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The Customer is Always Right: How do you help them when they’re wrong?

The question is false


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Nick Argall

3 years ago | 7 min read

Imagine that your CEO asked you to build a paved road from New York to London. How would you respond? It’s easy enough to write something clever about how you would try to achieve a more enlightened perspective (which is the point that I illustrate in the linked article).

But how would you do it in a relatable, real-world scenario, as opposed to a clean and simple fiction?

Daniel Mezick put forward a real scenario in a LinkedIn post whose popularity (tens of thousands of views) shows very clearly that he struck a nerve.

I reproduce the problem statement here so that my answer is readable; I encourage people to review other responses by reviewing the original post.

You are an independent Agile coach, visiting a potential client with 1500 employees. It’s obvious that the intelligent, well-meaning executive that is interviewing you does not really understand that employee engagement is essential to success in transformation. His org wants to “roll out” imposed Agile practices. They plan to use this big, huge framework. They already decided.
With all the training and everything else, it’s looking like about 200K coming your way over the next 8 months if you get this account. But you are 100% sure it’s the wrong approach. And if you say so, you figure there is a 60% chance your concerns will be lost in translation.

And you know you have no more than 45 minutes with this executive. So you sit there, intently listening to his story, and pondering what it means to “do the right thing.”

There are 25 minutes left in this meeting. And you know some other consulting firms who are good at marketing will also be interviewed as service providers for this engagement. You realize it’s now or never. And you are not too happy about this…

It’s an extremely convincing and utterly depressing picture. It’s not too hard to imagine myself thinking something like this, and to respond the way that I would have before I joined the sales department.

My response would have gone something like this: “I think I understand what you’re trying to achieve, but I don’t think you’re going to be able to do it that way. Let me tell you what’s wrong with your plan, and why I think you should do it differently.” And I’d very likely have lost the business.

The question is false

So, if I found myself thinking that way, the first thing I would do is get myself out of that mindset, by looking at the flaws in my thinking.

The most obvious flaw in the question is that it confuses sales with marketing. Marketing (awareness of your product, brand positioning, etc) is what gets the CEO to invite you to the meeting. Sales is the skill of conducting the meeting and influencing your customer so that they decide in your favour.

This probably the smallest and least important problem with the question, but it’s easy to see. And once you’ve found a loose thread, pulling on it can make something unravel.

If the problem statement doesn’t know what selling is (and you’re in a sales situation), then it’s time to go back to basic sales skills.

Every salesman I’ve respected has told me “You have two ears and one mouth for a reason” or something like that. And yet, here I am, in a sales meeting, trying to plan how I’m going to tell the customer that he’s wrong. I could be listening: I should be listening. This CEO is here, helping me to put my best foot forward by telling me about the environment where I’m walking.

Now is not the time to get depressed about missing the sale (if I actually miss it, I’ll have eight whole months with lots of free time where I can be as miserable as I want). Now is the time to be paying attention. Why does the organization want ‘Agile’ anyway? Why have they decided to do a massive rollout? How many failed attempts have they made?

Then, I need to remember who I am. There are people (like the younger version of myself who has presented the problem in such negative terms) who don’t believe that a CEO has the right to tell their organization what to do. And it wasn’t really until I was hiring people with my own money the important reality that “Paying you for your time means that it is legitimate to tell you what to do. If you don’t want to do it, then don’t take the money.”

(But now we’re back in paradox territory, because legitimate doesn’t always mean wise, or effective. If you don’t have the skills to do something, then it can be very unwise to tell them how to do something. Most of us have hired electricians, plumbers and mechanics. You get to tell them which problem you want fixed, but not how to fix it.)

My entire business model is based around the idea that I can (and should) help CEOs to exercise meaningful control over their enterprise. When it comes to the tools that I sell, everything is about making sure that the CEO can send and receive messages that maximize the meaningfulness of their control.

Planning my response to the problem

Given that this is a first meeting where they’ve opened with the courtesy of orienting me about their business and their needs, I would respond by talking about the tools I have to offer, and how they are relevant to the specific challenges that were pointed out in the meeting. (Gosh I hope I was paying attention to those!)

Presumably, my subconscious is trying to tell me something by presenting the problem in that way. Employees in this organization may feel the same way my subconscious does: that this is a CEO whose demands are arbitrary and unreasonable.

There’s probably a cycle going on where the organization has been unresponsive, so the CEO has pushed harder, so the organization has become even less responsive, so the CEO has pushed harder….

And yet this CEO is not an unreasonable person. They’ve invested 20 minutes into helping me sell to them. And they’ll do the same for every competitor who comes in. They’re doing the layer 5 job (perceiving the situation and how it might be improved), and they’re sharing the layer 5 information with me.

Hopefully, I’ve got enough information to diagnose what problem the organization faces, and to present something relevant. What would be even better is if they’ve got a layer 2 (supervision) or layer 4 (integration) problem, because those are the problems I’ve devoted my life to studying.

They’ve chosen a methodology it seems, which is a layer 3 decision. And my own thinking has reverted to feeling like I’ll be powerless because the CEO has put forward a plan that I don’t feel like I’ll be able to change. So that’s a lack of flexibility in layer 2.

Meanwhile, all of the conversation seems to have been very specific, have we had the layer 4 conversation at all? (Not that I can remember, that’s for sure.)

How I might respond

Firstly, Mister CEO, I’d like to thank you for helping me start to understand the opportunity and for the insight into your thinking. I think we can help you succeed.

I’m going to assume that you invited me to this meeting because you (or one of your advisors) is interested in our core strength, which is to help your organization build a capability to supervise and maintain the implementation of whichever frameworks you decide to implement.

As I’m sure you know, the best training in the world is irrelevant if people don’t feel able to integrate it into their day-to-day work.

I’m sure you’re also aware that Agile transformations have an alarming failure rate, and that one of the risks we’ll need to manage is the possibility that this initiative loses credibility because the improvements don’t stick. A change initiative that doesn’t produce a lasting improvement can be worse than useless.
So there are a few things we can offer.

One of those is a governance framework that is appropriate when your existing business has value, and you want to protect the value you’ve got without being set in your ways. One of the primary Agile values is risk management, and our Sustainable Innovation Framework manages the risk of introducing changed work practices (like Agile).

As part of that approach, I think it would be reassuring and effective to implement what the software people call a ‘vertical slice’ before proceeding to the rest of the organization.

So, in software, that would mean getting all the technology bits working together to actually deliver something, so that everyone has a realistic understanding of what it actually is and how it will actually work. That’s going to give everybody a far more realistic picture of what’s needed to get your reality closer to your goals.
If that’s OK with you, then I’d like to spend the rest of this time identifying one or more vertical slices that would be worth working on, and to get an idea of where you would want to start. I saw some potential quick wins in the things you were describing, and I think it might be possible to address those in a way that makes progress on a strategic front as well. For instance…

And at that point, it’s not about who has the best brochures any more. It’s about whether or not I was able to identify quick wins with strategic impact, and whether I can deliver on my promises. And that’s my home turf.


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Nick Argall

Nick Argall helps business owners to take control of their organization culture.


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