A couple of years ago I wrote an article titled, ‘I Wish I’d Said That: Seven sentences to get you out of sticky situations.’ Just as there are words you can employ to helpful means, there are also words that you should avoid to keep you out of trouble and in control of the buy-sell relationship. Here are seven of them.
Seven Words You Can’t Say in Business Development
Obviously, the words themselves are harmless and only become problematic when used in certain context. Here then are the seven words and the contexts in which they should never be used.
Such a harmless word, you, but using it incorrectly can cause immediate credibility loss that is almost impossible to win back.
The problematic use of this innocent word is speaking to an as-yet unqualified target audience, particularly in written form. Let me explain by sharing with you the first words that greeted me on an agency website recently:
“[agency] is a strategic marketing services agency that does just one thing—helps you grow your business.”
Really? My business? What does the writer know about my business? Clearly this firm is saying that they can help any business. It doesn’t matter what claim of expertise you make in your positioning statement, you give back any credibility you might build by addressing your target market in the second person singular: you. The second sentence on the aforementioned website:
“From strategic market planning to brand strategy, from lead generation to internet marketing services, we get you to your goals.”
Some people will think I’m being picky, but when someone claims to be able to help me without knowing anything about me, I have a hard time believing their claim. Language like this builds unnecessary sales resistance that will need to be overcome in any subsequent interaction with the prospect. This is the language of a firm looking for somebody – anybody – that they can sell something to – anything.
Your positioning language, in addition to explaining who you help and how, needs to clearly imply who you do not help and what you do not do. “We help get you to your goals” is the broadest claim of the most undifferentiated generalist.
Think for a minute about all the people or companies that you hire or might hire in your life or business. You can put most into one of two buckets:
1. I need these people to do what I tell them
2. I need these people to tell me what to do
You need your lawn mowed, your house painted, your phones answered, your car washed, or you need legal advice, accounting guidance, a problem solved. From the buyer’s perspective there are very few engagements where you are looking for a partner. You either want someone to do something for you or you want someone to tell you what needs to be done.
Humans are hierarchical beings. There is little equality in the pack. It is rank that drives order and stability. Rank may change, there may be battles for power, but there are few real partnerships outside of marriage and business (ownership) partnerships.
In your engagements you are either positioned as the expert (the one giving the advice) or the order-taker (the one being told what to do.) Expert firms have patient-practitioner type relationships with their clients, where the client has the problem and the agency has the solution. Order-taker firms have patron-waiter type relationships, where the client has needs and the agency has a pad of paper and a pen, ready to take orders on those needs.
It is only the order-taker generalists who aspire to partner status. Partners are merely likable waiters. If your goal is to partner with your clients then you need new goals. Aim higher. Aim to lead the client, not partner with him. Use of the word implies low status and mediocre ambitions.
3. Solutions or Results
I’m addressing these two words together because they tend to be used hand in hand. The context is usually in written claims of expertise – these words are rarely overused in conversation.
Offering solutions and getting results are the cost of entry in any service-based business. The only thing you gain by saying these things out loud is membership in the large group of people, companies and bureaucrats who lose credibility by droning on about nothing. You can talk about your solutions; you can talk about the results you’ve achieved for your clients, but avoid the broad nebulous claims of “We arrive at solutions”or “We get results.” You might as well say, “Our people walk, talk and breathe.”
Finally, don’t ever use the word solutions when naming a company or service. That’s just lazy.
From Wikipedia: “A cliché… is a saying, expression, or idea [that] has been overused to the point of losing its original meaning, especially when at some earlier time it was considered distinctively meaningful or novel…”
I know I don’t need to go on here. Everyone who makes this claim knows they are guilty of saying, “Jack of all trades and master of none.” The next stop when firms move on from full-service though is branding. Lucky for you I promised myself I wouldn’t rant about the B word in this issue. I’ll continue to bottle my thoughts on this word until I can find a good counselor or until I explode like an angry geyser – whichever comes first. I apologize in advance.
My above rant is a good segue to bad word #5: passion. To attempt to differentiate your firm based on wanting it more is to set yourself up as the inexpensive generalist order-taker who will gladly be led by the client.
It is okay to possess a professional enthusiasm for the challenge or the fit, but think doctor, lawyer or accountant. The level of passion you would expect these other professionals to demonstrate is the same level of passion that’s appropriate for you. Just imagine that you need heart surgery and your cardiac surgeon tries to ‘win’ your business by telling you how passionate he is about heart surgery and how much he wants your business. Your gut will tell you to go with the expensive guy who was hard to get in to see and whose distinct lack of passion make you think he didn’t care if you selected him or not.
Why would your own clients’ experiences be any different?
Passion for your craft is a great thing to have but something you want to be careful about projecting, especially in a closing situation where your job is to calm the prospect down rather than get him excited. Be passionate about your work, but in the buy-sell cycle opt for professionalism over passion. You’re not a puppy.
Most uses of the word strategic in a firm’s positioning language are really meant to convey “smart”. If you’re using this word in this manner it’s probably because you recognize that without it, your claim is a little too broad. It’s not a word that hurts you in the way that some others on the list do. But your use of it when describing your firm should be taken as a sign that you didn’t push far enough when positioning your firm.
“Ohhh, you’re a strategic design firm. I thought you were just a design firm. Come on back in – you’re hired.”
7. Thank You
Please relinquish your habit of following-up on a meeting or a phone call with a prospect that leads with the words, “Thank you for your time.”
Think for a minute of the implications of this ubiquitous practice. What you are really saying is, “I’d like to take a minute to acknowledge that the meeting we just had was all about me and my need to sell you something. I understand that there was little real benefit to you, so thank you. I know your time is more valuable than mine, and I appreciate that you gave me a few minutes of it to try to talk you into hiring our firm.
“I’d further like you to know that should you deign to hire our firm you can expect the prompt, deferential service exemplified in this email. You are the customer, therefore you will always come first and you will always be right.
“As long as you need something done, you can count on us. If, however, you need a problem solved or you need someone to tell you the truth even when you won’t like it, or you need someone to put the needs of your brand ahead of the needs of you or your department, then you should probably call that other firm. You know – the less polite one that charges more.”
When you go about the function of business development properly, you set the firm up as the expert, in the power position in the relationship. Over time, as you cycle from strategic work to more commoditized tactical work, your power will erode. There’s no need to speed up that erosion process before you are even hired by sending subtle but discernable signs of subordination. Experts are hired to lead, not follow.
Appropriate alternatives to “Thank you for your time” include, “Nice meeting with you yesterday.” “I enjoyed meeting with you and learning more about your business.” “I’m glad we were able to connect on the phone yesterday.”
There is a Chinese saying that roughly says, “Watch your thoughts, they become your language. Watch your language, it becomes your deeds. Watch your deeds, they become your behavior.” You might try to convince yourself that your use of these seven words in the described contexts is harmless, but the truth is it not only belies your thoughts, but with eerie accuracy it predicts your behavior.