Having been in management consulting for over 25 years, I agree with Charles H. Green that fear is the core driver of organizations’ and negotiation partners’ “difficult” behavior—and that it offers B2B providers a reliable opportunity to outmaneuver competitors by building trust where they can’t. As usual, he is right on the money in Find the Fear and Swim Upstream to Trust: “Fear is the main driver of … passive aggressive, secretive, avoiding, combative, resentful, backstabbing, gossiping [behavior]…”
But fear can be a gold mine. In my experience, fearful clients or prospects are afraid of a personal or organizational situation, not you. Therefore, their fear and “difficult” behavior is a barrier to all potential providers, which can be your opportunity: by working with the client/prospect to mitigate the root cause, you can develop a high level of trust quickly. Moreover, fear tends to be contagious, and most people, including competitors, avoid it, which can add to your advantage.
By the way, I am not suggesting that you put fear at the center of your business development approach! Rather, I am assuming that your pre-engagement and qualification procedures have shown some green lights before you start detecting unusual fear-based behavior during ongoing discussions.
Run at the Roar
Assume for a moment that you are a zebra enjoying the lush grass on the Savannah before you notice some unusual movement in the grass a couple hundred yards away. Instinct leads you to scan quickly and, sure enough, a similar movement a few dozen yards to the right and left. A pride of lions is stalking your herd! If you have experienced several migrations, you’ve learned to do the opposite of what the lions want you to do: run away. It is the old, slower lions with weak teeth that present themselves and chase your herd toward the most powerful lionesses that are hiding behind you.
Therefore, run at the roar, and your chance of survival is much higher.
How Fear Works
Fear is often related to escape and avoidance, so although few people are fully aware of their fears, they respond to them unconsciously. Most people don’t think clearly about their fears, but they would love to resolve them, which is more difficult when their instinct is leading them into avoidance.
Consider this scenario. Your firm offers supply chain cloud software, and your main contact is an operations executive with a powerful rival in Finance who had reportedly managed to get two other people fired last year. The firm has increasing supply chain issues, but your solution will likely require input from the Finance guy, so your main contact starts throwing up all kinds of barriers to avoid getting his rival involved. Your contact’s behavior emerges precisely when it’s becoming clear that your solution could be quite relevant to their problems (hence the need to consult a larger audience).
Primates are very social, so we can smell fear a mile away, and we are wired to want to avoid it, too. But your fear likely presents itself as frustration with the prospect’s “irrational” behavior (you’re trying to avoid his fear).
How to Address Fear and Earn Trust
When you start seeing a change of behavior, look behind it. As Green writes, “… teach yourself to ask, ‘What are they afraid of?'” This does several things for you:
- You recognize that the fear is the other person’s, which can make you more objective
- Since fear is a “basic or innate emotion,” it can give you insight into what is really happening, so you can calmly address the root cause instead of symptoms
- By addressing the root cause of a painful source of discomfort in a calm and compassionate way, you will probably earn a high level of trust and gratitude very quickly
- I am not suggesting that you need to become a psychologist; you have probably seen similar situations with other clients, so you can experiment with statements like:
“Some of our other clients get really grilled by the people in finance, so we’ve researched outcomes and developed several business case models.”
- Your prospect will probably respond with interest if you’ve hit close to the mark. If not, probe gently, and try some other things until his/her response tells you that you’re in the ball park.
- Being truly curious, patient and compassionate is the key here.
- Organizations are governed by fear, too, so this is completely applicable at the group level. They’ve been losing market share, so they’ve trimmed margins to try to keep pace with competitors who aren’t being killed by reverse logistics (due to supply chain issues).
What are the most common fears you encounter with clients and prospects?