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Charm Offensive

Stephen White

The Oxford English Dictionary defines charm as ‘the power or quality of delighting, attracting, or fascinating others’.  It is a word which has been much used recently about the newly elected Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, in particular in connection with the speech he made to the United Nations General Assembly on September 24th. It is difficult to know how much the world’s perception of his charm is actually a reflection on the lack of this same quality in his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.  But whatever the cause,  the result is that Western politicians who have for so long been skeptical about the official Iranian line that their nuclear development program is entirely peaceable, and who firmly believe that Iranian support of the Assad regime is the pivotal reason that the regime survives,  now appear to be prepared to take more seriously President Rouhani’s platitudes on these issues (you can read a transcript of his speech  here ). As a result, negotiations on both issues which were stalled for years have now restarted, with the Iranian influence significantly upgraded as a result of Mr Rouhani’s charm offensive.

 My point is neither to condemn nor condone President Rouhani, but to ask a more general question about charm - do ‘charming’ people have more success as negotiators? In commercial circles the arguments appear polarized – sales people believe that their ability to form relationships with their customers is a major factor in winning business, growing business and preventing business being lost to competitors.  On the other side many buyers adopt tactics to deter these relationships from evolving, so enabling commerce to be conducted in an environment devoid of personality. The ultimate expression of this dilemma is the increasing use of RFPs, e-auctions, and other similar mechanical buying methods, which remove almost every chance that humanity might impinge on the commercial process.

But all of us respond to charisma. That is why even the most analytical of buyers for whom the facts are king and emotion is poisonous use methods to try to eliminate their exposure to charm, because they know that deep down they are just as susceptible to it as everyone else. And it is why within good sales organizations you can always find charming people adept at forming relationships and displaying characteristics which make people want to listen to them and respond positively to them.

Fairly obvious so far. What is less obvious from the way which most companies do business is that salespeople are just as susceptible to charm as procurement people. So organizations which employ charming buyers at the top of their procurement tree find that much of the time the deals they get are at least as good as those obtained by their charmless (and often aggressive) colleagues, and that these deals are considerably more sustainable. It’s not rocket science – suppliers are far more likely to look after their charming client contacts than their nightmare customers. They do so because a bi-product of charm is the generation of trust. In general parties which trust each other get better deals than those who don’t because they are more open and more creative with the variables at play.

Don’t confuse this syndrome with the old saying that ‘nice guys finish last’. We’re not talking about inconsequential people here.  On the contrary, charismatic people on both sides of the table have to competent to merit the accolade.

Of course there are always exceptions. By all accounts Bernie Madoff was a charming guy, and he conned thousands of seriously intelligent people who thought they could trust him. Similarly Frank Abagnale Jnr, played by Leonardo di Caprio in the 2003 movie Catch Me If You Can did the same thing.

And President Rouhani……?

Stephen White

Inspired by Judy Montagu

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