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Developing Insights

by David Brock on October 20th, 2013

Everyone has been talking about Insights.  Our customers are hungry for Insights about their businesses–opportunities to grow, opportunities to improve.

We know we have to engage our customers in new conversations.  These conversations have to be about them and their goals, not about what we sell.  So Insights are the new “buzzword,” for sales.

But all of us, me included, have been a little casual about this discussion.  I’ve talked a lot about the importance of Insight, how we communicate, how we continue to engage our customers in Insight driven conversations through their buying process.  I’ve talked about company strategies around Insight, calling for Insight Driven Organizations, actually another form of genuine customer centricity.

But I realized there’s something missing in many of my discussions and most that I read.  We’ve been talking about Insight as if they are apparent, they’ve already been created and it’s our jobs to deliver them, engaging our customers in new conversations.

But before we can deliver Insights, before we can start teaching our customers, we have to first Develop Insights.

Many may say, well that’s the job of the product teams, marketing, and maybe company strategists.  After all, they know what problems we are focusing on to solve, the customers that have those problems.  So it’s there job to develop the Insights, it’s sales and marketing that communicate those.

Well that’s true, but that’s not the whole story.

Sales has the opportunity to develop and communicate huge Insights to our customers.

First, I think we have a misunderstanding about what Insights are.  We tend to think of them as hugely transformative, paradigm shifting, game changing.  We search for the big “AHA’s,” that immediately transform organizations and businesses.

Insight is really not about that.  It’s true, we see them — every once in a while.  But Insights of this magnitude are difficult.  Both to develop and for the customer to accept.  The level of change, risk, education, and ultimately, faith in accepting and implementing these transformative insights is very difficult.  Very few people and very few organizations can do this.  And those that to require a lot of time and make missteps along the way.

Fortunately, Insight is really much simpler than this.  And sales people have the opportunity everyday to develop Insights and teach their customers about them, getting them to think about their companies differently, getting them to change and improve incrementally.

So how do sales people develop Insight?

Here are some quick thoughts:

  1. Insight by wandering around the customer:  Spending time with customers, wandering around their operations.  Observing, talking to people of all levels, understanding what’s working, what’s not working.  Understanding bottlenecks, problems that people may be unaware of, or too busy to fix.  Simply seeing things that are happening in our customers they may be unaware of or have become complacent with?  Then engaging customers in conversations, “Did you know this is happening…….. and this is how it impacts you?”  “Have you ever considered……?”  Or one of my favorites, “What if…..?”
  2. Insight the customer has but doesn’t know they have:  Wander around any organization enough, talk to enough people, and you find people with great ideas.  They see things that are happening, they have ideas, they see opportunities, but they don’t know how to take advantage of them.  Or they can’t get management’s attention.  I’m constantly amazed at how many people in organizations see great opportunities, but don’t know how to facilitate taking action on them.  They may be too busy, they may not know how to, they may not have the confidence to take them to management.  We can help them do that, we can help them surface and “teach” these insights within their own companies.
  3. Insight by reference:  We see what other customers are doing.  We can, without breaking confidences, present interesting Insights to other customers.  “Company X is doing some very exciting things in this area, and here is what it means to them…..  What if we looked at something similar with you?”
  4. Insight by extension:  This is a twist on the previous point.  We visit many customers, each doing different things.  We see some customers doing some very innovative things, some running their organizations in certain ways.  Customers are a constant source of ideas.  We can look at customers, thinking, “If we tweaked what this customer is doing, adapting it for the different circumstances of another customer, what might happen?  We can engage customers in looking at, tweaking and adapting what others might be doing, but in a manner that works for them.
  5. Insight from unusual sources:  We all look for ideas in the usual places–our customers do as well.  They look at what competitors are doing, copying, tweaking, one-upping.  We try to learn from customers.  We attend all the same old conferences, read the same trade journals. talk to the same people.  Innovation becomes tough, Ideas become stale.  It’s tough to generate Insight from all the same places.  But as sales people we have a tremendous opportunity that our customers don’t have.  We may sell to a very broad number of segments–market wise, geographically.  What might be common place in one segment may be new and innovative in another.  I often tell the story of hosting a meeting between leaders in the fashion industry (motorcycle — to make it even more extreme) and the semiconductor industry.  It was one of the most interesting meetings I’ve ever been in.  As they shared ideas, what was common place–in fact old to one, was new and innovative (when tweaked and adapted) to the other.  Likewise, I see the same thing as I travel the world.  In sub-Saharan Africa, business leaders are hungry to learn about the business practices of organizations in Europe or North America.  Likewise in Asia, they want to learn from what other regions are doing.  And when I speak to leaders in North America, they always ask, what are you seeing in Asia?  What can we learn?  So as sales people, we are in a unique position.  We have the opportunity to work with customers in a variety of industries.  Things that are common place in one may represent great Insights for another.

Yes, our product managers, marketing, and business strategy people should be developing Insights that we can leverage in teaching our customers.  But it’s not that difficult for us to do it ourselves.  All it takes is curiosity, business savvy, and a little creativity.

