Going Global: Communication Across Mental Boundaries
A completed communication consists of a sender and a receiver. If there is just a sender - like in a pitch, or a lecture, or a commercial, or advertisement, or even a newsletter - it's not a communication, but an assertion, or a monologue, or an opinion.
Sometimes, when we have something we passionately want to say, we become so involved in formulating the crucial words that might make the listener take heed (we are caught up in needing to be heard) that we forget to ask ourselves one fundamental question: do we want to speak? Or have someone hear us?
I just found out how difficult this choice can be on a recent trip to Hong Kong and Shanghai. And this is a problem many of us face when attempting to enter another culture - be it a personal, inner culture, a group culture, or a country culture.
REMAINING IN OUR OWN WORLD
Let me begin by saying that both Hong Kong and Shanghai are where I believe the revolutionaries went when they left the States four years ago. Hong Kong is a very exciting place. I've been there twice now, and find the people smart, innovative, sophisticated, and creative. They are bursting with dynamism and ready to take risks. Shanghai is quite different and less international, but it, too, it exudes excitement and warmth and vibrancy - filled with anticipation and a special glow (with a large dose of humor and a gold-rush mentality).
Both cities welcome change, believing it's better to face change than stay the same. In fact, I find it more exciting to do business there than in the States right now: from my vantage point as an innovator, it seems to me that America has become rather risk-averse.
The 'dot. com' era's disintegration caused the American companies I've done business with to cut back on innovation. As a result, they're holding on to what they know - however successful that might be - and trying to make it work. Companies are 'making do' or doing the same thing harder/faster/larger.
Before I open up a discussion around global communication, let me take a long 'way round to harp on one of my pet peeves (I'll come back full circle, you'll see): I see this inability to truly go outside our thinking box and do something different as actually harming our revenues and, worse, our future.
I see Hong Kong and Shanghai growing, innovating, changing, learning, creating, and barging full throttle into the unknown, and having the massive growth and expansion that comes with that type of risk. I'm afraid that America will have a long road to hoe to catch up when it's ready to begin innovating again. Not to mention that the innovators may not want to move back from Asia where the action is.
PUSHING PRODUCTS INTO EXISTING SYSTEMSThe problem is most apparent to me in the sales field, of course. It's the field I have known since the 70s and the field I've been innovating in since the 80s. Our risk-averse behavior is creating its own set of problems, and indeed holding back our revenue growth.
Here are the four main issues that I see as making sales more difficult in today's environment:
* Competition is global, and products can be easily purchased from anywhere in the world. Products have invisible competition, so pitching and presenting is often done in a vacuum.
* Decisions entail highly complex layers of consideration before buyers make final buying decisions. The sales cycle is elongated accordingly and the seller is left out of the loop in the process.
* Buyers' demands are almost ruthless: because of the amount of information they can get over the internet, they know exactly what they want, exactly what they can ask for and exactly how much they are going to pay. All of this, before they make a purchase.
* Because products seem so similar when viewed on the internet or in marketing descriptions, buyers can't differentiate. They end up commoditizing products, and buyers are buying more on price than ever before.
Given the above, and the commensurate revenue sluggishness, companies are attempting to close the gap in sales cycles and product/price differentiation by trying to sell harder, or gather data differently, or offering more product information, or attempting to 'understand buyer's buying patterns' (a tip of the hat to my work over the past decade, but still not touching the heart of the issue), etc.
When this isn't working, they are adding software (i. e. CRM), or using incentives to get sales folks to work harder, or using price as an incentive to close deals. All of the above continue to be rooted in conventional sales thinking and are still predicated on the product as being the primary offering, rather than adding new, innovative skills to the sales process itself.
In fact, sellers still work hard at making their product fit the buyer rather than the other way 'round. Even the newer form of selling methodologies are different forms of traditional sales, just with a customer focus assertion as a new 'angle'. Sales continues to be based on selling something. The belief systems and the very fabric of the thinking has remained the same for a long, long time. And in this global market we're in today, the rules, the thinking, and the focus must change or there will be continued loss of revenues.
In the meantime, we'll continue to experience our current problems: Longer than necessary sales cycles. Difficulty closing. Business being lost for unknown reasons. Profit margins slipping as prices get cut to their slimmest margins. Difficulty discovering how/why people are buying. Great presentations and proposals that don't win the business. Rambling excuses as to when deals might close.
With this array of problems, supervisors - who are now hiring 'seasoned' sellers who know their product and market (as if were the magic bullet) - are perplexed, and end up firing the salespeople when they don't bring in the expected results.
But while companies play musical sales people (firing one person and hiring the same person with a different name), they are not changing the nature of the problems inherent in the very act of 'sales'.
ARE WE SELLING? OR HELPING FOLKS BUY? Indeed, the very act of the sales process causes the deficient results.
Before our modern business era, pushing information or gathering client data to help them solve problems was inefficient, but at least it worked eventually. But that's not happening today. Nothing is happening.
It's just not effective any more to push (with product or service) against a system (like a buyer's culture or environment) and assume that the system (complex, global) will open enthusiastically for the product being pushed.
