How to Find Sweet Spots in Customer’s Thinking: Sales Engineering for Kurt-Charlotte

Sales engineers are clever, no-nonsense people. They are my kind of people: I too try to keep my philosophy as real as it gets. (That’s why I’ve got involved in rhetoric in the first place. Rhetoric is what happens when philosophy goes back to the streets.)

I know little of either sales or engineering. But I still have a suggestion to make, and I hope you might find it useful or at least amusing. This suggestion is a heuristic tool for reorganizing your knowledge of your customer, and to figure out how best use the actual knowledge for your and your customer’s and your employer’s benefit. The tool is based on three rhetoric principles from Aristotle, but repackaged (by my colleague, Markus Neuvonen) into a neat, easy-to-use figure we call Kurt-Charlotte (Keijo-Kaarina in Finnish).

As far as I understand, sales engineers real job usually turns out to be figuring out customers problem, to make it understandable, to explain the problem back to the customer, and to help the customer understand the ways to solve the problem (and, if possible, also sell the employers products and services through this process). (The process, by the way, turns out not so different from academic funding application procedure.) And although you posses years of studies in engineering or science, and years of experiences in sales and customer relations — you don’t necessarily have previous experience on this particular customer group or their particular problem. In what way ever you are in contact with the customer (ranging from face to face to “encounters of the first kind” at the internet), the process of problem analysis and sense making presents several points where the customer needs to be ensured and convinced. And ensuring and convincing is the business of rhetoric.

The problem of rhetoric, however, is that it is messy (as is anything involving real people, as you working in sales would know). But luckily there are three broad principles to guide us. According to Aristotle (the philosopher, not the shipping magnate), the first and most important reasons why people believe anything they hear is the trust they have for the speaker, usually based on the perceived charisma, status, and relation to one another. He called this principle Ethos. Aristotle concluded that we generally trust people who appear confident on the subject they are talking about (but not overly so), i.e., street smart, practical people. We also believe those who appear good and seem to value the same things as us, and who are honest about their interests and don’t seem to hide their agendas.

The second reason for believing is the argument. Application of reason on the subject can sometimes be quite convincing. But surprisingly not as often as we tend to hope. People are stubborn with their beliefs, and aggressive emphasis on arguments can turn the listeners or readers hostile. Thus this second principle, called Logos, should be used with caution and laced with common sense.

The third reason are values and the emotions related to them. On the most pessimistic side of this issue: people tend to believe things that accord with their pre-existing values. But on the more positive side: emotions link to the ability to learn and adapt. Neurological studies have shown that a person with brain damage that prohibiting emotions also tend to loose their ability to learn. Since we have emotional response to things we value, values can be used to trigger emotional response that links to our proneness to accept. Aristotle called this principle Pathos.

As you see, these principles sound grand, convincing, and even common sense, but are far from being easy to apply. The tool I present next will do just that.

Kurt-Charlotte is an imaginary person that represent your audience (i.e., the person or people you are trying to convince—your average customer). First, get some decently sized paper and nice pencil, or open the conceptual drawing tool of your choice on your tablet. Begin by drawing the (non-gender-specific) stick figure of Kurt-Charlotte in the middle of the paper. Then divide the space around Kurt Charlotte by drawing three lines radiating from her so that you have one section above her, one to her left and one to her right. Write “Ethos” to the left, “Logos” above, and “Pathos” to the right. Now we may start gauging your knowledge about your audience: what you know—and what you don’t know—of her.

To the Ethos part, write your answers to the following questions: How does the audience perceive you? What is your image, and what is your company’s image? Do you appear to be street smart about the problem the customer has? What values do you appear to have? Do these values resonate with the customer’s values? Does the customer see you as well meaning, i.e., do you appear honest about your own interests and agendas?

To the Logos part, write your answers to the following: What kind of argument would convince the customer? What reasoning would she find compelling? What evidence or proof she would appreciate: e.g.,  numbers, examples, anecdotal knowledge, stories, thought experiments, or metaphors? What kind of reasoning does the customer do themselves?

To the Pathos part, write on the following: What does the customer lust for? What does she desire? What would she want: e.g., money, fame, status, well being of her employees, or help for stress? What is she afraid of, what she abhors: e.g.,  loosing of face, loosing of her job, loosing of her business, having to lay of employees, or other hardship? Also ask these questions with regard to the problem and the solution you are proposing: is she afraid of some aspects of the problem/solution? Is there something in the problem/solution that she finds exciting or desirable? These could relate to, e.g., money, resources, time, or patience.

So now you have figured out Kurt-Charlotte: Ethos, Pathos, and Logos drawn into one figure. However, why is it useful?

I suppose that the secret lies in what psychologists and neurologists call theory of mind: all humans are more or less capable to simulate other people’s thinking and emotional processes. This theory of mind simulation is automatic — we do so because it helps us survive as a social creatures, and it is partly what makes us capable to communicate. (In fact, some neuroscientists, such as neuropathologist Simon Baron-Cohen, suggest that autism spectre disorders might be related to problems in performing this kind of other mind simulations.)

What Kurt-Charlotte provides is a peek to your thinking of the customer’s thinking. Now you may assess how you orient yourself to the customer. You may ask higher order questions: How do I know that she thinks like this? Am I only guessing this, or do I have some grounds to believe that she thinks like this? Thus you may assess the limits of your knowledge and see where you might be mistaken about the customer—in other words, you’ll find out what you don’t know and possible have to go and figure out by, e.g., asking the customer or surveying. For instance, I did this same analysis for this meeting, and found out that I do not know enough about what you, sales engineers, actually do. I had to go and study a bit more the job description, so to speak.

And when you finally go and meet the customer (face to face or on the net), you benefit from the concrete picture of your own thinking about the customer, i.e, picture of your theory of her mind. You posses something to compare with the actual situation. It is easier to adapt when you have something concrete to change instead of something vague and elusive, or even, in the worst case, just an undigested stereotype.

I myself have found the Kurt-Charlotte tool helpful. It makes the Aristotelian ideals — Ethos, Logos and Pathos — graspable, meaningful and nimble, i.e., user friendly. And it works in practice — in situations that are messy, and fuzzy on the borders, like when you have to convince someone you don’t know that well.

To put it slightly complicatedly: than to have false assurance in what you hope you know, when figuring out the best way to reach your customer, it is better to know that you don’t know. 

(This article is based on a talk at the meeting of the Sales Engineering Finland on Feb 24, 2015.)

Ps. I was asked for reading recommendations. As starting points on Rhetoric I suggest reading Jay Heinrichs‘s insightful book Thank You for Arguing (or its European edition  called Winning Arguments). Or read Mestaripuhuja, my other blog on rhetoric (in Finnish).

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