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Trust Your Gut

I was having dinner with a husband and wife ownership team of a small firm I’d spent the day working with when one of them asked my opinion of a key employee. I thought back to my interaction with this person at the beginning of the day and offered my honest assessment. “I think she’s not committed to the firm or her role. She doesn’t respect you. She’s killing time waiting for a job she really wants. She has a sense of entitlement and aloofness that’s bad for morale and you should probably let her go.”

“Oh, my God!” came the reply. “What did she say to you!?” I thought again about the details and shared verbatim the entirety of our exchange. “She said ‘Good morning.’”  

Sometimes you just know, you know right away and the more you think about it the less you start to know. Of course I was right in my assessment of this woman or I wouldn’t share the story with you. My client mentioned to me less than two weeks later that they had to let her go for poor behaviour stemming from her attitude. What I discerned in seconds in a chance meeting over a coffee pot, my clients had to have already known, but they were waiting for more data and increasing their uncertainty as more information came in.

We need to trust our guts more – in business, in life and in particular in sales where we’re prone to acting against our intuition for long periods of time, all the while knowing that this story ends with the client hiring someone else or not having the budget or the authority or just being The Client From Hell. In hindsight, the evidence was always there. We saw or felt it early and we chose to ignore the signs to our detriment.

Your Intuition Can Be Sharpened

At the beginning of this year I adopted a resolution to trust, and to work to improve, my intuition. Less than three months in it’s so clear to me how right our intuitions usually are and how with just a little practice we can sharpen them by simply trusting them. It’s eerily powerful.

There are some areas where you need deep data, but in some you just know. Issues of people and environment, you just know. Think of buying a house – one of the biggest decisions you make in your life, one that shapes your physical environment for years to come. Given the size and impact of the decision, you would think it should be one that you pour over and analyze to death, but most of us just walk in and in a minute or two say yes or no. We just know.

The same goes for clients. We know who will be a good client and who will not in minutes, sometimes seconds. Research shows that we need less than a second to determine with startling accuracy if someone is lying. Then there’s Tinder – contemporary proof of either our shallowness or the truth that we don’t always need lots of data or time to make big decisions. (Mostly the latter.) In sales, we doubt ourselves and allow our judgment to be clouded when we’re over-invested in the sale. We see the signs and ignore them, hoping our intuition is wrong. It’s only when we look back on the wreckage that we’re honest that we knew the outcome all along.

Areas Where Your Intuition is Usually Right

Below I offer some different areas where you’re better off trusting your gut and making quick decisions instead of waiting for more information. In each I’ll try to point out the signs but the point of this article is to follow your intuition, which often means the signs aren’t discernible or are only obvious after the fact.

The Working Relationship

Most of us consider it perfectly appropriate to ignore a pushy salesperson. Once you’re deep into an opportunity however a line gets crossed where each party is now gauging how the other behaves. The closer to the finish line, the greater the scrutiny, so when a client at a later stage starts ignoring your phone calls or bumping meetings, read the writing on the wall. Either the answer is no and he can’t bring himself to tell you or this is the client’s real behaviour coming out.

I once had a client leave a voicemail message with a late stage prospect who suddenly started ignoring him, “If this is how you’re treating me now I’m starting to wonder how you’re going to treat me when we’re working together.” He got a promptly returned call and an apology but he never got the business.

Price Buyers

Price buyers have a smell about them. Not a real smell, but they radiate price sensitivity in some ways that are hard to define but almost impossible to ignore. Just stop and say, “listen, I should tell you now we’re not the lowest price firm,” or hit him with a high minimum level of engagement and an uncomfortable, long pause. You’ll know by how the client fills the silence whether it’s time to move on. If price is the objection, give it to the client to deal with instead of waiting for him to ask you to overcome it.

The Game is Rigged

Of course you love the games that are rigged in your favour – the ones where the client says or implies the job is yours, he simply has to go through the charade of an RFP. The ones that are rigged against you are less fun, but fortunately they give off a stench too. You just know. The incumbent is inexplicably involved (the client is trying to get a better price from them), the new CEO’s former agency is involved or you get the strong sense the search consultant has added you late to round out the field.

In my consulting practice I once got an RFP from someone who was transmitting to me in the strongest terms that my role was to drive down the price of a competitor he had already decided he was going to hire. He got both barrels of my wrath.

Client-Side Dynamics

In any engagement with multiple stakeholders on the client side (e.g.: department heads) one of the greatest ways you can deliver value is your ability to drive internal alignment and get disparate groups moving in the same direction.

Such alignment is almost always achieved in the sale itself, through direct communication with all decision makers and the use of unpaid diagnostics like needs assessments that reveal both common ground and conflict. If you can’t broker enough peace to close the deal on consensus and one decision maker has to overrule the others, you’re in for a rocky ride once hired. If you smell a civil war, say so to the chief decision maker or key contact. If a CEO wants to hire you to build peace, you’re golden. If a department head wants you to wage his war against his peers, it’s trouble.

Inability to Affect a Flawed Process

It’s not a crime to put together a ridiculous RFP that belies an ignorance in how to hire a creative firm. Some people just haven’t done this before or don’t know any better. The crime is refusing to budge from a ridiculous process once it’s been pointed out there are better ways. A decent client will be open to you politely pushing back and suggesting alternative approaches to framing their needs or measuring a firm’s capabilities.  

If you can’t affect a flawed process, your odds of winning plummet, so much that you’re better off walking away.

Character Flaws

At the end of a day of sales training, my agency principal client and I walked over to the neighbourhood bar to meet a few of the team for a drink. Among the assembled crew sat a new business person, at the end of his very first day on the job. The server was delivering to him a cocktail and a beer chaser. Eight hours into his new job he was comfortable enough to order two drinks at once. The relationship was a short one but it lasted long enough for this act to bear out as a harbinger of even worse decisions and an underlying character flaw.

We all understand the convention of being on our best behaviour in the beginning at the start of any relationship. Poor behaviour early, from client or employee, is always a sign of greater ugliness to come. Poor treatment of junior personnel is a good litmus test. Your people are going to get the same treatment as the client’s assistant.

Final Caveats

Before you go and do anything harmful with this well-meaning advice, I’ll remind you that some decisions in life and in sales require data and contemplation. Most judgments about people, their character and intentions however, do not. Trust your gut and save yourself time, money and heartache.

Finally, I’m obliged to point out that some people just have poor judgement. If you trust your gut in the above situations and your decisions keep blowing up on you, maybe you’re better off in a more data-driven role. Anyone who is successful in sales has a strong intuition to begin with and, I would venture, can easily become more successful by learning to trust their hunches more, making decisions around people sooner.