The Power of Words
Words are powerful. The language we use in a casual conversation, a text, or in the boardroom can have extraordinary power and impact.
Words can equally destroy, limit, or curtail meaningful progress or conversation.
I recently came across a powerful new book, Expensive Sentences: Debunking the Common Myths that Derail Decisions and Sabotage Success, by Jack Quarles. He discusses the sentences or phrases that can derail progress and stop results.
I’m a student of good communication and have been all my life. And Jack’s observations and practical book upped my game immediately from Chapter 1. I’m sure you will enjoy learning to recognize these sentences and strategies and how to handle them as they arise.
Jack Quarles is the founder of Buying Excellence, a company helping businesses choose the best vendor possible. He is a specialist on expense management, negotiations, and increasing ROI.
How to Spot the Expensive Sentence
Give us an example of an “expensive sentence.”
Skip, here are a few I’ve heard in the last week:
“I’m too busy to look at that now.”
“She’s the only one who can do the job.”
“It’s too late to change our plans.”
They surround us. Sometimes they take the form of proverbs, like, “You can’t change horses in mid-stream,” or “Rome wasn’t built in a day.” Others can be very localized, like, “Our boss isn’t interested in new marketing tactics,” or “That’s just Ted being Ted.”
How are expensive sentences related to poor communication?
Unfortunately, Expensive Sentences have the effect of ending conversations and stopping communication. For example, imagine that you and I are discussing which consultant to hire for a project, and I say, “Well, you get what you pay for.” That phrase has weight; it sounds wise and definitive. You will probably think I am quite set in that position (of hiring the higher-priced consultant), even though I may only be 60% sure that it applies here. I’d be better off qualifying my words before they define our decision, and you might be smart to gently respond, “Yes, it’s often true that you do have to pay for higher quality… but is that true in this case? Or could that be an Expensive Sentence?”
Myths that Drive Decision-Making
Jack, you debunk many common myths that drive corporate decision-making. And then you give suggestions on how to handle them. I’d love to delve into a few, starting with, “The customer is always right.” You give examples of where customers are mistaken. Would you share one and the implications?
In the book, I share about a meeting I took part in with the CEO of Five Guys, Jerry Murrell. They’ve grown with a franchise model, and so they have customers who run restaurants (franchisees) and customers who eat burgers (“French fries-ees” – sorry, couldn’t resist!) Lots of people associate burgers with milkshakes, and a common request/complaint is that Five Guys should sell milkshakes. Other customers would love to see turkey sandwiches or coffee on the menu.
Murrell sees these potential expansions as diversions; he has always been laser-focused on burgers & fries. The chain prides itself on being the best reviewed restaurant in the world, in part because they serve such limited fare. If they were to start offering other items, they’d be graded on the average of their full menu, and Five Guys is not confident they can make what would universally be considered the best milkshake or turkey sandwich or cup of coffee in the world. (Burgers & fries? Done.)
There are only two reasons that our customers are “wrong” with their requests: either they add too much cost for us to serve them sustainably (i.e., profitably), or they lead us in the wrong direction, away from our core business. We must be clear and confident about our business model to avoid letting customers steer us in the wrong direction. This can be tricky because sometimes we need to experiment, and business models can evolve. But over-responsiveness is a proven path to exhaustion and losses.
Five Guys is an extreme example of focus (even within the restaurant industry), but note their success. Clearly, it’s not “wrong” in the abstract to want a turkey sandwich or a milkshake with your burger; the point is that’s not the kind of experience that Five Guys is offering.
How wide-ranging is your “menu”? Where does your business draw the line? What are the wrong kind of customers? Do you currently have a client who might be better served by one of your competitors? These are great questions to discuss with your team.
How about one of my favorites: “That’s the way we’ve always done it.” What are a few possible responses to that expensive sentence?
