One of the most popular TED talks of all time is Simon Sinek’s 2009 presentation titled “How Great Leaders Inspire Action.” The whole video is worth a watch, but the crux of Sinek’s argument is that the most moving and inspiring messages — from Martin Luther King, Jr. to Apple — are delivered with a simple formula: They start with why before they ever talk about the what and the how.
Though Sinek’s framing of the formula was novel, the formula itself has been a part of persuasion for centuries. When you talk about why you do something or why you believe in what you’re proposing, you appeal to a deeper emotional connection that tends to be more powerful than the logical argument that comes later.
In sales, we intuitively understand this (to a point), and virtually every approach to sales attempts to leverage this idea of starting with why. Too often, however, we still try to persuade on the strength of our logical argument alone. In a high-stakes sales scenario, where your job is likely not only to convince the prospect of your value but also to displace the incumbent, forgetting the emotional argument — the why — can lead to failure.
With our clients, we often share this quote:
“If your approach fails to engage the rational and emotional, it will lead to inaction. It’s easier to make no decision than a good one, as logic alone rarely is enough to overcome the status quo. Disruptive change is as much about following your gut as your head.”
And the gut is driven by that emotional why. We also forget that starting with why is critical for almost any professional conversation, even if it’s not a sales call.
The problem is all too often that we don’t talk to prospects or clients as peers. We enter the conversation as the expert, and while we are certainly subject matter experts, we sometimes let that superiority cloud our empathy. We feel so strongly about being the expert that we forget to bring the other party along for the ride, assuming that they understand the why of our conversation as clearly as we do. In practice, being the subject matter expert while still talking to the prospect or client as a peer is far most effective.
Here’s a recent example from our own work at The PT Services Group:
We recently launched an appointment-setting program for a client in a difficult market. After a few decades of experience with this work, we’ve refined our process to the point that we can accurately estimate results for the number of appointments we will set in a year for a given call type. That also means that we can make predictions about our progress along the way based on certain factors that our sales associates see in the field, which we can then use to correct our course if necessary.
This has become so much of a second nature process to us that it could be easy to forget to communicate the big picture to a client. The moment we make that mistake, however, we set the stage for a potentially disastrous circumstance of miscommunication and confused expectations.
In the case of this client, we had a large number of “callbacks,” which for us are key indicators that set appointments are coming next. To be clear, a typical program will see 20 to 35 callbacks after 90 days, and in this particular situation we had 87 callbacks. Ninety days into the program, however, we had fewer appointments for the client to take (which we entirely expected and planned for). When we did our check-in, we explained that we wanted to catch him up on what we had worked on and the progress we were making, and our sales associates used the conference call to share what they were seeing in the field and offer up suggestions on how we could continue to improve.
The context was key here. By explaining why we weren’t worried, and were in fact optimistic, the client was able to see the situation the way we did.
If we did not start that meeting with the why — we are seeing this amount of activity, we don’t see any signs of trouble, but we wanted to keep you updated and offer up some new suggestions — the client could have left the meeting with a very different conclusion. He might instead have thought we were behind, or that something was wrong, or that his marketing wasn’t engaging enough.
If that was left to fester for two months, where one side thought things were solid and on course and the other side was worried, the tone of our next big meeting would likely be a surprise for at least one of us. I say this because I’ve been there as a salesperson and as an executive. You might be tempted to think that you are automatically on the same page as someone, even in the most routine conversations, but making that assumption can be dangerous. Being clear about your why from the top of the conversation dramatically reduces the chance of having these simple but costly disconnects.
As we immerse ourselves in our day-to-day work, losing sight of the big picture is all too easy. Even a simple phone call can start and finish with only one side ever really knowing the context. All of your communications, internal or external, will be more effective and efficient if you start with why. There’s too much at stake in your business to leave someone guessing at your meaning.
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