Selling is like a journey—there is no finish line. Remember that getting buy-in to KM is an ongoing, permanent process. You are selling all the time!
Never trust someone who says “Show me the ROI” or “You can only measure what you manage.”
Anthropologists maintain that in every culture there are seemingly rational questions that mask hostile intent. “Can you show me the ROI?” and “Yes, but how do you measure it?” generally fall into this category. When confronted with these types of questions, become alarmed. The most important point I recall from my sales training is that a customer’s foremost concern in a complex sale is risk. According to my sales training mentor, Roger Sugden, consequences (risks of going ahead) must be managed. Most lurk behind the surface.
Roger also emphasized that difficulty starting, quibbling over minor points (like the Pantone color of a slide), asking for demonstrable ROI, and jargon bashing (we offered TQM training at that time) could be early warning signs regarding risk, customer insecurity, and lack of their (or your) credibility.
Price concerns and guaranteed ROI then become respectable and convenient ways to express concerns over consequences. It’s easier for people to tell you they have decided not to buy because of these issues than to explain issues such as mistrust; scars from mistakes made before; politics; hassle; not interested; risk to career or company, or the simple fact that they don’t like you.
Consequences are psychological issues in a person’s mind. They are not in the real world—only the customer can resolve them. In selling KM and TQM, Roger would advise me to help the customer, not resolve the problem on his behalf. He would also say to get the real concerns out in the open, and look to develop trust rather than engage in futile intellectualizing about ROI.
In an AOK (Association of Knowledgework) dialogue hosted by its founder Jerry Ash, knowledge management expert Hubert Saint-Onge concluded that “I fully subscribe to the need to measure all that can be measured, but I don’t believe that you can only manage what you can measure. As a matter of fact, I find this one of the most mindless dictums to ever be uttered by people who appear to be otherwise reasonably coherent.”
My bottom line: the purpose is to improve, not prove.
Find a partner in crime whom you trust
The best detectives work in pairs. Don’t do anything alone that could be accomplished more easily or with more certainty by a team.
One case springs to mind: when I was introduced to a customer by one of our account managers as “our man on KM” and member of the editorial board of Inside Knowledge. I remember the meeting as if it were yesterday (it’s easier to remember victories than defeats):
- It wasn’t a polite interrogation; rather, it was a challenging conversation.
- The challenge from me to the customer (and vice versa) was also crucial.
After fifty minutes of sparring and focused discussion, I summarized my perception of his situation: “It seems that with your sophisticated analysis and clear vision, you’re the only one in the organization who understands what really needs to be done and cares about the consequences of inertia. Your problem is how to enable others to achieve the same level of urgency and really want to do something about it. It’s about developing a shared perspective. It’s not something you can do by yourself as an internal change agent. So how can we best address the issue?” He requested our help.
There were two other factors that enabled the successful sale of my KM proposal. First, the friend-of-a-friend meeting had been set up by a smart account manager who absented himself from the meeting on my instructions. Second, I was lucky—the client had (I learned later) been mauled for his academic and visionary ideas by his colleagues. In the end, we worked as partners. We both took risks. He adopted a stealth approach and had no KM budget—the training budget took quite a hammering that year. I worked without a purchase order.
Know when you’re beaten
To balance the success story, in contrast to the positively challenging conversation I just described, there was another KM effort that didn’t work out. The sale was made and we got the work. For a number of reasons, I complied too early on with the customer’s whims and became a victim of their own insecurity. Relations were good with the CEO and the IT director, but as the project started, they disappeared from the scene. My project team became the enemy within and started to vet my work, edit the slides I produced (there was one PowerPoint character they banned!), and sabotage all efforts at progress.
Yes, I was consulting with a dysfunctional organization. Hoisted by my own petard of competitive desire to knock out the competition, I’d not read their organizational culture. I should have spotted that the smokescreen of clarification questions and objections from the junior level were symptomatic of their resistance to change. They’d created a bureaucratic process, and through a bureaucratic process they subverted all attempts at real change.
There are some organizations (and individuals) that are neither capable of nor ready to change. Later, I learned that their allegiance was to their previous consultancy supplier. Sometimes it’s best to cut one’s losses, sooner rather than later!
Ask the right questions
Over 20 years ago, at one of the first KM conferences, organizational theorist Leif Edvinsson asked an audience ready to understand and espouse KM to list the questions they had about knowledge management. Once he heard the questions, Leif suggested to a shocked audience that implementing KM successfully was really about asking the right questions. He was right. Remember, in selling, there are no prizes for finishing second. Do your homework. Prepare your questions.
Selling KM is tough. You are selling intangibles, selling and creating value, and selling yourself.
Lucidea Press published my latest book, Proven Practices for Promoting a Knowledge Management Program, which offers advice and insights drawn from my career as a KM practitioner.