We’re supposed to bring our customers insight–opportunities they are missing, new ways to run their business, new ways to grow. No one argues that.

We make sure we have sales people with the right behaviors and skills. We prep our sales people with training, information, case studies, data, teaching pitches. We charge them to engage their customers in a different way, providing insight.

They do their homework, research, prepare for the call. They are meeting the “C-Level” for that all important meeting.

The appointed hour comes, they muster the courage, meet with the customer , ready to provide insight. Then the questions come. The customer is curious, but wants more detail and drills down three, four, five levels. Or they raise some objections, “That’s not for us,” or “We tried something similar several years ago,” or anything else. And this comes if the call went well—we caught their interest and they want to dive in to learn more.

One of the real challenges about challenging customers or providing insight is we are talking to them about their business, their industries, their markets, their operations, their functions. They spend everyday doing that, they spend everyday running their operations. They are probably smart, capable, and experienced. To be successful, we have to be credible in engaging them in conversations about their business.

So what does this mean to the sales person providing insight? How do we equip them to go “one on one” with people who may be experts, or at least are certainly more experienced in their function, company, industry than most sales people are. How do you get a sales person to call on a grizzled VP of manufacturing, a master of lean operations, and say, “There is a better way to run your manufacturing operations.”

Sometimes, I think we are a little cavalier about providing insight and challenging our customers. Sure we can equip people to do the pitch, but then the blizzard of questions follows. We have to equip our sales people to lead the conversations.

Recently, I looked at a series of calls a sales team was making.. The sales people were capable, well trained and well prepared. They had very strong insights, well researched, good supporting materials, and case studies. They had role played the calls and practiced with the materials.

They started the calls well, caught the customers’ interests, then faltered. Many came back with their tails between their legs, a few were able to hold their own and schedule follow ups.

I started seeing some interesting patterns. It should come as no surprise, business acumen was key—not the standard “learned from reading about it, went to a training class, got my MBA type of business acumen.

People who had really studied the customer’s business. They understood the industry structure, the markets, competitors, key strategies and business drivers. They understood the customer themselves. They had spent time learning their business, wandering around, meeting operational and functional level people.

This is a kind of table stakes level. In some cases, it is sufficient, but we saw many people challenged. We started seeing some other things. The people who had the greatest success, those who were getting follow up calls had “scars.” You know what I mean, the “been there, done that” kind of experience. Several of the sales people had come out of the industry themselves. They had held, in this case, manufacturing management jobs. While none had senior level manufacturing management jobs, they knew the challenges manufacturing executives faced, they could related to those challenges, directly, with experiences they had in the past, they could share those experiences and bridge them to the insights provided. A few of the others had come out of services organizations. They had actually implemented the solutions and knew the challenges and results.

The commonality, those who had the scars, who had some level of personal experience, not only were more comfortable in making the calls, but tended to have more successful outcomes. They could relate and the customer could related more easily.

It turns out, in this and a number of other cases we’ve seen, challenging and providing insight is not just an issue of intellect, training, and data. It’s more than just business acumen, it’s experience. The ability to be credible and empathize based on experience was very important in gaining customer confidence and moving forward.

We noticed some other things. In prospecting new accounts–those in which the organization had virtually no relationship, known expertise/experience was critical. Not being able to leverage a relationship or “track record” with the account, C-Level executives were very skeptical, unless the sales person could demonstrate experience and expertise in the industry/function/markets. Rather than starting the call with, “Our company has great experience with organizations like yours….” they had to build personal credibility, “I have worked as a manufacturing manager in companies like yours….”

So what’s this mean if we want to be providing insight to our customers, to challenge them to think differently? Do we have to staff our organizations with “grizzled veterans?”

Absolutely not! We’ve seen different strategies applied (actually, the grizzled veteran strategy has some drawbacks). Some things that help, assuming all the right training, support materials, and so forth are taken as a given:

  1. Business acumen, as mentioned earlier is table stakes. That’s the starting point, if your sales people don’t have this, they have no business making the call.
  2. Recruiting sales people with industry or functional experience helps bridge the insight gap. It doesn’t have to be a lot of experience, but some degree of having been exposed to the issues from the customer side and leveraging that experience is very powerful.
  3. Access to deep experience or availability of resources with that experience. There are all sorts of possibilities here, including specialists (sales/presales), partners, or even the channels utilized. These partners or specialists can bring the experience (scars) to complement the insight the sales person might deliver.
  4. One that’s often overlooked is the people doing the same jobs within our own companies. For example, getting our manufacturing people talking to customer manufacturing people, or CIO’s talking to CIO’s. Peers sharing mutual experiences are powerful—assuming your own company uses what you sell, practices what you preach.
  5. We’ve seen a couple of organizations challenging/providing insights in very special conferences. They may bring a small number of prospects together, with some of the best experts, thought leaders in the world. In essence, the beginning conversation starts in a larger group, getting the customer wanting to learn more. The sales person, may then be capable of taking the conversation to the next steps.
  6. The lesser the relationship, the more you need to provide immediate credibility through past experience or known expertise. So it is important to look at who is assigned to prospect new name accounts when you are leading with insight. In many organizations, this is where newer or less experienced sales people are assigned. But if we are leading with insight, you may be setting them up for failure, unless they have access to resources to support them in the prospecting calls.
  7. Marketing materials, collateral complement and reinforce the insight the sales person provides, but they aren’t a surrogate for expertise. The goal is to engage the customer in discussing new ideas about the business. The sales person has to be capable of carrying on the conversation–pushing, challenging, defending.

Insight is here to stay (I’m not sure it was ever gone, we’re just recognizing the importance.) Sales people need to go beyond teaching, but engaging in deeper conversation. Scar tissue does help.