Telling the story versus doing the work.

I remember the first time that I was taught the power of stories in business. A vendor salesperson had come in to help us better understand their product and how we could use it. He started his time with us, not by opening up the tool and showing us examples. Instead, he had us close our laptops and chat for a half hour.

There we were, 4 technical people sitting around a table. This salesperson opened up by saying something along the lines of:

You can never get anyone to do something different if they don’t buy into the story you are trying to tell them. No one has ever bought a story that starts with “look at how many features this tool has.”

Getting people to change requires getting them to invest time into doing things differently. You need them to make the mental leap that it is better for them to take the risk of making the change than continuing on as they are. The only way you can do that is by planting the story in their head of what they get from the change. Tell them the true story of how their job will get better.

You can sell a lot of solutions by focusing on the raw numbers that you can impact: 12.3% ROI. $1m NPV. Payback in 24 days! You can sell even more solutions by getting people to understand (and believe) the story of what you are going to do for them: sell more per person while making your customers happier! Deliver faster with greater consistency. Give everyone a single place to go when they have questions.

Stories aren’t measurable, but they still have an impact. Getting people to believe a story may be harder than showing them raw numbers but it generates greater stickiness. Maybe give it a try.

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The secret behind 90 day transition windows

In many industries (definitely across CRE), you will find yourself needing to transition something. It may be an outsource provider, moving from one vendor to another, implementing a technology system or simply testing a new tool. If you are talking to a third party to assist you, you will likely come across the generic 90 day transition period.

It’s funny how often transitions of very different things always take exactly 90 days. It’s almost as if people got together to agree to 90 days as the perfect standard. In many ways, that is exactly what happened. (Not that people physically got together and defined this from the shadows, just that they came to the same conclusion through independent paths.)

90 days is the perfect amount of time to make it seem like real effort is being put in but it’s also quick enough to seem aggressive. If I were to say go today, 3 months to implement something feels like it could be realistic. Psychologically, a non-expert is unlikely to question this period of time. If you were to advertise 60 days people will immediately think of all the little things that can delay the solution by that long without batting an eye. If you say 120 days, it crosses that triple digit barrier and starts to look long.

The other variable in the equation is what “transition” really means. Many organizations take a very fuzzy definition of transition. Often it may be something along the lines of:

Transition: the sequence of activities that ends in 90 days that allows us to show how good we are at listing things on gantt charts.

That’s very tongue-in-cheek but not terribly far from the truth in many cases. The actual “transition” (defined as everything needed to actually reach a new Business-as-Usual state) is difficult, painful and can take a very long-term. Often you can’t even clearly define where the transition ends and BAU begins in larger projects.

The 90 day transition is just another marketing ploy but designed as an operational reality. Remember that marketing doesn’t stop just because the sales process has.

Just because a document is comprehensive doesn’t mean it actually says anything.

It’s funny how often 1-page documents can tell you everything you need to know about a topic while 100-page whitepapers barely address the meat of an issue at all. Many people feel like most readers judge a document’s comprehensiveness by its weight and length. Some will even give active support to an idea simply because it is long.

I have a few rules of thumb for documents. For PowerPoint presentations:

  • For sales: No more than 1 slide for every 2 minutes. More than that and all that can possibly happen is being presented at.
  • For decision making: No more than 1 executive summary slide for every 2 to 5 minutes with as many appendices slides as needed.
  • For case studies/general information: No more than 1 slide per minute.

For Word documents, things get a bit trickier as they tend to be meant to address topics in greater detail anyway. My biggest rule of thumb is around proposals:

  • No more than 1 page for every 2 weeks worth of work (based on calendar days).

It is surprisingly easy to make documents longer, especially those built over a long period of time with a large participating group. Editing down to make the language both precise and concise is a wickedly difficult task.

Brevity is the key to successfully selling an idea. There’s a reason that elevator pitches are important – if you can’t summarize your idea down into less than a minute’s worth of speech then you can’t understand the value of your idea. TV commercials are typically 30 seconds for the same reason – people don’t give a lot of attention to sales pitches.

There is a difference between the story that is told and the reality of the situation unfolding.

The best storytellers in the world take events that aren’t real and spin them out in stories that bring the picture in their head to life. Storytellers of the top caliber become marketers, politicians, consultants and maybe even novelists. However, the majority of storytellers don’t end up writing books.

The best piece of sales advice I was ever given was to not tell someone why you are the best or about your features or about how valuable your product is. Instead you should tell them stories about all of the ways that you are going to make their life easier or better. Paint them a picture so that they can see themselves in the situations that you are trying to help them with. Make them feel their current frustration and make them realize how quickly and easily you can take that frustration away. Make the story of your product about them.

