Sales and the Art of Mind Reading, Part 2: The Proxy Statement

A very large bank with thousands of branches around the country promotes itself on its Web site, through the press, and in its annual report as a community bank, focused on building customer loyalty through excellent service, and supporting its communities through small business lending. They don’t have branches in California, but if they did, I might have considered changing my accounts, or at least paying them a little shopping visit just based on their PR.

Their SEC filings tell a different story. (So does Yelp, if you dig for it.) The bank’s officers are, more or less, paid to do one thing: acquire new banks, and lots of them. Relative to their peer group at other banks, these officers are paid “low” salaries and really big, big bonuses if they successfully acquire other banks, efficiently integrate them, and build assets, otherwise known as cash, to fund more acquisitions. The customer, service, loyalty, the community, and the small business borrower receive not one pixel of a mention.

While I found this to be one of the more egregious examples of smoke and mirrors PR, it illustrates well what might happen to the hapless salesperson who tries to position a solution with appeals to customer loyalty factors or easy-to-do-business-with lending practices. Not interested. However, positioning or selling solutions that appeal to cash management, or that facilitate some aspect of acquisition or integration will get this same salesperson an eager audience. This is true even in departments that, on the surface, seem far away from the acquisition action.

Do you ever wonder why your well thought out and craftily worded value proposition falls flat? Or worse, when your real proposal is met with an empty stare by an executive approver who couldn’t care less about fixing obvious problems in their organization?

Something more subtle is at play during these moments. If you’re lucky enough that your prospect is a public company, you may be able to hit a bulls eye rather than a big splat at these moments. Here’s how.

Buried in the mountain of SEC filings is a little jewel of a document called the annual proxy statement, or DEF 14A, in governmental parlance. Actually, the annual proxy statement is a long and bewildering piece of doggeral, but within its minutae, you will find a report from the compensation committee, usually around page 28 or 30. Among the valuable information in this report you will learn what the top officers earn, how they earn it, and most important for mind reading, what they are paid to do. If you’re very lucky, and your prospect is one of those “named” officers, you don’t have to mind read, you know the story.

Although this is public information, few people will openly discuss this state of affairs. Most people don’t openly discuss their money. However, most people behave in accordance with their incentives.

Within a senior executive’s goals and critical success factors, and those they create for everybody else and cascade through the organization, you will find the germ of these incentives, buried or in plain view. The executive’s incentives become part of everybody’s goals in some way; if the goals are intelligently created and the company is well run. If you can find the connection between the executive incentives and the various goals your solution might address, and put a little more emphasis on solving problems that are connected to someone’s bonus, you will have your buyer’s attention, no matter where in the organization they reside. This is not easy, it requires some subtle thinking, but it has a nice way of helping things work out for everybody.

In summary, part of mind reading is understanding basic motivations. Who do you know that isn’t coin operated in some way? Make the connection between what gets measured in an organization and how people are paid at the top, and you have found a strong clue on how to position value propositions and proposals people will really listen to.

There are some excellent courses on this subject, including one we offer called Know It Now. Please add your stories or comments below.

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