It was a sales call early in my career, where a lot was at stake (for me). After a pleasant meeting, the potential client looked me straight in the face and asked me, “Tell me, Mr. Green, how much experience do you have doing marketing studies for industrial consumables?” (The job was a marketing study for a sandpaper company).
Gulping, I realized that most likely we’d never done any marketing work in such a narrow vertical as that (not to mention I couldn’t think what else besides sandpaper would even constitute “industrial consumables”), and I began to formulate an answer full of MBA-speak that began with, “Not exactly, but we’ve done a lot of similar work…”
I figured that my boss had somehow smelled a rat and was contriving to get us thrown out on our ears in the fastest manner possible by being socially outrageous and offensive.
But I was surprised. The client threw open his arms, leaned back and said, “Well, shoot, that’s OK, hardly anyone’s done sandpaper marketing specifically. So, what else have you got that we could talk about?”
And I suddenly realized what had just happened. He had gained us complete permission to say nearly everything I had been about to say, about comparable experiences and related studies, and the client would happily listen to it.
Yet despite the similarity in content, if we’d done it my way, I’d have found myself in a tussle with my client; an attempt by me to show how smart I was, followed by an inevitable counter-attack by him to determine my weaknesses.
Instead, my boss had defused the tension and turned the tables all at once. Suddenly we were on the same side of the table with the client, in a discussion motivated by his needs, and dominated on his end by a genuine curiosity, rather than a suspicious contest.
Most amazingly, he did it by doing the exact opposite of everything I’d been taught up until then: he said “I don’t know.” For a consultant, “I don’t know” had always been the admission of failure. Knowing the answer, I thought, was what clients wanted, and what therefore consulting was all about.
Turns out that while clients certainly want answers, they place far greater value on people who can help them define the right questions to ask in the first place. And to evaluate good problem-definers, it’s crucial to know whether you can trust them to tell you the boundaries of their own knowledge.
The incident gave me a great keynote opening, but it gave me a lot more too: it changed the way I think of consulting, and in particular it gave me the confidence to face my own fears, even to the point of sharing them with other people. Which has turned out to be (very) valuable.
Charles H. Green is an author and subject matter expert on trust-based relationships and trust-based selling in business. Founder and CEO of Trusted Advisor Associates, he is author of Trust-based Selling, and co-author of The Trusted Advisor and The Trusted Advisor Fieldbook .
Charles works with complex organizations to improve trust in sales, internal trust between organizations, and trusted advisor relationships with external clients and customers. He has worked with clients in professional services, high tech, oil & gas, financial services, and other industries. Charles spent 20 years in management consulting.
He majored in philosophy (Columbia), and has an MBA (Harvard). A widely sought-after speaker, he has published articles in Harvard Business Review, Directorship Magazine, Management Consulting News, Businessweek.com, CPA Journal, American Lawyer, and many others.