Why won’t you listen?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?! We are going to fail!
December 16, 2014 8:15 AM   Subscribe

A friend and former colleague came to us as subject matter experts in international sales and market development. He came to us for our expertise but he will not listen to our recommendations and is putting us on the brink of failure and this is a company that should not be failing. What are techniques for dealing with stubborn people that refuse to listen and learn in a professional situation?

I am writing on behalf of our manufacturers’ representative firm. For those unfamiliar with the term, we are basically a contracted sales force hired for our knowledge and established relationships with buyers in our territory. We can offer a fast entry into a territory and as we are working on commission we don’t get paid until we sell something. We sell well known IT products in Latin America and we are headquartered in North America.

A contact of mine reached out to us several months ago about representing his extremely well known company in our region. This opportunity is huge. 8-9 digit-million dollars in sales huge. What is strange is that this gentleman contacted us for our expertise in Latin America but he refuses to take advantage of our knowledge and expertise. At this point, due to his errors and stubbornness, this opportunity is probably already lost. He is highly inexperienced and this is his first job as a sales manager in high level sales let alone working internationally. He’s hungry and aggressive but too much so.

This has happened more than once in the past and would like to focus on how to deal with in the future so I’d prefer not to get too lost in the details of this specific problem. For the sake of context however, I will give some examples of what we are facing. The most typical problem is that North Americans from the USA try to make business happen too quickly with Latin Americans. You need to have patience and build trust and relationships before any business can be done. We are facing this now.

For this project we should have wholesale distribution in Miami, northern South America, Brazil and Argentina. The last two countries are so complicated when it comes to importation that you need a local company that knows exactly how to import into their countries. We brought him an Argentine distributor, a huge Brazilian distributor and the largest Miami based distributor to the tune of several billion $$ in sales with offices in most countries in Latin America. We committed to the Argentines and the Colombians but for whatever reason our sales manager has fallen in love with one Colombian distributor that can service Colombia and Central America. He doesn’t want to work with the biggest guy who is the best choice to get started and they want this opportunity bad enough to risk their relationship with the biggest company and our biggest competitor in this category. They told us directly that this opportunity was too large for them to pass up. To do so they need to do their due diligence and determine how to best manage the politics of the matter with our competitor. Our guy thinks they are not showing enough interest and doesn’t want to work with them. We think they are just being prudent as a successful company usually is. (The comment about the opportunity being too large to pass up was a pretty big buying signal, no?)

He only wants to put his resources into the Colombians because they have shown the most interest because they made a nice PowerPoint presentation. He’s offering them an exclusive contract when they are not asking for it even though we have advised him that if they do not perform we are painting ourselves into a corner. He talks poorly about the competition in meetings. He says negative things to the distributors the other distributors that he is not in love with. My favorite one is that he received a huge list of leads from a trade show and forwarded it to the Colombians without allowing us to qualify the leads. 80% of them came from Argentina, Chile and Brazil the three countries that the Colombians cannot service!

We have politely explained to him how these might not be the correct moves. He states emphatically that the Colombians are THE RIGHT PARTNERS FOR THIS PROJECT. They are a good partner but not the only one we need. For the record we do not point out that he’s wrong but that our strategy is incomplete.

I don’t get it. He came to us as a friend and colleague for our expertise and then ignores it. He was great when we worked with him previously as our inside sales support and operations person at another company. He is by far the most extreme case of stubbornness I have ever seen in my career. We have spent thousands of man hours on this and the opportunity has most likely gone bye-bye. I know you cannot make people change, but if we can only influence people like this to take our advice we could have saved many great opportunities lost in the past. In the future and in the event that we can save this current project, what are some techniques to persuade obstinate people like this to listen and learn?

PS – I just got an email from this guy saying that his distributors interest is going dead due to some other misunderstandings that I won’t get into.
posted by Che boludo! to Human Relations (15 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I think you're asking the wrong question. Remember the saying about leading a horse to water? Well, it's the same with mules, only more so, and your friend/client is a mule. Even if you flat-out tell him that he's wrong, he isn't going to take your advice despite asking for it and paying for it.

It doesn't matter how many hours you spent on this; that time is gone and there's nothing you can do to get it back. But you can cut your losses, and you should do so. Every hour you spend on this idiot is an hour you could spend working with sane people.

