When L’Oreal bought Body Shop, the Economist wrote a piece that stated: “L’Oreal managers have a challenge in their hands. English and French working culture mix like water and oil”. After 15 years living in the UK, I think there is some truth in it and when I first arrived on the British shores, I was acutely aware of it. I went through a massive learning curve: discovering the culture, learning the linguo (still at it!), changing my ways of working from a French to a British approach. And as my first job was selling network services at BT Global, I also had to learn about a raft of new technologies. It was rather fascinating times! But one thing I was conscious of was that I didn’t want to be too direct, fearing the French approach would clash in a very British environment (as per The Economist’s perspective). I vividly remember one conversation with my manager during which we discussed these concerns. He stressed I should not let this go in my way. In short. I should not be afraid to be direct with people. Polite but direct.

These days, I still try to perfect my modus operandi. Amongst other things, I look at how other sales professional operates especially when I am one of their prospects. I sometimes find people adapt an approach that is “nice and friendly”. Actually, (warning: being quite direct here), I find it edges on the “goody, goody” approach (told you). In a similar way that I didn’t want to be too direct with colleagues when at BT, they don’t want to be direct either with me. I haven’t asked but if I were to make an assumption, I’d say they hang on the belief that the relationship they have with their customer is key.

Here is the killer: last time I checked, relationships do not pay the mortgage.

Surprising? Well, what pays the mortgage is customers who had problems and had these problems sorted and, in exchange, parted with some of their hard earned cash. Let me put it another way: when I am engaged with a prospect I have two options:

1- Try to develop a nice relationship, where things are smoothly going but there is no clarity of actions, outputs and things might drag on to avoid the risk of hurting feelings. And if we realise there is no fit, both parties avoid to clearly state “No, we won’t work together”. We might even end up being friends?

Or

2- An efficient process where both parties rapidly get to a point where we understand if our respective companies have ground for a valid relationship and where the ensuing process is focused on addressing these problems

Do you need more friends? Truth to be told: I don’t.

What I need is more revenues. Not friends. And an efficient process where I establish whether or not some of the problems he/she faces are those I can address. If so, it’s worth we invest time. If not, we close the conversation. In short, I need a YES but I also seek quickly to work out if a NO is the most likely outcome. In technical terms, there is as much value in qualifying in than in qualifying out. And, to get back to my fears while at BT, my experience is that laying down that approach drives not only efficiency but respect from the other party.

Three things I find useful to achieve this

1- Focus on the problems. It is critical to find the problems the prospect faces and throughout the process the impact they have, who is affected by it, the impact of not sorting them out, etc… I avoid the features and benefits as much as possible: no “savings”, no increased efficiency, etc… Just problems. Period

2- A no is acceptable. So often, people think that saying “no” is rude. So they play around, duck and dive, don’t respond. This isn’t going to change. We human beings care for the feelings of the people we interact with which is just natural. The best way to handle this, having centred the conversation on the problems is to re-assure the other party that a no is acceptable. That it won’t offend me and that I would actually value a no.

3- Objectives for every conversation: At the start of or before a meeting I define or agree the objectives. It has to be a decision. Be it to qualify if there is a fit. To understand what they care about. To define activities needed to implement to get someone’s buy-in, etc… A decision. Nothing else. And as per point 1- above, I stress that one of the possible output is that we won’t ever, ever meet again if we work out there is no fit. No “foot in the door”, “Persistent/annoying chasing”.

So The Economist was right. French and British business cultures have their differences. But one thing I have learned is that, whatever the mix of culture, in business we are all looking for being efficient and honest with each other. And that there is a lot to be gained in being polite but firm.