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How Can We Deliver Insights Without Critical Thinking Skills?

by David Brock on May 29th, 2014

Both marketing and sales realize we need to change the conversation with customers–if we’re going to be relevant and invited to help solve their problems.

The past few years,  the literature has been filled with lots of approaches:  Provocative Sales, Challenger Sales, Insight Based Selling–and I’m sure there are a few more.  Each offers us ways to change the conversation with the customer.

Likewise, there’s been a lot of good work on how top performers differ from everyone else.

The one thing that seems to be missing from the conversation is the importance of “critical thinking/problem solving skills.”  Instead, we seem to be going in the opposite direction–creating great tools, sales enablement materials, marketing materials and other things.  Theoretically, these are oriented to improving the impact, productivity, and effectiveness of the sales person.  Also, they are powerful in improving consistency of messaging and execution.

All of these things are great, but as a result, we often weaken the ability of the sales person to think critically, to be able to figure things out–solving problems.

I had thought this was an unintended consequence of these tools until I spoke to an executive at one of these companies recently.  He made the statement, “We are trying to provide tools and materials so the sales person doesn’t have to think, after all, they aren’t very good at that.”

I think we face an “industry problem,”  clearly vendors (tool providers, training companies, even consultants) respond to the requirements of their customers.  I see the same thing with frustrated sales people when they make statements, “Just tell me what to do,” “Just give me the pitch,” “Just give me the answer!”  We see similar things in marketing with new marketing automation tools, with rich analytics, and other things.

In our collective rush to improve our abilities to engage the customer we run the risk of losing the most critical engagement capabilities of all–the ability to think critically with the customer–to engage them in conversations that have not been scripted, but are conversations of collaborative discovery and shared problem solving.

One could fairly argue these new sales enablement tools frees the sales person up to think, freeing them of the stuff that requires less critical thinking or problem solving.  But the reality, is in implementation, we seem to be going in exactly the opposite direction–looking for formulaic, prescriptive approaches reducing the sales person’s need to figure things out.

So in our rush to train our  people to provide Insights/Challenge, we see too many misfires.  We equip our sales people with data, charts, white board presentations, dare I say, “pitches.”  The problem is, if we are successful, if we engage our customers in conversations of collaborative discovery and problem solving–our people are ill equipped to go deeper.  They can’t continue the conversation, because they are now “off script.”  They don’t have the abilities to analyze, challenge, create, design and move forward with the customer.  Simply put, we get them hot and lathered, then can’t carry on the discussion.

So what do we do?  There are some things we can do that start to have an immediate impact:

  1. Great coaching is the first place to start.  Great, non-directive coaching, helping the sales person to consider different alternatives, helping them analyze, helping them think about the next steps–this is a great start, but we have to have managers that know how to do this and take the time to do it.  At the same time, we need to have higher expectations of everyone in the organization to think critically and understand problem solving.
  2. Changing how we recruit/assess candidates.  Making sure we identify critical thinking/problem solving skills as critical and in the interviewing process test their abilities to figure things out–under pressure.  I see many good companies including this in their recruiting/interviewing processes.
  3. Formally train people in critical thinking/problem solving.  None of the major sales training programs address this deeply (or at all), instead focusing on the “how-to’s.”  But there are training programs that help develop these capabilities.  Start training managers and sales people, formally, in critical thinking and problem solving.  The training needs to be complemented with deep business acumen skills/training, change, and project management.

Perhaps getting a little political, there’s a larger crisis that impacts everyone–not just sales and marketing.  As I’ve been exploring these issues over the past few weeks, I’ve had conversations with a lot of educators–particularly K-12.  They see the same challenges I’ve outlined in our educational systems.  Students are great at searching, finding content/answers, great at regurgitating data, but weak in critical thinking/problem solving skills.  We need, over the longer term, to reassess our basic educational programs, making sure we are preparing people to enter a competitive global job market, where critical thinking and problem solving become the core of education.

In the past few years, the sales and marketing communities have made giant steps in our thinking.  We’ve recognized the conversations and customer engagement process has to change.  We’re starting to change those conversations.  But to continue to make progress, we have to focus on critical thinking/problem solving skills.

Afterword:  For more reading on this critical topic, one of the most thoughtful discussions I’ve seen was Mike Kunkle’s 22nd Century Selling Skills presentation at ASTD.  Take the time to look at it, Mike is far more articulate than I.

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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  1. Well, I can’t believe I’m going to be a link dropper, Dave, but since I’m not selling anything, and it’s relevant, I’m going to do it and forgive myself. 😉

    Check out:

    This is a presentation I made recently about the behaviors I’ve seen over the years from top producers, in my sales research inside employers and clients. In that deck, to your point, I’ve consistently seen solid critical thinking and problem-solving skills as part of the skill sets that separate the top 4% of sales producers from the rest.

    Long way to say, “As usual, Dave, you’re right.”

