Altman on honesty and integrity

While it can feel like the world of ruthless salesmanship gives little heed to the actual needs of customers and clients, integrity and honesty are make-or-break qualities for successful entrepreneurship. To learn more, we spoke with Ian Altman, B2B growth expert and co-author of Same Side Selling.

ABERMAN: Integrity is core to your approach to sales and business growth. What exactly do you mean by integrity?

ALTMAN: Well, the funny part is in our book, Same Side Selling, which I co-wrote with a guy named Jack Quarrels– most people can guess by his last name, Quarrels, that Jack spent two decades in purchasing and procurement. And so oftentimes, you see buyers and sellers at odds with one another. And the reality is that if we’re all looking to achieve the same end goal for the client, then we avoid that adversarial trap that pits one side against the other. So with integrity, it means that we’re as committed to the outcome for our clients as they are. We’re not just focused on making the sale.

ABERMAN: Is integrity honesty?

ALTMAN: Let’s hope so. But ultimately, it’s making sure that not only you’re being honest, but part of it is evaluating: can I deliver what these people need? So, for example, you wouldn’t go to a doctor who says to you, I’m going to do this procedure, but in their mind, they’re thinking, well, it’s probably not going to help, but I’m going to make money from it. It’s the same thing in business.

ABERMAN: Interesting. So you’re using integrity as a screen for what my granddad used to always say: just do the right thing.

ALTMAN: Novel concept, right? So the idea is that I’ve done research with over 10,000 executives on how they make and approved decisions. And so across that, what people ask is: anytime they’re looking to make a decision to buy something or spend money, there are three questions they ask. They ask: what problem does this solve? Why do we need it? And what’s the likely outcome? And if we know that, then what happens is, when people are trying to sell something, and you’re not focused on the result or outcome, the client starts thinking to themselves: wait a minute. You don’t even know what we’re trying to achieve yet. You’re telling me we should buy this thing from you. It sounds like B.S. And so, we want to make sure that we’re a little bit more clear about that. We don’t fall into what I call Axis Displacement Disorder. It’s a condition you may have heard of. That’s when the seller believes that the axis of the earth has shifted, and now the world revolves around them.

ABERMAN: I hate to tell you, I don’t see that just in people trying to sell things. You know, it strikes me that when people talk about the need for integrity, or the need to do the right thing, it runs counter against the perception that I must maximize profit, and I must close every sale. How do you counsel people to, frankly, be brave enough to walk away from something, in order to get something better later?

ALTMAN: Well, it does on its surface sound counterintuitive, but anybody in business and anybody who’s selling anything to anybody knows that the client who’s not a good fit, the client who you can’t actually deliver the right results for, ends up being the bane of your existence, and you get sucked into the vortex of evil. So instead, if what we can do is look and say, OK, is this someone who has a problem that I’m really good at solving, and can I deliver the results that they need? And if that’s the case, we’re probably going to have pretty good success together, which will lead to repeat and referral business. Almost anybody involved in any type of business has at one point said, oh, wow, I really need the revenue, so I’m going to sell this thing that maybe we shouldn’t be selling. And inevitably, they regret it. But at the time, it seems like a good idea. So that’s what we have to avoid. Because if we don’t do that, that’s when we fall into these terrible traps.

ABERMAN: How did you come to this world view? Did it hit you one night like a lightning bolt, or where did this come from?

ALTMAN: Well, I think in running my businesses in the past, we would look at those clients who we have that kind of Spidey sense about, that said maybe this isn’t the right fit. And you’re thinking, oh, but it’s a big client. So we’re going to we’re going to keep working on this. And then all of a sudden, they weren’t happy. Your team wasn’t happy. Everybody was butting heads and it became adversarial. And looking at that, I said, man, you need to have enough discipline to not get into those traps that aren’t a good fit. Then in writing Same Side Selling, it was interesting. The way Jack Quarrels, my co-author and I met was Jack actually attended a training program I was doing because he went to find out, gee, what’s the enemy teaching other people? He said, wait a minute. Ian’s teaching that you should be focused on the results with the client. And then we had this conversation. He said, you know, I don’t think there’s ever been a book written on sales from the buyer and seller’s perspective. And we did that. Now we have the second edition, and it’s been, obviously, wildly successful.

ABERMAN: How important is empathy and doing homework about your client to practice this type of approach?

ALTMAN: It’s absolutely essential. If you don’t have empathy around what they’re trying to achieve, if you’re not listening to them, then you’re probably suffering from that Axis Displacement Disorder and you’re just focused on yourself. So what we have to do is pivot that. And one of the best ways to do that is, when you’re meeting with somebody, a potential client. Oftentimes people who are selling something, they start by saying, look, we have the greatest thing ever to fit your needs. What do you need again? And it just totally lacks any integrity. Instead, what you want to think about is, OK, has this person, my potential client, convinced me that they have a problem that’s worth solving, that I feel we’re really good at addressing? And if so, we have something to talk about. And if not, not so much. And what I find with my clients is that less than half of the potential clients that they meet with are actually good fit for what they do. So, if you know that, your goal is to find that out as quickly as possible.

