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How Can We Deliver Insights Without Critical Thinking Skills?

Strategy

Both marketing and sales realize we need to change the conversation with customers–if we’re going to be relevant and invited to help solve their problems.

The past few years, the literature has been filled with lots of approaches: Provocative Sales, Challenger Sales, Insight Based Selling–and I’m sure there are a few more. Each offers us ways to change the conversation with the customer.

Likewise, there’s been a lot of good work on how top performers differ from everyone else.

The one thing that seems to be missing from the conversation is the importance of “critical thinking/problem solving skills.” Instead, we seem to be going in the opposite direction–creating great tools, sales enablement materials, marketing materials and other things. Theoretically, these are oriented to improving the impact, productivity, and effectiveness of the sales person. Also, they are powerful in improving consistency of messaging and execution.

All of these things are great, but as a result, we often weaken the ability of the sales person to think critically, to be able to figure things out–solving problems.

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I had thought this was an unintended consequence of these tools until I spoke to an executive at one of these companies recently. He made the statement, “We are trying to provide tools and materials so the sales person doesn’t have to think, after all, they aren’t very good at that.”

I think we face an “industry problem,” clearly vendors (tool providers, training companies, even consultants) respond to the requirements of their customers. I see the same thing with frustrated sales people when they make statements, “Just tell me what to do,” “Just give me the pitch,” “Just give me the answer!” We see similar things in marketing with new marketing automation tools, with rich analytics, and other things.

In our collective rush to improve our abilities to engage the customer we run the risk of losing the most critical engagement capabilities of all–the ability to think critically with the customer–to engage them in conversations that have not been scripted, but are conversations of collaborative discovery and shared problem solving.

One could fairly argue these new sales enablement tools frees the sales person up to think, freeing them of the stuff that requires less critical thinking or problem solving. But the reality, is in implementation, we seem to be going in exactly the opposite direction–looking for formulaic, prescriptive approaches reducing the sales person’s need to figure things out.

So in our rush to train our people to provide Insights/Challenge, we see too many misfires. We equip our sales people with data, charts, white board presentations, dare I say, “pitches.” The problem is, if we are successful, if we engage our customers in conversations of collaborative discovery and problem solving–our people are ill equipped to go deeper. They can’t continue the conversation, because they are now “off script.” They don’t have the abilities to analyze, challenge, create, design and move forward with the customer. Simply put, we get them hot and lathered, then can’t carry on the discussion.

So what do we do? There are some things we can do that start to have an immediate impact:

  1. Great coaching is the first place to start. Great, non-directive coaching, helping the sales person to consider different alternatives, helping them analyze, helping them think about the next steps–this is a great start, but we have to have managers that know how to do this and take the time to do it. At the same time, we need to have higher expectations of everyone in the organization to think critically and understand problem solving.
  2. Changing how we recruit/assess candidates. Making sure we identify critical thinking/problem solving skills as critical and in the interviewing process test their abilities to figure things out–under pressure. I see many good companies including this in their recruiting/interviewing processes.
  3. Formally train people in critical thinking/problem solving. None of the major sales training programs address this deeply (or at all), instead focusing on the “how-to’s.” But there are training programs that help develop these capabilities. Start training managers and sales people, formally, in critical thinking and problem solving. The training needs to be complemented with deep business acumen skills/training, change, and project management.

Perhaps getting a little political, there’s a larger crisis that impacts everyone–not just sales and marketing. As I’ve been exploring these issues over the past few weeks, I’ve had conversations with a lot of educators–particularly K-12. They see the same challenges I’ve outlined in our educational systems. Students are great at searching, finding content/answers, great at regurgitating data, but weak in critical thinking/problem solving skills. We need, over the longer term, to reassess our basic educational programs, making sure we are preparing people to enter a competitive global job market, where critical thinking and problem solving become the core of education.

In the past few years, the sales and marketing communities have made giant steps in our thinking. We’ve recognized the conversations and customer engagement process has to change. We’re starting to change those conversations. But to continue to make progress, we have to focus on critical thinking/problem solving skills.

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