05/11/2010 12:44 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Selling Yourself or Your Services? Take the Buyer's Perspective

From time to time I write an article that's critical of something or other -- sometimes it's a product, and sometimes it's an idea or a school of thought. For instance, I've written a bunch of columns bashing the popular management tool known as Forced Ranking. You don't want to get me started on that topic, but if you're not familiar with it, Forced Ranking is a deal where companies compel their department heads to rank their employees in order, Best to Worst (whatever the H that means). So, they make up a list where Jorge is Employee Number One, Jane is Number Two, and so on.

I think Forced Ranking is a goofy, teamwork-crushing idea right out of the Bible of Brainless Management Practices, but that's not why I mention it. I'm bringing up Forced Ranking because whenever I write a story condemning the practice, I hear from some bozo who wrote a book or an article in support of Forced Ranking or who consults with employers on its use. They don't write to say "Interesting point of view. Have you ever thought about X?" That could inspire a useful conversation. No! They write to say "Clearly you're uninformed about Forced Ranking. I will donate an hour of my time to educate you on its benefits."

Oh yippee!

The problem with these huffy people is that they haven't made an attempt to look at their overture from my point of view. I think Forced Ranking is idiotic. I don't have three seconds, much less an hour, to spend learning more about it. So the indignant, "I'll stoop to educate you" pitch falls flat.

It is easy to make the mistake of thinking that a person we're approaching -- to pitch consulting work, to apply for a job, or even to sell one of our ideas at the office -- cares about the same things we do.

If we make that mistake, we'll say things like "Let's get some time on the calendar to talk about my plan for a product-numbering overhaul." Your boss may say "Er, let me get back to you." That's a nice way of saying "What the heck do I care about that?"

We need to put ourselves in our buyer's shoes. A customer is never making the wrong decision when he or she doesn't buy from us. It's easy -- heck, it's instinctive -- to jump into Righteous Indignation mode when that happens. It's a waste of emotional energy, though. We need our emotional energy! It's silly of us to waste it being mad at customers who don't buy, bosses who don't listen, and hiring managers who don't get our value. We can use that energy more profitably asking ourselves "What does this person care about?"

Really good salespeople don't talk about what's so wonderful about their products or services. They don't assume that there's anything wonderful about their offerings at all, until they know what makes the buyer's heart beat faster (and what keeps the buyer up at night). Job-seekers can do the same thing. We can spot the business pain behind nearly any job ad. Consultants spot pain like breathing. If they didn't, they wouldn't stay in business for long.

One time a guy wanted to sell me a customized RSS reader for an online community I was leading. He sent me an email reply one day, unintentionally including with it the whole string of back-and-forth email conversations that had preceded the current one. I'm just curious and nerdy enough to read down the whole thread, and halfway down the list I saw a message the guy had written to his colleague. "It's too bad about Liz," he'd written. "She just doesn't get it. "

True that! I didn't get it. I didn't have a clue what RSS was, back then, and I couldn't imagine why I'd pay $25,000 for a custom RSS reader. (I use iGoogle now. Am I missing something fabulous?). I laughed when I saw that note. I like the guy -- no hard feelings. It's normal to think "The buyer who didn't buy from me doesn't get it." Only problem -- our job is to help him or her get it. The epic fail is not on the buyer's side. We're selling, so we're in the educator's spot.

There is more power in spotting pain and educating buyers than in pushing, grovelling, chasing buyers, and swearing at them under our breath. It's much more fun to talk about pain and solutions than to curse the imbeciles who don't see our brilliance, don't you think?