require a similar set of tools and skills. Whether you’re a seasoned sales pro, a start-up entrepreneur launching the next big idea, or the heir to a 100 year old family business, the tools, behaviors, and concepts in Never Be Closing will help you do it better.
We’ve designed our book to be as useful to these accidental salespeople as to the accomplished professional.
SmallBizLady: Why do you think many small business ventures or startups fail? What advice can you offer the new small business owner?
Tim Hurson: As I mentioned, both Tim and I come from a small business background. So we have some personal experience here. I wouldn’t say it’s the only reason, but I know that one of the biggest stresses for any small business owner is trying to balance doing the work with getting the work. As small business people, we’re pretty passionate about doing the best work possible, meeting our customers’ needs, developing a reputation for excellence. But we also know that none of that will mean much if we can’t keep feeding the kitty. And that means sales and marketing. One of the things we hope our book does is give small business people (those accidental salespeople we talked about earlier) a structure and a set of tools they can use over and over again to make the job of selling easier and less time consuming.
I know in my case, if I had had a solid step-by-step approach to finding customers, talking to them in a way that truly connected with them, mechanisms for developing and maintaining ongoing relationships, and a way of identifying and correcting the miscues I was making along the way, I could have shaved months, maybe even years, off the work of starting up my companies. I hope that’s what we’re offering people with Never Be Closing— a proven step-by-step approach to building business based on building relationships and creative problem solving. As I said, I wish I’d had something like that when I was starting up.
SmallBizLady: In order to stay in business, it’s essential to make sales. How can small business owners, entrepreneurs, and salespeople make the sale without “closing the deal” or closing the door to more opportunities as you recommend?
Tim Hurson: Good question! Yes, of course, you have to make the sale. We’re not saying, don’t ask for it. What we’re saying is that you don’t need to do so with manipulative and disrespectful closing techniques. There are hundreds of sales books with lists of such techniques. What we’re saying is that if you do the rest of your job well—if you demonstrate usefulness, build relationships, meet needs, and deliver value, you don’t have to resort to those kinds of tactics. Here’s the bottom line: customers aren’t stupid. They know when they’re being manipulated into buying even if they’re not ready. And yes indeed, they may even buy—once. But will they ever agree to see a person who hasn’t been totally above board with them again? I doubt it. Remember it’s the second sale, the third sale—and the fiftieth sale—that build business, not just the first (especially if it’s the only!) sale.
SmallBizLady: What are the biggest barriers business people face in adopting the philosophy you’re talking about?
Tim Hurson: The first one is a barrier that almost all people developing new business face. It’s what we call the Stranger’s Dilemma. In most cases, people who buy things really don’t know the people who sell them those things. So there’s no reason to trust them. In older societies, you’d know who your local dressmaker was, or the person who sold you dry goods. Because you knew them, you knew whether they were honest, skillful, punctual, whatever. But today, we have very little real knowledge of the people we do business with. Again, the key is to start with the relationship. That’s true for any business, but it’s triply true for small businesses and startups. People want to know who they are doing business with. And that means a lot more than just knowing their products and services. So the first big barrier is the Stranger’s Dilemma.
The second major barrier is the compulsion to tell. Many of us who have things to sell are genuinely excited by them. We think our products or services are pretty cool, pretty special, and have a lot of great features. So naturally we want to tell people about them. But again, turn it around. See it from the customer’s point of view. Someone may be pouring out information about what a great thingamabob they’ve got for you, but you don’t care. You’ve got your own problems. Why should you be interested in their thingamabob? So this urge to tell just turns the customer off. What you really should be doing is asking them questions that uncover the real issues they have. But here’s the problem: questions that reveal needs are sometimes pretty deep. They probe into sensitive territory. It can be awkward to ask questions like that right out of the gate. Imagine someone coming to you and asking you the kinds of questions your doctor would ask you. You’d say forget it. Because your doctor has the credibility it takes to ask those kinds of questions. And that’s what business people need to do—earn the credibility to ask tough questions.
SmallBizLady: How do you overcome the Stranger’s Dilemma?
Tim Hurson: Well, there are literally dozens of ways. Overcoming the Stranger’s Dilemma is one of the underlying themes that runs through our whole book. But it all starts with the attitude of wanting to connect and wanting to be useful. Think about walking into a clothing store because you want to wear something new for a wedding you’re going to. The store owner comes up to you and says can I help you? You know right away if the person wants to help you or if they really want to help themselves by showing you all kinds of things you know you won’t be interested in. We’ve all had this experience. So what’s the difference between these two attitudes? In the one case, the store owner approaches you from the point of view of making a transaction. That’s their aim. You know it. They know it. But in the other case, the person approaches you as a human being. Maybe they express an interest in you, in what you’re looking at. Sure it would be great if there’s a transaction to be made. But you get a sense of something more—of someone who sees you not as an object but as a person. One of the most basic ways of demonstrating you see someone as a person is to notice things about them, to be curious about them. Another is to reveal something about yourself. Just one little hint of genuine curiosity about the other person or the willingness to reveal something about yourself can start off a small conversation, and from that perhaps the beginning of a relationship. It doesn’t have to be a deep relationship. But suddenly you know that the person you’re meeting has a wedding story too. You have something in common to talk about. You’re less of a stranger.
