Don’t sell a better future

In his post today, Seth Godin explained why it’s almost impossible to sell the future. “When [humans] buy a stake in the future, what we’re actually buying is how it makes us feel today.”

This helps explain why it can be difficult to sell business leaders on the importance of improving the culture of an organization. What we are selling is the promise of a better workplace in the future, a future that is often years away. And, we add, it’s going to get worse before it gets better. Not a great sales pitch.

Here’s an example. You work for an organization that goes to market via agents that are compensated exclusively with commissions that are only payable if they hit a stretch goal by year-end. Everyone in the industry works that way. This process eventually leads to a bad outcome and you (correctly) suggest that it needs to be changed. At the same time, you admit that many of the agents might quit and sales will go down in the short term. If you work for a publicly traded company, this won’t make anyone feel good. But, you say, after the bad agents leave and we consolidate our sales with the good agents and we create a reputation in the market for doing things right, then sales will pick up and we won’t need to spend money on fines and penalties, and we’ll have a workforce that feels good about how they do business.

Few companies take that path. Most who do are forced into it by a regulator – at great expense.

This is why writing a policy, providing training, adding internal controls, conducting audits are easier to sell after a failure. Business leaders can feel the immediate results. But none of these things actually change how we do things.

I had a boss who used to tell me “You need to explain how this is going to help them do their job.” I understood why this was important but I could never find a good answer. Now I realize that it’s because I was only selling them future, and even I was left on my appetite.

As E&C professionals, we need to figure out how to make our business leaders immediately taste the benefits of what we are selling.

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