EPISODE 505: Using Productive Conflict to Get Your Team and Organization Back on Track with Liane Davey

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[EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a replay of the Optimal Sales Mindset virtual learning session sponsored by the Institute for Excellence in Sales on February 21, 2022. It featured an interview with Liane Davey, author of The Good Fight: Use Productive Conflict to Get Your Team and Your Organization Back on Track.]

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LIANE’S TIP: “Pick one spot where you’re in conflict debt. Maybe it’s one specific person on the customer’s team. Maybe it’s somebody in your family, whoever. I want you to pick one conflict debt and I want you to go and create a space for a conversation. I want you to focus exclusively on, how do I get their truth to come out of my mouth to the point where their response is yes? From there, you can keep going but I want you to pick one where you go, you know what? When she was talking about conflict debt I was getting a little uncomfortable because that’s me, and I want you to go get out of that debt.”


Fred Diamond: It’s great to see you. We have Liane Davey today. She’s the author of three books, but the book we’re going to focus on today is The Good Fight: Use Productive Conflict to Get Your Team and Your Organization Back on Track. Good for you for having the three books and we’re excited about this. Before we start, I did a LinkedIn poll today and we’ve had a couple thousand interactions, which is great. The question was, which we’re going to talk about, how comfortable are you disagreeing, diverging or disputing with a customer or are you a “the customer is always right” kind of a person?

Not surprisingly, almost everybody was somewhere in the middle. About 33% said, if need be, I can bring it on, and about half the people said, if they’re really wrong, sure, and only 8% said the customer is always right. Only 6% said that they’re always ready for a fight. What about that 6%? Should we have a higher number or is that too high?

Liane Davey: Okay, “I’m always ready to fight.” Always ready I think is a good place to be. Always fighting, less so. I’m going to say, always being prepared to enter into that really uncomfortable conversation, get into productive tension with your customers, that’s a good readiness to have. But as the vast majority in the middle there, what’s that? Seventy six percent of it were something in the middle. As they realize, there are situations where that’s going to be a wise move that benefits both the customer and your organization and others where it’s probably not so wise.

I am not a fan of the expression “pick your battles” because I find people use that as a way of defending their conflict aversion, their unwillingness to be uncomfortable as opposed to using it very deliberately around where it makes sense to enter into a conflict and where it doesn’t. I’m with the 6% if they were thinking about it as ready, which is what it says. I’m a little worried about them if they’re just rushing in guns blazing everywhere else.

I’m more worried about the 8% who likely are not looking at opportunities both to make things better for their organizations but also for the customers. Customers aren’t always right [laughs]. I can think of many of the most valuable relationships in my life have been ones where I’m dealing with someone, either professionally or personally, a salesperson and they’re saying, “Liane, if I’m on your side I need to tell you that’s not a wise choice.” I value that tremendously. I’m more worried about the eight than the six.

Fred Diamond: The reason why we wanted you to be on the show is because of where we are today. We’re interviewing you today in January of 2022, we’re almost 19 months into the pandemic and one of the common threads, Liane, that we’ve continued to hear is that not just us as sales organizations, the people who are listening today, but our customer and our customers’ customers are going through this together. We’re all having to redefine, even industries that are coming back where you are in Canada. You guys just went back onto a lockdown.

Liane Davey: We’re locked down one more time.

Fred Diamond: One more time and hopefully that’s not going to be the case much longer, but every company is still trying to figure things out and we’re telling sales professionals that you need to be providing this type of insight that you’ve seen in other places to your customers, because they need it.

Liane Davey: Yeah, they need it. They really need it. There are so many opportunities to help them better understand their competitive landscape. Think about what’s going on with supply chain right now. They may have expectations that are really antiquated when it comes to where the supply chain is today. You may need to help them understand the lay of the land in that space. There are just so many ways, think of ship shortages. Think of just all of the things going on right now.

Used to be you wanting to give somebody $60,000 to buy a new car, they couldn’t get you on the lot fast enough. Now they’re like, “Oh, we really hope nobody comes in because we have no cars and we’re going to have to tell them it’s a 24-month wait.” I grew up with a dad who owned car dealerships. It’s the ultimate sales situation. Imagine them having to say to a customer, “Come back in two years.” The world is different and there may be times where, as a sales professional, your role is educating your customers, helping them understand options, and where there’s constraints that they don’t know. All of that can be pretty darn uncomfortable sometimes.

