How to build a business – Conversations

In the KLM lounge of Atatürk Airport in Istanbul, waiting for my return flight to Amsterdam, I  am going through my notes. The last two days were good: lots of conversations with people in charge of Telecom Operators in both Turkey and Saudi Arabia. This involved multiple diners and lunches, and real exchanges on personal, business, political and cultural subjects. In Europe, a meeting usually lasts exactly one hour, involves one cup of coffee and one topic. For people in sales chances are they want to pitch something, hoping this is a solution to the problem they assume their client has. If so: deal. If not: off you go.

In our business, we believe finding the problem, or the opportunity is more important than solving it. So we want to listen, ask questions and find out what is driving who, and why.

Now I am going back to the first pages of my notebook, and find scribblings I made last summer. I think I turned them into another blog posting already:

In our search for what is cooking in our network and in the world of Strategy Execution we have organized What’s Qooking events: a combination of content and cooking in a workshop format. With small groups of twelve to fifteen people we have listened, cooked, discussed and eaten. To take this one level higher – and because cooking with a group involves quite a few concession in timing and results – we have decided to look for top chefs to do the cooking for us. Where to find the chefs?

Looking for a book called ‘In search of the stars”, about all he sixty-eight three star restaurants in Europe, I went to a bookstore and guess what: the clerk was a foody too. High class cooking, but lately mostly with insects. The new world: as nutritious, and much less of a burden on the environment.  I was not immediately enthusiastic, but he invited me for a workshop anyway. For this, he had chartered a local chef to cook in the bookstore. 

Now this chef had once had a very talented sous-chef, who became a freelance home-cook, and was looking for new clients. Introductions were made.

This is the point: you go somewhere to buy something. A simple transaction. But when you have the time and the curiosity to turn a transaction into interaction you will discover the Power of Conversations.

So, this is how we got to know a very enthousiastic young cook, who now cooks at home every month, for a group of ten to fourteen people, who do not have to participate in peeling the potatoes and cutting the onions, but can spend an evening having conversations. We call them the Third Thursday diners and believe me, everyone is looking forward to What’s Qooking this month.

And something else about questions and conversations: they are not only the key to finding things out, and getting to know people, they are the key to sales as well.

Sales has for a long time been our biggest challenge. Not because we could not sell, but because we did not want to.

In our network, where prospects or clients can be tomorrow’s staff or partners, we prefer interaction over transaction. Actually we want someone we are having a conversation with to clearly indicate that he wants to be a client for a while, instead of us telling him we want to be a supplier.

This posed two problems: our partners, who felt this way, were reluctant to show commercial behavior, and our commercial people, who did not have this reluctance, did not have peer-to-peer conversations.

The conversations of course serve many purposes (relationship, interest and curiosity) as well as finding the issues that keep our clients from sleeping at night, or from implementing their strategies. So finding the problem is not the issue, positioning ourselves to solve the problem is.

Traditionally, the ABC of sales people was: “Always Be Closing”.

Daniel Pink, in his recent book “To sell is human” proposes to replace this with a new ABC: Attunement, Buoyancy, Clarity.

Attunement: Bringing yourself in harmony with individuals, groups and contexts. This takes a bit more humility and curiosity than most people can muster. If you do not connect, and if you do not both inspect (ask questions) and respond (listen to the answers and do something with the information provided) you will not sell.

Buoyancy: Dealing with an ocean of rejection

Clarity: the capacity to make sense of murky situations, as Daniel Pink says. Identifying and framing problems takes two long-standing skills and turns them upside down. First in the past salespeople were adept at accessing information. Today they must be skilled at curating it – sorting through the massive troves of data and presenting to others the most relevant and clarifying pieces. Second, in the past, the best salespeople were skilled at answering questions. Today, they must to be good at asking questions – uncovering possibilities, surfacing latent issues and finding unexpected problems.

Big words. Not sure if they will stick. We are not sure if they cover the whole approach we have to sales either. Our way is CCCCC: Connections, Confidentiality, Conversations, Clarity, Cooperation. We hope they are so obvious  they don’t require a book to explain them.

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