How to give feedback in your SaaS organization

How to give feedback in your SaaS organization from Demo Solutions Founder Ed Jaffe is giving you ways to deliver feedback, not only professionally, but there are tips here, universally. Click here for a direct consultation.

“I’m going to give you feedback”

Not “can I give you some feedback?” or “are you open to some feedback?” or some other way of making sure it was a two way conversation.

“I’m going to give you feedback.”

I still tense up, just seeing those words in writing. Some of my colleagues had panic attacks on the way to work because of these words. Because nothing good ever came after them. Big or small, public or private, that phrase was always what started it.

A bit of context – this was when Radical Candor was starting to take off. And, while there are some good ideas in Radical Candor, many people take it at its surface. “We use radical candor, so even if I’m an asshole, I’m just being radically candid. You’re the problem, not me.”

The worst part? There were elements of truth in the feedback, but that culture was so obsessed with giving everyone feedback, that no one stopped and asked how it should be given. There was also an unintended consequence of creating fear among just about everyone. Because you never knew when someone will pull you aside (or very publicly) to tell you how they think you screwed up.

Can you think of a time someone said something mean or hurtful? Even it was from years ago? Maybe even from when you were a kid? We all have these sorts of memories, and thinking about it now, how does it make you feel? Scared? Angry? Hurt? Even if these instances are years or even decades old, our bodies don’t understand that these are memories and not current threats.

Whoever said “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” clearly never interacted with someone who “just wanted to give them feedback.”

There are lots of other ways humans preface negative feedback, and all of them have the same effect:

  • With all due respect (no one ever says anything respectful after this)
  • No offense (if it wasn’t offensive, why was this phrase necessary?)
  • I hope you don’t take this the wrong way, but… (oh you don’t, do you? Maybe don’t say it)

Not all feedback is created equally. And, as my mom has told me my whole life, “it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.” Many of us, when giving feedback, do so with good intentions. We just don’t quite know the right way to do it. Giving good feedback is hard, and it takes time and effort to learn how to do it well.

Over the past few years, I’ve had the privilege of coaching hundreds of sales and presales professionals. I’ve also been fortunate to have Taunya Bunte at 2Win! as a mentor, and in my time with her I have learned how effectively give feedback in a way that doesn’t make the recipient feel bad. Here are some of the top lessons that I’ve learned in my time as a coach.

Feedback in Five Steps

How to give feedback in your SaaS organization in Five Steps.

  1. Make sure the recipient is ready

We’re not always ready to take in feedback, especially if it’s unexpected.

If there is a performance review, or some other expectation of feedback, then sure – it’s fine to give it. Or, if there’s an expectation that you’ll debrief after the call/meeting (never in the parking lot, as another mentor, Mike Fazio, reminded me more than once), then that’s great.

But walking up to someone and starting with “I’m going to give you some feedback.” Is not the way to do it. Because that triggers our fight-or-flight response. An emotional threat is as serious to the brain as a physical one, and it will react accordingly. And going up to someone without warning IS threatening. So instead, set a time to talk through something. It will always lead to a better conversation.

2. Know when they’ve had enough

Even if we’re is ready and expecting feedback, there is a point at which we are “coached out.” This is the point where we are at that emotional edge. When all it takes it just one more thing to really ruin our day.

As a coach, it’s my job to watch for that point. Everyone has different physical signals, but they are always there if you’re looking, and not always as obvious as crossed arms.

I look primarily at facial expressions – particularly at the eyes. Are the eyes expressive and ready to take more in? Are they wide in surprise, like I said something unexpected? Are they narrowed in frustration? Are the eyebrows furrowed in anger? Where are they looking – at me, or somewhere else? Rolling their eyes up?

The “I’ve been coached enough” look is pretty similar to the “I’ve been standing in this line too long and just want to get on this stupid airplane” look, but less obvious/exasperated.

Because I don’t always know how quickly someone will get to this point, triaging feedback is critical. If I have 10 things I could say, I on the 3 or 4 most impactful things I will say. Then, if there’s time and if the recipient is open to it, I can say more stuff. Too much minor stuff at the beginning can mean that I don’t get to say the stuff that’s really going to make a difference.

3. Let them start

I got a parking ticket for $75 today. In front of my house. I’m really upset about it (stupid City of Evanston), but when saying something about it to my wife, I didn’t need her to say anything. I was just venting, and I knew that hearing it from someone else would just make me feel worse.

Most of the time, the person you’re talking to knows what they did – good and bad So let them celebrate their victories and deal with their own mistakes.

By bringing up what they thought they did well (and you’ll have to remind them to stay positive as they WILL go negative), the person you’re coaching will be more likely to take that feedback in. Not just say it or hear it, but believe it. Then, your confirmation makes them feel even better about it.

One they say what they did well, then (and only then) add a few things. This not only keeps their good mood going, but it lets you add things they might have missed. It also can buy time when there isn’t always a whole lot of positive to start with.

For constructive feedback (and I do mean constructive – not “negative,” or “criticism”), again, the key is to let them start. They will usually get the big stuff out of the way, and all I have to do is acknowledge it. This also shows that they’ve already internalized whatever the feedback was, so there’s no need to pile on. Instead, I can focus on a few things to add that they may not have picked up on, and that lets us get more coaching in before they’re coached out.

Another reason to start with constructive – I get a window into how the recipient is feeling. Sometimes they feel upset about something that I didn’t even pick up on (or, for that matter, the entire audience), so if that’s the case I can tell them so, and they will usually feel better. Then, and only then, is my coaching going to have an impact.

4. Let them off the hook

This is a big one. Most of what I see in demos is common, and the mistakes are unintentional. No one sets out to give a “bad” demo, and people often don’t even know they did something that didn’t work.

I’m not saying to not acknowledge what happened, you absolutely can, but this is about the why not the what. It’s letting someone feel that, yes this wasn’t ideal, but it’s ok. A few things I might say or do in this situation:

  • Address the room – either with body language (turning to face everyone, not just the person receiving the coaching) or with words (“this is for everyone…”)
  • “I understand why you did X, it was because…”
  • “I used to do the exact same thing, because X, and I do Y instead”

The whole point is to tell someone that the mistake is normal, and making mistakes is OK. When your give feedback in a SaaS organization, as in life, you are not looking to cause pain.

5. Help them come to their own conclusions

I don’t believe in negative reinforcement as a coach. Pain/punishment avoidance might work in the short term, but it won’t drive long term behaviors. Instead, I want to help someone find their why. Why should they change a behavior? What’s in it for them?

It’s not “because my coach/boss/parent/teacher” said to do it. It’s like the old joke – “how many shrinks does it take to change a lightbulb? One, but the lightbulb has to want to change.”

If I just tell someone to do something or not to do something, maybe that will work, but, most likely, it won’t. Instead, it’s my job to help them figure things out on their own. To ask good questions, to give good advice, and to know when to get out of the way.

And to meet them where they are. Sometimes it can be harder to get someone to change a whole bunch of things or do see the value in doing things differently. So, instead of fighting them, I need to go to where they are, have some empathy to see things from their perspective and help them get to where they want to go.

It’s sort of like sales/demoing/presenting – telling someone “buy my stuff and your life will be better” doesn’t actually work. Instead, they need to see for themselves how it’ll work.

How to give feedback in your SaaS organization, Finally

Consider the intent, delivery, and context of your feedback in the terms laid out by Demo Solutions Founder, Ed Jaffe. So, we want to hear from you.

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