Fred Diamond: We got some questions coming in here. People watching want to get right into it here, so let’s see. We got a question here from Diana. We’re getting a little bit deep here. Diana says, “I like the idea of being constructive with my clients, but how do I avoid it becoming a back-and-forth?” That’s a great question. A lot of people are tenuous about engaging in that type of constructive feedback because we could see it getting out of hand. What is your advice for being constructive in your feedback to the customer but not it getting out of hand?

Liane Davey: For me, the number one tip, and this is short and sweet, say their truth before you say your own. That works with customers, that works with colleagues, that works with teenagers, it works with husbands and wives. It’s just great advice. Diana, when you’re about to broach the subject, what we often think about is that tug of war feeling. They say something that you disagree with and your immediate tendency is to want to then say, no, but it’s this.

What you want to do is actually linger in their perspective for a moment and repeat their truth back to them. You just say something as simple as, “For you, you’re really looking at the top of the line. You think the top of the line is really your best bet.” Maybe that’s what they’ve said to you, and you’re thinking, what a waste? That is not what you need. But instead of going, “No, that’s a waste,” which is essentially saying, “No, client, you’re so dumb,” what you want to do is go, okay, so for you it feels like that the top of the line makes the most sense for you.

Second thing and great salespeople know this, I’m preaching to the choir here. The second thing is the question to understand what’s beneath that, because customers don’t make choices based on facts. As much as they want to believe they do, as much as we keep doling out more facts, customers make emotional decisions. You want to know what’s beneath that. You want to ask a great question. What’s your thought process in getting to the top of the line? What are you thinking? Those kinds of big, open projective questions.

Once you’ve got a sense of what’s driving them to the top of the line, maybe it’s something like they’ve had issues before and they wore those issues, maybe there was downtime and that hit them, then you want to say, I get it. For you it’s super important not to have downtime, that reliability is the most important function. Here’s where you can now add your truth because you’ve spoken their truth. If uptime is what you’re after, I think the best answer is in this part of the product line.

The second thing I’ve done in that example is I’ve adopted the customer’s goal. Their goal in this case, uptime reliability, and the conflict is about what’s the best way for them to achieve that goal. Now one of the places where I find it’s more tenuous to conflict with a customer is trying to tell them what their goal is. It’s not really my business to tell my customer what their goal is but as a sales professional, if they have a goal and I believe they’re going at that goal in the wrong way, that’s where I can add a huge amount of value.

Uncover their goal, what’s the value? What’s the belief beneath what they’re asking for, then speak that truth to them before offering them a different path to get to that same goal. That’s how I think of it and that’s what works with spouses and teenagers and coworkers too. If the folks in your marketing department or ops or supply chain or wherever else you’re having an issue, do the exact same thing. What’s their goal? Understand that, speak their truth, and then offer up maybe a potential other way to achieve that goal.

Fred Diamond: That’s a great point. Actually, one thing that we talk about all the time is system one versus system two, thinking that the customer is always going to value more what they come up with, as compared to what they’re told even from a sales professional that they really depend on. Let’s see, we got another question here from Rico. This is actually more of a statement than a question. He says, constructive feedback is critical in becoming a trusted advisor.

It’s more of a point but we talk about being a trusted advisor a lot. We’ve had Charlie Green, the author of The Trusted Advisor. Talk about that because that’s got to be one of the underlying things that goes into the customer accepting your criticism. You’re allowing them, the sales rep, to engage in this type of a conflicted discussion.

Liane Davey: Trust is a great word. Trusted Advisor, great book, great concept. As the psychology nerd, I take this tiny little word like trust and say, whoa, there’s a lot going on in that little tiny word. I break it down into four different sources of trust. One, connection. Trust, at the most basic level is a brain process. Are you predictable to me? Do I get what I expect? I think that’s why salespeople break bread with their customers because we know customers and all humans release oxytocin in their brains when we physically eat together, that increases that connection.

Number two level, competence. Do you know what you’re talking about? If you’re brand new and you’re selling me a product line, water filters, giant ERP systems, whatever it is. If you aren’t competent and knowledgeable, then I don’t have confidence. Number three, reliability. Do you deliver for me? Do you come through? Four, integrity. Did you sell me up the river, did you sell me a lemon and then not return my calls? Those four levels. If you want to be a trusted advisor – and Rico, I am so with you. I’m a salesperson, I always want to be a trusted advisor. But I want to be thinking about what are those four levers that I have to increase trust?