What you need, therefore, is information on when, why, and how to fire a bad customer.
posted by starbreaker at 8:35 AM on December 16, 2014 [21 favorites]

From my years of strategy consulting, I can say that you cannot make anyone take your recommendations, you can only offer them. It's up to the customer what they will and won't act on, and all you can do is make your case. If this contact is not following your advice, then disengage and let him see how that works out for him.
posted by xingcat at 8:46 AM on December 16, 2014 [3 favorites]

"I don’t get it. He came to us as a friend and colleague for our expertise and then ignores it."

I'm not in your line of work, but this is standard behavior for a lot of people. How many people take time out to go to doctors wanting their expertise when they are sick and then don't take the pills the doctors prescribe them? And since we're talking about big business even Steve Jobs comes to mind- He was told by all his doctors- the best doctors wealth can afford- and the few friends he had to get his cancer treated because his form of Pancreatic cancer had a high prognosis (unlike other forms that are basically certain death). Instead Jobs didn't listen to them and chose to cure it himself with alternative medicine. By the time he admitted he made a mistake it was too late- We all know where his decision led. RIP. Some people can only learn by failing and there's nothing you can do about it. This may be a situation where you just have to jump ship in order to save yourself because the captain has already set it on course for the iceberg.
posted by rancher at 8:50 AM on December 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Yeah, I know about firing customers. This one is just a great opportunity. I was hoping for some kind of Jedi mind tricks training for this padawan.
posted by Che boludo! at 8:52 AM on December 16, 2014

Hey, I work doing some similar stuff and am happy to do a brainstorming session with you. Just send me a message.

My impression is that you can make some progress by accepting what he says and then "adding" to it instead of contradicting him.

Them: "We want the Colombians!"

You: "Great! They are perfect for Colombia and I'm sure they will do a great job. Now let's talk about other regions, let's give these other distributors a chance with Brazil and Argentina. Nobody will be exclusive for the first year, we'll see how it goes, and if one distributor does really well and you like them a lot, for instance the Colombians, we'll make them exclusive and grow their territory going forward! This is so exciting!"

Or something like that. Obviously there will be a lot more nuances involved. Also get other projects on board, it sounds like you're putting too many eggs into this one company basket.
posted by cacao at 9:07 AM on December 16, 2014 [10 favorites]

I agree that you should probably fire this customer, but at this point, what do you have to lose by telling him he is flat out wrong and that you are going to walk if he continues to ignore the advice he sought out. There comes a time to stop tiptoeing around and be straight.
posted by murrey at 9:09 AM on December 16, 2014 [4 favorites]

There's not a lot you can do at this point with this project, but I'll share a couple of things that have helped me.

1) For you: take the half step back to disengage. My employer pays me to do the work that they need me to do. I may or may not always agree with the work selected or the method we use to achieve it*. I raise my concerns once, then let it drop. There may or may not be reasons that a particular path was chosen - I may not have all the pieces used to make the decision. When a method I don't agree with is chosen*, I let it go and do the best I can. It's like water - let it flow through you. I sense a lot of frustration at what could have been, but I've found that if you can be just a little bit detached, it can help you when you go into the meetings with your client. If you can act neutral about the options (even if there's one you KNOW is right) people tend to listen to you more when you argue in favor of a particular option. It's really weird, but it works. My most successful influencing attempts have been when I can get into a Zen mode where all options are fine by me (even if they really aren't).

Also: learn your partner's motivations. I have a project manager who, when stressed out, calls meetings to freak out about the timeline, whether it's called for or not. The timeline is his #1 motivation, and if you meet the timeline, whatever it is, he's golden. I have another team mate who is solely motivated by being the expert. If you can showcase how he is the expert while also bringing up a counterpoint to one he has made, he's more likely to listen to you. It sounds manipulative, and I suppose you can make the argument that it is, but I see it more as understanding where people are coming from, so that I can address what drives them in the interaction and still get my point across.

It sounds like (to me, an Internet stranger) that your partner really wanted to prove his chops, to the point that he overpushed. One thing you could have used to help work with him was to sandwich - "James, I really appreciate the expertise you bring to this discussion, especially with regards to sales and marketing. I want to help you broaden your network to include more countries, so we can really impress your company with your abilities. I think the best way to do that is to include the Brazilians and Argentinians on our next call. What do you think? I think it would be great to show your company how you're really working different angles, so that you have secondary markets lined up! Let me know if your calendar is up to date, and I'll be glad to schedule those calls."

It sounds dumb, but if you can make people be the hero in their own story, they will love you for it. And 9 times out of 10, that's really what you both want in the end. I think some of your frustration is that you saw how he could really shine, but feel like he blew it.