Notice how journalists are often writing their articles about big topics by focusing on a single person impacted by the issue? They write about the single mother that only lives because of Obamacare. They write about the small business that is going under because of Obamacare. They give you a story of why their position or angle is the right one. They simply don’t tell you that in this enormous world you can find a single case study to support any position that may have happened to want to take up. Some was hurt by every decision just as someone was helped by that same decision.

Storytellers know that their message needs to have an audience and a moment. They have to capture the feeling of the time while giving the audience something to believe in while also giving them something to run with.

I always hated case studies to show how products made someone else’s life better. You are never handed a case study showing how the product wrecked a person’s organization. You never are given the case study about where the implementation failed and nothing went right. You are given the ones that look the most like you and that went really, really well. Because case studies are simply stories. It’s something to make you feel comfortable without giving you the rest of the context that is being left out.

When you start to experience the stories around you always ask yourself what the broader context is. There’s really no such thing as fake news, only news that has the wrong context.

Are you sure you are clear on what you are selling (or buying)?

It astounds me how often buyers and sellers don’t fundamentally agree on the nature of their transaction. This applies to purchasing a laptop, office printers, an office building or any type of service out there. Customers and salespeople come into the transaction with fundamentally different ideas of what is happening.

Customers have a problem in mind that they are trying to solve for a certain price but don’t want to give too much away for fear of a markup. Salespeople have a product in mind for the problem they imagine from the first few minutes of conversation. It doesn’t take long before both sides settle on an approach to the relationship that is based on probably not long with each other. To make matters worse these initial assumptions color the way we hear what each party says.

This fundamental disconnect happens because each party is trying to get something from the relationship that may not easily be expressed in words. I have a friend who recently was trying to purchase a budget laptop from Best Buy. He was looking for hardware that would be portable and support basic web browsing/video watching – nothing fancy. The first laptop he was pointed to by a Best Buy employee was a budget laptop that seemed to struggle to do anything with any zip at all. It technically met all of his stated specifications but it did not meet his unstated user experience requirement. He didn’t realize he needed to state “and has enough power to not lag with any given action.” He now has a new laptop (at a slightly higher cost) that meets his needs.

His experience is typical. There are some things that we all take for granted that will be part of the package. But I have read too many stories of people buying wireless routers only to find out that they also need to purchase internet service separately to know that people always immediately understand the full situation. General intelligence is no protection from this trap either. Because we all get in our own way some of the time.

Small sample sizes and their influence on decisions.

If you follow sports you are likely familiar with the concept of small sample sizes.  Every hitter in baseball will occasionally have an 0 for 5 day with three strikeouts.  If looking at the one game you might come away with the wrong impression of the hitter.  Sometimes a great hitter will have a month where these games consistently happen.  If you focus on that month you will miss the fact the he usually has a month well above average that makes up for it.

In real estate small sample sizes are everywhere.  Do you really think that comps are a completely accurate representation of a market?  Depending on the size of the market and how they were selected, these comps may actually be selected and reflect a trend counter to other market forces.

What defines whether a dataset is “small”?  This is a tough question because even a dataset of millions of records could be small depending on what it is trying to reflect (Amazon sales trends would be an example).  Similarly a dataset of 10 points could be a large dataset for a fairly rare occurrence.

Unless you are dealing directly with statistics the issue of sample size is rarely addressed.  I’ve experienced people throwing “facts” out based on a self-selected dataset more often than I care to remember.  People most often buy into small sample size sets because it is 1) difficult to get more or different data and 2) reflects the reality they expect to see.

A great example of this is in the sales world.  Sales people are in front of a certain type of buyer with certain approaches to a sales environment.  They may hear the same thing multiple times with multiple clients over a month and suddenly think the market has shifted on them.  The more likely reality is that the way their pitch is structured causes a similar response.  The salesperson hears a disconnect and assumes it is based on the market when in fact it is based on a reaction to their words.

Decisions are hard.  It requires a lot of self-reflection to truly understand the process you use in making decisions.  Are you really making decisions using good data or are you simply using data that reflects the result you were hoping for at the start?

Marketing is hard – but that is no reason to make it complicated.

It’s really, really hard to tell the story of your value.  It’s even harder to convince a stranger to you and your company to stop and listen to your message.  If you waste the time on words you will fail almost every time.  Words are too specific and too easily rejected as not being the right words.

Marketing is the art of convincing others to listen to your message and relate their situation to you in a way that convinces them to use you for a service or to buy your product.  If they can’t relate to your message they can’t be convinced.  Complicated is not something most people want to buy.  People buy to simplify their lives.  They buy to get something that they can’t do themselves but know needs to get done.  They buy to save themselves money.  These are simple ideas.

Fitting complicated concepts into the box needed for simple ideas to take hold is really, really hard.  But it can’t be done with lots of words.