Don’t Paint in Seagulls

This is another commonly used analogy from Sandler selling, equally applicable to any other conversation you might have. Again, I’m doing this from memory, so maybe they teach it better than I do.

The Story

A little girl comes rushing in to the kitchen to show her father a painting she’s just done. It’s a picture of the beach, with waves, sand, shells, happy people under umbrellas, the works. She’s beaming. The father looks at the painting and says “That’s a really great painting, honey! it looks terrific! But, you know, there’s no seagulls in the painting. There’s always lots of seagulls at the beach. Let’s just add a seagull right here above the water….” and with that, the father reaches out and makes two short brush strokes on the painting, adding in a seagull. He sits back, pleased with this opportunity to help his daughter out. 

The little girl bursts into tears. The father’s confused – “What’s wrong?” to which the little girl wails, “But when I thought of what I wanted to paint, I didn’t see a seagull there!”

What Went Wrong

Nobody’s surprised by the outcome of this story, right? You can see it coming a mile away – of course the little girl’s going to be upset! She wanted to show her work – she wanted to hear “Wow, that’s terrific! Let’s hang it on the fridge!” Not “That’s good, but I can make it better.” As a parent, I can tell you though, it’s really easy to end up in situations like this, especially with little ones.

But let’s pretend for a minute, all art criticism aside, that in the end, the little girl’s painting really was improved by adding in that seagull. In theory, the Dad did her a favor – he made her work better. The problem is, he did it without her buy in. He just jumped in and said “here’s what you need to do.” To make matters worse, he went and did it for her. 

When you put your own little touch on someone else’s masterpiece, or when you add in something to an opportunity that the client doesn’t think they need or want, we call that painting in a seagull. It’s bad. You don’t want to do it.

That feels obvious, but this happens all the time. Here’s a real world example:

A Real-Life Seagull Story 

A few years ago, we were having serious problems with our internet connection and wireless system at the office – multiple outages per day, exceeding the maximum concurrent number of connections, dropped phone calls, the works. It was a nightmare. We had a company on retainer to do IT troubleshooting, but all they ever did was send a guy out to reboot the switch and then charge us $300.00. I went on the hunt for a solution. One of the first companies I called was an existing telecom vendor of ours, because we’d worked with them in the past, they already had the lease on our T1 line (yes, we had a T1 line in 2012. I know. That’s a story for a different day), and they offered a range of outsourced infrastructure services.

I met with a sales rep, I explained our problems, and I told him “What I’m looking for is a solution to our outages, and a partner who can provide us not just with the right hardware, but who can make sure they’re configured correctly, and also monitor them and proactively work with our vendors, like Time Warner, when there’s an issue. My biggest, number 1 pain point right now is, my wireless network isn’t keeping up with our growth, and we need an answer for that STAT.”

The rep listened, took notes, repeated everything back to me, he was crystal clear. He said, “Glenn, I hear you, and I’m going to put together a plan that takes care of all your problems.” I was really excited – this guy got it!

A week later he comes back to the office. He’s got a stack of paper with him. He says, “Glenn, I think you’re really going to like this proposal. So I’m just going to jump right in – this is a plan for a new fiber line, and we’re going to move you over to our managed phone system. Here’s the quote.” Then he hands me a piece of paper and sits back, pleased as punch.

Frankly, I was furious – there was nothing in there about a new wireless solution. There was nothing in there about monitoring or vendor management. He was handing me a quote with all kinds of good things in it, but not a bit of what I’d originally asked for. He wasn’t selling to my pain points, I decided, he was selling to his commission check. I felt unheard as a customer, and frankly like I was being taken for a ride. He’d painted two giant seagulls into my painting, and I was really ticked off.

I didn’t exactly throw them out of the building, but needless to say they didn’t get our business. The real irony? We absolutely needed a fiber line, and a few months later, we got one. Just not from them.

Not Just for Sales

This concept is applicable in a lot of situations. You can see it at play any time somebody has an idea they want to run with, and they say “I’d like your feedback on this.” Most of the time, they don’t really want your feedback. They want you to tell them it’s a good idea. Sometimes they really do want your feedback, but it’s hard to tell the difference.

We have a lot of really smart people on staff at Headspring, and smart people have ideas, and frequently strong opinions. We also have a strong culture of execution, which means we tend to want to jump in and make “improvements” with our own two hands.

“The code looks good, but you should re-do it using BDD-style tests.” (seagull)

“I know you hired us to do an assessment for incremental enhancements to the application, but what if we re-wrote it from the ground up instead?” (seagull)

“Let’s add one more stretch goal to your quarterly objectives, mmm-kay?” (seagull)

Wrapping Up

First off – when you’re dealing with clients, remember – they’ve got their own vision of what should go into their painting. Make sure you’re not painting in seagulls with ideas, plans, proposals, or implementations without realizing it. Leave your paint brushes at home before you get on that sales call, or the pitch at the end of a solution assessment!

Secondly – we still need to get things done and seek a better way, which means you’ll find yourself frequently wanting or needing to provide feedback to somebody. Avoiding the seagulls doesn’t mean not giving feedback – it means you have to do it without it turning into “Here’s what you need to do. in fact, here, let me do it.” Doing THAT effectively will have to wait for another day – I don’t want these articles getting too long!