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Unfair Advantage

Some are better trained to win a discussion

By Fred Engel

Westerly Consulting

Jenny just loves programming. She majored in Computer Science and after graduation got a job as a software engineer.  She is clearly one of the best, her software is the underlying architecture for the company’s main product.  She spends all of her time with complex systems. She is a genuine expert, after 10 years at her job. She has become one of the main leaders in engineering, making many of the basic directional decisions.

Bill has always been a people person. In college he was always the center of the social gatherings.  After college he got a job as Customer Relations representative, working with the company’s customers.  He loves the challenge of getting people all aligned.  After 10 years of working with customers, Bill is seen as the go to guy for getting things done.  He is just so good with people that everyone seeks him out. He can really get people to change their minds.

When Bill’s group needs engineering to do something in a hurry, he usually goes to Jenny.  They are both the leading forces in their respective groups.  Bill often needs to get Jenny to change the product in some way that some customer is adamant about.  Jenny does not like the changes being asked for, but Bill usually explains the potential for losing revenue and other facts that cause Jenny to reluctantly agree.

Does Bill have an unfair advantage?

Of course he does.  Jenny is an expert at manipulating machines, not people. Bill is an expert at manipulating people, not machines.  Who is going to win a discussion where Bill holds all the cards? Bill has talked to the customer, Bill is connected to revenue, Bill is sure of himself, and Bill is good at painting just the right picture so that people agree to what he needs them to agree with.  Bill is doing his best to do his job, which often involves being persuasive.

Jenny’s persuasion skills are probably not as well-honed as Bill’s.  Look at what they have done for the last 10 years. Jenny not only at a disadvantage in plain old interpersonal persuasion, she is also at a disadvantage when it comes to the facts of the conversation.  How can she judge the “facts” that Bill uses to get his way?  The company is relying on a good decision in a situation where the cards are stacked in one direction, Bill’s.

It is possible that Bill is right in what he is asking for, that the customer issue is an important priority that needs to be addressed immediately.  It is also possible that he is wrong and the customer does not need to have this change made right away. It just may be that Bill is too good a convincer and that the business is suffering as a consequence.  Too many customer specials and not enough of the high priority features are being invested in.

This is not a theoretical problem.  It is real and exists in many companies.  The customer facing people (Support, Sales Engineers, Professional Services, Sales, etc.) are certainly much better at persuasion than the engineer.  So they have much more skill in the game of persuasion.  But they also claim to have a business context that the engineer is in no position to discuss, having no contextual facts. 

The customer facing individual can cite a direct revenue implication, which the engineer can not. The engineers’ revenue implications are usually more indirect, and off in the future. Everyone wants revenues to go up.  Or maybe better, nobody wants to be responsible for lost revenue.  So the engineers accede to the requests and loses in the discussion.

At times, the engineers just stop listening to the customer facing people and “go dark”. Knowing they will lose, they can become passive aggressive or just stop engaging with their counter parts.  This is not a healthy reaction, but it is one that is true in many organizations.

The person who is customer facing is often measured on customer happiness or revenue. So getting the customer to accept a “no” is a last resort.  Customers are much happier getting their way. So the more persuasive individual has incentive to get the engineer to provide what they are asking for.

But “no” may be the best overall decision for the business in many of these situations.   It may be that the other priorities are better for the business than this customer fix.  It may also be that the customer does not really need this fix, or can wait for it.  The point is, without a real discussion by equals, those trained to persuade have an unfair advantage.

There are solutions. Training engineers in the give and take of negotiations is one solution. Having a cross functional team that has a broader context, is another solution. Creating swim lanes that are strictly adhered to is another solution. Having the engineer read “Getting to Yes” is another idea.

The best way to solve this is to get everyone on the same page about the company goals, at a very detailed level.  As long as people have competing or conflicting goals, they will approach these situations as a win/lose problem rather than a win/win solution where they are all trying to optimize the agreed to goals of the company.  Alignment in goals, plus real training in interpersonal persuasion, will generally yield the best results.