Saturday, May 27, 2006

Sales Technique: Admit Your Flaws

Sales Technique: Admit Your Flaws
A lively debate broke out this week at my office. We're working on a major sales opportunity, and were fortunate enough (thanks to our quick-thinking VP Sales) to get an advance copy of the criteria the customer is planning to put in their RFP. Our thought was to send over a pre-emptive presentation detailing why they should choose us before things even get to the RFP stage.

As it turns out, we fulfill every single item on their laundry list except one.

Here's where the debate began:
My advice to the salesperson on the account was to explicitly list all the requirements we fulfill, state that we fulfill them, and, here's the kicker, add one final paragraph explaining the requirement that we don't fulfill, and how the customer could work around it.

However, while the salesperson agreed, the sales engineer did not, arguing that we shouldn't say anything that could be construed as negative. Thus did the debate rage.

My philosophy in persuasion has always been to be very explicit about what I and my product *cannot* do, to reveal any obvious flaws we might have, rather than waiting for the customer to discover them.

It's my belief that in any sales or persuasion situation, the person you're trying to convince is always looking for "the catch" in your offer, and that displaying your honesty by revealing the catch is the best way to build trust and credibility.

I've done a number of reference calls for various vendors I use, and one of the main reasons I'm so persuasive with their potential customers is that I emphasize the weaknesses of their offerings, and then explain why the other strengths are enough to outweigh the weaknesses.

The key is in making sure that you don't disappoint. Far better to set expectations lower, then exceed them, than it is to oversell what you can do.

Of course, you must use this technique carefully. Your goal is to present a positive image of a trustworthy and honest person who is still confident in his offering. If you simply go around bashing yourself and saying how much you suck, you're unlikely to convince anyone. The formulation I generally use is:

1. Here's why you should do this
2. Here's the potential catch
3. Here's why the catch may be less critical than you might think
4. Only you can tell whether the benefits outweigh the catch. What do you think?

This technique applies to any persuasion situation, ranging from classic sales, to a VC pitch, to convincing your child to do something.

So how about you? How do you approach sales? Do you conceal or reveal your potential flaws?

Friday, May 26, 2006

Stealth Philosophy

Stealth Philosophy

Fans of the ABC television show, "Lost," may not realize that they are actually watching a clever illustration of the clash of philosophies.

Hell, I didn't realize it myself, mainly believing the show to be a grand mindf--ck cooked up to deliver ratings.

But this Salon article lays out a convincing case by explaining what each of the main characters represent. Here is the key snippet:

"Jack (Matthew Fox), for one, grew up with an unpredictable alcoholic father, which once compelled him to focus excessively on work, and now leads him to want to exert control over every aspect of life on the island. He seems to represent the traditional Western authority figure -- in his mind, as the leader of the group, he should dictate every course of action and be informed of everything that happens at camp. When disaster strikes, Jack repeatedly blames the fact that he wasn't told, as if, with the proper information, he could prevent any negative events from occurring on the island.

Locke (Terry O'Quinn), on the other hand, who's named after John Locke, an anti-authoritarian empiricist concerned with human knowledge and the rights of man, seems to feel that meaning and the proper course of action can be determined by carefully observing and cobbling together information about the hatch and the strange occurrences on the island. This interest in evidence makes Locke a rational, reasonable presence, but it also makes it easy for "Henry Gale" and other characters to manipulate him, simply by offering faulty evidence ("The numbers ran out and nothing happened!") that supports their claims. This basic difference in perspective naturally sets Jack and Locke at odds with each other.

And then you throw in Eko (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), a man of the cloth whose faith is based both in empirical observations and in the personal traumas of his past, which include being responsible for the death of his beloved brother, a priest who inspired Eko to become one. Strong faith alone motivates Eko's actions, from building a church with Charlie (who, as a former addict, needs something concrete to occupy his time on the island) to taking over the button-pushing when Locke becomes disillusioned by the discovery of the second hatch.

