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Knowing More Than Our Customers

by David Brock on August 7th, 2013

I get disturbed by much of the hyperbole around Insight Selling and Teaching Our Customers.  We are supposed to know more than our customers.

I think in many cases that’s true and an important part of value creation.

Certainly, we know more about our products and solutions–but that is probably meaningless to the customer until very late in their buying process.  Unfortunately, too often, that’s all we know.  Consequently, we provide very little value to our customers since they can get the same “teaching” from numerous other sources.

We should know more than our customers on certain types of problems—the one’s we solve.  We should know how to identify them, how to define and scope them, how to diagnose the impact, how to resolve them.  After all, we see these problems every day with all the customers we work with.  So we certainly should know more about those things than our customers.  As experts in that category of problems and how we can help customers solve them, we can create a lot of value.  We should have ideas and insights about those problems and how to eliminate them–so we certainly should know more than our customers.

We may know more than our customers about things happening in other sectors or industries that may impact our customers or that they can learn from.  For example, mobility is an increasingly important issue for every sales and marketing executive–how do we engage highly mobile customers, how do we support highly mobile sales organizations?  So we can know more an provide a lot of insight on how customers might be able to leverage these in their business.  Because we, at least our companies, are dealing with customers in lots of segments and industries, we may see trends, practices, ideas in other industries and segments that, if tweaked a little, may be new and fresh in our customers’ industries.  For example, I’ve always thought, from a business strategy point of view, the fashion industry is a really interesting industry and that B2B sectors can learn a lot about agility, nimbleness, speed of execution, customer experience from the fashion industry.  So we can know more about other things that may allow us to bring fresh insight and ideas to our customers.

But now things start getting touchy. where claiming that we know more than our customers might just be boastful and arrogant.

We should know more about their industries, customers, competitors and markets.  But our customers–if we are dealing with mid to senior level executives in B2B sales, have probably spent their careers in these, so they know a lot.  They may be recognized leaders and thought or opinion leaders in their industries.  Even if we sell only within a certain sector or industry, to claim to know more than them is probably arrogance.  Being an outside observer of an industry gives a different perspective, but seldom one of knowing more than those who have worked in it their entire careers.

We should know more about their companies, their challenges, and problems.  Sometimes, we might know more about things going on in our customers’ companies than they.  If we are covering our accounts properly, we talk to lots of people, we see things that are going on at many levels and locations.  Our customers often are so busy doing their jobs, they just don’t know what’s going on in other parts of their company.  But knowing more than them is difficult, they are in the meetings, they are part of the “dynamic,” they know things that we are likely never to know unless we are part of it.

We should know more about them and what they do.  But to claim to know more than them–unless we’ve actually done their job longer and better than them, is sheer folly.  I used to sell process equipment and testing solutions to semiconductor manufacturers.  Semiconductor manufacturing is one of the most complex manufacturing processes I have ever encountered  (by the way, manufacturing Pampers diapers is also one of the most complex processes in manufacturing).  I’ve been engaged with some of the top semiconductor manufacturing people in the world.  I know a lot about certain aspects, but I’ve never worked in a Fab.  I’ve never managed any part of the fabrication process.  I will never know more about semiconductor manufacturing than most of the executives I deal with—-but I know a lot about semiconductor manufacturing and that’s good enough.

We should know more about what they face.  But we can never know more about their situation.  We aren’t in the meetings, we don’t see the dynamics, we don’t know all the internal constraints, difficulties, challenges they face.  They may have been trying to drive change, they may have been trying to solve very difficult problems and things that we could have no knowledge of–unless we were actually there–may keep them from moving forward.  But to claim we know more is an insult to their professionalism and their capability.

I think we need to re-frame our model of  “teaching our customers.”  So many of the analogies are of our teachers in grade or high schools.  They did know more than we students.  They “taught” us.

But our customers aren’t grade or high school students.  They aren’t children.  Our customers are post graduate, post doctoral students.  The executives I deal with every day–and so do you–are among the best in the world.  They are experienced, bright people, with tremendous records of achievement.  The problems and challenges they face are non-trivial.  To claim know more than them about their jobs, about their businesses, to teach them as we would a grade school student is the height of arrogance!

We need to look at the “teaching” models for post graduate, even post doctoral learning.  They are very different, teaching becomes transformed into collaborative learning and discovery.  Each person is both a student (learner) and a teacher.  Each bring a rich set of expertise and experience to the table.  Moreover, they are dealing with very tough problems and challenges.  They are confronting issues that no one person can solve, but require the collaborative efforts of the best people in the world.

The exciting thing about “teaching our customers” in the post graduate, post doctoral teaching model is knowing more is unimportant.  Knowing more in certain areas is great.  Knowing about is critical.  But what teaching is really about–at that level– is the shared respect, the shared goals, the openness to different ideas, to change, to learning from each other and knowing that each person is critical to the discovery and learning process.  It’s about knowing that individually we can’t solve the problem but together we can.  It’s engaging customers in that process that makes us true partners, trusted advisers, teachers and students.

We can certainly know more than our customers in certain areas—just as they know more than us in other areas.

We must know more about our customers, if we hope to earn the right to join them in “post doctoral studies.”

But to claim we know more than our customers cheats them and us from the opportunity of collaborating, learning, and growing with our customers.

And it is simply arrogant!

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. True story.