I call this one the most expensive sentence that you’ve never heard, because few of us would confess such a weak rationale. To say, “That’s the way I’ve always done it” when challenged is akin to shrugging your shoulders and saying, “I dunno,” or “Whatever.” It reveals a lack of curiosity and purpose that could be alarming to others on your team.
But if we examine our actions, we’ll see that we often rely on tradition, precedent, inertia, and following the path of least resistance. That’s not all bad; habit and routine are necessary to reduce the decisions that we make every day. The important thing is to question where you put your greatest resources and make sure they are aligned to your goals. We can start by asking basic questions about our expected practices:
Why do we go to that conference?
What’s the goal of this meeting?
Why is our pricing structured in this way?
Are we sure we need a customer service team?
Do we really need to sell that product?
On teams with limited resources, we should constantly be asking ourselves if we’re doing the right things, and then ask if we’re doing those things in the best way. Whenever we can prune a non-productive effort or expedite something worth doing… we need to do it! Try a non-accusatory suggestion, like:
“I’m sure we started doing it that way for very good reasons, but we know more now than we did then and there might be an opportunity to improve. Let’s spend ten minutes talking through why and how we’re doing this, and whether there might be a better way to advance our goals. Neither of us wants to waste our time.”
“We’re different.” It’s another sentence that tries to shut down the conversation. How do you handle this one?
The tricky thing about being “different” and “special” and “unique” is that in much of life those are positive attributes. But again, it depends where those adjectives lead you. Sadly, claims of difference are often dodges and excuses, reasons to not adapt or improve.
“The competitor offers this feature, but we can’t because…”
“Our department can’t follow that policy because…”
“There’s nothing we can do to reduce our cost because…”
“That particular customer relationship is special because…”
“I’d love to make that change in my personal life, but I can’t because…”
Change can be costly and painful. One theory on the subject suggests that people will only change when the pain of staying the same is greater than the pain of changing. It’s appropriate to discuss the consequences and implications that follow if a person or team continues to claim exemption because they are different. Sometimes that means pointing toward the accountability of the marketplace:
“Does our next big prospect care about that difference? Will he buy from us even though we can’t do what other companies will do?”
“Does the CEO of the company accept this difference? Will she buy that explanation when she sees your group holding back the rest of the company?”
These responses may almost sound threatening, but the intent is to help someone break free from false restrictions so that they can move forward. Exemption and isolation are dangerous for individuals and teams. Enabling and encouraging fictitious “differences” doesn’t help anyone.
How to Respond to the Expensive Sentence
The wisdom in this book comes from your years of helping organizations and particularly your experience in purchasing. You’ve seen these sentences used. How do you teach people to spot expensive sentences and respond appropriately?
What’s ironic is that I’m a person who loves sayings, phrases, and little tidbits of wisdom. When they’re used properly, they are brilliant! We don’t want to throw out the good with the bad, because most of these sentences are useful in the right context.
To discern between good advice and Expensive Sentences, look at the fruit. I’ve boiled it down to three adjectives on the “BOLO” list (that is, to Be On the LookOut for):
If you end up with the notion that something is scarce, someone is special, or that you are stuck, then you know you’re under the grip of an Expensive Sentence. There will be a cost in
time, money, or opportunity. Maybe it’s inescapable… after all, some things truly are expensive, and there are some occasions in life when we have little choice. My belief is that these occasions are extremely rare, and that in almost every circumstance we can improve our options and find alternatives.
Fighting Expensive Sentences is a team sport. It’s usually easier to hear others say them than to realize when we’re saying them ourselves. A good first step in responding is to simply say, “Joe, I know it seems like we are stuck here, but I want to think and talk about it more because I feel like we’re buying into an Expensive Sentence that may not be true.”
My position is that we always have more options than we realize. But we’ll never find them if we are convinced that they don’t exist.
Would you share the “engage, examine, and enlighten” strategy to expensive sentences?