What are you doing to develop and deliver new Insights to your customers?Book CoverFor a free peek at Sales Manager Survival Guide, click the picture or link.  You’ll get the Table of Contents, Foreword, and 2 free Chapters.  Free Sample

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3 Comments
  1. Dave, Insights. We do hear a lot about them. And, they are not ‘new’.

    Insights are the Elephant in the room, from C-level to Operations. We have overcome the reluctance to talk about ‘insights’ now we have to overcome the difficulty is USING Insights to SELL.

    For the student of insights I would suggest that they look at the work of your previous employer IBM.

    27 years ago, IBM coined the words “Corporate Foresight”, and changed its culture to change its thinking!

    IBM Global Technology Outlook or GTO now in its 27th year looks at major technology trends, and enables IBM to have competitive advantage from its
    6 Billion Dollar spend in R and D.

    The IBM Institute for Business Value, again a Global team of Researchers and Analysts, with both an Industry and Function focus which produce Thought Leadership white papers crammed with ‘insight’. Most recently in Government, Healthcare and Retail

    IBM Academy of Technology or AoT focusses on the Technology to underpin IBM’s future. By enabling technical leaders from around the globe to interact.

    The IBM “Market Development and Insights” organisation Identify FUTURE sources of VALUE. These studies and ‘landscapes’ enable Decision Makers in both IBM, and their Customers, to exploit new opportunities and ‘fix’ existing problems with new technology, or methodologies.

    IBM run “InnovationJam” an on-line forum which taps into “Wisdom of the Crowds”. This has produced amongst other initiatives the IBM “Smarter Planet”,
    which has almost 1,000 organisations worldwide making an INSIGHT into a REALITY!
    They recognise that Global Economy, Global Industry and Global Systems are interconnected and are becoming intelligent, and NEED to be improved by shared INSIGHTS.

    Insights are ubiquitous, it is HOW we deliver them to our Customers, and it is HOW we Construct Future Value WITH our Customers, that is the REAL Challenge.

    In IBM’s case they recognise that this is done by a variety of Channels, the most important of which remains their Professional, highly Competent and Face to Face Salesforce.

    We need an organisational integrated approach.
    And, we need a Skilled Salesforce,
    who do not simply “Carry” insights to Customers.
    But, who can conduct Customer Engagement,
    discover, develop and deliver Insight TO Customers
    and then
    discover, develop and construct Value WITH Customers.

    • You hit on some of the most critical issues (as always) Brian. Insights abound (if we open our eyes and recognize them). The issue is engaging the customer in conversations about what the insights mean to them, to develop them and build value with customers. Without this, Insights are just interesting data points.

  2. Allow me to complement Developing Insights with Applying Insights.

    We do not need to develop insights because we already have them. However, their value lies in their application. If people are presented with a problem-to-solve or an objective-to-achieve, insights are the best currency to use. Insights have value and transferability that ideas and opinions do not have.
    Let me give you a couple of examples that most people can relate to.

    Example #1: Apollo 13
    Three astronauts were on a mission to the moon when an explosion crippled their spacecraft. The mission was in jeopardy, and 3 lives hung in the balance.

    Ron Howard directed the blockbuster movie Apollo 13, containing two famous quotes. “Houston, we have a problem!” “Failure is not an option!” The first quote is historically accurate, but the second quote is a Hollywood fabrication.

    In reality, Gene Kranz, NASA Flight Director, set a clear objective for his engineers and controllers in Houston: Return the crew to earth alive. If that’s true, where did the quote come from? Jerry Bostick, an engineer at Mission Control in Houston indirectly provided Ron Howard with the oft-quoted phrase, ”Failure is not an option.”
    Ron Howard’s researcher wanted to hear about the anxiety of the engineers who were responsible for resolving the crisis by saving the lives of the crew. What Mr. Bostick actually said was, “We just calmly laid out all the options, and failure wasn’t one of them.” Screen writers morphed that comment into, “Failure is not an option.”

    In reality, and in the movie, the team spent a few frantic minutes throwing around ideas about what the solution should be. They realized that they were wasting precious time (Texans might say, “Circlin’ around and barkin’ at it), so they changed their approach.
    – First, the team determined WHERE the solution could be by choosing the critical elements that would enable them to achieve their objective. The criteria for success was power, guidance, and breathable air. Nothing else mattered.
    – Then, the team decided WHAT the best solution would be. As the movie showed, it was a collaborative and effective solution.
    The solution utilized the applicable (a key word) insights of each person on the team. Their insights needed to be stimulated by the objective.

    Example #2: Reality TV
    In the early days of the cable industry, there were two signature enterprises.
    Music Television (MTV) and Entertainment and Sports Programming Network (ESPN). MTV had great success, but it had a fragile business model. Its programming was void of original content. That would require a large investment in production costs and talent salaries. The challenge was met by Mary-Ellis Bunim, co-creator of “The Real World.”

    Ms. Bunim’s unique insight was that people would be TV actors and work for FREE. Her programming became the template for reality TV. Reality TV is the the lifeblood of today’s cable networks.
    How did Mary-Ellis Bunim and her co-creator convince their team that this concept would work? Just look at the number of people standing in the rain and cold outside the window of The Today Show for the privilege of being on TV.

    In both examples, insights were present, but they needed a catalyst to harvest those insights to solve a problem or achieve an objective.

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