    We can’t expect to train “insight selling” or whatever else we want to call it, without developing the business acumen, problem-solving, value creation and judgment skills that are required to lead an insightful business dialogue, shape another business leader’s thinking, and drive real value for your clients.

    My other issue is how everyone gets bright, shiny object syndrome and harps on one thing. (Like social selling, baby… it’s practically the second coming right now.)

    My new metaphor for this behavior… when was the last time you grabbed a handful of flour, shoved it in someone’s mouth, and had them thank you for it? Now, what if you mixed the flour with other ingredients to make a wonderful cake, and offered a piece to someone? Very different scenarios, right?

    Silly, perhaps, but when we harp on “insight selling” or even “critical thinking skills” out of context, we’re pushing flour. To me, it’s the mix and combination of multiple skills that make the best sales “cake.”

    Hmm. Time for lunch. Keep the great posts rolling.

    • Mike, kicking myself a little on this. I remember seeing your ASTD presentation and thinking it was one of the best I’ve seen on this topic. I don’t want people to miss the opportunity to see it–so I’ll promote it in an afterword on the article. Thanks so much. Regards, Dave

  2. Spot on Mike,
    And Dave, Bravo!

    Again you are opening a ‘can of worms’ which has been festering in Sales for the last 10 years! I have labelled this as ZOMBIE SELLING, no thought required!

    In fact no Brain required!
    Just memorise the script then become a talking brochure.

    It DOES NOT work!
    It really is a common NON-sense promoted by people who, frankly, have no idea about Selling. Sad to say many of those who promote “Thoughtless Selling” are Marketing graduates, Technologists, and even ‘skilled’ sales managers, they should all KNOW better, but continue in this Common Nonsense, despite their otherwise Common Sense!

    I first came across this at Big IT (one near to your heart, Dave) a whole sales team part of an experiment in Sales ‘Disablement’, where results were ignored,
    but the FAD pursued with dreadful consequences.

    I blogged about this here:

    The solution?

    Is exactly as Dave suggests:
    “Formally train people in critical thinking/problem solving. None of the major sales training programs address this deeply (or at all), instead focusing on the “how-to.”
    But there are training programs that help develop these capabilities. Start training managers and sales people, formally, in critical thinking and problem solving. “

    I was fortunate, these were part of my schooling,
    my first degree and a full 25% of my MBA. And, they were trained at least two of the companies I worked for in the 1970’s and 1980’s.
    Sadly, and with real consequences, they have fallen out of favour. Once upon a time, the slogan of the leading IT Company was THINK, as a competitor I had on my desk the reply: THINK TWICE!

    The idea that CONTENT is:
    something we deliver TO Customers directly
    (via Salespeople messengers)
    or indirectly through media is NOT Selling, It’s Marketing.

    SELLING is something we DO WITH CUSTOMERS.

    Great series Dave, you are REALLY making us all THINK!

    • The series is only made better by the comments of people like you and Mike, and all the others. Thanks for helping me clarify my thinking on these tough issues Brian.

  3. Dave, your atypical, indirect, soft approach to the more difficult problem of education astounded me. Sorry, I couldn’t resist. My question, a question I’ve ruminated over for too many years and ranted about behind closed doors and in conversations with brilliant friends like you and Mike is somewhere in between three of your points.

    How do you hire and train people with critical thinking skills when the education system isn’t training those skills?

    Coincidentally, the issue of not teaching critical thinking in schools was raised by a professor friend who invited my opinion (not hard to do) on a thread on Google+. She and I discussed the DIKW pyramid (Data/Information/Knowledge/Wisdom) last year in great depth. The conversation boiled down to this: When we train students to pass SOLs structured on multiple choice questions, we are not developing critical thinking skills, taking students from information to knowledge, let a lone wisdom.

    We see the effect in the sales world daily by the abundance of salespeople puking information, checking off their goals and objectives, digital progressing sales to the next stage that really haven’t progressed and then not understanding why they do not win the business.

    Can sales organizations afford to make the investment? Is the ROI justifiable?

    Or, is your friend’s statement, ““We are trying to provide tools and materials so the sales person doesn’t have to think, after all, they aren’t very good at that” a healthy acceptance of reality with a realistic solution to do the best with what you have? Is it too late to train critical thinking?

    I don’t know the answer and I’m not professing to have a solution. Defeatism is not natural to me; however, after years of banging my head against this particular wall, I’m inclined to agree with the existentialist acceptance of your friend. What do you think?

    • Gary, time is short, so I have to be brief. Thank goodness, right? Critical thinking skills are taught to people in colleges and universities and corporations every single day. There are dozens of different wonderful courses and opportunities. These skills are entirely learnable, and are no different than the leadership skills that we teach so frequently and all of the above locations. The glaring gap I see, is that these courses are not aimed at sales people, and often not even thought as for sales people, even by sales managers and corporate leadership. I’ve seen solid critical thinking skills in top producers for years. The ROI of teaching others to think more like them, should be pretty justifiable. In fact, in our current market, with all of the challenges we continue to talk about, I would argue that it’s mandatory.

