How to Tell A Decision-Maker They Have a Problem and Still Win the Deal

brutally-honestAfter successfully working with a division of a Fortune 1000 company for about four months, Michelle received an invitation to meet the head of training and development for the entire organization because he was looking to potentially scale the training nationwide. She accepted, but she knew that the conversation might be difficult.

She knew the truth might come out.

In her months working with the regional office, Michelle had come to understand that one contributing factor to the sales team’s substandard performance had little to do with the sales leaders. Rather, it stemmed from a systemic problem in the hiring process. The recruiting arm of the organization consistently hired people suited to the collaborative culture of the company, intentionally weeding out more aggressive candidates—the very candidates desperately needed in sales. As a result, the employees in the company worked well together while sales continued to lag far below quotas.

Michelle knew this, but she wasn’t sure that the executive she’d be meeting with would be ready to hear it. She had to be prepared, even though her contacts in the organization were warning her that her observations might not be well received.

Michelle flew to the corporate headquarters, accompanied by some of the people with whom she had worked most closely at the divisional level. She met with the head of training and development.

And, as she predicted, the moment came to tell the truth.

After discussing the continuing decrease in sales, the executive—a retired U.S. Marine—asked Michelle if she had come to any conclusions as to what was causing it. Suddenly, everyone became very quiet—especially her divisional colleagues who already knew Michelle’s opinion.

Michelle looked down the table and answered him. “I have reached a conclusion,” she said. “Permission to be brutally honest?”

The former Marine paused for a second, almost surprised. He quickly recovered and then nodded. “Okay.”

“You have a systemic glitch in your hiring process,” Michelle said. “The recruiting arm of your company is hiring people who are highly collaborative, but lack the assertiveness to fulfill the demands of the sales role. You have an alignment problem between the new hires and their job.”

The executive paused again, staring directly down the long conference table, contemplating very seriously what he’d just been told. Michelle could literally feel her colleagues cringe. She imagined their words on the flight home. “We warned you! You really put yourself out there, didn’t you? We told you what he was like.”

Then the head of training and development looked at Michelle and said two words: “You’re right.”

He went on to explain that he was aware of the challenges with the sales team, but couldn’t quite identify the root cause. He thanked Michelle for saying what needed to be said in order to bring the problem out in the open.

Michelle won the deal. She won because, though she had a difficult reality to communicate, she kept from being too blunt by setting it up with appropriate language. She also didn’t lead with the unpleasant truth; she waited until she was asked for it. And even then, she set it up by providing a moment for the executive to prepare himself to hear it.

Was it a risk? Of course it was. But Michelle took a calculated risk by choosing not only what to say, but how and when to say it. She took a business problem and clothed it in words that made it easier for her audience to receive it.

By respectfully presenting the truth to the executive, Michelle not only established herself as a trusted advisor, but also won a major national account for her company.