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Drive More Sales by Stepping Out from Under the “Streetlight Effect”

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There is an old joke with a modern insight:

A police officer finds a man on his hands and knees on the sidewalk under a streetlight. The officer asks the man what he is doing. The man explains that he is looking for his keys. The officer then asks where the man last saw his keys. The man responds, “In the park.”

Confused, the officer asks why he is looking under a streetlight. The man responds, “This is where the light is.”

This story represents a common fallacy called “observational bias.” Instead of looking where we should for answers, we often turn our attention to the places where information is accessible and readily available, even if that information is flawed or irrelevant.

This bias limits our insight and even leads to false conclusions. The streetlight effect is well-known among those in the field of science. However, as increasingly sophisticated data and analytic tools pervade the selling industry, observational bias is a threat to sales professionals as well.

Numerous software tools offer fast, easily accessed data on a range of customer characteristics. These resources, like a pool of light on a sidewalk, only illuminate part of the picture. The rest is obscured. This, by itself, is not the problem. The problem is that we too often forget that there is more information in the darkness. Here, we look at:

  1. How the “Streetlight Effect” Became a Problem in Sales
  2. How Sales Professionals Can Expand Their Insights
  3. How to Use Insights to Drive the Sale

How the Streetlight Effect Became a Problem in Sales

Customer Relationship Management (CRM) systems have become the “streetlight.” They offer fast insights and a comprehensive array of metrics on customers. However, despite their robust power, a study from ZS Associates found that 72% of respondents “reported that their salespeople are not spending enough time on the company’s CRM platform.”


The study concludes that “one of the biggest barriers to greater CRM adoption is the accuracy of data.” The researchers learnt that when it comes to the kind of data that might generate sales, less than one in four respondents believed that the information was accurate. There’s plenty of light but no “key” to be found. CRM systems represent more than $40 billion in annual, global sales. They are ever-present, mobile, and tied to social media. The pervasiveness of these systems feeds our tendency to succumb to observational bias.

CRM data is readily available. Therefore, it becomes an easy “go-to” for sales professionals. Information across many data points is just a click away.

What CRM systems lack, however, is the information between these data points.

Sales professionals need to understand the people behind the information. They need to understand why leads are seeking a solution, what characteristics of the buyer’s journey might slow the sale, and how to overcome the inevitable objections that will arise. Sales professionals need more insight.

How Sales Professionals Can Expand Their Insights

It’s time for sales professionals to venture beyond the streetlight.

Expanding insight means asking questions that go beyond CRM data. Engaging in this consultative dialogue means exploring the customer’s underlying needs and using those details to position a tailored response and customised solution.

Consultative customer dialogues are effective because they help the sales professional track the ever-changing buyer journey. This capability is more important than ever because the buyer journey is dynamic and iterative. Needs and timelines change. Taking a proactive approach to these changes means moving beyond CRM systems to get involved in the “hidden dialogue.”

The sales professional’s dialogue with a stakeholder doesn’t always represent the buyer’s complete perspective. These outward conversations might contrast the hidden conversations among all other stakeholders behind closed doors. Sales professionals must be aware that these separate, buyer-side conversations are unfolding. They must also be proactive and seek inclusion into these dialogues. As customers work through the iterations of the process, sales professionals need a way to guide their thinking. Doing so helps drive the consensus-building process.

CRM systems may be able to identify when the buying process has stalled but not why it has stalled. Answering the “why” means accessing the hidden dialogues with customer conversations.

How to Use Insights to Drive the Sale

Accessing the hidden dialogue reveals what factors are impeding the process. Often, these factors include heightened sensitivity to risk, increased rigour in the decision process, and diminishing time and resources throughout the buyer’s journey.

Identifying these factors equips sales professionals to drive the sale by:

Driving the Customer’s Momentum

Driving momentum means understanding the decision-making process within the organisation. Uncovering this process means identifying the stakeholders, their needs, and their levels of influence. With this insight, sales professionals can develop a value message that resonates with each decision-maker. Sales professionals can maintain momentum by underscoring the solution’s value and the effectiveness other businesses have seen with implementation.

Becoming More Agile

The customer will have more questions as their understanding of the business challenge changes. Sales professionals need to be ready to address these questions immediately. Customers will view the sales professional’s agility as an early indicator of the ongoing relationship. The sales professional’s agility, especially in early stages, lays the groundwork for becoming a trusted advisor. This status is increasingly important as business needs and the corresponding solutions become more complicated.

Normalising Discussions of Risk

Sales professionals must normalise discussions of risk. They must help the customer understand that all decisions, even no decision, present risk. What’s important is that the risks are calculated, rightsized, and outweighed by beneficial outcomes. The challenge is that one’s baseline for “normal” is often characterised by ideal outcomes. That is, too many of us have unrealistic expectations that risk will be low and that reward will be high. Therefore, sales professionals must help acclimate the customer to an environment in which a degree of risk is commonplace. Rather than assure the avoidance of all risk, sales professionals must illustrate that the risks involved are acceptable, given expected benefits.

The Takeaway

CRM systems are a deep repository of information. However, deriving meaning from that information means getting the detail between the data points. Sales professionals must remember to step out of the convenience and ease of point-and-click insights and engage in meaningful dialogues with customers.

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