Discovery: The Key to Constructive Feedback

Just one of those days

We’ve all had those days: the day where your coworker is just working your last nerve. It could be from a poorly run customer-facing presentation, a dismissive comment in an internal meeting, or just ONE more zero context demo invite added to your calendar without a “heads up” first. So what do you do? Message a snarky comment to someone you can trust? Text your work-spouse with the “OMG I need to vent” qualifier? Maybe an emergency Zoom meeting with your manager or mentor?

What about actually providing that feedback to them directly? Shocking, right? Somehow that idea rarely enters our minds. It’s easier just to suck it up and shake it off; or work around them. Maybe they’re the butt of a joke here or there (no judgement).

But what if the roles were reversed? Self-awareness is one of the required skills of a successful PreSales professional, but even the best of us have our blind spots. Wouldn’t you want to know? Of course you would! But often sharing these sentiments can be nerve-wracking. If your feedback doesn’t land, you run the risk of hurt feelings, damaging relationships, and an uncomfortable working environment, which invariably affects performance on both sides.

How do you mitigate this risk? Discovery!

These concerns are real, but if you adopt an inquisitive mindset and follow a few simple steps, you can protect yourself, strengthen relationships, and improve your enjoyment of your day to day. These follow-on effects can also lead to improved performance on both sides, and therefore closing more deals. And the process starts with everyone’s favorite first step.

As easy as 1 2 3...

1) Prepare Beforehand

Just as you wouldn’t go into discovery without any preparation, nor should you walk into a situation where you have to give feedback.

“Seek first to understand, then be understood,” is one of my favorites of Stephen Covey’s “7 Habits of Highly Effective People”. In order to provide effective feedback to someone, you need to understand their perspective. Assume good intent, and go in prepared to do some initial discovery.

Be in a judgement free zone. Judgement is not the same as feedback, so ensure you’re going in without any emotional attachment. If it has gotten to the point where you get frustrated just thinking about their behavior, it might be wise to try some deep breathing or meditation in advance to make sure you can take emotions out of it.

Set the stage. Set up some dedicated time to talk, and ensure that the topic of conversation is positive. “Hey, I’ve got some ideas on how we can partner together from H2, and would love to hear yours as well.”

2) Recipe for Success: The Compliment Pizza!

We’ve all heard of the compliment sandwich, but opening and closing with the same positive thing can be redundant at best, and counterproductive at worst, as it cancels out whatever came in the middle.

Step Zero: Ask first. You wouldn't deliver your pizza without a box, would you? Similarly, asking for permission boxes up your feedback. Sometimes, something as simple as “Hey can I provide you some feedback? I’ve got some ideas if you would like to hear them,” can make your audience more receptive. Even if mentioned in the calendar invite, it’s a great way to segue from banter to substance.

Step One: Start with something positive. This will build a strong foundation of trust and establish empathy. And, please make it genuine!

Step Two: Consolidate your talking points - no more than three. You’ve probably got more than a few examples, but make sure that you can roll them all up into a topic sentence or two, to ensure that it’s memorable. It also ensures that you don’t come across as rant-y. I made this mistake early in my career with one of my favorite sales guys, and still cringe when I think about (sorry, Mark!).

Step Three: Reiterate what’s positive to provide reassurance, and close with a positive call to action. Offer a few suggestions for next steps, and offer your help to re-establish that it’s a team effort.

  • “Let’s make sure that we have an extra dry run the day of.”
  • “I would be happy to provide some feedback on your talking points if you can get them to me the day before.”
  • “Is there something else I can do to help?”

Remember, feedback is for the behavior, not the person. Often the fear is that feedback will be taken personally by the recipient. Eliminate this possibility, by providing feedback on their actions not them personally. To that end, try to avoid using the second person singular. I know that this sounds awkward, but it goes a long way to providing some distance. If that’s too difficult, try using second person plural, to reinforce that it’s a team effort.

  • What not to say: “You wasted way too much time presenting those ”about us“ slides. Clearly no one cared, and you totally lost them.”
  • What to say: “Next time, let’s work on tightening up that introductory talk track, to ensure that everyone on the client side stays engaged.”

3) The Leave-Behind

Ensure that you have buy-in. There’s a chance that despite all of your effort, there might be some hurt feelings, or frustration. This risk can be mitigated if you ask them for their thoughts and feelings afterwards (or feedback on your feedback if you’re feeling meta).

This is also an opportunity to solicit feedback for yourself. Now that you’ve created a safe space, this can also be a great learning opportunity for you as well! Ask for their ideas on what you can improve. Even if you don’t really trust the source, per se, they might have a nugget or two of wisdom in there. And you’re also illustrating teamwork making the dream work.

Positive reinforcement! If the behavior continues, make sure to refer back to your original feedback session, and if they’re crushing it, make sure to give them lots of cyber high fives, or (even better) pass the compliment on to their manager.

Here's a quick visual to help bring it all together...

Now what?

I’ve never had a problem sharing my feelings, but sharing them constructively has been another matter entirely. Shifting my mindset a bit has made all the difference. A sample of my internal monologue:

  • Before: GAH, I’ve seen this pattern a million times! They can’t get out of their own way and I just can’t take it anymore!
  • After: OK I’ve started to identify a pattern. How can I acknowledge this person’s strengths (which, seriously, I don’t want them to lose), while still drawing attention to something potentially problematic that they probably haven’t noticed?

What’s the difference in the statements above? The punctuation marks! The same way that inquisitiveness is the key to providing the right solution for your customer, so is it the key to finding the right solution for your colleague.

The one thing that we all have in common is that we all want to grow, develop, and improve in our careers. When you withhold these observations, you deny your colleagues that opportunity. So stop silently seething, and start seeking.

Amy Ullman has a been a passionate Presales pro since 2015, a SaaS specialist since 2012, and a lover of alliteration since the mid ‘80s. Prior to working in technology, she became a certified sommelier (AKA wine expert), and is always available for recommendations. She’s currently a Senior Solution Engineer at Salesforce, and would love to connect on LinkedIn.

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The Leadership collective is a group designed for PreSales leaders in a management capacity (Manager+ title) who are looking to network, grow professionally, and actively participate.

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