It’s how you think, not what you think

What type of salespeople do you want on your team? What type of salesperson do you want to be?

Do you want salespeople who do as they are told or salespeople who think for themselves about possibility, finding new opportunities, looking at different ways to address problems that are still effective, if not more profitable, than the current ways, etc.?

We cannot deny that we live in a complex world where outputs are often unpredictable. I hear sales leaders crying out for ‘smart intelligent’ salespeople. And I know customers want to engage with smart salespeople too.

When I ask sales leaders and clients alike what they mean by ‘smart and intelligent’ this is what they are referring to: Salespeople thinking on their feet, finding different answers, innovating, coming up with ideas, preventing and solving problems.

All these are essential capabilities if we want to succeed in business and in sales and be of value to our clients. And this does not mean that we have to come up with some new solution each time we sell or sell in something that cannot be delivered. Good salespeople know the importance of ‘making promises you can keep and keeping promises you make’. (Thanks Peter Finkelstein for this lovely quote.)

But in today’s market place we, as salespeople, have to have the thinking fitness and capability to come up with new solutions when the old ones just don’t work anymore or our client is looking for something new or fresh. Yet, many businesses and their leaders stymie (prevent or hinder) their people’s ability to think about how to solve problems, come up with new ideas and take advantage of an ever changing world. Instead, these business leaders tell their people what they should think. They do not allow their salespeople to make decisions in the field or have the levels of authority that allow for better and different solutions. Their people hear messages such as ‘That’s not how we do business around here.’ Or ‘It can’t be done that way.’ And such like. Sound familiar? 

However, if we are going to get ahead the ability to learn how to critically think about things and empowering our people to do so is ever more important. Rather than staying inside the safe confines of the ‘norm’, the best salespeople think about options, ideas, innovations and possibilities. They come to you with ideas about how we can make things work better. They do not live by ‘how we can’t’. I remember my mother saying “there is no such word as can’t”.

Learning how to think critically is a skill – it can be taught. As cited in Wikipedia:

Critical thinking is a way of deciding whether a claim is true, partially true, or false. Critical thinking is a process that leads to skills that can be learned, mastered and used. Critical thinking is a tool by which one can come about reasoned conclusions based on a reasoned process. This process incorporates passion and creativity, but guides it with discipline, practicality and common sense. It can be traced in the West to ancient Greece with its Socratic method and in the East to ancient India with the Buddhist kalama sutta and abhidharma literature. Critical thinking is an important component of many fields such as education, politics, business, and science.

So why have we found ourselves in this critical thinking vacuum?

Well, William Klemm, a Professor of Neuroscience at Texas A&M University, says the problem of poor quality thinking may stem from our mainstream schooling system which is then carried forward into the workforce with devastating consequences. In an article published in he focused on the school system and the issue of standardisation. Here is an excerpt:

Too often, students are trained to look for the one “right answer.” Then there are state knowledge and skills standards, where students are actively discouraged from thinking “outside the box”. Many students lack the confidence to think for themselves and are actually afraid to try. The reality is that students are natural-born creative thinkers, but the conformity of schools has drilled students into a submission that precludes analytical and creative thinking. In our culture, the only place where it seems that insightful ideas are excluded is in the school.

Professor Klemm goes on to explain how we can teach critical thinking.

How does one teach critical thinking? Three ways:

1. Expect it.

Require students to defend their ideas and answers to questions. Show them it is not enough to have an opinion or the ‘right’ answer. Students need to defend their opinions and understand how they arrived at the answer and why it is ‘right’.

2. Model it.

The teacher can show students how to think critically and creatively about instructional material. Even in “teaching to the test”, show students how to think about alternative answers, not just memorise the right answer. Show why some answers are right and some wrong.

3. Reward it. 

When good thinking occurs, teachers should call attention to it and to the students that generated it. Learning activities and assignments should have clear expectations for students to generate critical and creative thought. A grading premium and other incentives should be provided. Rigorous analysis will only occur if it is expected and rewarded.

These tips are just as valid in business, especially in sales.

Customers desperately want to engage with people who bring this capability to the table. They want to work out the best way forward based on critical and reasoned analysis.

Today, the role of sales professionals is not to push the products, services or solutions that the organisation they represent offers, but rather to use that base, their skills, experience, thinking and knowledge to assist customers clarify their real requirements and then assist them in making valid, well informed decisions. In our view, when sales professionals fulfil this task they find that prospects want to buy from them, or at the very least, involve them in the purchase decision.

It is our view that in the 21st century, with social media becoming such an important influence in business, salespeople who are able to help their customers make sense of the information and solutions on offer; be more efficient, and do more things better than they have in the past; be more effective and help their customers do whatever it is they do better, and who help their customers mitigate risk, are going to be the real winners. Therefore, a salesperson’s ability to think critically about the options available is vital to their ongoing currency and value to their clients.

So what do you want your salespeople to be able to do?

Stop wishing for smart intelligent people to come along – instead start training your salespeople to think for themselves. You might just find those smart intelligent people emerging right in front of your very eyes and your clients will be very grateful too. 

Remember everybody lives by selling something.

Sue Barrett is a sales expert, business speaker, adviser, sales facilitator and entrepreneur and founded Barrett Consulting to provide expert sales consulting, sales training, sales coaching and assessments.



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