I have always thought of myself as a humble person and, indeed, have never been accused of being otherwise at any place of work in my 15 year tenure. I've even written a blog post on the importance of projecting confidence, implicitly coaching myself to do the same and stop being so docile. But recently I realized that I was actually quite arrogant and this single weakness was probably most hampering my sales training.
Like so many lessons, this is one I learned at home. I realized that my arrogance was displayed nakedly only when at home whenever I tried to explain something to a family member. My condescending tone was evident to them and yet for years they never said anything until recently when a couple incidents in close succession made them speak up. I was dumbfounded as I learned how my approach was so caustic at times and made them cringe to ask for my advice even if I was always of help.
So, if I am arrogant at home but humble at work which is the real Arjun?
To answer this I thought about how I, and many of us, get to this midpoint in our professional and personal lives.
We spend so much of our lives trying to separate ourselves from the "pack" that is the rest of humanity. I don't know if it's genetic or cultural to strive to beat our fellow humans in every race but I can't remember a time where doing your best (and implicitly being the best) wasn't important. This is particularly strange because my father never once said be number one because he had suffered the fallacy of thinking this was what brought success in life. And yet somehow school, society, genes or ego buried in me a desire to be the best because it felt good to be the best.
So like many kids I, along with my parents, planned extensively, and probably prayed extensively, to make it to name-brand colleges and indeed I did at Waterloo and Stanford. Yet, years after I graduated I now realize the obvious fact that the vast majority of the world didn't go to those schools or Harvard, MIT, IIT, IIM etc. So how do I relate to them?
For many from these rarefied institutions, that isn't really the question. We probably don't want to relate to the "common man" as we think we are better than him now; I know I did even if I never once thought of it consciously. So we choose academic pursuits or highly technical fields of work - finance, strategy consulting, corporate leadership roles, software development, post-doc positions - any field that will keep our circle of colleagues and friends to people from those fancy colleges, or at least colleges.
But the great lesson for me is that you can only go so far within these circles and sooner or later you will live and work with this so-called common man. Because every executive - CEO, partner, managing director - and really every professional - eventually needs to sell something and sales, more so than any other profession, brings you into crashing reality of how you relate, or don't relate, to your fellow man.
In this vein, my sales coach Rick Roberge has taught me a couple of things that I am only beginning to appreciate now.
One of his first lessons to me is termed "OK, not-OK". Put simply the lesson says that someone will be more willing to talk to you if they feel superior to you in some respect (without going so far as for them to think you are not intelligent and worthy of their time). Intuitively this makes sense yet because of our innate drive to be at the top we seldom want to yield this position to anyone we talk to. Indeed, this may be why sales people often ask few questions; because they implicitly want to show their dominance.
Perhaps with the exception of those with clearly superior titles to us - Nobel Prize winners, CEOs etc - we are subtly or overtly challenging nearly everyone we meet and feel satisfied knowing that we can stack up, or even beat, that person. But where does this leave us on the relationship and eventual possible sale? Nowhere.
Rick's overarching advice is to build real relationships not fake ones designed to consummate some transaction. Rick has repeatedly stressed that if you want a business relationship to pay off you must offer something of value first, even if that value is simply friendship. We all nod our heads to this - I know I did - but putting this in practice has meant a wholesale change for me.
Providing value first means you genuinely do NOT expect to get any value from someone you meet the first time, and perhaps never. Rick seeks to learn about the other person's dreams and goals because that's a level at which he can relate to others. And when you understand a person at that level, and not solely focused on their professional role, can you have a real and lasting relationship.
Mind you, Rick is not a humanitarian who tries to befriend everyone but rather he values his time and his counterpart's time equally. So his approach is to create lasting value whenever he engages and if a "sale" happens to take place it is for the right reasons on both sides, not because of the salesperson coerced the buyer, or one party tried to get a short-term win (like a promotion). This method may yield slower sales, and hence can be troubling in a quota-driven role, but is more likely to develop life-long clients which means you'll win in the long run.
Incidentally, this method is probably why Rick feels comfortable calling someone on the phone relatively out of the blue. Rick claims this is because of his lack of "need for approval" but I believe it's because his desire to offer value that makes him impervious to possible rejection.
So, where does that leave me?
I don't begrudge my degrees and enjoyed the learning, experiences and friends that came along with it. And certainly the knowledge gained at those schools differentiates me from those who gained an alternate set of knowledge in whatever walk of life they led. However, it's a mistake to think that my attending those schools separates me from others who didn't go to those schools in any fundamental way. The Dalai Lama often says we are all the same human being and hence can relate to each other on that level. Though I've heard the advice before I've never appreciated the wisdom in his statement until now.
Epilogue: I've written previously how in the future college credentials will be of less value. As blogging and social media become more pervasive people - employers, friends and even family - will more easily see what you are really passionate about rather than making assumptions based on your academic credentials, or lack there of. Perhaps I'm being idealistic but maybe social media's greatest benefit will be to break down barriers between the haves and the have-nots?