I want to find new ways of increasing the connection, helping my clients know me, know what to expect from me, helping them understand what I’m doing to invest in my own knowledge. I share research with them and show them how they can have confidence in my credibility and my work. Reliability, I’m thinking about you, your priorities are my priorities, and then integrity.

When I mess up, being really quick to tell them before they’ve noticed. Be the first one to say, I blew this, whatever else it is. I find it helpful when we can think about, trust is not just something we have or don’t have. There are these different forms of trust and as a sales professional we can pull each of those levers to either build trust in the first place or restore it where it’s been eroded.

Fred Diamond: Liane, we got some more questions coming in here. Rico says thank you by the way, so thank you for the great answer.

Liane Davey: Thank you, Rico.

Fred Diamond: You talk about productive conflict, and you actually talk about it being an art and a science. We have a question that relates to that, which here is from Luther. Luther says, “I’m not naturally a contrarian. Is this a skill I can develop?” Let’s talk about that. We talk about prospecting, we talk about using the phone, listening, questioning, account or strategy preparation. Productive conflict, is that a muscle that can be built? Talk about some of the things that you talk about to build that muscle if that’s the case.

Liane Davey: I love that we’re on Thursday Mindset Day, because Luther, the first thing I would say is it’s a mindset. Many of us were raised to believe that conflict is unprofessional, impolite. Fifty percent of us were told that it was unladylike. First, it’s a mindset. But if you can understand that we can use conflict productively to get better outcomes for our clients and our customers and for us, then we get to the skill set. Yes, absolutely. It’s a skill that we can build.

We can learn techniques like that validation technique I was just sharing. We can learn listening techniques that help us to get at those beliefs underneath what they’re actually saying. There are just a wide variety of skills and that’s what The Good Fight is all about. It’s just chock a block with skills and habits and things we can practice. I say I wrote The Good Fight because I needed to read The Good Fight. I’m a very conflict-averse person, I still hate conflict, but now I know how to approach it. I have a healthier mindset about it. I have more of a win-win mindset about conflict and I have a whole bunch of tools.

That validation technique that I was sharing with you where you speak their truth first, what I’ve now learned as someone who doesn’t like conflict is that what I get back from that is not defensiveness and anger, which I used to get if I broached a hard conversation. Now it’s the person feeling like, wow, Liane is really listening to what I need. I’m like, wow, I was having conflict and they’re thanking me for it after. Luther, I am with you, if you are a conflict-avoidant person. But if you can first think through, and that’s the start of the book, I call the business case for conflict.

If you can start there and understand the value of it, then yep, we can absolutely build your skills so that you’re much better at it and you have better outcomes. Then of course it’s a virtuous cycle. Because when you have better outcomes from conflict, you don’t fear it anymore. What I talk about it as is I want to move from conflict as an event to conflict just as a habit or another way of saying it which people find very visceral, I want to make conflict more like flossing and less like root canal.

Fred Diamond: That’s a great point. Most of the people who are listening to the Sales Game Changers podcast, they are in enterprise or complex sales, and they’re selling things that are possibly going to help the company stay in business or save millions or grow tens if not hundreds. These are very, very serious purchases that customers are making. It’s not like buying a burger for lunch. It’s buying systems that will possibly shift the focus of the business.

Liane Davey: One of my big clients is a company that sells all of the business communication infrastructure including all of the security infrastructure. These are serious conversations in a day where breaches threaten your entire business. It’s not an easy sell. It’s a very hard sell. You’re often selling to people who don’t understand a very technical product. Yeah, these are high-stakes conversations.

Fred Diamond: It’s not just about the sale. It’s about helping the customer serve its customer. We’ve got another question here that comes in. Roberto says, “What’s in it for the customer?” There’s a lot of ways we could go there. Let’s talk a little bit, Liane Davey, why would the customer be coming back at you? A lot of times when you sell something, you make a good pitch, you make the good solution, the great suggestion, you feel good.

I feel good about what I just offered the customer. Why are they even doubting or why are they even coming back with something that is against what I just said to them? We just talked about that a second ago that customers are buying things that are mission-critical or may impact. Especially a lot of our listeners are in the DC area, and they focus on selling things to the federal government of which almost everything is critical, especially over the last few years. Give us some more insights, Liane Davey, on why customers may be coming back to us with a conflicted type of engagement.

