The sell matters more than the substance

I’ve only just begun paragraph one and already some of you are upset with me. “No!” you might be exclaiming, “Substance is way more important than the sell Dan Gregory.”

So let me be clear, I don’t necessarily want this to be true, but as I’ll explain, trust is usually more important than truth, greater influence almost always trumps a better idea and the sell, more often than not, matters more than the substance.

Which is not to say that substance isn’t important, merely that it is a less likely predictor of success.

A cursory survey of most business categories reveals this to be true. Almost every industry sector is dominated, not by the product with the highest quality or the service with the greatest pedigree, but the one that has greater fame, better distribution and perhaps borrowed the authority of celebrity. McDonalds, though perhaps the most successful restaurant in the world, is notably yet to receive a Michelin Star.

This is also true at an individual and professional level. Despite the claims by HR professionals and managers around the world that they always hire “the best person for the job,” this is clearly not always the case. Nor is it true that the best idea always wins around the board table or that those who most deserve professional and personal praise receive it.

In fact, influence, or a capacity to generate it, is what determines a leader’s authority far more than their on-the-tools experience.

First, let’s deal with the risks of this philosophy

OK, clearly this statement, when used as a blanket strategy, is dangerous – it is the mantra of every con man or con woman that has ever lived. Sell them with enthusiasm and then disappear without delivering any substance. Clearly, this is not what I’m advocating for and it is also one of the reasons why many consumer protections have been enshrined in law.

However, for most businesses, leaders and professionals, substance is rarely the issue. What is far more likely, and costly, is the story of the great product, service or professional that didn’t succeed simply because they relied on substance standing up for itself.

It also tends to feed an inward focus on “product over customer” or “message over audience.” And it’s easy to see why; there is a silent virtue in focusing on the quality of our products, diligently improving service systems and collecting certificates to hang on our walls. No one is going to criticise us for having too much quality!

The issue this raises however, is that many leaders, product managers, professionals and entrepreneurs seek perfection in their product or message as a way of “workrastinating” – a term invented by my business partner Kieran Flanagan. It means, the work we do to avoid the work we should be doing.

What this all means is, we tend to feel safe within the clinical world of our product or strategy and not so much in the rather than less tidy world of customer and team relationships.

Ultimately, this focus leads to greater customer-centricity

What I’m really talking about is a shift from product (or service) centricity to one of customer centricity.

In fact, when I work with teams on how to sell, engage and pitch their thinking, the most common observation I make is that they’re trying to sell in reverse. They’ll bang on about their features and benefits, their vision or their noble why, but the sale is actually in the prospect, not the product and engagement is always on the other side of the table not in your agenda or mission.

So many smart people think that being smart is enough but in the process, they end up being right not rich (or right and not winning). This is true of environmental scientists who rely solely on having more evidence than their detractors and of highly educated professionals who lean pretty heavily on knowledge when engagement might be a far more useful strategy.

The real issue is, smart people think they shouldn’t have to sell. Their rightness very quickly becomes righteousness. In fact, most of my work is in making smart people, people smart. In other words, making sure more good ideas, products and people find the success they actually deserve through influence.

This is the reason I use the word “selling” when I work with leaders and teams rather than anaesthetising the concept by using words like influence, or persuasion or engagement (although clearly, I use them all). I actually want them to be a little uncomfortable, to question their biases and beliefs and to be conscious of what is coming between them and their success.

The simplest definition I use to make selling less “icky” is that it is a capacity to frame your value in terms of their values. In other words, spend a little less time convincing me of your substance and a little more explaining how it connects to what I already care about.

Now… go and make the sale!

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