“I can’t run this,” I said to Nancy. “Nobody is going to answer it.”
We have a survey program in place for organizations who want to get a sense of what our readers are thinking in a certain area. The interesting thing I’ve learned after running it for a while is that, no matter how many rules or guidelines we put around the process, explaining to a potential buyer the differences between a survey we can get answered by more than a handful of people, and one we can’t, is very difficult.
For example, we can say (which we do) that the survey must consist of no more than 10 questions, and that each question must have multiple choice answer options. We allow respondents to add free text explaining their answers, but we don’t require it. You would think that would do the trick. But it doesn’t. That’s because those questions, as a set, can run the gamut from tapping general knowledge (which is what CIO-level folks have), to weed-level mastery of minutiae (which they don’t).
It has happened, occasionally, that when a survey comes in, I’m horrified to see its complexity, and the depth of the questions and answers tells me we don’t have a prayer getting the engagement we need. It is often at that point I put my head in my hands and lament the challenges of the program.
But what’s a business to do when a customer wants to spend money? A first instinct, perhaps, may be to shut up and run the damn program. However, when, like us, you are a small shop and know you don’t stand a chance of staying around if you leave customers unsatisfied, you just can’t do that. So I asked Nancy to tell the customer we just couldn’t run their survey — it was too granular and I didn’t think we could deliver.
So we scheduled a call to discuss how we could get the survey into what I considered workable shape. On the call, knowing I either had to convince them to go elsewhere or get it where I needed it to be, I didn’t mince words. I told our customer straightforwardly that their pre-survey instructions had to go (they gave me a headache just reading them) and that if people couldn’t just answer it without mastering instructions beforehand, it didn’t stand a chance.
This was taking a big risk, because it was certainly possible that the person I was delivering this message to could have been the designer of those rules, and taken my constructive criticism very personally. It could have damaged a very important business relationship.
But the reaction was positive. In fact, the person on the line said they agreed with me, and that it was survey consultants they had worked with who inserted the complicated qualifiers.
Feeling emboldened by the initial reaction, I went through the questions one by one, offering suggestions on how this or that one could be changed or even removed. After the call, our customer sent me a revised survey reflecting my suggested changes. And after the program was completed, which proved successful, they wrote us a very nice note, thanking us for the changes and offering:
“The feedback provided regarding the wording of questions was extremely helpful. That is value-add that really defines a great partner. Others could have just ran the survey as is. We appreciate it.”
My point in sharing this story is not to toot our own horn. We did a good job here and it worked out well, but making the decision to provide what’s called “consultative selling,” isn’t easy. Because consultative selling means telling a client something they may not want to hear. It is simple to say, “Yes, sure, no problem,” to whatever the client wants, because then you keep everything on track, you move an inquiry to a sale and then to a billable event. But what you sacrifice is the DELIVERY. You sacrifice the end product. If you can’t get great results on a survey, you may still be able to bill for it, but you certainly won’t have a satisfied client.
Consultative selling is hard because you risk derailing the march to billability. At the very least, you slow things down as your proposed changes often need to go up and down some byzantine chain of command. Sometimes the project never gets back on track, and then, boy, do you kick yourself for turning a sale into nothing.
“Should have kept my mouth shut,” is the tempting reaction.
But, of course, all service providers need to fight against this urge. Yes, you may sometimes blow it by saying, “You really don’t want to do it that way,” but if you know what you’re taking about, you’ll get better results for your clients than when they go down the street and get to do it their own way. Eventually, they’ll realize that the tough love they get from you is better than the apathetic acquiescence they get elsewhere.
It’s not easy, and it’s not black and white. But it’s in these gray areas that the battle between long-term success and failure is waged. It takes courage and it doesn’t always work out in the short term, but notes like the one we received above serve as a reminder that it can be the most important differentiator of all.