When someone blurts out an Expensive Sentence—particularly an egregious one like, “That’s the way we’ve always done it,” or “We have to use him; he’s the best!” or “We need it yesterday”—it can be tempting to respond with a sneer or a snarky comment. But implying that those on your team are blockheads won’t really advance the sense of psychological safety that high-functioning teams require.
We should remember that nearly every Expensive Sentence has some connection to the truth, and that provides an opening to find something positive to build on.
Engage Examine Enlighten is a conversational model to get to better ideas and a brighter future. It corresponds to three specific questions about an Expensive Sentence or any sort of limiting belief:
- Why is it true?
- When is it true?
- What if it’s not true?
We engage by affirming that the sentence contains truth. For example, if my teammate says, “You get what you pay for,” I might allow that, “Yes, in many situations there is a correlation between price and quality.” The assumption behind the question is that there is some valid rationale in the person’s statement and position. That seems so basic, but this is the most important step of the process. It is critical to build rapport and trust if your goal is to help someone reframe their perspective.
Once that rapport exists, you can proceed with an evaluation of the circumstances without an individual feeling threatened. This is the Examine phase, and we ask the question, “When is it true?” Now we can get specific about the context. We might say, “Higher priced consultants often have greater experience; is that true in this case? Also, higher priced consultants sometimes have greater availability or work longer hours… would those features be relevant to this project and the results we are seeking?” This is the time to write on the whiteboard, make bullet point lists, and get specific about goals and costs.
Finally, we ask, “What if it’s not true?” Because Expensive Sentences hold us back, it is freeing when we realize that they are false. There’s a payout, a benefit to finding more options. We might still be 80% sure that the Expensive Sentence applies, but if there’s a great outcome on the other side, we will work harder to see if that 20% can happen.
“Maybe there’s a skilled consultant who wants to work with a company like us, and they’d charge less. If we find that person, we could spend the extra money on the new hire we’ve been wanting!”
It’s work to find more options and claw out of the trap of Expensive Sentences. When we see the payoff, we’ll often conclude it’s well worth the effort.
Build a Team Culture to Limit the Damage of Expensive Sentences
Is there a type of organizational culture, or even leadership style, where expensive sentences thrive more often?
That’s a wonderful question. We all have cognitive biases that make us vulnerable to these sentences and limiting beliefs. We can’t remove our biases, but we can acknowledge them and take steps to limit their negative impact.
If I were to flip your question, I think we can build individual habits and team cultures that limit the damage of Expensive Sentences. The first step is an openness to being wrong and to learning. Oddly, I think that leaders who are more accepting of mistakes are better at learning how to make fewer of them. It’s also helpful to simply recognize that decision-making is a skill, and one of the most important skills at any organization. Your team can improve at selling, it can improve at operations, it can improve at financial planning… and it can improve its skill in decision-making.
Some people who resist these expensive sentences may be labeled or defined as slowing things down or resisting change. What advice do you give to the people who try to practice what’s in your book, but find others fight them in order to advance their own agenda?
Resistance takes many forms, including individuals who will not want to change. I see so much of that in myself—I’m talking about reluctance to change and a fondness for stability—that I’m inclined to be patient with others who are a bit stuck in their ways. In fact, I almost expect that everyone’s first reaction will be resistance. So my initial advice for fellow slayers of Expensive Sentences would be: have patience. Give others a chance to improve on their first instincts. Talk about shared goals and the future. Paint a picture of where you’re headed and how it will benefit everyone. It’s sort of like selling: If you only talk about the cost, then prospects will be fixated on the cost. It’s critical to sell the value.
Skip, it’s worth it. This isn’t just about saving a few dollars at work. We all know people that feel stuck when they don’t really have to be: in the wrong relationship, in a negative work environment, on a career path that doesn’t suit them. When we build the skills of helping people see more options, we can play a key role in changing lives for the better.
Expensive Sentences: Debunking the Common Myths that Derail Decisions and Sabotage Success