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Insight Doesn’t Have To Be About Solving World Hunger

Strategy

I had a fascinating conversation with a sales executive today. His team was inspired by Challenger and Insight selling, as so many of us are. They had gone through the training and were ready to start providing insights to their customers, transforming the customer engagement process, intercepting the customer before they had even recognized they have a problem or opportunity.

After he went through the background, he then said, “We’re ready, we’re confident we can engage the customer in a different way, but we’re just struggling with coming up with meaningful insights to share with our customers.”

I’ve heard others talking about this before and realized that maybe we are making insight more complicated than it really is. We tend to think of “insight” as bigger than life types of discussions with customers. In the past, I’ve shared the story of my team talking to Boeing executives in the early 80′s about a vision for new ways to design airplanes–digitally. It had a profound impact on aircraft design around the world. Every airplane is now designed digitally.

It’s an exciting story, but it’s really one of those “bigger than life” illustrations of insight that isn’t helpful to selling every day. Additionally, we hear or read of other bigger than life stories of insight. Again, these are powerful, exciting, and compelling. They are big and sexy stories, and unfortunately they become our benchmark for what insight is.

In reality, I think providing insight can be much simpler. It doesn’t have to be a grand and glorious pitch, but instead, insight can be simple observations the customer may have been blind to, information they may not have been aware of, things we as “outsiders” might observe that customers may have never known.

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While many of us tend to focus on the grand forms of insight, they are probably rare. But the simpler forms can be found every day and can be powerful in engaging the customer in a different conversation. We can find them by watching, observing, asking questions, sharing ideas. Let’s look at some of these.

In the conversation I referenced earlier in this post, we discussed one way this executive’s sales team is coming up with insights. They looked at things the leaders in their industry were doing. Ways they were running their businesses (in the areas in which they provided solutions). They realized the majority of their customers 1) Weren’t aware of what these leaders were doing, 2) Didn’t understand the applicability and potential impact on their own businesses.

These practices were public information, in fact leaders had presented them at conferences as best practices. The problem was, a large number of this executive’s customers were simply unaware of these. or they couldn’t translate them into things they could do. As the sales people went to these customers with these simple observations, translating them into potential impact to the customer, they found customers responding well.

Similarly, a number of years ago, I arranged a meeting between product development executives in very different industries. One set was from the semiconductor industry, the other was from the fashion industry. Forget the purpose of the meeting, but during the discussion, one of the fashion executives made an offhand comment about something they did. The room went silent, the semiconductor guys looked at each other, then asked the fashion guy to explain further. He looked back at them, puzzled. “Well it’s not that interesting, all of us in the industry have been doing it for years. It’s really ho-hum.” What was common practice in the fashion industry—for this particular application, was novel and innovative insight to the semiconductor guys. There are dozens of similar examples I’ve seen–common practice in one industry or function can be great insight for another.

Providing insight can be even simpler. So often, it comes from simple observation–yet many of us aren’t trained to observe. A few days ago, I had an exchange with an executive in Malaysia. He had assigned his sales people to spend one day a month at a customer–just watching, observing, and asking questions. What they were doing was understanding how their customers worked–in this case they were studying workflow. Inevitably, they identified things the customers should have been aware of, but clearly weren’t, “Did you realize you have a bottleneck in this part of your workflow?” “Did you ever think about doing these things a little differently?” “Did you know it is possible to eliminate some of these steps?”

The observations weren’t profound, anyone that spent a little time looking at things could have seen them. But they were things the customer was blind to, or things that had just become habit. They never thought about doing things differently. Or sometimes the customers are too busy to do this examination. Anyone could come up with the insight—but it was this executives sales people that were taking the time to do what no one else did.

Or it can be even simpler. Some years ago (well actually two decades ago), I was a young sales rep. I had a single large account. I spent a lot of time wandering all over the account, trying to find new opportunities. In the course of wandering around the account, I would discover lots of things that were going on. Something one group was doing, that would have a great impact on another. It was easy to share that information across the organization. They could find it out themselves, they might inevitably get a memo about it. But when I shared it with a group, we could immediately start developing plans to deal with what was going to happen. These little insights made it easier for the customers to run their operations.

There is a common quality about all of these that is really what insight is all about. Whether it is industry and company changing–the functional equivalent of solving world hunger, or sharing best practices from leaders in the industry, or identifying things that other industries do that might be applied within an organization, or identifying operational inefficiencies or areas to improve, or sharing news and information they may not have been aware of.

Big or small, insight is about the customer’s business. It is not a conversation about a solution—though insight based conversations lead conversations about solutions. It is not a conversation about a product, though if we execute an insight based conversation well, it can lead to a need for our products.

Insight is all about the customer and their business. What others are doing they might try, opportunities they are missing, things they might do differently, news they may be unaware of. The focus and the conversation is always about their business.

The other quality, or possible confusion about insight, is the insight doesn’t have to be new, it just has to be new to the person we are talking to.

Let’s not make insight selling more complicated than it needs to be. While it can be complex, requiring a lot of research, strongly developed arguments and elegant pitches; I think more often it starts with a simple question, an observation, a piece of news.

Now here’s the challenge–if you don’t understand your customers’ businesses, if you don’t understand their industries, if you don’t understand their markets and customers, if you don’t understand their competition, you will never be able to provide insights. Likewise, if you aren’t a keen observer of your customers’ operations, you will miss opportunities to provide great insights.

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