2) for prevention in the future: You may want to start with a small introduction to culture at the beginning of the project, and remind the client that they're hiring you at least in part because you understand the cultural climate and know how to navigate it. Culture is a big unspoken in a lot of projects, and it helps SO MUCH when you can show concrete examples of why doing X brings success but doing Y will lead to a sudden disinterest on the part of your customer or distributor. A lot of people make the mistake of believing that if you have a common language, you've got all you need. As you know, that's just the beginning.

I'm really sorry this didn't work out - it's very frustrating when you put so much energy into something and it falls apart when it didn't have to, and a better outcome was so easily within reach. I wish you the best of luck on your future projects.

*Just to be clear, we're talking about strategy (like 3rd party cloud versus in house servers for data storage). I'm not talking about ethics. Violating company policy or personal ethics is a whole 'nother category, and worth yelling about from the rooftops until the situation is resolved.
posted by RogueTech at 9:31 AM on December 16, 2014 [5 favorites]

You keep saying "This is a great opportunity." It took me a long time to comprehend that an elaborate fantasy was not necessarily an opportunity, no matter how well told. This is a gamble, a crapshoot, and you have to weigh the potential payoff against the possibility that that payoff is going to happen.

What you've described is a situation where that payoff is very unlikely to happen.

I'm with Murrey: Fire the customer, but do so with clear instruction about what circumstances you would continue to work with the customer under.

But, really: Be ready to walk away. This is not the opportunity you think it is.
posted by straw at 9:31 AM on December 16, 2014 [7 favorites]

I agree that cutting your losses early with this type of client is one of the healthiest things you can do. The most miserable I've been as a consultant was with opinionated, demanding clients who hired me (as I eventually learned) in order to have someone to blame when the project went south and not to actually benefit from my expertise. These projects usually offer the promise of great income - at least partly because they have to in order for anyone to even consider agreeing to their terms. Learn to spot these folks early and run like the wind!
posted by summerstorm at 9:47 AM on December 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

You get around these kinds of people. You fire them, quit the project, withdraw, remove them or just go around them to someone else with decision making authority.

(and maybe think about going anonymous on this, there's some pretty sensitive information in your question that seems to border on proprietary business strategy)
posted by mibo at 9:51 AM on December 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'd have a come to Jesus meeting with this guy. At the end of which you may need to walk away with the bird in the hand.

"Joe, I know you love Pepe, and he's great for Columbia. But Brazil and Argentina are completely different places. Hell, Brazil has a completely different language. Pepe will be thrilled with Columbia, if you give him other countries, he's got to invest in his business, hiring new folks, opening offices, it will put him behind the 8-ball in a serious way and it will negatively impact our ability to roll you out in LA. I know you're charged up, and that's great. Please, Jorge and I know what we're talking about. Trust us and take our advice and we'll all get rich. If you keep moving forward, just as you are...we'll still take our cut, but it won't be nearly as large. I'm as greedy as the next man, and I want to make a shit-pile of money on this. We just can't do it with Pepe. Try it our way. If Pepe blows it out of the water I'll gladly eat my words and we can re-assess after 12-months. "

Any reasonable person would agree with you. If he doesn't I guess it's all riding on Pepe.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 10:14 AM on December 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

You've put enough information in this question to identify your company and probably you personally, I think. You may want to ask mods to edit out all the specific business details because they're totally unimportant for the question that you're asking and are very risky to have out there, especially with the dollar amounts you're talking about.

As to your question, I think you should put your reservations in writing, talk to lawyers, and then do what you have to do to end the business relationship. Then probably get this question deleted if you can, before it ends up in discovery.
posted by empath at 10:34 AM on December 16, 2014

Whatever you decide to do, protect your relationships with your distribution network in your region.
posted by infini at 10:49 AM on December 16, 2014 [7 favorites]

he will not listen to our recommendations and is putting us on the brink of failure

As I understand it, you are consultants, and you believe your client may be on the brink of a failure.

So I'm wondering about the "us." The only way you can fail is if this somehow impacts on your reputation, or if you don't get paid. You don't ask about those issues. So, take care of those, and move on.
posted by JimN2TAW at 12:16 PM on December 16, 2014 [4 favorites]

I asked this question not so long ago, somewhat similar...I feel your pain. Maybe some of those suggestions will help?
posted by ananci at 3:42 PM on December 16, 2014

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