SmallBizLady: How would you advise people to overcome the compulsion to tell and to earn the credibility to ask those tough questions?
Tim Hurson: The first thing is to understand what we call the three-act structure of the business development meeting. Almost every movie you see, story you read, or joke you tell has a three-act structure. And there’s a reason for that. Structured information is easier to follow and process than unstructured information. It’s a lot harder to make sense of ten random words than a sentence containing those words in a meaningful order. It’s the same with any meeting. As soon as you understand the three acts of the conversation, and manage your meetings accordingly, your meetings will actually make more sense. And they’ll be more effective. Act I is where you earn the right to ask questions. There are eight discrete pathways to credibility, ranging from a strong referral to establishing what we call industry insight. In an hour-long meeting, Act I can take anywhere from 3 to 12 or so minutes, and it’s crucial. Once you’ve crossed the credibility threshold and earned the right to ask questions, you’re into Act II, probably the longest part of your meeting, where you explore your client’s needs by asking a series of carefully designed questions that help both you and your potential client better understand the issues that need to be resolved. Then, and only then, do you move into Act II, where you demonstrate usefulness to your client by offering resources and insights, matching your client’s needs to your products or services, and establishing the basis for a continuing relationship. Once you truly get the three act structure, you’ll never again succumb to the compulsion to tell.
SmallBizLady: Today’s business world is in constant flux and presents a lot of challenges. What would you say is most difficult for the modern small business owner that was perhaps not as challenging twenty or so years ago?
Tim Hurson: Being prepared. I know it sounds odd, especially in the age of the all-knowing ‘interweb’. But a huge number of business people aren’t sufficiently prepared for their sales meetings—in large part because there’s so much information out there. We’ve all experienced google suffocation. It’s more like we’re gurgling than googling. Look up anyone, or any company, and you’re presented with thousands—hundreds of thousands—of hits. As a result a lot of people just give up. We’re drowning in information, but we know less and less. How can you sort it all out? How do you know what you really need to know?
SmallBizLady: And how do you overcome this overwhelming access to information?
Tim Hurson: Two ways. First, start by researching with people you know instead of just on the web. You may have people in your own business, your service club, or even your social circles, who know a fair but about the client you’re going to meet, or at the very least about the industry they’re in. They also might know other people with such knowledge, and they may be able to refer you to good sources of information. So get an overview, a sense of some real stories, not just data. Then once you have some perspective, we have a great tool that can help you focus your research on what really matters. It’s called Know Wonder. And it’s simple to use. You make two columns on a sheet of paper. In the left column you write all the things you Know about your prospect, the industry and so on. You can do this alone or with others in your office to get a broader perspective. Then in the right column, and based on the things you wrote in the first column, you make a list of all the things you Wonder about the client or industry. These can be business-related or personal. Once you’ve done that, you’ve got your research agenda. You have specific material to look for. So instead of confronting a mountain of data, you just fill in the blanks. It’s still work, and you still have to do it, but the Know Wonder tool will dramatically cut down the time it takes and increase the relevance of what you look for and what you discover.
SmallBizLady: How do you suggest business owners get inside the heads of their customers and align their values with the customer’s?
Tim Hurson: There’s really only one way—ask. If you’ve done your job well, if you’ve asked provocative, difficult questions, and if you’ve listened carefully to the answers, you’ll have a good shot at getting into your customers’ heads. But that’s not all. You’ll actually have an even greater opportunity, because if you’ve listened well, you should be able to offer them a perspective on their issues they haven’t considered before. That’s the creative problem solving part of the process we present in Never Be Closing. Once you do that, you’re inviting them into your headspace. You’re positioning yourself as a problem solver who can offer value simply by talking with them. Most of us know people whose opinions we value because they see things from a slightly different angle than we do. Seeing things from that perspective is refreshing, instructive, and sometimes even mind-blowing. For decades we’ve been training people how to approach challenges with a creative mindset. That’s what a good portion of the Never Be Closing philosophy is based on. We present a variety of tools to help people to do just that. Everyone knows someone about whom people say something like, “You know that Al, I’d do business with him any time anywhere.” Wouldn’t it be great to be Al?
SmallBizLady: Any final words of advice?
Tim Hurson: Yes, one important thing: no matter what skill you’re talking about, the best way to improve is to regularly—and honestly— debrief your performance. Take a close look at your business development conversations. Ask yourself what went well, what needs to be improved, and what you can do better next time. Then act on what you discover. You do that by deciding what to get rid of, what to keep, and what to do better. No matter what your starting point is, it’s useful to remember that a professional is just an amateur who kept getting better.
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