Continuing my theme of 2008 in review, the year was interesting because it featured the breaking of two rules I have long held to be utterly true. These rules are cynical and depressing and people generally do not want to believe them. I am known for my optimism and yet I assure you these rules are true and you cannot escape them:
Let’s start with the mythical “slow yes.” All there really is in this world is the “fast yes”, the “fast no”, and the “slow no”. I am sure you have been asked to give somebody a donation, or to buy something, that you didn’t really want to give or buy, and so you said “can you send me a letter about that?” or “can you send me a proposal?” when what you really meant was “can I please get off the phone so I don’t have to face saying no to you?” It’s a “slow no.” We have all done this. Yet for some reason when we are trying to get the sales (or the donations, or to be hired) we get off the phone and tell our co-workers or family or whatever, “Success! He wants me to send a proposal!” or “Score! They’ve got nothing now, but he wants me to phone back in a month!”
I have been a consultant for over 20 years. When people want to hire our firm to help with a problem they’re experiencing, they hire us. Sometimes there’s an RFP to respond to, sometimes they need to show a written proposal to someone, but generally they say “I want you to do this” and then we talk about paperwork. When people don’t particularly want to hire us (and usually that’s because the conversation was my idea, and I am trying to sell work to people who were minding their own business) they ask for proposals, or they say “well, we would have to have a meeting about that but I’m really busy this week so how about I call you in two or three weeks?” This is the start of the “slow no”. They won’t ever say “no” or “go away” but they won’t ever give you work either. You can spend days and weeks and months thinking you are “working on sales” because you are emailing these people and asking if there’s been any change, you’re sending these people generic proposals (because you don’t know their specific problem, and that in turn is because they haven’t told you a problem they want you to solve, and you know why that is? They don’t have a problem they want you to solve), and you’re updating your tickle lists, all of which sure as hell feels like work, but is not in fact accomplishing anything.
So when I finally learned this lesson (and I believe I read it somewhere, and fought it for a while, and then came to know it was true) my life got simpler. I rarely phone or email strangers (or even former clients) and try to pester them into giving me work. If for some reason I do, and they’re not very interested in hiring us, I don’t put a lot of time and effort into trying to persuade them otherwise. I assume that people who want to hire us will make the effort to do so. This has lowered my stress tremendously.
But you know what they say about the exception that proves the rule? We got an RFP from some people we didn’t know, through a third party who felt we’d be good for it. It was highly specific about what technology to use – an Access application distributed as a single file to be installed on each workstation, a SQL backend to be shared by all these workstations, no offline story, a VB6 application to run in the system tray and notify you if another user added something to the shared repository you should know about, that sort of thing – and our first guess of effort doing it their way was well over (perhaps even double) what the third party believed was their budget. So we wrote back and declined to bid. Months later, we heard they were putting it out again. So we asked if it was ok to ignore all their tech specs and submit a solution to the underlying business problem, which was well described in their material. They said go ahead, so we did: suggesting a SharePoint store, some workflow to handle their special business rules, and some Reporting Services goodness for the managers. Total cost including buying all the SharePoint licenses at full retail was less than the whispered budget, and we were pulling in a raft of features that they had on their wishlist for v2 such as email notifications when things were changed. It was a great proposal.
Great or not, it got no response. After about 2 or 3 months I wrote to confirm that we didn’t get it. And was told “actually, we haven’t decided yet.” I imagined a conversation in a boardroom somewhere with one person saying “can she not read? We clearly said SYSTEM TRAY!” and another saying “look how much more solution to our problems we will get for the money!” Some more months went by and you know what? We got the gig. Well over a year from the first RFP to being hired for the project. It’s underway now. I will point out that although this was a slow yes, it didn’t get to yes as a result of pestering actions on my part. I patiently waited (while working on other stuff for real clients) and these guys came to me when their process had worked its way through to a decision.
The second rule that sales people need to learn is that those “hey cool your product sounds perfect for us why don’t you drop me an email” conversations on the plane just do not, in general, lead to sales. Again, the guy just wants to be nice and to go away in a pleasant and positive way. Pestering Mr 13B to see if he’s ready to pull the trigger on the order that will save your year may feel like work, but it isn’t getting you anywhere. If Mr 13B wanted your product, he would have taken your card, and he would have emailed you the minute he got his laptop on the network. That silence and absence of emails from Mr 13B is basically “he’s just not that into you” or in this case, your product.
That said, here’s the story that breaks the rule. Sasha, my MVP lead, spent some time last year in a customs lineup, and got chatting with the fellow next to him in line. That fellow needed some mentoring or consulting from a senior person with solid C++ and project management skills who could suggest a good architecture for his new product, and then help to get it built. Sasha took the guy’s card and sent me one of those “X, meet Y” emails. A conversation ensued, followed by meetings, and the end result: the product is very clever and I am delighted to be part of the team that is building it. We ended up with no C++ in the product, but that doesn’t worry me at all. It meets a genuine business need and supports the way people in that business need to do their jobs. And my client would not have found me if he wasn’t willing to chat to a complete stranger about the software he was trying to build.
I still say the rules are true, despite the specific exceptions I met this year. Or more accurately, that the smart way to live your life is as though these rules are true. Selling consulting services is not like selling timeshares or couches. You can’t bully people into it or catch them in a moment of weakness and trick them into saying yes. They have to want to choose you to solve their problems. That isn’t something you can persuade them to want by “following up” every two weeks. So I just plain do not do that. Some folks who I like and haven’t worked with for a while get a note sometimes (especially if I come across something that reminds me of them) but I don’t set out to make people buy our services. I don’t lose sales by spending less time “working on sales” and I certainly don’t lose sleep. If anything it frees my time to talk to people who genuinely want our help. That’s way more fun anyway.
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