A Stronger Approach To Selling

One of the biggest mistakes I’ve made when trying to sell through tough stuff in a corporate environment is having a rock solid handle of my side of the story, but not knowing enough about the other side. Even if your argument is sound, smart and dare I say right, it can be hard for an audience to buy it if they don’t feel as though their point of view has been understood. What can happen next is that both sides get their backs up, the debate stops being substantive, and starts to feel personal. Disagreeing with people is lazy. It’s okay to disagree with ideas, but try to stay away from disagreeing with people.

Maggie and I are on the Brooklyn public middle school tour circuit. Every now and then, I see a gem in a random classroom that’s as relevant for adults as it is for children.

We are all entitled to our own perspectives, but for them to be considered by those who may disagree, we need to be prepared to put in work. A LOT of work, according to Charlie Munger, vice chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, who’s been quoted as saying “I never allow myself to have an opinion on anything that I don’t know the other side’s argument better than they do.” He is a former attorney and so this approach was perhaps more key to survival than it would be for the typical corporate employee, but it’s still a very wise rule of thumb.

I was at a conference last month and Kristin Lemkau, CMO of Chase, had a great soundbite that stuck with me: “When you feel resistance, teach.” The natural reaction to resistance is to fight, but teaching (if you can do so without being condescending) is clearly the more mature and ultimately more effective path to success, whether it’s immediate (you win!) or delayed (you build respect, trust, partnership which will contribute to a win down the road.)

Teaching, of course, isn’t easy. Have you ever sat down with someone outside of your area of expertise to listen to what they do, and you feel like you’re talking to an alien? Chances are it’s them, not you. But they’re probably not trying to make you feel dumb; they likely don’t realize that what’s obvious to them is a completely foreign concept to you. I had a really interesting conversation with a would-be partner for a confidential role I’m applying to, and he admitted to having reservations about Marketing not too long ago. The newish marketing team changed his point of view, and made him realize that in order to benefit from their support, he needed to be able to talk about his subject matter in a way that made sense to outsiders, rather than expect them to know the ins and outs of his business as well as he. Only once on a level playing field is it fair and effective to debate the right approach, the best point of view, the strongest solution.

As a long-time account executive in the advertising agency world, I know first-hand that not knowing your client’s business makes it very difficult to sell in creative thinking. What I didn’t know for the first handful of years, was how surface my understanding was of too many of the businesses I worked on. I look back and cringe about how arrogant our “ad expert” demeanors must have seemed to seasoned clients. This unhealthy situation was partly my fault – I could have asked more questions, spent more time at their offices, sat in on more customer service calls – but also partly theirs, as they had a responsibility to be more proactive about sharing their knowledge. As I matured, I made it a point to ensure everyone on my team – account, planning, creative and otherwise – knew our clients’ businesses inside and out. The resulting work was stronger, and my teams got better at anticipating issues clients might have with it, and therefore at having a sound response to their challenges. It certainly didn’t result in us batting 1000, but we’d come off as smart and strategic partners and get to something good in due time.

No matter where you are in the chain, a marketer’s job is ultimately to sell something to the desired audience. But the first (and second, and third, and ….) step is to sell the sales plan to colleagues, partners and superiors. To get through those initial steps, you have to put in the time required to be a great teacher… and just as willing and curious a student.



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