Liane Davey: Not for the reasons that they tell you they are. This is the psychology again. Because they’ll tell you a whole bunch of reasons why they are coming back at you on something, but they come back at you because something they value or they believe is being violated at least in the way they’re interpreting their interactions with you. If you are trying to talk them into a more extensive service offering, they may be hearing in your comments, you think I’m cheap. I don’t want to think of myself as cheap and they’re being defensive in that sense.

If you’re encouraging them to take quite an innovative solution, they may be feeling really uncomfortable with the risk. “I don’t know this, we haven’t done this before. This is my name, my reputation on the line.” The one thing I can close to guarantee is that the reason that they tell you they’re coming back at you is not the reason why they are. This is where the really deep listening becomes so important and getting great at open projective questions is where you want to actually be the sales psychologist here. Those projective questions, so that they can slowly expose to you what’s the story playing in their heads that’s causing them to react to what you’re telling them.

Is it, you’re making me feel cheap or you’re making me feel antiquated or whatever else it is. You’re making me nervous. I’m going to be exposed, whatever it is. Those are the deep reasons why people get into a fight. If it’s just this feature set versus that feature set, people don’t fight about that. It’s not going to feel like a conflict. It’s going to feel like problem solving. Okay, we just got to figure out, build our pros and cons chart and pick the right solution. If you’re fighting, you’re fighting to protect something that matters to you.

I always say figure out what they’re protecting in the castle. If they’re building a wall around the castle, protecting something dear to them, you trying pull one brick at a time out of the wall with your wonderful touché facts and evidence is just going to feel more threatening. They’re going to be quickly putting bricks back in that wall. If you actually do the work to talk to them, understand what they’re protecting in that castle, they’ll put down the drawbridge for you.

Fred Diamond: Great answer. We have a question here which comes in from Richard. Richard says, “Is a strategy to just go around the person and ask somebody else what’s going on?” That’s an interesting question. Again, a lot of the sales teams that listen to the Sales Game Changers podcast that we work with at the Institute for Excellence in Sales, there may be 6, 10, 12 people at the customer. Can you just chalk it up and say that person is just unhappy and we’re just going to ignore it and go around them and find someone else? Or back to your original comment here about being a psychologist, do we ask other people, why is Joe constantly complaining when we’re doing all that we can? I know it’s probably individual basis but from a high level what is it?

Liane Davey: It’s a version of the latter. What you don’t want to do is go to Joe’s colleague Brenda and say, “Brenda, this Joe dude, what’s with him?” That’s offensive. If you feel like you really can’t make headway, if speaking Joe’s truth and asking great questions isn’t getting you, he’s not putting down the drawbridge, you might go to Brenda and say, Brenda, these are the conversations that I’ve been having with Joe, these are some of the concerns he’s raised and these are the things I’ve offered up as potential solutions and I don’t feel like I’m making headway or getting through. Help me understand what this looks like from Joe’s perspective. What are the pressures on Joe? What would a good solution have to include?

It’s great to make it about you as opposed to gossiping about Joe. If you make it about you, I’m not cracking this, I’m not getting it, what am I missing? Those are legitimate things that aren’t going to leave Brenda going, who is this smarmy salesperson? They’re going to leave Brenda going, wow, this is a pro really doing their work to earn this sale. It’s how you do it. I think, Richard, it’s definitely fine if you’re in one of these big complex sales to ask for help. But that’s very different than complaining. Of course, what you don’t want to do is be like, “I’m going around Joe” because it’s amazing. If Joe finds out you’ve gone to the back of the castle and are swimming through the moat, it’s not going to be pretty. All of a sudden the archers with the flaming arrows are coming at you.

Fred Diamond: Well, let me ask you a slightly different question here. Again, a lot of the situations where the sales professionals listening to the Sales Game Changers podcast, again, it’s a complex sale. Again, there may be 6, 10, 15 people involved in the buying decision. In some cases, if you get five of them to say yes but one of them says no, you got the deal. You’re the vendor of choice. Maybe the sixth person is angry that they didn’t choose the one that they wanted.

