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3 Ways to Be More Assertive with Clients

Posted on  11 October 11  by 

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Managing the Communications FunctionSelling is not about relationships.

Our sister program, the Sales Executive Council, made this bold statement on Harvard Business Review’s blog last week, creating a firestorm of divisive comments.

To sum up their research, every sales person falls into one of five types. The highest performing “type” is the challenger, the salesperson who uses their deep understanding of their customers’ business to push their thinking and take control of the sales conversation. The other types, the relationship-builders, hard workers, reactive problem solvers, and lone wolves don’t match the challengers’ performance.

In this post, I propose, what if communicating wasn’t about relationships either? What if your focus on developing strong personal and professional relationships with your clients and generously giving your time to meet those client’s every need was a misguided, and likely draining, approach to your job?

Let’s give this a try.

In the HBR post, the SEC researchers describe the three traits and skills of Challengers. What if, just for fun, we replaced “Challengers” with “Communicators,” “customers” with “internal clients,” and “sales conversation” with “communication request”? Here would be the definition of a challenger communicator and their three key attributes:

Communicators use their deep understanding of their internal clients’ business to push their thinking and take control of the communication request. They’re not afraid to share even potentially controversial views and are assertive—with both their internal clients and bosses.

  1. Communicators teach their internal clients. They focus the communication request not on the channels but on insight, bringing a unique (and typically provocative) perspective on the internal client’s business.
  2. Communicators tailor their message to the internal client. They have a finely tuned sense of individual client objectives and value drivers and use this knowledge to effectively position the communication opportunity to different types of internal clients within the organization.
  3. Communicators take control of the communication request. While not aggressive, they are certainly assertive. They are comfortable with tension and are unlikely to acquiesce to every internal client demand. When necessary, they can press clients a bit.

How did reading those statements make you feel? Did they make you:

  • Cringe—“I just don’t see myself acting that way with my internal clients. We are here to serve them; to help them meet their objectives through effective communication. This stance is crossing the line.”
  • Wonder—“What if I pushed back a bit more on my internal clients? Would I evade that email campaign I know won’t work?”
  • Chuckle—“I like the idea, sure! But it’s absolutely impractical and not the way to get things done at my company.”

I suspect that many of you cringed. It’s against our communicator nature to want to create a little controversy with our own clients. I asked Matt Dixon, one of the primary authors of the post and forthcoming book The Challenger Sale if he thought the Challenger model transcended the Sales function and should be applied to all functions across the company. He suggested that for some of the more service-oriented parts of the business, think customer contact centers and likely Communications falls into this bucket at most organizations, the challenger approach may not be the best. After all, do you want to be “challenged” when you phone your cable company to voice a complaint?

Yet, in the spirit of being a challenger, I am challenging you to imagine what it would be like to be a bit more assertive with your internal clients, to guide them through provocative questions to the best communications solutions given their desired business outcome. I’ll leave you with a few resources aligned to the Challenger attributes to help you get started:

CEC Related Resources:

CEC Related Blogs:



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