SALES

Sell Your Idea to Anybody

Good ideas change the world. These nine questions will help you get other people on board.
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Selling an idea means changing the way that people think. You must show them how your idea will make the "after" better than the "now." Unfortunately, most people are wary of change, so if you're going to sell your idea, you'll need to be aware of (and adapt to) any preconceptions that might prevent that audience from embracing the change your idea implies.

I recently discussed how to do this with two Wharton business school professors: G. Richard Shell and Mario Moussa, co-authors of the book The Art of Woo: Using Strategic Persuasion to Sell Your Ideas. Before presenting your ideas to stakeholders, influencers or decision-makers, Shell and Moussa recommend that you put some time aside and answer the following nine questions:

1. How does the other person perceive the problem or opportunity?

It may be obvious to YOU that there's a problem or opportunity and that it has a certain size and shape (as it were).

However, the other person may see things quite differently.

For example, suppose a firm is experiencing manufacturing problems (like too many rejects) and your idea is to rework the inventory system so that parts are kept cleaner, thereby improving overall quality. You may very well be right, but if the manufacturing manager believes that the "real" problem is employee carelessness, you'll need to show how your idea addresses that problem, too.

2. What is the pithy summary of your idea that will appeal to the other person?

There are two stumbling blocks here: "pithy" and "appeal to the other person." Pithy means short and crisp, without high-fallutin' biz-blab and extra verbiage. If you can't get your idea down to a sentence of 15 words or less, it's too long. Appealing to the other person means explaining why the idea has business value to the other person.

Wrong: A state-of-the-art inventory control system would use RFID protocols to guarantee effective implementation of a quality-conscious supply chain.

Right: RFID will reduce both employee error and the number of rejects.

3. What roles does this person play in the decision-making process?

This concept is essential when you're selling to any firm that's larger than a few people. In almost every case, decision-making power is dispersed to a greater or lesser extent.  Knowing the decision-making role of the other person you're speaking with allows you to adapt your approach to drive towards the appropriate decision.

For example, if you're talking to a CIO, you're looking for a technical decision (i.e. this will work with our system). If you're talking to a CFO, you're looking for a financial decision (i.e. this will have an acceptable ROI).

4. What is your goal for this encounter?

If you don't know WHY you're meeting with somebody, you're wasting everyone's time. The goal should always be specific rather than vague.

Wrong: My goal is to build consensus and a better relationship.

Right: My goal is to find out how this CFO calculates ROI for this firm, so that I can create an ROI case for my idea.

5. What is the basis for your credibility with this person?

If you're having (or going to have) a conversation about your idea with a decision-maker, you must, by definition, have at least SOME credibility. Knowing where that credibility comes from allows you to use it more effectively.

For example, if you're talking to a CFO because your idea has been sponsored by the CIO, you already have "technical" credibility. However, you will not have the "financial" credibility that will gain the respect and support of the CFO until you've earned it, presumably by having an intelligent conversation about the issue that are of interest to the CFO.

6. Will your idea conflict with any of this person's beliefs?

Everyone comes into every conversation with a set of beliefs about life, business, the nature of work, what management is about, and so forth. If you present your idea in a way that it collides with the other person's deeply held beliefs, you aren't going to sell it.

For example, suppose your idea assumes that employees can be trusted. If the other person deeply believes that managers must run herd on employees lest they goldbrick, your idea will sound insane. You'll only get a hearing if you can't adapt your idea to match the other person's belief.

7. How might your idea conflict with this person's interests?

Ideas mean change and the other person is not going to get on board unless that change is to his or her advantage.

For example, when the idea of "cloud computing" first surfaced (it wasn't called that back then, but that's what it's called now), the companies providing such services tried to sell them to CIOs, even though the idea meant reducing the authority, budget and organizational empire of CIOs. 

Needless to say, the idea, presented that way to that person, got short shrift. The idea only got traction among CIOs after it had been implemented without the explicit approval of the CIO. (Like with Salesforce.com, which was mostly purchased by sales groups rather than IT group.)

8. How can you leave the relationship better than you found it?

Ultimately, and I can't emphasize this enough, selling is all about building better relationships. As a general rule for work (and life) you want to leave a "wake" of people who think "Gosh, I'd love to work with that person, if not now, then someday."

The best way to ensure this happens is to approach every person with a combination of curiosity and an honest desire to help.

9. What kind of public commitment from this person do you need?

And, finally, we come to the point, aka "the close." Selling an idea means building support for it, which means getting other people to publicly espouse it. This creates social pressure and momentum to accept, buy and/or implement the idea.

This commitment is different from the goal of the encounter, because it may play itself out over a series of encounters, after which the other person is willing to become an advocate for you idea.

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IMAGE: Flickr photo courtesy of Mays Communications
Last updated: Oct 2, 2012

GEOFFREY JAMES | Columnist

Geoffrey James is an author, speaker, and award-winning blogger. Originally a system architect, brand manager, and industry analyst inside two Fortune 100 companies, he's interviewed over a thousand successful executives, managers, entrepreneurs, and gurus to discover how business really works. His most recent book is Business Without the Bullsh*t: 49 Secrets and Shortcuts You Need to Know.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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