    I had a big call with a prospective client I’d been trying to win for 7 years. I had done my homework over those years, and when I got my chance, I really studied. I read the company’s last three annual reports. I learned about the business’s plans for the future. I learned a lot about how investors viewed the company and their Chairman and CEO’s three big initiatives.

    As I met with the highest level contact, I threw out some numbers. I said, “You guys are spending X.” He was impressed. I followed up, “You handle these territories, and they account for X in revenue.” He was more impressed.

    And finally, I pulled out the big ideas. I said, “You guys are working on A and B and C right now, and we can help you by doing X and Y and Z.” He laughed and said, “Where’d you come up with that?” I told him that I found their initiatives in their annual reports. He laughed more and said, “I don’t even know what you are talking about. I haven’t heard a word about any of that, and we aren’t working on anything like that here.”

    Too clever by half. I didn’t know what I thought I knew.

    Happy ending, I won the business. But there is something to be said for listening and learning.


    • Great story. I have one that almost mirrors it. The CEO replied to my cleverly introduced Insight, saying “Clearly, you don’t know that we’ve recognized the issues you’ve identified and we are well on the way to solving them…” Had she stopped there, I would have been toast, but she went on, “But you’ve really done your homework on us. I like the way you think, there is no way you could have known what we were doing about the issues. But here’s the problem we are struggling with…….” We went on and did the deal.

      I think there are several lessons to be learned:

      1. We never know more about our customers’ companies than they, to presume to know this is arrogance. But we must know as much about the customer as we possibly can, using this to quickly identify the real issues we can help them with.
      2. Insight is not the destination, it’s the starting point. It begins the conversation and the learning and the collaboration. Customers will not fall over and give us a PO with our Insight. It’s how we earn the right to have the conversation.
      3. We don’t have to be right about the Insight, we just have to be engaging enough to make the customer want to learn with us.

  2. Dave, you have, as you so often do, touched a nerve. If we approach the customer conversation as an opportunity for mutual learning, and share our knowledge with humility, we’re likely to do better than if we out and out suggest that we know more about them.

    One of my sales mentors once told me a story of a wet-behind the ears young salesperson who managed to talk themselves into a meeting with a highly experienced F100 CPO. He clearly thought that the best way of grabbing attention was to make a bold claim.

    So he launched into the provocative statement that “I can save you 20% of your procurement costs”.

    At which point, the CPO leaned back in his chair and simply said ” well sonny, I guess that makes one of us an idiot”.

    He continued… “If I’ve spend my working life in this function, worked my way up to be the COP of a Fortune 100 company, and I’ve somehow missed the opportunity to save my company that amount of money, I guess that makes me an idiot.”

    “But if you come into my office, and without knowing anything about my company or what we’ve achieved, and you reckon that you can just shave 20% off our costs without any evidence or proof, well, sonny, I guess that makes you the idiot”.

    • Thanks for the great comment and story Bob. You’ve articulated what it took me several 100 more words to try to say.

      I have always found engaging the customer in mutual learning is far more effective than a one sided “teaching/pitching” approach. Learning is interactive, learning stimulates new ideas, learning drives openness, learning drives us to achieve something more. And isn’t that our purpose in working with our customers? If we achieve something more together–helping them grow and improve, while demonstrating how we can help them do that, we all win.

  3. John Sterrett permalink

    Too true. I regularly call on a research institute with more PhD’s per square mile than anywhere else I have ever been. I often acknowledge that I am the dumbest guy in the room, as they are rocket scientists, neurobiologists, etc.

    But I also convey that I have a 20 year track record of solving problems and providing the products and services that my customers need. On the first visit, I know more about my product than they do. Then it comes down to listening, learning and providing excellent service.

    • Great point John, we each have our various experience bases, we each have differing expertise. The problems our customers face are non trivial, but by leveraging these collaboratively, we have an impact. Thanks for the great comment.

  4. This Blog deserves a Blog reply, not just a comment.

    As usual, Dave you are pushing the Dialogue
    started by The Challenger Sale forward, thanks.

    There are just too many definitions of “insights”
    (just as there were too many definitions of benefits until
    Neil Rackham defined “Benefits” by research)

    An insight is NOT telling a customer something they don’t know!

    An ‘insight’ is disagreeing with something the customer believes. “Teaching” and “Learning” are the outputs of the disagreement. The logic (and emotion) behind the disagreement, the rational and irrationality of beliefs.

    The example I use is from Behavioural Economics:

    “If a bat and a ball cost $11,
    and the bat costs $10 more than the ball,
    then how much would a ball cost?”

    ‘Thinking Fast’ most people say a dollar.

    Then, you take their answer back into the question

    $1 for the ball, the bat would cost $10 more or $11,
    so the total cost would be $11 bat +$1 ball = $12,
    not the $11 dollars in the question!

    Then, they Think Slow,
    they do the maths and understand their mistake.

    But not everybody, some people cannot see it,
    they accept the answer as a ‘trick’ and continue to think quick.

    Insights, ideally, change the way Buyer’s think,
    they alter a belief, they give a different perspective.

    The functional ‘insight’ naturally leads to Customer Engagement, indeed that is their purpose!

    I feel a blog coming on…………………………………

    • Brian: You’ve provoked at least 2 blogs from me–and I’m looking forward to yours.

      By the way, $0.50—but good luck finding a ball for that price or a bat for $10

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