Too often, both our work and that of our customers focuses on learning or knowing what we don’t know.

We know customers do much of their research digitally–according to research they may be 57-90% through their buying process and 94% of customers do some level of digital research or self education (I think it should be 100%).

For example, if I want to improve my email marketing, all I have to do is type that into Google, and I get 12.7M results in 0.52 seconds.

Possibly I want to leverage social selling effectively, I get 28.6M results in less than a second.

Or I’m a CEO/CFO and I want to improve cashflow, I get 27.1M results in 0.77 seconds.

As long as we and our customers know what we are looking for, letting our fingers walk through Google enables us to get more information and data than we could ever consume. We can self educate endlessly, perhaps narrowing in on some solutions that resonate with what we think the issue is.

But what happens if we ask the wrong questions? What if there are other questions we should be asking but may be missing?

Or how do we decide which pieces of the overwhelming amount of information we can access that we should pay attention to? The information most relevant to us and our problems.

Analytics can help, based on our past interactions and profiles, it narrows searches down to what it thinks might be relevant to us or people like us. For example, if “the system” knows I’m a procurement manager in a semiconductor company, it will narrow my cashflow search down from 27.1M results to 284K results specific to improving cashflow in semiconductor procurement. With more information or watching my search history, it will narrow things down even more, theoretically being more helpful in my self education process.

This does present a problem when you want to “think outside the box.” The nature of these systems is they tend to force you into narrower and narrower boxes, ultimately getting the same information everyone else in the same function does, so we all end up behaving similarly, hmmmmmm………

But the problem with all of this, is that it is based on some level of awareness about problems and challenges we are facing. It requires us to diagnose, at some level, what we are trying to do, seeking to self educate based on this self diagnosis. Anyone trying to diagnose their health strictly through WebMD knows the pitfalls this creates.

Have we diagnosed things properly?

Have we asked the right questions?

What questions should we be asking?

Are we looking in the right places for answers?

All of this becomes very troubling for our customers. While they are trying to be efficient, or perhaps they are just trying to avoid pesky sales people, they may be missing things, they may be going down the wrong path.

Digital research doesn’t answer the customer’s unasked questions. It doesn’t care if the customer is asking the right questions. But it will always provide information and data.

But there’s a bigger problem.

It’s the problem of not knowing what we don’t know.

Customers simply may be unaware. They may be prisoners of their own experience. They don’t know what they don’t know and need to be disrupted, perhaps creating the awareness of what they don’t know so they can start learning.

These are tough issues, but critical to our customers’ and our success. Our glibness about social selling and digital research tend to blind both our customers and us about the critical shortcomings in succumbing to the “let your fingers walk through Google.”

These are areas of concern to all of us–but we offer leadership and great value when we are able to confront customers with these questions helping them find the answers they need.

What do your customers know they don’t know, how do we help them fill the gaps?

What do your customers don’t know what they don’t know, how do you help them discover these?

Afterword: These questions are equally challenging for us and our own organizations.