In contrast to Eko, you've got Sawyer (Josh Holloway), a relentless pragmatist whose parents' brutal murders have made him distrustful of any outlook that's remotely optimistic or faith-based. Sawyer embodies the brutality and contradictions of capitalism, relentlessly insisting on the exchange of goods on the island, maintaining control over the guns and drugs without being swayed by sentimental or emotional appeals. He brings his own sort of order to the camp, but not without underpinnings of greed, guilt and longing. While he's exceptionally good at keeping himself occupied, between reading books and playing poker with mangoes as betting chips, he's an opportunist and a con man who lacks a reliable moral compass. His self-hatred is evident in the name he's given himself -- Sawyer -- the name of the man who killed his parents.

Sayid (Naveen Andrews) represents the rules of engagement -- or lack thereof -- in times of war. He's suspicious and is always on the offensive, sniffing out traitors. He feels certain that, with enough focused effort, he can get to the truth -- at the heart of the island, or at the heart of any man. This approach came in handy in handling "Henry Gale" -- Sayid was suspicious of the man from the outset, became convinced that he was lying after interrogating him, and then took it upon himself to discover the truth about Gale's crashed hot-air balloon -- but it also makes Sayid one of the more brutal and perhaps overconfident members of the group.

Kate (Evangeline Lilly) may be the toughest to parse of all of the island's characters. Like Sawyer she's practical and opportunistic, with a criminal background, but her major crime -- killing her abusive father -- was motivated by years of emotional turmoil and vengeance. Unlike the other main characters, who have elaborate belief systems in place to justify their actions, Kate seems to lack any kind of philosophy or spiritual center, and ends up being led in circles, from anger to guilt, from Jack to Sawyer and back, by her emotions."

I must say that I'm impressed by the clarity of the analysis, and was left with a newfound respect for the writers of the show, flawed though this second season has been.

Now if network television can find a way to make money off of a "broccoli" topic like contrasting approaches to life (rather than another teen comedy), what can you do to commercialize high culture or eternal truths?

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Making Hay

Making Hay
Today, I went to go visit Jeff Clavier of SoftTech Ventures. Jeff, who recently moved into a new office along with the Edgeio crew (no man crush jokes, please), has been leading a whirlwind existence, snatching just a few hours of sleep per night.

As the old expression goes, you've got to "make hay while the sun shines," and with the success of Jeff's work with Truveo, and his seeming Midas touch, the sun is certainly shining brightly.

But while making hay may be good for the bank account and RapLeaf reputation, it can be awful hard on a fellow. Heck, unlike swinging single guys like Auren and Mike, Jeff has a wife and kids. I have to admit, in his situation, I'd be tempted to take a little more time off.

The same holds true for many of my other friends, who are running all out in a race against...well, the pace of life itself. With Internet time well into its second decade, the pace of innovation just seems to keep increasing.

What do you think? When your professional life is going well, is that the time to put the pedal to the metal, or to take advantage of your leading position and ease up on the accelerator?

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Farewell, Gil Sorrentino

Farewell, Gil Sorrentino
It is with great sadness that I report the death of my old teacher, Gil Sorrentino.

I took Gil's class on experimental fiction while I was at Stanford. He was a great teacher, perfectly at ease with himself, and willing to treat his students as peers, despite his exalted literary status.

Gil's class came at an important time for me. I had been suffering from a terminal case of writer's block--a big problem for Creative Writing majors.

Basically, I was afflicted with excessive self-consciousness. I was keenly aware of, as the saying goes, "sitting down to commit an act of literature." No sooner did I start to write when my inner critic began to tear me to shreds.

Gil's experimental fiction, with its emphasis on allow artificial constraints to free your creativity was just what I needed. I wrote furiously and prolifically again, and developed a taste for ornate forms like the sestina. Since then, I've rarely had any problems with writing.

Sadly, I haven't spoken or contacted Gil in years. I think I wrote him a note when his last book came out. Alas, as the years pass, I fear that I'll be saying goodbye to more and more of my old teachers and mentors. Take my advice--take the time now to write to them and tell them how much they affected your life. I know I will.