For decades, there’s the image of the “customer is always right.” Sales people have been deferential to the customer, not wanting to seem disagreeable or contentious. Somehow, there’s a feeling that if we disagree with the customer, we become “unlikeable,” scaring the customer away.

We’ve invested millions in techniques for handling customer objections and disagreements. We talk about things like the “soft sell.”

All of this misses key issues around any change initiative—there will be differing points of view, there will be disagreements, there will be misunderstanding. As sales people, we are helping the customer to change, we are helping the customer to learn, think differently, consider new things, move in new directions. We try to influence their thinking and priorities, just as they are doing the same within their own companies.

Avoiding disagreements, conflict, or contention is not helpful as the customer is struggling with their buying process. They are trying to do the right thing, they want to be successful, but because they may not have faced these issues before, they may misunderstand, make mistakes, forget to consider critical things.

Within the customer buying group, itself, there will be disagreement and conflict. Different people will have different priorities and goals. They will have differing understandings of what they want/need to do, of the alternatives and choices in front of them. They will have differing understandings of the risks of each alternative. Many buying journeys end because the customer is unable to make sense of these differences and resolve the issues they face.

We create the greatest value with our customers when we help them successfully navigate all these issues. And sometimes, that creates conflict or contention in the relationship. But we aren’t fulfilling our responsibility to the customer and our own organizations unless we confront it.

Underlying this conflict avoidance is, perhaps, an inability to manage differences effectively. Too often, we think in terms of “I’m right, you’re wrong.” We make the conflict about the person and not ideas or understanding.

Our motivations are often wrong, which cause us to manage the disagreement ineffectively. We are too often driven by our own goals of closing the deal, rather than helping the customer make a good decision. It’s this mismatch of goals/agendas that drive the customer, rightfully, away. (BTW, if making a decision for our product is not a good decision for the customer and what they are trying to achieve, we have no business pursuing that opportunity.)

We manage the discussion poorly, rather than creating a collaborative learning discussion, we make it about rightness/wrongness.

We often are so stuck in our position, we fail to recognize other legitimate points of view.

Managing disagreements and conflict effectively are only possible when there is shared trust. If our customers don’t trust us, or we don’t trust our customers, we will each fail.

Finally, and perhaps the biggest, we miss the opportunity in a collaborative learning discussion to come up with something that is better than anyone could have individually. Healthy conflict can help us develop much better solutions, we have the opportunity to make 1+1+1=5.

Disagreement, contention, conflict, properly managed, are almost always very powerful. If we are focusing on ideas, approach them with open mindsets, willing to discover, learn, change, we and our customers can accomplish tremendous things. They make us individually and collectively better!

Afterword: While I’ve approached this concept form the points of view of buyers/sellers, the same principles apply within our own organizations.