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Sunday, 25 February

Aspiration to Damnation - Sometimes You Have to Say 'No' to the 'Yes'

Leadership journals are keen to tell us to seize every opportunity, say 'yes'  and then worry about how to do it later, writes Andy Erskine

In the highly competitive economy that we find ourselves in, not taking opportunities is tantamount to commercial suicide in the race to sustain growth and profitability. However it is this same desire to say 'yes'  to every opportunity that brings peril for organisations, particularly when the 'yes'  has the potential to change the direction of the business itself.

“If someone offers you an amazing opportunity and you’re not sure you can do it, say 'yes'  – then learn how to do it later.” Richard Branson

A recent experience with a budding salesman made me consider whether the approach to seize every opportunity was correct and in the interest of either the client or the supplier. My conclusion - making an aspirational sale can get you in a lot of trouble!

This particular budding salesman had managed to blag his way into my diary, offering a service that genuinely had a potential to support and drive efficiency within the business and realistically should have been an easy sale for him. Having discussed the service in detail, building an understanding of what was being offered to us, the opportunities started spinning in my own head – what if it could do this, what if it could do that and unfortunately for the budding salesman, he started to say 'yes'  far too quickly and sadly for him, had entered the realm of fantasy. He didn’t mean to, he just got caught up in the opportunity.



There is a fundamental difference between saying 'yes'  to a new opportunity that is achievable and one that is simply fictional. Sending the sales team out to simply say 'yes' is a recipe for disaster unless you have very deep pockets as an company, which undeniably some have. This model has indeed proved massively successful for a number of firms in the service sector that simply bought someone else that could deliver. These really are in the minority though. The shame is that these self same organisations are now actively divesting themselves of these acquisitions having worked out that the selling an aspirational product is different to selling a sustainable product that fits into their core business model.

Equally there is a vast amount of difference in making a personal commitment to seize every opportunity compared to committing a company and the entirety of its resource to seize the same opportunity that is often not considered when saying 'yes'.


Seize it for yourself but don't commit others

On a personal level, every opportunity to do something new should be seized, using this as a way to grow yourself as an individual. Committing others to the same path without discussing it with them first might not always be in their interest.

Aspirational sales are a fantastic way to win business, stretching the suppliers capability into new and exciting areas that wouldn’t otherwise be achievable together with generating excitement in the blossoming relationship that has just been fostered with the client. The real risk is when the salesman disappears into the world of fantasy and begins to make promises and claims about capability that simply isn’t possible without significant investment to the supplier. This creates a situation where the client feels like they didn’t quite get what they wanted and discord sets into the relationship while the supplier works out a plan to implement the 'yes'.

The ability to say 'yes' confidently requires experience, knowledge and training to achieve. The reality being that if you have these skills, you are less likely to sell wildly fantastical aspirations as chances are you will likely be responsible for the delivery. Without these qualities, simply saying 'yes' is nothing other than taking a flier in the hope that someone will sort it out later.


Wishful thinking

It is important to keep in mind that there is a clear difference between using imagination to deliver something new and innovative when compared to fantasy, which is wishful.

Over the years I have had the sad opportunity to witness (both client and supplier side) the carnage that an over eager salesman saying 'yes' reaps within an SME. Saying 'yes' to an unqualified aspirational opportunity is expensive for the organisation at best and has the potential to skew the company's core business model to the detriment of the existing client base.

There is a fundamental difference between saying 'yes' to an expansion or extension of an existing service to selling something entirely different.

The 'say yes and worry later' school of thought is easy to sustain if you have a billion pound fortune to purchase an existing purveyor of what you have just sold, however for the mere mortals amongst us, saying 'yes' to a new service that isn’t currently part of or aligned to the core business model costs money if you haven’t the existing skills to deliver and simply consumes money, time and effort that might otherwise have been used to deliver and grow the suppliers core business.

The key to saying 'yes' is in ensuring that when an aspirational sale is made, that it conforms to the following:

  • It is either an extension or variation to an existing offering or stretches the existing capabilities of an existing service
  • It is technically feasible (I have had some interesting discussions about this one over the years)
  • The competencies exist within the business to deliver against the stretch
  • The tools exist within the business that can be enhanced to support it
  • It is in-line with the suppliers core growth strategy
  • It is financially viable
  • It is repeatable and other clients will want to buy it
  • It isn’t simply fantasy!

Sales teams within any industry are anecdotally notorious for selling dreams to clients and this is especially true within the services industry where the only real product is a described service model. Having sold the dream the salesman then invariably passes the successful sales pack over to the operations teams, rubs their hands and then moving onto the next opportunity without actually explaining that they sold the farm in the process of getting the sale. Don’t worry, operations will sort it out! This is obviously a wild generalisation but you get the picture I am sure.

The fundamental difference of saying 'yes' to a client in the service industry compared to manufacturing is time. When you say 'yes' in the service industry the expectation of delivery is immediate, removing the luxury of time to go away and investigate the solution, build capability and then deliver professionally without having to share the learning experience with the client. There are however clients out there that want to share the learning experience with you but this is typically reflective of a trusting relationship that is already established and unlikely to be something that would be offered from day 1.

Selling aspirational products to new clients needs a certain amount of honesty to be applied at the start of the relationship. Absolutely sell new and innovative solutions that add value to the clients core business but have the integrity to say that it is a change to the existing model and won’t be instant. Agree a timeline and deliver against it. The reality is that if you are unable to currently deliver it, the companies that you are tendering against are also facing the same challenge, as tangible USP’s within the service industry are actually very rare and temporary at best. Telling your client a realistic implementation timeline to achieve an aspiration builds trust and integrity within the relationship and stops the frustrations that might otherwise develop.

The alternative is selling a solution that is not achievable, losing faith with the client from the start and delivering a raw, developing service that the client experiences every step of the way. Experiencing your learning curve at the same rate as you but also having the pleasure of paying you (for a little while anyway) for the privilege. Not a good start.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions and the sales teams bonus is paid on awards rather than terminations. Selling aspirational services requires integration between sales and operations, sharing information, knowledge and strategy to ensure that the sale of dreams doesn’t become the delivery of nightmares.

By Andrew Erskine of Ocean Integrated Services

Article written by Andy Erskine


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