The Trump/ UK Government approach to big international has been bugging me for some time now. The approach is to treat everything like a business deal. This is plain wrong. Nothing illustrates this better than the posturing and contradictions that have accompanied the start of Brexit process this week.
It feels like the best we can hope for is the least bad outcome. On both sides of the Atlantic. It also occurs to me that there are some important lessons here for any B2B company, SaaS or otherwise. Because the Trump “art of the deal” and the May “business like approach” are not only bad politics. They represent a terrible way to do business as well.
Sometimes the study of what not to do can hold valuable lessons. In that spirit, what can B2B SaaS learn from the mistakes our leaders are determined to make?
Respect not bullying
Top of the list is the way you treat potential customers and business partners. The TB approach (I am going to shorten Trump/ Brexit to TB to keep things simple) is a combination of overt or closet threats and bluster about how strong “we” are in comparison to “them.”
The threats of course are empty. Or at least implementing them would damage us more than the other party. Think through the implications of the UK reducing security co-operation with Europe for example. This is a pretty easy point for a business. How could it be of any help to go around threatening stuff that damages your own business?
Showing the other side you are strong sounds more attractive. Yet this is an illusion. It too carries an implied threat. I am stronger than you therefore I can bully you if I want. This is not a great message to send to anyone you do business with. Customer, partner, supplier or team. Plus, is that really the kind of business you want to run?
You need to start by respecting the people you aim to do business with. Treat everyone as an equal. This is the only basis for a sustainable business relationship. Period.
What does the other side want?
Once you apply this basic principle, it leads straight to the next lesson. TB either ignores or dismisses the things that are most important to the other party. Anyone living in the UK sees this in the starkest terms every day.
The whole Government, opposition and media agenda is obsessed with UK/ EU trade. Its actually quite bizarre. Writing a piece about an international trade agreement in a tabloid newspaper would have been journalistic suicide 18 months ago. Now not a day goes by without ill informed comment along the lines of “the EU needs us more than we need them.”
Yet our European allies have two principal concerns. Maintaining the guarantee of peace on the continent. Which was the overriding objective of the Treaty of Rome. And respecting the commitments and partnerships that every EU member state has entered into in good faith.
The two sides have different agendas and objectives. How good are the chances of deal? In business, you have two options. If there is no common ground, then don’t try to do business with each other. Simple.
On the other hand if you believe there is value from a business relationship, then make sure you have a clear understanding of the objectives on the other side. This will obviously inform the negotiations. You should also make it a clear test of any deal. If you can’t see how the other party benefits, then it is a bad deal.
What do you want?
It strikes me as I think this through that this conceals another important lesson. TB also appear not to know their own objectives. Never mind the other side. The forthcoming US/ China summit makes this clear. China has a clear target to preserve and enhance bilateral trade. Without allowing the US to interfere in its own sovereignty. Could you state the US aim in such clear terms?
There is a high chance the Xi Jinping will run rings round the supposed master dealmaker. So it may seem obvious but make sure you are clear on your own business goals in any deal.
No brainer is a self fulfilling prophecy
With mutual respect, clear objectives and value for each side, the core of a good deal is in place. The rest is about people, tactics and time. The mindset you need here is load, aim fire rather than load, fire, aim. In other words listen and understand before each move. Some simple examples:
If you don’t believe the last one will work, watch the summit next week. Look out for Chinese investment in US infrastructure projects in amongst the trade arguments.
Its easy to be seduced by the benefits of your own SaaS. The worst symptom is when you find yourself telling the customer that buying is a “no brainer.” There is only one person with no brains in that conversation.
The Chairman's View
If you can bear to watch, the TB processes unfolding offer plenty of lessons for selling B2B SaaS to the enterprise. Despite the professed business expertise of those involved, a good rule of thumb is to study the political reports and then do the opposite.
Much of what I have written above seems obvious when you think about it. Yet it can be hard in the heat of the deal. So try to remember two other things, listen to people.
That sounds like one thing but it is two. Listen and people. Listen and be especially careful to hear the bad news as well as the good (all too easy when observing TB in action!) Don’t deceive yourself. Sometimes the other side are telling you No. Understand it and get over it.
And the other side is always people. Understanding the organisation is important of course. But that breaks down into a lot of individuals. Respect each of those people. Understand their personal agenda. Find benefits for each individual where you can. It takes time but it works.
Kenny Fraser is the Director of Sunstone Communication and a personal investor in startups.