Making plan. Hitting revenue targets. Achieving Quota. Forecasting accurately. “Onward, my son or daughter! Make your goal in 2013—and Godspeed!”
We forge ahead, our enthusiasm supported by a fragile lattice of assumptions. Among them, that our prospects want to reduce performance gaps, that they are concerned with achieving high financial returns, that they will make decisions that are rational and logical, and that they will be ethical and honest.
We rely on assumptions to shorten tedious fact-finding, and to cut to the chase. Good assumptions improve personal productivity in ways we cannot possibly measure. But bad ones remind us how easily we can get bitten in the rear when we take things for granted.
Once bitten, we get fickle. “Assumptions Are Bad for Business” one article blares, asserting that making assumptions “creates problems where there aren’t actually any.” Hmmmm . . . Try this: at the beginning of your next client meeting with the VP of Operations, say “please tell me whether you intend to mislead me.” Then, let me know how the rest of the conversation goes.
As for me, I’m happier assuming honesty. “Trust, but verify.” The topic was nuclear disarmament, but the assumption should work equally well for selling software, IT services, and specialty cakes and pies.
So I’m not anti-assumption, but like many people, I avoid bad ones—always easier said, than done. If only someone could warn me by tapping me on the shoulder or sending me a Tweet just before every mental lapse. “Hey, Andy, your assumption was . . . disproven multiple times! . . . superseded by new facts, forces, and realities! . . . relentlessly promoted by self-proclaimed experts to sell their services! . . . accepted without anyone questioning the premise! . . . illogical in the first place!”
Assumptions are out there, lacking caveats or fine print, the good mingling with bad. To help you nail your crystal-ball revenue predictions, I recommend dumping these assumptions next year:
1. Assuming that sales engagements should start in the C-Suite. Flaw: simplistic. A holdover from hierarchical organization charts. This assumption ignores collaboration, outsourcing, globalization, and the technologies that support them. Using this assumption, you could get outflanked. Maybe you already have been. Some sales teams use a different assumption, selling from the bottom-up, and enabling the program staff to champion internal project approval.
2. Assuming buyer motivation exists. Flaw: Pain identified might not be painful. Armed with a Product to Sell, many salespeople ask questions about pains that align with what their companies solve. But they’re already myopic, failing to discover the complete picture. They move straight to proposal, forgetting to uncover buyer motivation along the way.
3. Assuming the buying/selling process is linear. Flaw: bad assumption. But one that’s amazingly common. Here’s an artifact: “During the ‘discovery phase’ of the sales process . . .” The problem is, most buying/selling engagements don’t conform to linear representations. A more accurate form involves using multi-path decision boxes, loops, tangents, diversions, distractions, and the use-case symbol for decision purgatory, which is a tight black scribbly blob. So if a funnel juxtaposed to an arrow pointing down depicts your selling process, please comment below.
4. Assuming customers want good service. Flaw: creates delusions of success. A favorable Key Performance Indicator (KPI) might not be cause for celebration, as Bill Price and David Jaffe describe in their book, The Best Service is No Service. “We handled our support calls in record time this year. If our installation guide wasn’t so arcane and convoluted, we would have had a lot fewer of them! Go team!”
5. Assuming technology will fix customer relationship management problems. Flaw: without the right strategies and congruent corporate culture, technology will simply accelerate bad thinking. In The Best Service is No Service, Price and Jaffe emphasize that while self-service and CRM are often technology-based efforts, no technology is needed to adopt a no-service mindset.
6. Assuming customers don’t want to be sold. Flaw: Illogical, like dividing by zero. Buying and selling are reciprocal, so it’s more logical to assume that customers don’t want to be sold the wrong way. Unless you want to cause self-doubt, self-derision, or timid mumbling among members of your sales force, get rid of this one.
7. Assuming customers have information power. Flaw: this assumption is one word too long. Customers have information. It’s the power part that makes it shaky, and leads to other bad assumptions, including customers understand that information, or information available to customers is clear, accurate, engaging, credible, useful, and easily accessible.
8. Assuming customers want relationships with brands. Flaw: weird. When marketers use the term relationship to describe associations to a material item or to an abstraction such as a logo, disturbing distortions result. Bypassing the fundamental idea of human connectedness is one of them.
9. Assuming sellers can accurately profile their customers. Flaws: even the best predictive analytics have limitations, some of which are significant. The models cannot manage all relevant variables that influence purchases. Their statistical algorithms are constrained. They don’t always adapt to rapidly changing conditions. They don’t include cataclysmic events like hurricanes and political revolutions. I could go on . . .
