In 2006, I was lucky enough to spend a week exploring the Galapagos Islands with my then fiancee, now wife of almost 10 years. We flew from the capital Quito across the Ecuadorian coast to the island of San Cristobel, one of only 4 inhabited islands in the Galapagos archipelago.On our first day there we visited the Charles Darwin museum, where we learned about Darwin’s research, how he catalogued and meticulously analysed the different plant and animal species on each of the islands, which ultimately formed the basis for his Theory of Evolution.
The science of discovery, that rare combination of a questioning mind and a thirst for knowledge has helped shape the world we know and continues to impact all aspects of our daily lives, in lots of big and small ways. The very best salespeople I've met in my career, those who have successfully carved out their niche in the challenging and high pressure world of enterprise sales, tended to be the ones with an inquisitive mind and an insatiable appetite for knowledge.
They approach every prospective sales cycle with a Darwinian sense of curiosity and an analytical mind. They begin by trying to develop a better understanding of the organisational landscape around them, the business problems, the industry characteristics and the key people of influence within the business. From there, they shift focus to the political and competitive landscape of the organisation, gaining an in-depth understanding of the products or services their customer sells, who the end-customers are and how the organisation actually makes money. They capture all of this information like pieces of a vast organisational jigsaw puzzle and then set about putting the pieces together, until a clear picture begins to emerge.
Just as Darwin did more than a century earlier with his boxes of scientific equipment, these great salespeople leverage all of the tools at their disposal. They interview key leaders in the business, devour company reports and information available on the internet. They speak to industry experts, colleagues and people in their business network, to build up a complete picture of the company and the key stakeholders within the business. One salesperson I know spent an entire day travelling around on a rubbish truck, to get a more granular understanding of the challenges and issues facing his customer in the waste removal sector. Just imagine how much credibility this earned him, in terms of his day-to-day interactions with that customer. Like so many other great salespeople, he had a desire to understand the inner workings of his customer's business, before earning the right to talk to them about his ability to help out in some way.
Why go to all this effort you may ask, when a salesperson might close a deal without a lot of this background information and research? It’s simple really, most great salespeople know from past experience the more granular their understanding of the organisation, its staff and customers, its partners and competitors, the greater their ability to influence. Also the higher the likelihood that they can make that leap of intellect and provide the customer with a compelling, accurate and ultimately irrefutable solution to their business problem.
This all probably sounds a little bit far-fetched, drawing a parallel between the single greatest scientific discovery of mankind and the far more mundane task of selling a high value product or service to a prospective customer. So let me spell it out more plainly … just like the plants and animals on the Galapagos Islands, the sales industry has undergone a massive evolution also.
No longer are salespeople expected to be walking, talking product brochures, ready to extol the virtues of their solution at a moment’s notice. "I can get all of that information at the touch of a button thank you very much, so what else have you got for me?"
In this brave new world of high-value selling, just like the Galapagos Islands of millions of years ago, you have to evolve or die. I’ve witnessed first-hand friends and colleagues who skill-sets were highly valued and handsomely rewarded a decade ago, become rapidly obsolete through a lack of ability to evolve and adapt. It’s painful to witness this fall from grace and a sobering lesson for those that remain behind.
The animal kingdom has long lived by the adage ‘survival of the fittest’ … in the world of enterprise sales perhaps that adage needs to be replaced by ‘survival of the most inquisitive and adaptable’.
So what can you do?
- Never lose your thirst for knowledge and your enquiring mind. Scour the internet for information, read company reports, industry journals, seek out people with experience in your industry for a crash-course
- Don’t be afraid to say ‘I don’t know’ or ‘I don’t understand’ - it’s not a sign of weakness, it simply shows your desire for knowledge, but make sure the questions you ask are intelligent, considered and demonstrate the preparation you have undertaken in advance
- Become a Renaissance man/woman, read widely, seek out information, listen, question and continually seek to clarify and understand
- Don’t just go to the usual sources of information, expand your horizons to leverage Twitter, LinkedIn groups, industry bodies and any other source available to you
- Prepare well, ask intelligent open ended questions when first engaging with a new prospect
- Make sure that you capture this information in a format you can continually refer back and add to it. This information will form the basis for the sales strategy that you develop and any negotiation that may occur further down the track
- Triangulate your information, check with multiple sources, never make assumptions about the accuracy of what you know and continually re-check this information throughout the duration of the sales cycle, because it can often change along the way
- Don’t just passively consume, actively contribute to the knowledge pool. One of the single fastest ways to develop credibility is to express your opinions on topics in a public forum. Write blog articles, contribute questions or comments on LinkedIn groups, broaden your horizons, have an opinion and don’t be scared to express it publicly.