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Handling Objections to Change, Part 1

by Guy Couillard

June 12, 2012

 

Buthings don’t go according to plan. Instead of praise, you are facing a barrage of objections. 
“Why are there so many steps in the process?”
 “This will create more work for our users.” 
“It will completely throw off our testing schedule!”
You find yourself having to argue your point and revisit decisions that were made weeks ago and were key stepping stones to your work. Tempers start getting a bit frayed (especially yours) and a decision is made to have another meeting to further discuss the newly surfaced issues. 
You leave feeling discouraged, looking for a friendly ear to vent out your frustration. 
This scenario is likely familiar to most IT professionals, especially those who have been through a new implementation project. How you deal with that level of pushback can determine the success or failure of a project. And the best way to deal with that kind of objection may be to borrow a technique from another profession where objections are even more frequent: sales. 
Salespeople learn to love objections. At some point in their career, they realize that objections are not a negative sign, but a natural reaction. You see, customers almost always object  at first. Salespeople that take this rejection personally rarely succeed, will quickly become unhappy in their job, and usually move on to another one. Professional (and successful) sales people learn that objections are windows into the minds of their customers. They highlight what they truly care about, at this very moment. If you can remove the objection, or explain how your solution already addresses it, you are one step closer to making the sale (or getting your project approved, etc.).
 Even if you can’t address the objection on the spot, moving into listening and fact-finding mode will build rapport and win you the right to come back later. To paraphrase Socrates:  “the imbecile tries using his arguments to convince me; while the wise uses my own arguments.” If you don’t listen, how will you ever find out what their arguments are?
From a change adoption standpoint, objections are a sign that you have reached the awareness stage: your stakeholder are actually considering your idea, rather than just being indifferent. Now, put yourself in their shoes: you are being asked to adopt a solution that isn’t yours, and in many cases, where you were never even consulted. What are you going to see first: the negative or the positive aspects? Unless you’re implementing for the Dalai Lama, the downside will likely be the first reaction. 
When dealing with IT professionals, this natural reaction is compounded by years of formal training.  Pointing out bugs and defects (especially in other people’s work) is second nature for many in the IT profession. Recognizing that reflex behavior and balancing it with recognition for good work is a skill that IT folks must learn when they become managers and need to lead people. But that’s a topic for another post.
Objection-handling: the process
There are endless variations on objection-handling, but here’s one that can truly improve your quality of life at work, as a consultant or change agent. As shown at the bottom of the diagram, objections are usually rooted either in a misunderstanding (the easiest ones to address), or in a perceived drawback, requiring reframing.
This is just a teaser. My next column will describe the technique in detail, and explain how to apply each step in the process. Stay tuned.

Picture this: You’ve been sweating blood and tears over a really innovative design and you are finally ready for feedback. You are confident that your solution to this thorny problem is the best of all options. At this stage, some recognition for your hard work and even a touch of praise, would be justified. So you launch into a passionate pitch for your idea, explaining how it meets the requirements of the organization. But things don’t go according to plan. Instead of praise, you are facing a barrage of objections. 

“Why are there so many steps in the process?”

“This will create more work for our users.” 

“It will completely throw off our testing schedule!”

You find yourself having to argue your point and revisit decisions that were made weeks ago and were key stepping stones to your work. Tempers start getting a bit frayed (especially yours) and a decision is made to have another meeting to further discuss the newly surfaced issues.You leave feeling discouraged, looking for a friendly ear to vent out your frustration. 

This scenario is likely familiar to most IT professionals, especially those who have been through a new implementation project. How you deal with that level of pushback can determine the success or failure of a project. And the best way to deal with that kind of objection may be to borrow a technique from another profession where objections are even more frequent: sales.

Salespeople learn to love objection. At some point in their career, they realize that objections are not a negative sign, but a natural reaction. You see, customers almost always object  at first. Salespeople that take this rejection personally rarely succeed, will quickly become unhappy in their job, and usually move on to another one. Professional (and successful) sales people learn that objections are windows into the minds of their customers. They highlight what they truly care about, at this very moment. If you can remove the objection, or explain how your solution already addresses it, you are one step closer to making the sale (or getting your project approved, etc.).

Even if you can’t address the objection on the spot, moving into listening and fact-finding mode will build rapport and win you the right to come back later. To paraphrase Socrates:  “the imbecile tries using his arguments to convince me; while the wise uses my own arguments.” If you don’t listen, how will you ever find out what their arguments are? 

From a change adoption standpoint, objections are a sign that you have reached the awareness stage: your stakeholder are actually considering your idea, rather than just being indifferent. Now, put yourself in their shoes: you are being asked to adopt a solution that isn’t yours, and in many cases, where you were never even consulted. What are you going to see first: the negative or the positive aspects? Unless you’re implementing for the Dalai Lama, the downside will likely be the first reaction. 

When dealing with IT professionals, this natural reaction is compounded by years of formal training.  Pointing out bugs and defects (especially in other people’s work) is second nature for many in the IT profession. Recognizing that reflex behavior and balancing it with recognition for good work is a skill that IT folks must learn when they become managers and need to lead people. But that’s a topic for another post.

Objection-handling: the process

There are endless variations on objection-handling, but here’s one that can truly improve your quality of life at work, as a consultant or change agent. As shown at the bottom of the diagram, objections are usually rooted either in a misunderstanding (the easiest ones to address), or in a perceived drawback, requiring reframing.

This is just a teaser. My next column will describe the technique in detail, and explain how to apply each step in the process. Stay tuned.

Guy Couillard, president and founder of OTA (www.ota.ca), is a consultant focusing on the management of large scale change associated with the deployment of large technology projects such as SAP. Couillard specializes in the conceptual integration of the different disciplines related to the successful adoption of IT-driven innovations, namely risk management, organizational change & knowledge management, communications and branding, value realization and program management. 

Read more of his columns here.

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