Adam Grant is the author of the acclaimed new book Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success. He not only is one of the most respected social scientists of our time but he is the youngest tenured professor at the Wharton School. Before you ask yourself what does he know about selling understand that Adam started his career as a salesperson with a ton of cold calling and prospecting for advertising clients. From 0% sales renewal rate when his team members were averaging 95% he became the top producer. He initially approached sales thinking he had to be a pusher and taker but an insightful sales manager helped him see that his path to success was helping his customers.
The motivation for his cutting edge research traces back to that sales transformation combined with a decade of career counseling with his students at Wharton. When he asked students about their values, they shared different versions of, “I want to help others by working for 35 years to build up wealth and then start giving back.” This sequence struck Adam as backwards. He believed that it would be better to give first and succeed later. He directed his research to figuring out how that would work.
As Adam describes it salespeople, people in general, operate at work in one of three modes: as takers, matchers, or givers. Takers seek to get as much as possible but are reluctant to give back. Matchers, which most people are, believe one good turn deserves another and want an even trade. Givers help others without strings attached—but before you say “wait a minute,” that is different from being self-sacrificing.
His research showed that in the new sales landscape giving is the path to success. He backs that up in Give and Take with extensive research, compelling examples, and powerful insights. (His research was also featured in Daniel Pink’s book To Sell Is Human—Adam’s stereotype-breaking study showed that ambiverted salespeople out perform their extroverted counterparts.)
He offered six guiding principles to salespeople who want to move in the giver direction.
The credos of a giver are:
- Ask questions, listen, and show a genuine interest. While this has always been true in sales, it talks on a new dimension. Adam sees questioning as even more important in the age of technology. Sales, he emphasizes, today is about relationship building. If this seems to fly in the face of current trends where telling not listening is the formula, in many ways it does. Of course, it is complicated but he sees that even the most deep customer research/analytics, while excellent for generalizing a population or group, is terrible for capturing the preferences of the individual you are selling to. When the goal is mass selling and segmentation then telling customers what they need can be efficient, but to achieve meaningful interaction with customers that builds loyalty and trust salespeople must ask the right questions to understand what is idiosyncratic about the people they are selling to and questioning and listening are essential.
Adam pointed to Apple as an example. While Apple told customers what they wanted before they knew they wanted it, Apple also allows all sorts of customers to customize apps to make their iPhones their own. Apple cares deeply about understanding the customers perspective and its customers don’t feel like they are being told what to do.
- Do a “5 minute favor.” Do something for a customer that is not a part of your job. The kind of giving he is talking about is not self-sacrifice but rather looking for a win-win or offering high value at a low personal cost. When you meet with a customer or prospect ask yourself what five-minute favor you can do such as making an introduction to someone in your network, sharing knowledge, and connect clients with resources relevant to a new area of business they are entering …
- Chose the relationship over the sale. Admittedly this can be challenging in a tough sales environment where there is intense pressure to make the quarter, but research shows that by doing what is best for the customer, you create trust and score more wins. He cites a salesperson, Kildare Escoto, who regularly steers his customers to the less expensive solution that meets the functionality the customers needs. While this cost the salesperson some revenue, in the long run, it produced customer loyalty and trust and made him the highest ranking salesperson in the company.
- Be the one to build internal relationships first. Invest in creating internal relationships with things such as knowledge and credit sharing. For example, if you do research that might be helpful to a colleague, send it along or talk him or her through it. Organizations that are dominated by takers are not as successful as those with a culture of givers. His research revealed that sales organizations that build a culture of givers solve more problems, reach more customers, and open up new lines of business. One way to build a culture of givers is not to let salespeople who have been givers go unrecognized. By making them visible with steps such as an email of recognition to their managers, you can help make your organization more hospitable to givers.
- Walk into conversation well prepared but be adaptable. Don’t lead your conversations on your terms. Think about how you can be flexible to produce the outcomes customers want vs. what your research and experience has chosen for them. Test your assumptions and validate with multiple clients.
- Don’t prejudge your customers and prospects. When you goal is to help you won’t write customers off so easily because they don’t seem to meet your qualifying criteria or look like they are worth the effort. He gave the example of a financial advisor who met with a prospect, despite the prospect’s not meeting the firm’s standard qualifying criteria. The decision was driven y his commitment to helping customers save for retirement. In fact the customer had been mislabeled as a scrap metal worker when in fact he was the owner of a lucrative scrap metal business and owned a collection of rare vintage cars. This is not to suggest that you act in a way that destroys your business or that your self-sacrifice or give your best services away to your customer, but rather that you help customers even when it appears not beneficial to you.
The fact is that your success depends on how much you do help your customers. If you look for ways to contribute to other people, many will reciprocate in meaningful and unexpected ways. After all, most customers are matchers. Invest in the relationship by finding ways to help your customers that won’t cost a lot.
Adam’s advice to you based on his extensive recent work with salespeople and the feedback he has received from them is to look around and ask yourself, “Can I find a salesperson that I really admire that is both extremely productive and successful and also is a giver?” You may pause but you likely will think of someone. Learn from that person. Figure out how he or she combines incredible productivity with genuine concern for others and you will find there are many practices and habits waiting to be discovered. Adam also recommends the bestselling book The Go-Giver by Bob Burg and John David Mann, which outlines how givers succeed in sales.
By reputation Adam Grant is a giver but from personal experience I know that Adam Grant practices what he teaches. Although we knew each other’s work from Wharton, this interview was our first conversation. As I was wrapping up with a thank you, he asked how he might help spread the word about my new book which will be published in the last quarter of this year and he offered to read it. If that were not enough he asked me to send him my new syllabus for review. All of this likely will take more than 5 minutes of this busy man’s time. His actions speak even louder than words in his book—and inspire too.