In Comms — As In Sales — It’s Better to Make Waves than Friends

Posted by: in Communication Strategy on October 6, 2011

As a communications guy, I don’t like to think of myself as a salesman. I’d rather consider myself a teacher or a translator. But there’s no doubt that interacting with the media requires a bit of salesmanship. If I want to convince someone to take a harder look at a company or research or a trend, I’m going to have to sell the idea.

That made a recent Harvard Business Review post — by Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson and based on their upcoming book, The Challenger Sale — on the five kinds of sales professionals so fascinating. While aimed at those in sales, it could have just as readily been positioned as an examination of communications. The post broke out five distinct types of salesmen:

Relationship Builders focus on developing strong personal and professional relationships and advocates across the customer organization. They are generous with their time, strive to meet customers’ every need, and work hard to resolve tensions in the commercial relationship.

Hard Workers show up early, stay late, and always go the extra mile. They’ll make more calls in an hour and conduct more visits in a week than just about anyone else on the team.

Lone Wolves are the deeply self-confident, the rule-breaking cowboys of the sales force who do things their way or not at all.

Reactive Problem Solvers are, from the customers’ standpoint, highly reliable and detail-oriented. They focus on post-sales follow-up, ensuring that service issues related to implementation and execution are addressed quickly and thoroughly.

Challengers use their deep understanding of their customers’ business to push their thinking and take control of the sales conversation. They’re not afraid to share even potentially controversial views and are assertive — with both their customers and bosses.

The post noted that the primary style that led to the most success was “challengers,” not — as seems to be the common assumption — relationship-builders (who came in dead last). The effect of throwing a challenger into a sales situation infuses an element of tension into the interaction, which — if they can handle the complexity — makes it more likely  that they can close the sale.

The lesson here for communications is clear (and the lesson for medical communications, with its intrinsic complexity, is even more clear): journalists don’t want more relationship-building friends when flacks call them. They want to have a debate, a discussion. They want to pressure-test theories and look for holes to poke or untold angles to explore. Unfortunately, a lot of public relations pros aren’t prepared to challenge reporters.

Sometimes, we don’t challenge because we want to err on the side of deference (no one wants to the flack always whining about this or that). Sometimes, we don’t challenge out of fears that we’ll go off message. And while there is a middle ground, refusing to acknowledge and debate complexity reduces comms pros to talking press releases: chummy (perhaps), hard-working (almost certainly), but not willing to wade into the thick of a debate.

Seeing the triumph of the “challenger” over the “relationship-builder” will embolden me in my media relations (though I like to flatter myself that I am already a decent “challenger”). It means I’ll do more homework, read more widely, look for areas of controversy rather than consensus. Will that make pitching more effective? I’ll let you know.

By: Brian Reid

Brian Reid is a managing director at W2O Group, where he oversees influencer relations. He is a former journalist who believes content really is king.

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