10. Assuming marketing executives need more data about [fill in the blank]. Flaw: Overcome by events. Data is already so abundant, we’re drowning in it. Instead, we need knowledge and insight, which are scarce resources.
11. Assuming buyers want frequent vendor contact. Flaws: a) disproven, and b) utterly self-serving. Somehow, the finding, “it takes an average of seven touches to convert a suspect to a prospect,” went viral, and infected internal PowerPoint slides in marketing departments around the world. From there, it became a de-facto rule, then a commandment, until somebody—possibly a marketing intern—finally wondered, “is this what our prospects want?”
12. Assuming prospect interactions mean prospect interest. As Ardath Albee wrote in her blog “One interaction with your content doesn’t prove a thing. How do you know it was really what they were looking for? Did it resonate or did they walk away after viewing it, unimpressed?”
13. Assuming that being correct means being persuasive. Flaw: unsupported by reality. Being correct doesn’t hurt, but persuasiveness requires communicating a compelling vision, describing a plan to achieve it, empathy, understanding, and a few other things, too. I’m still not sure what all of them are. But simply “proving the business case,” and “showing prospects the numbers” can be a trap, because accurate numbers alone won’t encourage people to internalize your idea or cause, let alone buy your product. Ask any Republican strategist.
14. Assuming a job candidate’s prior gig leading a team qualifies him or her as a leader. Flaw: should never be assumed. A prior management role might infer that a job candidate has appropriate skills and useful experiences. But some hiring managers mistakenly use job title as a proxy for the check-box named has leadership talent.
15. Assuming that it costs more to acquire a new customer than to keep an existing one. Flaw: old math. Besides, you might want to ask yourself whether value returned to the company is a better consideration than cost. Not surprisingly, customer loyalty consultants in particular like this assumption, and they have chanted it in webinars and industry conferences since the idea was first hatched in the early 1600’s.
16. Assuming that customers are looking for win-win relationships with vendors. Flaw: delusional, except in limited cases. When buyers and suppliers have high financial stakes in co-developing innovations, the assumption holds. Otherwise, “win-win is a company strategy, not the customer’s strategy,” as Bob Thompson wrote in a blog Customer-Centricity is Dead! What’s Next?
17. Assuming customers don’t like change. Flaw: a cliché that few people question. Is it change that people resist? Or uncertainty?
18. Assuming that your customers are dependent on your technology. Flaw: fatuous. As reported on National Public Radio yesterday, “Energizer announced recently that production at plants in Malaysia, Missouri and Vermont won’t keep going. That’s because disposable battery sales are way down. The market research firm Symphony IRI Group says sales are off by 21 percent, since 2009.” Executives at Eastman Kodak no longer make this assumption, either.
19. Assuming social media disasters occur at other companies, but not at yours. Flaw: bad assumption. Very bad. These stories will assure you that they can happen at any organization: McDonalds McDStories, National Rifle Assocation’s Tweet following the Aurora, Colorado shooting, Microsoft insults Ann Coulter on Twitter, Macy’s partnership with Donald Trump.
20. Assuming you know why your customers buy from you. Flaw: you probably don’t. Even if you did, no company can afford the arrogance that comes with feeling certain. In a blog, What Really Drives Customer Loyalty? It’s Not Just about the Experience, Bob Thompson wrote, “While there is no one ‘best’ method for finding loyalty drivers, in my research of top performing companies I find that leaders are obsessed with asking and answering these questions: What do customers in our target markets really value, which issues make our customers unhappy and cause them to leave, what pleases customers and causes them to recommend us to others, how can we turn customers into true advocates for our business?”
21. Assuming one of your “inside connections” at an account will give you an advantage over your competition. Flaw: your prospects scrutinize decision-making more than you realize. I frequently hear statements like “one of our execs knows a board member at [name of prospect company]!” But as one of my managers told me many years ago, “that, and fifty cents will get you coffee.”
22. Assuming that the reasons your sales reps give for lost sales opportunities are lame excuses. Flaw: this should never be assumed. Maybe the reasons are lame, but what if they’re not?
23. Assuming you can precisely determine the financial return from your social media investments. Flaw: you can’t. Executives want precision. I get that. But social media has changed rapidly in the past five years. Facebook and LinkedIn are now described as platforms, and in 2011, YouTube became the second-largest search engine after Google. It’s hard to name a corporate department that doesn’t use social networks every hour of the business day, now chunked into 24-hour segments. Your CFO will tell you: when it comes to understanding value returned to your company, it’s easier to measure projects than platforms.
Letting go of some of these assumptions might feel like discarding a pair of worn, but comfortable shoes that you’ve taken on trips around the world. I understand. There’s always that pang of remorse. But don’t worry, 2013 will bring you plenty of new assumptions to replace them!