This spring I will have worked full time for 45 years. From age 17 till now, almost exactly 15 years as builder/vendor of computer systems, 15 as a customer/user of computer systems, and now 15 years studying people and how they interact with each other. The most Persistent thread through all of that is being a great middle man – translating between business users and techies, between companies and vendors, and between people trapped trying to make all this work in spite of communications “complexities”. That is my real expertise. I have been reminded of that recently as I am shepherding this new team through a very large procurement…
… I have worked with and around salespeople even longer. My Dad worked as a Systems Engineer at IBM, and stories of the customers he worked with were often shared over our family meals. The ethics of those transactions always impressed me with their simplicity and ruthlessness. As an IBM salesperson, you literally couldn’t talk about another vendor’s products: nothing bad, nothing good, nothing. And it was called a “condition of employment” – and I saw this rule enforced a couple of times where an aggressive salesperson was suddenly no longer with the company.
It was wonderful when I became the “customer” I realized why some of those rules were the way that they were. With high stakes, there was also a lot of pressure on everyone, and I soon realized that ethics were something that you couldn’t take for granted. In our case, it meant informing vendors that while I was the decision-maker (mostly), the ultimate pricing was going to be done by our VP… and that he would expect his “own” discount at the end of the chain… so make me look good enough, but reserve something for the end. Most good salespeople got it, and many, many procurements sailed through.
The wonder is that Nat really didn’t hear what others heard – that while he was a great jazz pianist, he was a one-of-a-kind singer. No one had the smoothness, the style, the easy way he could take a tune and make it sound so … effortless. With help from some ‘accidental’ hits, it slowly started dawning on even him that this was something he needed to pursue. He was pushed to issue a collection of his “jazz” standards in 1952, which included today’s tune that was originally released in 1947 with the Trio, but again listen to his vocals being Persistently pushed to the front. You almost forget he is playing the perfect piano… now in the background… The response was stunning, so there was little question what to do.
For the new backup system we were looking at, we had gotten down to a preferred solution – technically excellent, and within our budget. I had even gotten support from our major partner, Sun, whose system was really not great, and their salesperson realized that us buying a bad product was not good for him – a reason why he was one of the best salespeople I worked with. As we met with the VP, we reviewed the proposal, and things were going well until he asked “is this the best price we can get?” To my shock, the new vendor’s salesperson said, “Yes. There is nothing left. This is our best and final.” I was stunned, as was the VP, and soon the salesperson was escorted out, and I was back to the drawing board… never to meet with that vendor again. He cost me months of rework, and a stink eye from my VP that took years to recover from…
The wonderful thing about sales is that it is not at all what the caricatures (or car salesmen) show you. And it is actually easy for most people to do – particularly those who think they can’t – the shy, quiet, thoughtful people. The best salespeople are wonderful…. listeners… Persistently getting YOU to talk about what you need, and then using your own language to describe the solution you just described. And if you don’t have one that does, you have the wrong one. Another wonder – they are really rare… many are caught up in the latest ‘tool” or “technique” to “always be closing”. None of that really works, or matters, if you don’t …listen.
In each of those 15-year chunks, I was shown over and over again how important relationships are, and how vital listening is to all stances in business. What you say is interesting, but what you bring out of others – that makes the biggest difference in teams… And computers: really all they do is listen and respond. They can be wonderful accelerators, and to get them into great systems, you need to knit together all of the information you can get. The approach I have Persistently come back to that works THE best is… not talking.
As you close out this year, and wonder about all of the challenges and opportunities, what do you notice about the communications you have been a part of? Were you drawing others in by listening… or simply Persistently pushing your agenda forward… like the salesman that I literally never saw again. As I am weaving together the stakeholders of this new team, I am reminded again that listening is so critical, along with balance. The ethics of ensuring that all parties are heard, with no favorites seen – by anyone – well that is familiar now after all these years. Make this a Persistent approach, and you will never have to wonder … What’ll I Do?