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Insight, Triggers, And Connecting The Dots

by David Brock on May 1st, 2014

Top performing executives, business development, and sales professionals have an incredible, almost innate ability to “connect the dots.”  It’s really what sets them apart from everyone else.

  • This ability to connect the dots is the ability to instantly assess:
  • This is what’s happening in this person’s markets/industry.
  • This is what’s happening in their company.
  • This is what’s happening to them as individuals.
  • These are events that are occurring right now–that impact them directly or indirectly.
  • Here are the problems/challenges they face.
  • This is what I can do to help them do something about it.
  • This is why they should do it with me.

It’s interesting to see how great professionals do this–almost unconsciously.  Recently, I was talking to the CEO of a company.  We were discussing how to move forward in the execution of their strategy.  It meant establishing some strategic partnerships.  As we talked about it, I could almost see the gears moving in her mind.  She was connecting dozen’s of dots together in lightning fast speed.  Within minutes, she was saying — “We should talk to this person at this company (and this is how I get introduced to that person).  This is what they are trying to achieve and the problems they are having in doing so, this is how we can connect and help them, this is why it’s so important for them to do it with us and why it’s important for them to do it now, and this is how it’s the most important thing in helping move our strategy forward.”

Within minutes, she had connected everything together and developed a tremendous plan.  Yes, we had to do some digging afterwards.  There was some research, analysis, and further discussion to flesh out the details of the plan and how her team would execute it, but within a few minutes, she had been able to connect a number of disparate things that enabled them to make giant leaps forward.

Great sales people do this all the time.  They understand their customers so well, they understand what drives them–business wise and personally.  They understand where they can help them.  They are sensitive to timing–they see a trigger and know, “This is the time to talk to them, this is the moment these issues are most important to them.   They understand all these things, even if the customer doesn’t yet realize it  (this is what Insight is really about).  They have an ability to talk to the customer in a way that puts all these things together creating meaning and value for the customer.

Some people come by these abilities more naturally than others.  Perhaps it’s curiosity, problem solving, or something else.  But for those of us who are less gifted, it’s really something each of us can easily do.  It takes a little discipline and focus, but we can almost develop a formulaic approach.  Here are some ideas:

  1. We have to understand the problems we are the best in the world at solving.  We have to be really honest with ourselves, if we aren’t we spend too much of our time and prospects’ time on things that we can’t really help them with.
  2. We have to understand who has those problems — what industries, customers, and who (functionally) has those problems.  This is our sweet spot, our ideal prospects and customers.
  3. We have to really understand our customers, their markets, and industries.  This means understanding the structure, the drivers, the trends, the KPI’s, the positioning of the players, the dynamics, key triggers that drive activity/opportunity.  Fortunately, there are lots of tools like Insideview and others that can help us with this.
  4. We have to understand our customers, both as enterprises and as individuals within the enterprise.  What are their strategies, priorities, drivers, key metrics?  How do they get things done?  What are their dreams, aspirations.  There are lots of resources to help us understand the enterprises, not the least of which is their own web site, EDGAR if they are public, and dozens of other tools.  LinkedIn helps us understand the individuals.
  5. We have to understand how businesses work–business acumen.  If  we don’t have a basic understanding of how businesses work, key financial and operational metrics, how they interrelate and what they mean; it’s impossible to have a business conversation.
  6. We have to set up a “system” to alert us to triggers.  Items 1-5 give us clues for the relevant conversations we should be having, the triggers tell us when to have those conversations.  Again, there are lots of tools that help us do this.  For example, there are certain industries and companies I track.  I set up Google Alerts, alerts within Insideview and others that can help us identify the triggers.  These help us prospect intelligently, having insight/value based conversations 100% of the time.

Together, these enable each of us to create opportunity for both us and the customer, where we might not otherwise see the opportunity.  These are where we develop, communicate and deliver value and Insight.

Connecting with the right people, having the right conversations, communicating Insight, creating value, all at the most impactful time is actually pretty easy.  Just follow the steps above, and you can do it!

This post was written as part of the IBM for Midsize Business program, which provides midsize businesses with the tools, expertise and solutions they need to become engines of a smarter planet. I’ve been compensated to contribute to this program, but the opinions expressed in this post are my own and don’t necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.


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  1. David writes: “Great sales people do this all the time. They understand their customers so well, they understand what drives them–business wise and personally.”

    I am not a great sales person. In fact, according to my business partner Joe Caruso, I am below average. And he is probably right.

    However, I am faster than most at seeing which coalitions should form, who needs who as a partner, and the alliances -however temporary- need to form.

