How to read minds: Use these “tells” to make uncertain decisions

Written by: Karl Sakas

When you’re making decisions, you rarely have all the info you need—you need to decide with incomplete or conflicting data.

For example, some job candidates will tell you anything to get hired. And when you’re considering a prospective client, they won’t volunteer that they’ll become your most-annoying client. Fortunately, there are behaviors and words and other indicators that serve as a “tell” for what you really need to know.

A “tell” is a substitute or proxy for something else. It comes from poker—where an opponent’s physical tic is often a “tell” that their hand isn’t as good as they say verbally. Wiktionary notes that a “tell” is:

“A reflexive, often habitual behavior, especially one occurring in a context that often features attempts at deception by persons under psychological stress (such as a poker game or police interrogation), that reveals information that the person exhibiting the behavior is attempting to withhold.”

In publicly-traded companies, several executives unloading their shares is often a sign that the company is in trouble. (Or when several execs quit, as happened at Evernote.) “Tells” are less relevant when people don’t have a reason to deceive you. Tells aren’t foolproof, either—but they may be the best data available to you at the time.

At your agency, you can use publicly-available decisionmaking “tells” as substitutes for honest answers that the other parties might not be inclined to provide on their own.

As my former therapist liked to say, “people usually tell you everything you need to know about them… if only you pay attention.

Decisionmaking Tells

“Tells” can apply in all kinds of situations in your agency. They’re most helpful in negotiations—especially if it’s a “zero-sum game” scenarios.

Here, I’ll share example “tells” when you’re hiring employees, managing people, speaking with prospective clients in the sales process, managing current clients, considering a prospective business partner, and working with an outside vendor. Let’s dig in!

Hiring & Managing Employees

  • “Tell” for employee tenure = How stable is their career history?
  • “Tell” for employee motivation = Do they take initiative, and do professional development on their own time?

During the Sales Process

  • “Tell” for client tenure = What’s the client’s history and tenure at other agencies?
  • “Tell” for sales prospect fit = Do they follow and respect your sales process?
  • “Tell” for sales trust = How much do they share in the sales process, and how early?
  • “Tell” for sales speed = How fast do they complete your sales intake questionnaire?

Client Account Management & PM

  • “Tell” for clients respecting the agency-client relationship = Do they pay their invoices on time?
  • “Tell” for clients respecting your advice = Do they ask your advice before making major decisions?
  • “Tell” for clients appreciating you = Do they refer and recommend you to prospective clients?
  • “Tell” for needing an OOS change order = Are they going over budget early in the project?

Agency Business Strategy

  • “Tell” for business partner fit = Are they self-aware, and do they demonstrate a track record of not taking ethical shortcuts?
  • “Tell” for evaluating advice = What’s their likely bias in the matter, and does that impact how the advice applies to me?

Proxies in Other Situations

  • “Tell” for service provider fit = Do they listen closely, asking questions instead of just talking?
  • “Tell” for vendor being reliable = Do they meet their commitments, manage your expectations, and take ownership when they make a mistake?

Applying Decisionmaking Tells at Your Agency

You’ll likely think of other “tells” (or proxies or substitutes) based on your experience, beyond the sample list I’ve shared above.

The key is to observe others carefully. Sometimes this requires having someone else in the room or on the video call, so they can observe others as you interact with them. (It’s hard to speak and observe at the same time, especially if you’re the one running the meeting.)

Ultimately, decisionmaking “tells” help you keep moving forward without waiting for complete information that may never arrive.

Question: What “tells” have you observed to help you make better decisions faster at your agency?

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