    • Gary, thanks for fueling the discussion. I agree with Mike, Critical Thinking/Problem solving can be taught and developed–it starts in our school systems, but needs to continue to be reinforced and developed, perhaps in more specialized ways, throughout our careers. If ultimately, what differentiates great organizations, and high performers are things like innovation, creativity, continual improvement, etc; then critical thinking/analysis/problem solving are critical. If we want to be the leaders in our segments, industries, economies, we need to continually focus on this.

      I think a large part of it is a leadership issue. It takes time and investment on the part of leadership to coach and develop these capabilities. Too many don’t do this, so they invest in surrogates to it—tools implemented in a way that minimize the thinking required. But you can’t sustain continual improvement, innovation, and competitiveness that way.

      I love your question, Is the ROI justifiable. Makes me pose another question, What’s the ROI of Stupidity/Cluelessness?

  4. Mike and Dave, isn’t it interesting how posing a challenging “devil’s advocate” question (don’t excuse the challenging pun) inspires insights? Mike’s statements, “Critical thinking skills are taught to people in colleges and universities and corporations every single day” and “The glaring gap I see, is that these courses are not aimed at sales people, and often not even thought as for sales people” are what I see and have seen throughout my career and fuel my emotion.

    The “just get the sale mentality” that drives tactical solution supported with tools and collateral, as Dave said, irks me beyond measure. You both know I vacillated on developing a tool that develops and supports critical thinking believing that selling sales leaders what they want and giving salespeople what they need would be attractive to the sales food chain. From my seat, until leadership understands “the ROI of Stupidity/Cluelessness” (this is the direct Dave we love and admire), salespeople will continue under-performing to the lament of their superiors and customer.

    BTW Dave, you wrote the title to your followup post, “What’s the ROI of Stupidity &Cluelessness?”

    And Mike, you should write an eBook, because you’re the perfect person to do so and it may be the most valuable sales book to come out in decades, “The Guide to Selling like a Top Performer: Critical Thinking and Problem Solving for Salespeople.”

    Thanks for a great, valuable discussion. This is an enormous elephant in the sales training room.

    • Gary, thanks for this great discussion. I am writing the post 😉

      The “just get the sale mentality,” isn’t necessarily wrong, in the sense that sales managers need to understand in today’s markets, the way we do this is having sales people that have the skills we’ve been talking about.

      Awesome discussion, thank you!

  5. Great article David. It’s back to fundamentals isn’t it? There’s often a gap surrounding the role of the sales person. I’ve just come off the back of a negotiation where a salesperson of many years could not even describe the critical components of, let alone critically take apart the situation. I left thinking that there was a disconnect about the fundamentals of the sales role itself. Best wishes. al

    • Alistair: Thanks for joining the discussion. Critical thinking/analysis/problem solving impacts all aspects of our jobs as sales people. If we can’t do these, we are seriously disadvantaged–as your example illustrates. Thanks for the comment, great to hear from you.

  6. Doug Schmidt permalink

    Dave, as usual your comments and insights are right on! As far as solutions:
    1) There is an exellent book called Smart Thinking by Art Markman that addresses the importance in developing “Smart Thinking” skills to solve the challenges we all face in today’s competitive environments.
    2) Another solution to this challenge is to develop cultures of critical thinking that encourage employees to read (that is right books!), become subject matter experts, take classes and encourage learning environments.
    3) A critical addition is to develop “Emotionally Intelligent Leaders, Managers and Employees to develop a culture of “Smart!”. Great resource to begin is the book Primal Intelligence by Dan Goleman.

  7. Bravo! I think a lack of critical thinking is rampant is all arenas- professional, educational and even personal. In all areas it is important for us to be able to switch tactics or paths as new scenarios arise. I believe that when we know our product or service well, we are able to do this. When I was younger I read a series of books called “Choose Your Own Adventure.” The premise behind these books was that you, the reader, could pick your ending. This was not done randomly. As the reader you had to determine which “path” you took depending on solution you wanted. Weighing the information you had about the characters and the situation, you had to decide on the spot, what was the best path to choose. All paths had an ending, but to get the one you wanted you had to think critically and recognize what would change in the story. And yes, it was possible to die in the end if you didn’t choose wisely.

    Sales is often the same. As salespeople we need to know where we want to land. We need to take into account what we know about our product and client and make decisions on the fly. What is the best ending? If the path we are taking has a roadblock, how can we move forward? Is there another path, do we have the tools to go off the path and cut through the brush or forge our own path? Should we give up and ask for help? These are all critical thinking skills. They are necessary to get the ending you want in both sales and literature.
    Ken Schmitt

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