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A Different Take On Challenging Conversations

by David Brock on January 23rd, 2012

I’ve been writing a lot about changing the conversation, about challenging our customers, about getting them to think differently.  A lot of readers have been sending me notes, asking for advice on how to do this.

While I agree with many of the principles outlined in Challenger Selling and Provocative Selling, I take a little different view on things.  The basic premise of many of these approaches is that we have to know our customers businesses better than they do, we have to have better ideas for their business or function than they do.

I tend to think of this as a little arrogant and misplaced.  I also tend to think this short changes our customer and us of some opportunities.

Don’t get me wrong.  To engage in these business conversations, we have to understand business—both business in general, but more specifically our customers and their businesses.  We have to analyze their businesses, we have to look at opportunities they are missing, things they can do differently, things they can improve.  It takes research, high levels of business acumen, and deep understanding of what’s going on in our customers.

Often, as I’m preparing to approach a prospect and engage them in these types of conversations, I think, “What would I do if I were running the business?  (or the function that we might focus on)  What would I change?  What new opportunities might I consider?”  I try to put myself in the customer’s place, seeing things through their eyes and develop some ideas on issues, opportunities, possible solutions.

It’s a great exercise, it gives you the opportunity to start to develop some premises around shaping the conversation.  Now here’s where it starts getting interesting.  First, customers tend to like these conversations–as long as you’ve gotten them at the right moment.  No one is having conversation like this with them.  No one is bringing them new ideas.  They’re hungry for ideas.

Here’s where I have a departure from many others writing about this topic.  Many say, you have to know your customer’s business better than they do, you have to have better answers than they do.  It strikes me a both a little arrogant and unrealistic.  If we truly knew better than they, then we should be looking to run the company, not sell to it.  But the real issue is we always view their businesses from the outside.  As much research as we do, as great as our ideas, we never have a perspective from the inside.

The real conversation starts at the intersection of these points of view–our outside perspective, experiences and idea–unhindered by “legacy experience,” and that of the customer who is, after all most knowledgeable about the internal dynamic of their companies.  It’s this combinatation where the real magic can happen.  It’s the combination of the best thinking from the inside and the outside that enables us to help the customer achieve more than they could ever imagine.

There’s an interesting dynamic that happens–the conversation no longer is challenging–it’s collaborative.  It’s the customer and us worling together to determine a solution that neither of us could have come up with separately.

It sounds kind of idealized, but I see these happening all the time.  I have them weekly with my clients–some of the highest performing executives in their functions in the world.  I see great sales people having these conversations about problems they can help their customers solve.  Clever sales people are working with customers to create solutions–leveraging the customer’s ideas and capabilities along with their solutions.  I’m working with a small company in the health services sector.  They support some of the back office functions in hospitals.  They are engaging their customers in some different conversations about their function.  Completely changing what how they deliver services and the services their customers acquire.  Another client, a company that sells commoditized electronic components is having conversations with some of the largest mobile telephone manufacturers in the world.  They aren’t talking about electronic components, but re-looking at the way mobile phones are designed and manufactured.  Another client in the bulk chemicals industry engages their customers in conversations about the future of detergent, or foods, or other things.  Still another, a provider of enterprise software is talking to their customers about a different way of running their companies.

These conversations are happening everyday, they aren’t idealized conversations, but they are sales people who want to talk about more than their products, and their customers who want to explore different ideas to grow.

I’ve written before about sales people as solution creators—but in reality solution creation is really the result of a collaboration between the customer and great sales people.

These conversations can be remarkable.  Whether it is looking at running a function more effectively, whether it is about something people have viewed as commodities, but changing the perspective of the customer.  We can have great ideas and great solutions.  We can challenge our customers and present things they should be doing. 

But the real magic is not having the customer buy our ideas, but engaging the customer in a discussion and collaborating to develop even better solutions and approaches.  To do something neither of us could have done individually.

Perhaps the real conversations need not be challenging conversations, but collaborative conversations.

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5 Comments
  1. Charles Green permalink

    David, I could not agree more. The belief that you must know more then your customer is a continuation of the old believe that everything comes down to cognitive mastery, and who is better at product knowledge. The truth is, to engage for another person in conversation does not require that you have more product mastery than they do, it requires skills at curiosity and engaging in conversation with others. It is quite a different matter. You are absolutely right to insist on the value of perspective, in addition to mastery

    • Charlie, I always look forward to your comments–their insight is always better than the post you are commenting on. Thanks so much for your thoughts. Regards, Dave

  2. tim foster permalink

    HI Dave,
    Spot on commentary as always. Customers want our advice, experience and insight on some of their specific problems. Perhaps problems they have not had the time to sit down and reflect on,seem too hard or even unknown. If we can Challenge from a place of strength having understood context of the customer balanced with solving the problem beofre we can have a productive collaboration.
    thanks
    Tim

    • Tim, thanks so much. Great comment! We can provoke new ideas and different ways of thinking, catching the customer’s imagination and motivating them to start the conversation. Thank for contributing. Regards, Dave

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