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Facts, Assumptions and 200 Years of the Poison Apple

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agrodnitzky22 August 2017Blog

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We need to make assumptions in life; we would never move forward without them.  However, we need to periodically check, or even change, them because unquestioned assumptions can appear as facts.

Proof of this is found in the unlikeliest of places:  the tomato, a plant once so feared people called it the “poison apple.”

Those living in the 1700s frequently became sick after eating tomatoes. Many died. People believed that it was so dangerous that it was classified in a family of plant species carrying the name "deadly nightshade."

Yet, the tomato they feared was identical to the one we enjoy today. So, why were people terrified of tomatoes? The answer lies in their assumptions.

Many Europeans at the time ate from plates made of pewter, an alloy high in lead. The acidity in tomatoes is strong enough to leach this lead from the surface. For 200 years, they assumed the tomato was to blame.

Even the most faulty assumptions can persist for centuries.

The story of the tomato serves as a reminder of how assumptions can mislead and cause bad decision making — two big threats for people in sales. Pursuing an opportunity or growing an account has a lot to do with making frequent strategic and tactical decisions. If those pursuit decisions are based on faulty information — due to assumptions versus facts — the path chosen can lead to loss or no decision.

As sellers prepare for meetings with buyers, they need to make assumptions. But, after that, they need to seek to clarify, correct, and change their assumptions through the pursuit of facts.  Facts can be the reality of what is happening in a buyer’s organisation, as well as what a buyer perceives to be true.  Both are important to know to ensure that a seller’s assumptions are corrected or validated.

Sellers can do this by digging deeper and re-examining their long-held assumptions.  The process begins by acknowledging our tendency to cling too firmly to the first bit of information we encounter — a phenomenon known as anchoring. We are prone to this cognitive bias because moving beyond assumptions is difficult. It requires the work of going deeper to reveal the facts. Effective sellers do this by asking more questions and sharing ideas to deepen a dialogue.

This concept of distilling facts through questioning is the foundation of a consultative selling approach that widens the purview of both parties. Without an accurate diagnosis of the problem, sellers can never form their solution positioning strategy.

However, questioning alone is not enough. The strongest sellers leverage better questions by adhering to a few key techniques:

Move Away from Obvious Questions

Avoid the questions that simple, preliminary research will answer.  Instead, ask questions with range and depth. This approach is intimidating because deeper questions may reveal business challenges that the seller is unequipped to solve. Despite this, the answers to these questions almost always reveal at least one “in” for the seller. Additionally, incisive questions illustrate the seller’s customer-focused approach that is lacking in today’s rushed world.

Leading Questions Kill

Effective sellers don’t design questions with the intent to elicit a specific response. Instead, they ask questions that will uncover hidden truths about the business need at hand. Leading questions appear manipulative. Customers feel that they’re being pushed into a corner. Have the confidence that your product will connect to at least some of the answers.

Aim for Quality — Not Quantity — with Your Questions

The customer’s time is limited. Patience runs thin in a world of instant gratification. Therefore, sellers today need to cull their list of questions. Doing so means allowing room for drill-down questions. These are the questions that ask why in response to the customer’s last answer. This approach is critical because, often, the first few responses only offer surface-level detail. The connection between the product and the solution is hiding in the drill-down questions. This strategy takes time. However, by narrowing the focus, it ultimately saves time.

Objections Can Lead to Opportunities

Sellers face immense pressure daily. Quotas loom large. As a result, too many sellers respond to a customer’s objection by attempting to justify. However, strong sellers take the opportunity to understand why the customer has the concern. This kind of question reveals the underlying hesitation. Many times, this information is useful because it guides the seller to clarify a characteristic of the solution or capability unknown to the customer.

Connect the Dots

Now more than ever, selling means facing many decision makers. In fact, a Harvard Business Review study revealed that an average of 5.4 people are involved in every purchasing decision. Sellers must take this constellation of data to build a dimensional, composite picture of the business needs. Navigating more stakeholders might appear intimidating. However, the underlying truth is that it’s an advantage. With more customers at the table, the seller can benefit from a larger cache of information.

These practises effectively uproot assumptions. The result:  sellers abandon long-held misunderstandings that would otherwise lead their efforts astray. The path to the sale is in the customer’s responses. Listen carefully.

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