"The Navigator" News Blog

Your Biggest Obstacles are Your Own Assumptions!

I’m writing this as I am attending a conference in Las Vegas.  This is a conference that has drawn a lot of coaches, consultants, and yes – sales trainers.  One of them sat down next to me yesterday and his opening line (after a quick introduction) was, “You know, you can train a good salesperson to be an engineer a lot quicker than you can teach an engineer to be a salesperson.”  Well, I had the right to remain silent, but as they say, I didn’t have the ability.  I replied, “I strongly disagree.” I’ll explain why in a bit, but suffice it to say that the conversation wasn’t a long one, and he didn’t build the rapport that he thought he would with that comment.

His problem was that he made an assumption that I would agree with him 100%.  To be fair, I’ve heard a similar sentiment from a lot of other sales trainers – but my experiences have been completely the opposite.  I see salespeople making assumptions – and failing because of those assumptions – every day.

After I told him that I disagreed with him, I did what I always teach you to do.  I asked a question.  “What got you to that conclusion about engineers?”  He explained that he had recently come from a training class with engineers for an industrial company, and he had dreaded it, and that the experience had been difficult.  It seems that the engineers challenged many of his contentions about selling, and asked a lot of drill down questions that he found difficult to answer.  “They wouldn’t just take my word for it!” he exclaimed.

Here’s why he failed.  He went into the program with the anticipation that it would be a bad experience – and it was a self-fulfilling prophecy.  He wasn’t prepared to be asked a lot of questions.  Here’s the key with engineers.  They ask a lot of questions because they love to learn and asking questions is one of their tools for learning.  Considering that I believe that 80% of your chance to win a sale is through the questions you ask, the inquisitiveness of engineers is an asset, not a liability, and had he been open minded enough to leverage that characteristic, the program would have been beneficial and fun for him and for the engineering team.

When I talk to salespeople, many times I hear that they “already know what their customers need and want, and just have to explain how we give it to them.”  Not shockingly, these are not the most successful salespeople in their industries.

In today’s world, it’s easier than ever for salespeople to make unfounded assumptions about their prospects and customers. With so much data and information available at our fingertips, it can be tempting to review a company’s website, scan their social media, and jump to conclusions about their pain points and motivations before ever engaging with them directly.  It’s even more tempting for experienced salespeople, because they have seen so much, and yes, there are bound to be commonalities amongst your customers.  But you shouldn’t.

This approach of making assumptions is ultimately misguided and can severely undermine a salesperson’s effectiveness. Each customer is a unique individual with their own specific context, challenges, and decision-making criteria. What may seem obvious from the outside rarely captures the full picture of their reality on the ground.  Keep in mind the guy that approached me – he thought he knew what I was all about because of my profession.  He didn’t.  Admittedly, I’m a bit of a contrarian in my industry, but I’m sure I’m not the only person in the room who had had great experiences training engineers.

When you start a sales call with preconceived notions, you put yourself at a disadvantage from the start. You risk missing or overlooking key pieces of information that could fundamentally alter their understanding of your prospect’s situation, because you skip asking the important questions.  After all, why ask a question when you already know their needs? Worst of all, you disregard the basic need for every customer to feel truly heard and understood as an individual.

In the modern sales environment where skeptical buyers have access to endless information (just like you do), making assumptions is one of the surest ways to kill your credibility and rapport. On the other hand, leading with curiosity and entering each engagement with an open mind demonstrates attentiveness, emotional intelligence, and a genuine desire to provide personalized value.

Rather than making assumptions, embrace the following practices:

Ask Thoughtful, Probing Questions: Whether discovery questions, situational questions, or problem questions, the best salespeople ask a high volume of insightful questions to uncover the full story behind each prospect’s reality.  As I always say, “the worst question is the one you don’t ask.”

Listen Actively and Empathetically: Beyond just hearing the words, great salespeople listen for underlying tones, implications, and the “things unsaid” to develop a complete understanding.  And if it’s “unsaid,” now it’s time to ask some great drill-down questions to turn the “unsaid” into the “said.”  One of the best tools for listening, by the way, is to pre-plan some great questions.  Yep, I’m suggesting taking a “cheat sheet” into the sales call.  If you have something to refer back to in order to stay on track, you don’t have to think about what you’re going to ask next while your customer is talking – hence, you listen.  I’ve made thousands of sales calls in my career. I’ve had a cheat sheet for most of them (including my current ones). I’ve never had a customer say, “Hey, no fair!  You have questions planned.  Get outta here!”  You won’t, either.

Suspend Pre-Judgments: Skilled salespeople hold themselves back from rushing to any conclusions until they have thoroughly explored all angles of the situation through patient, open-ended dialogue.  My new friend at the conference had pre-judged the training experience before it happened and had already decided it would be a bad one.  Honestly, this make me wonder why he accepted the engagement in the first place!

Check and Confirm Understanding: Top performers frequently confirm and re-confirm their understanding by summarizing what they’ve heard in their own words, ensuring full alignment.  Checking questions aren’t hard, but remembering to use them can be.  Successfully navigating the Buyer’s Journey requires moving through it side-by-side with your buyer, not with you ahead and pulling the buyer through it.

The truth is that we are up to our necks in information, both digital (internet, social media, etc.) and experiential (the cumulative experience you have had and the experience of those you have been exposed to). The ability to shed assumptions and fully understand each unique customer’s reality has become one of the most powerful differentiators in sales. If you embrace open curiosity, you will build deeper customer relationships and you will be richly rewarded with insight, trust and long-term business value.

And you won’t embarrass yourself by starting a conversation in a way that immediately puts yourself on the opposite side of an issue.