21 Feb 2019 21:33 IST

Win-win relationships can be the norm

If leaders practise trust and take ownership, they can make win-win the norm rather than the exception

Last week I was running a workshop for a small team on the concepts of win-win prospect and client engagement. Leaders in formal roles face this dilemma everyday of ‘us vs them’. They perceive themselves in a zero-sum game.

For my organisation to win, the customer must lose. The customer can’t be allowed to go all out and succeed at what they want, because that will come at a cost to my own organisation. The words used to describe the interactions with clients often betray the thinking — it’s a battle, need to land them, put the deal in the bag. While win-win is often tossed around as a noble sound-byte, it is rarely practised.

Leaders think up ways for their own companies to make a quick profit, however, often at the expense of a gullible customer. Scenes from the The Wolf of Wall Street come to mind. Jordan Belfort, on whose story the movie is based, offloads penny stocks on an unsuspecting customer to earn a hefty 50 per cent commission. He knows the stocks are trash, but he’s too busy counting his money. Leaders, early on in their leadership journey and in their business careers, will have to make a choice. Win-lose or win-win. How do we go down the win-win path?

Trust is the key

The traditional customer-provider relationship is often filled with suspicion and distrust. Tales of customers being ripped off, taken for a ride, over-charged are legion. Customers then respond with micro-management, withheld information, excessive investigations and convoluted processes. Providers, in turn, then practise creating an impressive front to hide the realities. Both sides are wary and cautious through every interaction. It need not be this way.

If leaders can be authentic, they create a platform for trust. They frown on behaviour that seeks to take unfair advantage of the customer, they discourage double-talk and are unafraid to bring the difficult issues out in the open. This starts creating trust. With trust, both sides can then mutually explore a path to win-win. Without trust the journey can be tortuous, slow and painful. Trust changes everything.

Authenticity, integrity

I remember an incident that a senior executive at my former company used to narrate. He had being working on a deal with a prospect, but eventually while he was on the road, on holiday with his wife, the client called to say that they had decided not to give the deal to our firm. He cut the call, but then accidentally the phone pocket dialled, and the client could hear everything he was saying to his wife. He spoke with much genuine feeling about why he thought the client had made the wrong choice. A few days later, the client called him back. They told him that his honest, authentic defence of his company and genuine attempts to craft what was in the best interest of the client, had made a great impression. Eventually, he won the deal. It wasn’t great salesmanship that had won the deal — it was authenticity, integrity and trust.

Taking ownership

Customers often gripe about being passed around like a ball as person after person, or department after department passes the buck. Each shows clean hands and points fingers. The customer is left high and dry.

Stephen Covey narrates the incident of being in the middle of a presentation at a hotel and discovering he didn’t have all the coloured markers he needed. In the hall during the break, he found a bellboy rushing to another convention. He outlined his problem to the bellboy, saying that he only had a short break and needed the coloured pens quickly. The bellboy, as Covey describes it whipped around and almost came to attention. He glanced at my name tag and said, “Mr Covey, I will solve your problem.” No weak response of “not my department”, no escapist response of, “I’m just rushing off to another convention” — just ownership. Something customers crave and rarely find. This is a non-negotiable trait that leaders must possess, to build win-win relationships with their customers, both internal and external.

Lead by example

The leader needs to demonstrate by example. I remember a Japanese client of ours, mimicking how a senior manager of ours would call subordinates and physically hand over every problem fax, without so much as a glance. Every complaint was tossed over to some team member and he would continue to chat as though nothing had gone wrong. The Japanese customer said that the message he got from that behaviour was that the manager did not care, that the company did not care.

Leaders should begin with their own behaviour. Then they can move forward to create a culture where every member of the team feels empowered to take ownership and wants to take ownership. This isn’t a culture that can be created through a traditional carrot-and-stick approach. It needs to span the range, from hiring to training to measurement. We must genuinely believe that the way we succeed is by helping our customers succeed, and taking ownership for that. Once customers realise we are on their side, there is openness, transparency, a willingness to confront unpalatable issues and a joint commitment to work towards win-win.

Thinking ahead

One of the things customers hate most is being reactive. Of taking action after something has gone wrong. Customers value leaders and their teams who make it a point to look around the corner on their behalf, who anticipate challenges, budget busting events and risks, and work together with the customer to head them off.

Customers detest being surprised. They can handle bad news, if it’s broken early and along with a plan to handle the issues. The customer especially expects this, on problems that could bust the budget, destroy gains, create compliance risks, threaten employee relations, lose them business. As the saying goes “Good news comes down the stairs, bad news jumps out of the window.” For both our sakes, it better be us delivering the bad news.

Silence is the bane of customer engagement. Thinking ahead means that leaders coach their teams to be prepared, to put themselves in the customers shoes. This means we take the trouble to know our customers, their industry, their priorities and their pains. We look for ways to match our competence and expertise to their needs and, as much as possible, to do it ahead of when it is critically required.

Win-win relationships are rare. But if leaders practise trust, takeownership and think ahead they can make win-win the norm rather than the exception.