ABERMAN: How much does this overlap with this current trend and in society policy to so forth where people say they’re craving authenticity?

ALTMAN: Well, you know, I think there’s a lot to it, because what happens is, our brains are acutely aware of stuff that just doesn’t make sense. So when somebody is purely advocating one side of an argument, we think to ourselves, well, the world isn’t that black and white. You can’t just take that one position. So in the world of politics, when somebody says, oh, those people are absolutely insane, and you can pick whichever side you’re on, you will be convinced the other people are crazy. Instead, what we have to do is think to ourselves: why does someone feel differently than I do? What’s the common ground that we can find together? And part of it is disarming the notion that you’re just there to sell something.

See, it’s just like if you walk into a store and the hyper ambitious salesperson walks up to you and says, may I help you? What’s our default response? No, no, thanks. Just looking. Why is that? Is it because we prefer to go rummaging through the store by ourselves? No, it’s because we don’t trust their intentions. So one of the principles we teach is this notion of disarming. So when you meet someone, the first thing is, look, I don’t know if this is for you. I don’t know. I don’t know if we have the right fit. But I’m happy to learn more to see if we might be able to help. That conveys that notion that you just described as empathy. And now we’re trying to figure out, do we have a fit together, versus, can I ram this thing down your throat? Maybe if I speak long enough, you’ll slip into a coma and then you’ll sign something. Not a good long term strategy.

ABERMAN: You’ve been a principal, you’ve been a CEO. You’ve grown businesses. Now you’re advising people, entrepreneurs. What makes someone suited to be a counselor or adviser, versus a CEO? How do you make the change?

ALTMAN: Well, it was interesting. So in my prior business, I started from zero, grew the business to a pretty good size, and then had an investment banking firm in New York that acquired my company for cash and stock and said, hey, will you serve as managing director? We brought the value of that business from one hundred million to two billion in less than three years. And candidly, I burned out, and I thought, what am I going to do now? And I was talking to some friends and said, I don’t want to build the exact same business again. They said, well, why don’t you help other people on how they can grow their companies? I said, what do you mean? They said, well, you always seem to enjoy helping our businesses more than your own. If we called you up and said, hey, we’re struggling, you would abandon your business and help us. And I said, what do you mean? Because I didn’t realize there were people who did that. And now I have the good fortune, I travel around the world. I speak to audiences on really fundamental principles on how they can introduce integrity into their sales process, and actually shorten sales cycles, shift the focus from price to value, and get on the same side with their customers. Kind of a novel concept.

ABERMAN: People do tell me, and I do agree, it’s much harder to be a coach. How do you react when somebody’s just doing something that is just so mind numbingly dumb, you just want to grab them by the neck?

ALTMAN: It’s just like anywhere else in life. We might see our clients doing something that we think is really dumb. We might see a CEO doing something that we think is dumb. And what we have to ask ourselves is, why are they doing that? What’s motivating that? What makes them believe that that’s the right choice? Because rest assured, they’re not thinking to themselves, you know what? I’m looking to do something really stupid. Here’s an idea. And then they do that. Instead, they think it’s a good idea. It’s just like the person who sells somebody something that they don’t need. And they say, oh, this is great. I get short term revenue. Next thing you know, their reputation’s in the mud. If we think about the story of your grandfather and the clothing business, here’s the thing. Back then, if you didn’t deliver great results for somebody, they might have told one of their neighbors or friends. Today, if you deliver something that doesn’t work for the client, they’ll tell millions of people they’ve never even met.

ABERMAN: So you’re here in D.C., the center of spin and networking and all the rest of it. How do you spread a message like yours, and how do you think it fits with a lot of networking I see around here, which feels like anything but integrity driven?

ALTMAN: Well, I think one of the flaws a lot of people have with networking is, it gets back to that notion of just focusing on themselves instead of asking people, like for starters, what’s interesting about them? What are they doing? And also describing the problems that you solve rather than what it is that you do. So most people at a networking event, someone says, what do you do? And the person says, oh, I’m an attorney. Oh, I’m a government contractor. And it’s just something that means nothing. But instead, you can describe the problems that you solve. So when someone comes to me and they say, what do you do? I don’t say, oh, I’m a keynote speaker. You know, I come in and develop sales organizations. I say, well, my clients come to me when their sales cycles take too long, when their clients focus on price instead of value, when their message falls on deaf ears. Those are the types of problems I solve. And then the people who have that need instantly pick up on it. The people that don’t have that need, well, I can be genuinely interested in what goes on in their world.

ABERMAN: I would say the biggest problem you solve is people being insecure about their product and selling off strength.

ALTMAN: Well, it could be that too.

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