Robert Miller & Gary Williams: Paths to Persuasion

Robert Miller is one of the people who revolutionised ideas around selling, with his Strategic Selling and Conceptual Selling ideas. But of far more relevance to most managers is his second big idea, which he worked on with Gary Miller.

If you want to sell your message, they found, you need to tailor the way you deliver it to the way  others make decisions. And knowing how to do that is not useful only to salespeople.

Robert Miller & Gary Williams

Robert Miller & Gary Williams

Robert B Miller

Robert Miller got his BA and MA from Stanford University, focusing on education, and his whole career has focused on adult education and training. Following service in the US Navy during the war with Korea, Miller worked his way to become a Vice President at consulting and training company, Kepner-Tregoe. He remained there from 1965 to 1974.

While there, he developed his thinking about the sales process that was to lead to a series of books, and the formation of a new sales training business, which he co-founded with his Kepner-Tregoe colleague, Stephen Heiman. Miller Heiman Group became and remains one of the leading sales training organisations. The thinking that Miller and Heiman developed is massively influential in much sales training today.

However, Miller left the business in 1984, although he has had two extended periods of acting as a consultant and advisor to the business. As well as founding Value Sourcing Group in 1996, Miller also collaborated with Gary Williams to create a customer research consultancy, Miller-Williams Inc. There, they conducted the research we’ll be looking at.

Gary A Williams

Gary Williams  studied biology at the University of Alabama, and started his career in the late 1980s, in the software industry. He held a number of positions in both small entrepreneurial and large firms, including Glaxo and IBM. In the mid-1990’s, he was a Vice President of The Sentry Group, a consulting firm that was acquired by The Meta Group.

In 1998, Gary co-founded Miller-Williams Inc. with Robert Miller. This was a research firm dedicated to measuring how consumer behaviour affects market movements. Williams developed the analytical research method (for which he holds a US Patent).

Together, Miller and Williams also surveyed around 1,700 executives to learn how they make decisons. This research led to the book, 5 Paths to Persuasion, and the much reprinted Harvard Business Review article, Change the Way You Persuade.

In 2004, Miller left the business and Williams morphed it into its present-day incarnation, wRatings, which ranks business performance according to how well they serve their customers.

Paths to Persuasion

Miller and Williams surveyed 1,684 executives for their study. This is a reasonable sample size, but we must note a potential for cultural bias: 97% of the respondents were from the United States.

From their results, they divided the executives into five decision-making styles:

  1. Followers (36%)
  2. Charismatics (25%)
  3. Sceptics (19%)
  4. Thinkers (11%)
  5. Controllers (9%)

Note that Miller and Williams defined styles of decision-making. These are not the same as personality traits and they did no work on relating the two.

Whether you are trying to sell, negotiate, or just persuade to your point of view, you need to adapt to the other person’s decision-making style. You need to identify what it is, and then tailor your approach to fit. This gives Miller and Williams’ five paths to persuasion.

Followers

Followers like to make decisions based on what has worked before; either for them, or for other trusted colleagues. They are risk-adverse, but are prepared to take responsibility for their decisions when they make them.

They tend to be cautious and therefore like established ‘safe’ brands, but are also bargain-conscious. They like to feel innovative, but in reality prefer safety, with a slight edge of novelty. They trust expertise, track record, and in depth case studies.

To persuade these decision-makers, refer to proven methods and real results. Use references, case studies and testimonials to support your case. They need to feel certain they are making the right decision, so do what you can to reassure them that their choice is the safe one.

Charismatics

Charismatics love a new idea or proposal but will base their final decision on the evidence. Hook them with novelty, but expect a wholly rational analysis of the risks and rewards to drive their decision-making. When they take their decision, they will be prepared to accept risk and responsibility if the potential rewards are right.

Charismatics are enthusiastic, talkative, and dominant. They are results-oriented and able to focus hard for long periods.

So persuade them with a calm discussion of risks and potential results. Use simple and straightforward language, rather than trying to blind them with science. They often like visual aids like diagrams, maps, and graphs.

Sceptics

Sceptics tend to be suspicious of evidence, particularly if it conflicts with their established point of view. They can be aggressive and combative, and like to take charge. They are prepared to take risks, but will often try to shed responsibility if things don’t work out.

Ultimately, sceptics don’t trust data, they trust people. So you need to establish as much credibility as possible. A good way to do this is by gaining an endorsement from someone the sceptic trusts.

Thinkers

Thinkers are hard to persuade. They need rigorous arguments that are supported by solid data. They dislike risk and take their time to make as certain a decision as possible. Once they trust their analysis, they will commit to it. But they are also willing to re-evaluate it, if new data emerges.

Thinkers, as their label suggests, are cerebral, intelligent, and logical. They read widely, and are comfortable with numbers, processes, and proofs.

To persuade them, start with lots of data; the more the better. Include market research, customer surveys, and rigorous  cost-benefit analysis. Case studies can help. But they need to be in depth, with highly pertinent details and a significant statistical base. If not, the Thinker will brand it as merely anecdotal.

Controllers

Controllers are mercifully rare. They hate uncertainty and try to cast things in black and white polarities. Therefore, they like pure facts. They are also insecure, hiding behind an unemotional exterior, until they need someone to blame. They don’t like risk and don’t want to take responsibility.

Controllers are fairly logical, unemotional and detail oriented, but they also value action. Not surprisingly, from their label, Controllers like to be in charge.

Persuade them with care. They don’t like to feel manipulated, and they hate ambiguity. So you must demonstrate credibility and structure your evidence carefully. Never advocate too strongly for your proposal. It’s better to give the Controller the information, let them convince themselves.

Complicating Factors

This simple model belies the complexity of real people.

It can be hard to diagnose a decision-maker’s style. Many would mis-assess themselves. In their book, Miller and Williams give clues to help spot the decision style.
Additionally, many people have more than one decision style. They either blend aspects of two or more, or switch style, depending on the context. Finding their dominant style is not easy.

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