There’s a dozen of reasons why that might have happened. You still got to help the customer achieve their goals. The customer is buying your stuff no matter how expensive and complex it is because they want to be successful. Nobody’s buying anything from anybody as a gesture to be kind, especially today when everybody’s under such challenges. Liane, you talk in the book about conflict debt. Talk a little bit about what conflict debt with the customer means.

Liane Davey: If we go back to Luther’s comment about not liking conflict and can I learn to do this? For those of us that don’t like conflict, we tend to put it off. We tend to try and go around Joe, or all these things that we try. I always say it’s like that kid’s book, you can’t go over it, you can’t go under it, you got to go through it. Many of us are like, well, I’m first going to try going over it or going under it before I go through it. That’s conflict debt. When you try and avoid the conflict.

What happens, reason I use the expression conflict debt is because just like any other debt, when we put it off, we have to pay for the privilege of putting that conflict off, just like we pay interest on our credit cards. Our payment and our penalties and our compounding interest are that that relationship with the customer erodes, the sale gets further and further away. Our customer, our NPS and various things like that are going to go down. There’s a huge cost we pay in our relationships. That’s not just with customers. That’s within our own organizations. That’s in our families.

When we put things off, you think about how many people are wrestling with sandwich generation issues. The, I’m not talking with my siblings about what our plan is for our elderly parents when they need care. We all know it’s there but we don’t want to talk about it, or those sorts of things. Conflict debt comes up in all parts of life and boy, do we pay a steep, steep penalty. Some of us just pay that penalty on Sunday nights when we’re tossing and turning and can’t sleep because we know Monday’s going to bring all those conflict debts back in our face and some of the penalties we pay are more profound than that.

Fred Diamond: Liane, before we ask you for your final action step, I want to thank you for the great insights today. First of all, I applaud you for remembering Luther’s question from 15 minutes ago. I don’t know if you’re writing it down.

Liane Davey: That’s a great question!

Fred Diamond: Or if that’s just a trait that you have. It’s actually quite remarkable. I guess the question is, before you give us your final action step, are there any hard rules that you have? Again, we start off the conversation with the customer is always right. Is there any hard and fast rules that you have in the book that you recommend that everybody stick with?

Liane Davey: Yeah. I think that one we talked about. Speak their truth before your own. That is not our human tendency. We want to do the “but…” or the, “I have a great rebuttal.” If you take the time to go sit and look from their perspective and speak their truth first, great things will happen in every domain of your life. That’s as close to a rule. I’m a pretty flexible ‘it depends’ kind of person. Like any self-respecting consultant, it depends. I would say that’s as close as I come to a hard and fast rule. Their truth before mine.

Fred Diamond: I think that’s a great point, actually. It’s always about the customer. It may not be about the customer always being right but it’s always about the customer. Because even though the statement, the customer isn’t always right, the customer is always the customer. I think it’s a Jeffrey Gitomer statement. The only reason that you’re engaged right now is because the customer has chosen to be engaged with you.

One of the fun things about the Institute for Excellence in Sales is we have some sales leaders we work with who have been working for the same company for 30 years. That means in a lot of cases they’ve been working with the same customers for 30 years. That’s actually quite a fascinating thing that you have progressed your career helping other people who have progressed their long careers as well. I want to thank Liane Davey as well.

I just want to acknowledge you. It’s a great book, it’s a great topic. We really haven’t addressed this topic before. We address things like vulnerability. Of course over the last two years, we’ve addressed things like really being authentic because of where we all are in the world. The ability to engage with your customers like this is something we haven’t spoken about. I applaud you for the book and I applaud you for the tens of thousands of sales and business people that you have helped.

As we like to end every Sales Game Changers podcast, give us one specific action step. You’ve given us dozens of great ideas, but give us one thing specific. By the way, we’re getting nice comments. Luther says thank you. Rico says thank you so much. Diana says thank you so much. Mitchell also said, this was great, Fred, thank you. Give us your final action step, Liane Davey.

Liane Davey: I want everybody listening to pick one spot where they’re in conflict debt. Maybe it’s one specific person on the customer’s team. Maybe it’s somebody in your family, whoever. I want you to pick one conflict debt and I want you to go and create a space for a conversation. I want you to focus exclusively on, how do I get their truth to come out of my mouth to the point where their response is yes? From there, you can keep going but I want you to pick one where you go, you know what? When she was talking about conflict debt I was getting a little uncomfortable because that’s me, and I want you to go get out of that debt.

Transcribed by Mariana Badillo

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