Curiosity saves the sales executive

We've seen it all before. The charming sales executive waltzes through the door and flashes shiny new product after product with the mesmerizing grip of a snake charmer.

Organizations hand over billing details and when the charm wears off, are sitting on products that don't connect even remotely to their bottom line.

Rather than put the onus on the customer, it is high time that commercial executives - those that engineer growth with current customers - adopt better ways of being aware of changing customer needs and challenges. COVID-19 kick-started a rapid shift in the way business is done and if you're not adapting, be prepared to be left behind.

According to Gartner, situational awareness is paramount to successful commercial engagements, but simply knowing about constantly changing conditions is not enough, one must continually act on them to engage successfully with customers.

Whether we want to admit it or not, there is a general lack of empathy and curiosity about customers in corporate America. Only 15% of sales conversations are considered valuable by customer executives, according to Forrester Research. This sales endemic stems from siloed businesses with product centric focuses that rewarded commercial teams for product pipelines versus customer outcomes.

This mentality became a virus that infects customer relationships - productitis. Whether diagnosed or not, all B2B businesses suffer from productitis resulting in waste and inefficiencies that are not just points of contention with investors; they prove fatal in dynamic industries and competitive markets. But there is an antidote.

Learning today requires executives to forget their track records on a personal level and focus on actively listening to customers - learning to truly understand what is important. While simple in concept, it is much harder than it sounds. No company likes to admit they don't put the customer first, that deep down they don't believe the customer is always right.

Yes, everyone thinks they are customer centric, but it takes practice to truly embody this. That ego and pride around sales awards, incentives and new business wins are hard to shed; recognition plaques can shine you into blindness.

Everyone's biases cloud their vision, and it's hard to recognize that what one hears is not always what was meant. It's a fascinating gap in today's business world that is rooted in psychology and sociology. Often coined an "English to English" translation problem.

Once you've acknowledged the problem and started actively listening, you can cure productitis with curiosity, a fate not afforded to the cat.

When executives are armed with curiosity and empathy, it opens their eyes to things they could not see before. They start asking more thoughtful questions of their customers and find ways to co-create opportunities instead of simply tracking them. How does one learn to do that? Certainly not in a classroom.

Like learning a foreign language, the best way to learn new skills is to immerse yourself in them, adopt new patterns of behavior and learn by doing. Curiosity and empathy are natural human attributes that require intention.

With that intention comes a powerful energy associated with doing something differently. This simple mentality of intentionally embracing something new can make commercial conversations significantly more engaging. Try it - you'll be surprised what you learn.

Executives need to recalibrate and learn how to communicate again before going in for a sale. The world we're living in is not the same as before COVID. The pandemic stripped businesses down to bare bones without the bread and circuses. The facade started to crack and if you're not learning how to adapt each day, you'll find your clients slowly walking away.

• Dave Irwin is founder and CEO of Polaris I/O in Geneva.

Article Comments
Guidelines: Keep it civil and on topic; no profanity, vulgarity, slurs or personal attacks. People who harass others or joke about tragedies will be blocked. If a comment violates these standards or our terms of service, click the "flag" link in the lower-right corner of the comment box. To find our more, read our FAQ.