When we will truly get it that it's not about our product but about the buyer's environment? Not about the seller but about how the buyer needs to manage their internal variables before making a decision? Not about how or why the buyer needs our product but about the kind of solution that will address all of the buyer's relationships, initiatives, and norms.
Even when sellers think they are 'gathering data' so they can do that mythical thing they now think they are doing by 'becoming a trusted advisor', they are only focusing on the specific bits of information they can use to support their sales pitch. So by pushing against the system, giving information that will be relevant only after the buyer understands what their solution needs to contain, trying to differentiate themselves by giving 'good service', it's causing buyers to spend more time doing external research, taking longer to do their internal systems-change work, and making our differentiation process even more difficult to boot.
Now that I've complained heartily around the problem - the erroneous belief that we can convince someone to do what we want them to do by pushing product or solution ideas into an existent system that protects its status quo - let me admit that I entered China doing the exact thing. I was selling the idea that there is a new sales paradigm, and that they would do well to learn it, by golly. And, of course, I was the One who would teach it to them.
This will come as a gleeful reminder to some: working from the belief that we have some 'important' solution to share, and we know we're right and think everyone wants to hear us (cuz we're so right, of course) is a universal, alas, human, trait.
BUT AM I COMMUNICATING? For some reason, I entered China believing that 'people are people', that given rapport, collaboration, mutual beliefs and needs, and a shared language, that I'd be able to communicate easily with anyone. I found that to be basically true in Hong Kong - a reputed high-level international business community - but was shocked to find a Chinese (Shanghainese I believe is the right word here) audience staring at me without comment or expression or agreement.
What an eye opener. I thought I was good, and smart, as well as 'right'. Just like a seller selling a product (um, I WAS a seller selling a product!) and believing that their product is needed by the buyer, I just went in and did a great job introducing all of the material that would get them to believe that, yes, I had the credentials to have the right answers, and that no, they weren't doing sales right, and yes, I could teach them that my way was better, and yes, they truly needed my material. Right.
I did what every sales person has been taught to do from day one: know my product and love it; know how to pitch it so the passion comes through along with the features-functions-benefits; look great and present well; ask a few well-intentioned questions that get the audience to recognize how right I am; be solicitous and understanding so I'm trusted quickly? I did it all just right.
And there were these wonderful, eager-to-learn faces staring back at me blankly, as I continued on my own trip.
What I realized - too late for that audience, but mercifully in time for the next audience - was that I had to do what I taught:
* discover how people in China perceived their business and sales environments (Where are you, in Buying Facilitation language);
* lead people through the discovery process to determine what, if anything, was missing;
* supporting them in fixing their problems with their own inherent policies, people, and skills (Systems with a missing segment tend to self correct wherever possible);
* and help them think through all of their internal systems that would have to shift if they were going to think a new way (Systems won't do anything different if they can't manage the chaos that the change would bring).
With the world getting smaller, and each of us being thrown into some form of global competition daily, I think we're going to need to learn how to get out of our own way. It's truly time to begin getting out of our own passion, our own belief in the 'rightness' of our messages and products, our need to have it our own way.
Our world is shrinking. The internet has made this a very small globe, and what affects us in the States is recognized and managed in major cities all around the world simultaneously. In fact, unless we Americans recognize that it's time to get into the pool with the rest of the world, we are going to be left behind even more than we are already.
I remember one of the first thoughts I had upon entering Hong Kong for the first time: what is going ON here? They seem much smarter, their technology is ahead of ours, and they are thinking in ways we haven't begun to think yet? I bet I could find what's wrong with this picture because it can't be as wonderful as it seems. But I soon recognized that my belief that America is on the leading edge was faulty.
As an American, I (wrongly, goodness knows) assumed that we were the smartest, or the furthest advanced. I'm seeing now with new eyes: we're not the smartest, nor are we even advanced. We've retreated too far in the last few years to hold those titles. We can win it back, and it will be a great competitive field to play in, but we first must remember the following (and these are the same mistakes sales people use when trying to pitch a product):
1. we have no one to communicate with unless we are willing to enter into communications where there is both a sender AND a receiver;
2. people decide together through collaboration. We cannot stand up, declare our nationality, and assume people will hear us cuz we're smart;
3. until or unless people are willing to reexamine their existing beliefs, and can change their internal composition while avoiding chaos, they will not be willing to change;
4. as people outside the 'other's' system, we will never understand all of the factors that are involved with a mature culture (country, group, person);
5. for those of us with messages (or products and services) to share, our jobs are to serve other systems by supporting them in recognizing, aligning, confronting, and shifting existent beliefs and behaviors so they might be willing to discover their best solutions should they seek to add new material to what they've already got.
By working with others as if we have the answers, by only finding out what they might need in the area our product serves, by assuming groups will change because we have a solution, by only asking questions that glean data to help us sell or position our product, we are senders with no receivers.
If we want to be successful in sales, in communication, in partnering, we've got to begin to enter with 'beginner's mind' and learn what the rest of the world has to teach us. Then we might have a shot at becoming again the most innovative, successful country in the world.
Sharon Drew Morgen is the author of NYTimes Best Seller Selling with Integrity. She speaks, teaches and consults globally around her visionary sales method, Buying Facilitation.