    And my review of books on sales seems to confirm most sales training does not involve any skills in “coalition spotting”.

    So, how wrong am I on this point?

    • I think you’re spot on, Michael. While they’re not easily replicable, and therefore not including in most “sales training,” it’s these higher-order, problem-solving, coalition-seeing, value-creating, dot-connecting skills that tend to propel otherwise well-skilled sales producers to the very top of heap.

      • I am inclined to respond favorably to anyone who quotes W.C. Fields.

        And I will put this question to both you and Dave.

        There are numerous “spot the coalition” negotiation exercise offered by Kellogg or Harvard.

        In fact, just last week, I was on terrific seminar with Don Moore. Don was explaining a neat coalition exercise. (All hosted for free by Kellogg.)

        So, in your collective opinion: are these training exercises unknown to the world of sales?

        • Michael: It’s an interesting question. One would think we build these skills in sales (as well as all aspects of business). But I am constantly amazed by how few do. There’s lots of talk, endless articles, courses/training, etc. But when it comes to putting it into practice. That’s where things fall short.

        • Michael, I also quote Monty Python movies from time to time. 😉

          To your question… like with anything, they’re known to some and not to most.

          Think of it this way:

          * There are a lot of missed quotas (we can debate whether forecasts were done sensibly, and may aren’t, but right now, this is the current reality).

          * For a few years, the top goals of many senior sales leaders is new account acquisition, while those same leaders rate their team as needing much improvement in lead generation.

          * The average tenure of senior sales leaders is 18-24 months.

          * Folks who have often responded to challenges with “harder, faster, longer” are finding that with the current marketplace changes, that approach isn’t working like it once did.

          * There is a lot of pressure, and quarters fly by quickly.

          Whether right or wrong, most people placed in that sort of blender, are not going to step back and say, “Hey, let’s take the long view and experiment with new and unproven (or foreign) methods to see if we can get better results.”

          I’m not saying I agree with this, but I understand it. Some of this influenced my decision recently to start talking about what I’ve seen from the cream of the crop top 4% producers, even though I find what they do to be more difficult to replicate across a sales force, and also why I have been writing about the path to sales growth being through customer focus. The mix of higher-order 4-percenter skills with a back-the-the-fundamentals focus on the customer, is our way out of the current mess, in my opinion. (Even though it’s just a flesh wound.)

      • Great discussion Mike/Michael. Coalition building, problem solving, change management, project management, understanding how businesses work, etc. are all the skills needed by 21st Century Sales Professionals. But there’s far too little discussion, too little training, too little execution. Instead we go back to much of the same old stuff. Moving from WC Fields to Einstein (interesting leap), isn’t the definition of insanity doing the same thing over and over, expecting different results?

        • Completely agree with that, as you know. At this point, Dave, I think many would be happy if doing the same thing over and over produced the results it used to.

          I do see many trying to move toward Value Creation, some of which is fueled by the insight craze (which I do not see as the same thing but done well, they’re possibly in the same bucket), but there’s a lot of struggle and a big learning curve, and it’s also hard to scale across a sales force. Even when I see companies trying to address these issues, often the execution suffers, and is missing the entire change leadership and management component. Train-and-they-will-change is about as ineffective as Build-and-they-will-come, yet, it still proliferates. I’ll stop now because I am preaching to the choir, but we need to find a way to turn this corner, on a larger scale.

          • Guys, this is very interesting.

            I don’t have much to add – except to wonder that with all that training, should we be expect to see a bigger bump in sales?

          • Of course there should be results and ROI. I’ve done it and it’s possible (and likely) when done well, with an effective performance lever analysis and learning system. Can provide more info and links if you’re looking for info (I’m employed, not consulting, so not selling, just offering).

          • Sure, Mike.

            Send me what you have. Thanks.

          • Michael: Mike’s stuff on this is brilliant, you’ll get a lot of value out of it.

          • Great, David.

            Look forward to reading Mike’s stuff.

  2. Bingo, Dave. Although I’m less certain about the ease of “just follow the above steps and do it!” (And wonder if your tongue might be stuck in your cheek). Another top 4% producer skill set that remains elusive and difficult to replicate, in my experience. It “takes a village” of skill sets to succeed in the wild and woolly world of sales today, but there is still no substitute for horsepower, having all the lights on, and being able to connect the dots. 😉

    Did you see my “22nd Century Selling” pres, Dave? Can’t remember if I mentioned it the other day. Comes up in a Google search… some of it is along the same lines. (Great minds without a single thought ~ W.C. Fields)

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