(Tips from a Recovering Salesperson)
When lean people get together to discuss the future, it doesn’t take long for the conversation to turn to the perennial challenge of convincing senior managers to support lean. Why, when the business advantages have been so clearly demonstrated, is this so difficult?
My perspective, which comes from my “past life” selling large technology projects, is that people have heard the logical arguments for lean, but just aren’t sold on the idea. In other words, lean has a sales problem.
The fact that rational arguments alone don’t change hearts and minds is a basic tenet of sales and marketing, and has been scientifically proven by numerous psychological and neurological studies. We also know that unless people have bought in emotionally, that is, with their whole brain, they are unlikely to act.
Sales organizations have a significant history of meeting this challenge in the corporate world. An excellent example is how global technology vendors and consulting firms won senior management support for huge transformative projects like Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) systems - undertakings that were risky, disruptive, and enormously expensive.
While many of these mega projects did more harm than good from a lean perspective, it’s clear that these firms did a masterful job of getting senior management support. Furthermore, the methods they used, commonly referred to as consultative selling, are surprisingly compatible with lean thinking.
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Consultative selling hit the mainstream in the late 1980s and rapidly became the corporate standard for training salespeople. The charge was led by sales gurus like David Sandler, Larry Wilson, and Neil Rackham, who renounced the high-pressure tactics of previous eras and promoted a collaborative approach aimed at win-win solutions and long-term relationships. The main idea was that the salesperson doesn’t push product, but works side-by-side with the customer to discover solutions to problems.
Unfortunately, the evolution of consultative selling coincided with a growing focus on short-term shareholder value. Consequently, the win-win purpose behind consultative selling is often compromised, and the approach is reduced to little more than a toolkit for making the numbers. (Sound familiar?)
Yet consultative selling, when practiced as intended, provides a common-sense path for convincing people to change their thinking - one that is well-suited to the task of winning over more senior managers to lean.
Consultative selling teaches us that executives in large organizations don’t buy into big ideas on merit alone – a proposal has to coincide with priorities they have already set and emotionally bought into. The sales task, therefore, revolves around building trusted relationships through which that connection can be identified and brought to light.
Here are three strategies that major firms in the technology and consulting sectors followed, along with suggestions for applying them to lean promotion.
1. Understand the Business
The firms made considerable investments in understanding their customers’ businesses, often structuring their sales forces by customer vertical and hiring executives from targeted industries to act as account executives. This made it easier to build strong relationships with customer decision-makers and set the stage for essential peer-to-peer conversations where the customer’s business, not the technology, was the major focus.
Lean advocates have an insider advantage, but often need to do more to understand the corporate agenda that drives major decisions. What are the pressures on the industry in general? What are competitors doing? What are the backgrounds of board members and primary investors? What KPIs are driving the top decision-makers? All these are prerequisites for entering into a serious discussion about lean at the enterprise.
2. Find the “Pain”
Using their knowledge of customer industries, the firms successfully identified their customers’ most urgent business problems – pre-existing circumstances that were pressuring decision-makers to act. In the ERP scenario, the sales team might have learned that the CEO was under pressure to improve time to market, anticipate customer buying trends, or comply with a regulatory change in the industry. Solutions would be configured and presented accordingly.
Lean offers a sustainable solution for many pain points. In my book The Lean CEO, I identified ten “burning platforms”, such as financial crisis, poor morale and productivity, interdivisional dysfunction, and a squeeze between rising costs and declining quality. Understanding the pain points, and how lean can address them, provides the background for identifying a solid case for lean adoption.
3. Connect the Dots
The firms were able to demonstrate to decision makers that proposed solutions had been successfully adopted by similar organizations facing similar circumstances. Considerable emphasis was placed on reference sites, case studies, and customer testimonials. Tech-speak was also avoided in favor of a “customer friendly” language based on block diagrams, flow charts, simple explanations, and product demos.
Lean advocates, when they’ve identified a real need, should present lean as a strategy for easing the corporate pain, and do so in a non-technical language that corporate executives are comfortable with. Taking the CEO on a gemba walk at a lean company may not be enough – the CEO needs to also see the senior management thinking in that organization. Lean journeys are unique, and while it’s essential to confirm that leaders are in it for the long haul and appreciate lean principles and values, it’s also essential to allow decision-makers to make lean their own, and to describe it their own way.
Play to Lean’s Advantage
Sales is no magic bullet, and lean is by no means sellable in every organization, at least in the short term. That said, my conversations in the lean community indicate to me that there are far more winnable opportunities than are being realized.
For one, the “burning platforms” that have compelled CEOs to adopt lean in the past are not rare events. There is also a growing recognition that exclusive focus on shareholder value, which stands in the way of lean thinking, is not a sustainable strategy. As well, there’s evidence that younger managers who are less entrenched in old-school business culture are starting to infiltrate senior management teams.
Consultative selling, like lean, is a long-term strategy. Lean advocates should view selling lean as an ongoing process of learning, discovery, and productive dialogue. Lean teams don’t have the marketing budgets, corporate connections, or flashy demos of a tech giant, but they do have an insider advantage, and a sincere commitment to their cause that few salespeople can match.
Lean’s ultimate sales advantage, however, is that the lean experience tends to create passionate followers. Lean changes people’s lives for the better, and when they tell their personal stories, this touches the emotions as well as the rational mind. If lean teams simply do more to share their stories, they’re already on the right track.