Many Conversations Are a Waste of Time

Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve, Colorado; photo by the author

Last month, July 2018, the Smartling team spent more than 2,500 hours on conference calls with prospects and customers. That’s an incredible amount of time and represents a significant portion of the team’s work. Since compensation is the largest expense for a software company, making the most of these calls can be the difference between success and failure.

My opinion, formed from years of direct experience, observation, and research, is that it’s too common for a conversation to wind up being what I label a “push”: not moving either party closer to or further from success. Making matters worse, push conversations tend to end with no clear next steps, which means the next conversation is likely to be a push, too.

Definitionally, push conversations are a waste of time: nothing is achieved! Perhaps the greatest source of push conversations is the insidious weekly/biweekly/monthly check-in. There’s a reason these standing calls have a high cancellation/no-show rate. Sales and customer success teams need to assess carefully which conversations are worthwhile or have that potential, and learn how to transform them into good or great conversations instead. If you aren’t having good or great conversations with a prospect or customer, someone else is.

Through focused coaching —for which we rely heavily on Chorus, our conversation cloud technology, to provide insights — we’ve been able to adjust our standing call cadence where appropriate; reduce the number of conversations that are pushes; and increase the number of good and great conversations. We’ve seen strong results, including faster ramp times for sales reps and better account coverage by customer success.

I created the following “conversation scorecard” to illustrate the differences between great, good, bad, and terrible conversations. This is a guide and shouldn’t be interpreted literally; for example, a conversation can be bad even if it has a crystal clear agenda and next steps.

  • Your post-call sentiment: “I want to tell everyone about it immediately”
  • Agenda and next steps: Crystal clear
  • Information conveyed: Complete and accurate
  • In-call sentiment: Exuberant

Great conversations belong on the Oscar reel. In the context of the buyer-seller relationship, the buyer takes a leap toward success and the seller cements its status as a subject-matter expert. Answers go beyond the buyer’s immediate requirement by anticipating future needs. Every attendee knows what needs to be done to continue this momentum. Most great conversations use video conferencing, which I don’t think is a coincidence.

If you have one of these conversations, do tell everyone about it immediately, because there’s no better learning tool.

  • Your post-call sentiment: “That went well”
  • Agenda and next steps: Mostly clear
  • Information conveyed: Accurate if not complete
  • In-call sentiment: Positive

Most conversations that aren’t pushes fall under this category. The difference between a good conversation and a great one can be subtle, but the impact can be profound. The above-referenced ability to “see around corners” stands out to me as the difference maker. You can get by and have happy customers by answering questions simply, but you can’t transcend the typical buyer-seller dynamic without going the extra mile.

  • Your post-call sentiment: “One step forward, two steps back”
  • Agenda and next steps: Ambiguous or missing
  • Information conveyed: Partially accurate
  • In-call sentiment: Disappointed, antagonized

There’s no avoiding bad conversations entirely; what’s important when they do happen is not to fall into the trap of mistaking them for pushes, or worse still, good conversations. Most often, the root cause of a bad conversation is a lack of clarity in its agenda and, as a consequence, next steps. Setting clear agendas is therefore the single most important thing upon which to focus. If you cover that base, the rest usually takes care of itself.

  • Your post-call sentiment: “I hope no one finds out about this” (but know I need to tell my manager immediately)
  • Agenda and next steps: Missing
  • Information conveyed: Not accurate
  • In-call sentiment: Angry, combative, antagonistic

Luckily, terrible conversations are few and far between. Most of the ones I’ve participated in or listened to after the fact were the outcome of a lack of preparation, which resulted in an inability to answer questions correctly (or at all) when asked. It’s better to postpone a conversation and take your lumps for doing so than to forge ahead unprepared.

Sales and customer success teams win when they’re having good and great conversations; any other kind is a waste of time and a threat to success. By preparing diligently and knowing how to judge the effectiveness of your conversations, you can deliver better results for all involved.

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Chief Customer Officer at Brightflag. I write about issues relevant to and situations faced by SaaS companies as they scale.