Why didn't you come to me sooner?

If this sounds like your dentist, sorry.

It seems like the advisory boards we build work for a substantial number of CEOs who have spent many thousands of dollars on things they thought they would need but that are, for one reason or another, not right.

This is the story of my life - and lots others out there. By the time people get so desperate that they seek the help of real experts, they are almost out of money, the effort is almost failed, and they are so desperate that they are willing to risk it to talk to someone like me.

If we save them, they say they are grateful, but they go right back to the folks they used before that failed them, rather than coming back to us. If we don't save them, they don't pay us. Actually, we only work on retainer now a days. I got tired of being at odds with my clients by having to try to collect from them while they were asking me for more help.

Or so it used to be...

We are expensive - or so it would appear. Not just me - all of the real experts of the world. That's because it takes you so long to decide to pay us for something. If you would just call up, send a pile of money, and ask for help, you would get more help sooner for less money. But no... you need to spend weeks to months of effort, first making your decision, then justifying it, then budgeting for it, then passing it through review processes, and then going a different route because the issue you had 9 months ago has now caused so much harm that the project is no longer operative.

People ask how much we are paid per hour. No way I'm going to answer you. First off, because it's none of your business. But I understand if you are paying us, you might want to know that. So I tell you that you can get my support (described in the SoW) for a monthly fee or you can pay me by the hour. How much per hour? $1,000. And I won't be using any of the tools I spent years developing as part of that deal. So it will take weeks to do what I normally do in ... far less time. It's the story of the clockmaker all over again.

I know. You can get "it" for less - if "it" is shipping a package or renting time on a server in a server farm somewhere. But expertise is something else. I have gone to a bad dentist in my life, and it took years to get the sensation partially back in part of my jaw. My spinal surgeon saved me from quadriplegia. I'm glad he was up to it. I didn't go for the low cost surgeon - or try to work him down on cost by telling him to only save my legs and leave my arms to someone else who was less expensive.

Is there a point here?

There is indeed. Many people want something for nothing and value their time more than yours. And you probably do the same thing with regard to them sometimes. This offends people, and rightly so. I am sure I have offended some in my day and I have certainly been offended by others as well. Being respectful and appreciative is one of the hardest things for many of us to do.

People panic. They don't see themselves the way you do. Objectivity is hard to find and hard to appreciate when you see it coming at you. And frankly, objectively, there is no way to make many decisions that have to be made.

Many decisions, particularly strategic decisions, depend on getting over the action threshold. And for decisions involving many people, there may be many action thresholds to exceed.

It's a matter of trust

The key issue that seems to come up again and again is the issue of trust. People need to become confident enough in who they are dealing with to trust them to the point of committing. And because people generally value more what they might lose than what they might gain, each party that has to give something up (money, time, ownership, etc.) wants to make certain that they get value for what they give up. Each thinks they are committing too much too soon, and thus it is a classic hostage exchange problem. We want to walk across the bridge simultaneously. But someone has to give up the money or the goods first.

There are various ways to build trust, a step at a time with increasing commitment, or using short cuts like increasing the perceived value of the thing being exchanged. And there are various ways of getting people over the action threshold, like putting time limits on them, or threatening to walk away. Of course all of these tactics can fail and/or backfire, and that's the risk you take for the rewards you get. And lest we forget, all the time spent negotiating has to be taken into account as well.

I have recently started taking the perspective that the price goes up with time spent negotiating the deal. So every time we spend another hour in discussions, I think I should raise the price by the value I place on my time. The problem is that this incremental price increase tends to slow down rather than speed up the process. If I am selling a million items, I can bake the average sales cost into the price. But if I am selling a few tens of things, if I do this, I am charging more to the people who trust me sooner and rewarding those who take longer to get through the process.

Trust comes with commitment. If you read this far into this article and are still reading, you are committed to finishing it. So you must trust me to be coming to something of value by getting this far. I have to reward you now or I might lose your trust. I guess I have to make it harder for you to buy from me as time goes on in order to increase your perceived value and move you toward close. And at some point I need to make it so expensive to keep making the decision that you stop trying (so I stop sinking more cost into the sale). Which comes back to the fail-fast approach. I would rather fail to make the sale sooner than later. Or in other words, a better qualification process.

The trust tradeoff

When I was young, I sold popcorn, cotton candy, drinks, hot dogs, and other such food in carnivals. I now realize that this is the easiest kind of selling there is. People line up with their money in hand waiting to give it to you so you can then produce the item they wanted before they ever came to the carnival. At the other extreme is the multi-year, highly competitive, multi-approval sales process for cyber-security consulting, which buyers don't really want even though they ultimately end up being compelled to buy.

In summary

This was a meandering walk through of the sellers point of view of the buying process. But it's important to understand why things go wrong and the frustrations associated with those things. In truth, I don't know how to solve any of these problems as/if they happen on a regular basis. The only real approach I have is to adapt.

If it doesn't sell the way you are selling it, you need to change things until it does. The customer is not necessarily always right, but even if they are wrong, they won't buy from you unless you crack the code of how to convince them to buy.

It may seem simplistic, but the best strategy I have found is to build up trust, and find ways to do it quickly and deeply. There are people who are very good at this using psychological approaches, and some of them are dishonest - they are called con(fidence) (wo)men. My approach is to be direct and honest - and to understand the motives and concerns - and address them. Our popcorn is made with Flavacol! Almost sounds like a good thing...

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