What’s Different (Issue 520)

In which we are reminded to look for what’s different in the companies we call on rather than for what’s the same.

She bowed her head and sipped on her fresh mug of tea, thinking about her answer to my question, “How have your experiences changed you?”

Freshly returned home from nine months of working as an organic farm laborer, moving from farm to farm in Europe and in the United States, my daughter’s 19 year old friend, Beth, replied:

“I learned not to have expectations, not to expect anything in particular when I went to a new farm. Before I moved to new farms, my mother would ask me, ‘Have you talked to the people, what are they like?’ and after a while I learned that, whatever I expected, it would be different, often remarkably different. So, I would say to her, ‘I don’t know.’”

After some period of time, calling on particular types of businesses – preparing for calls, leading conversations, contracting for business, solving their problems – we learn what to expect and how best to solve their problems.

As in, “yeah, the guy runs a $X million parts distributorship, they’re doing everything on paper, the usual set up, I’ve seen 30 of ‘em, and we can help them with the usual …”

On the one hand, our experience and expertise differentiate us and increase our value to our clients and prospects. They translate into shorter time needed to diagnose problems, develop recommendations, and implement solutions as well as lower risk, fewer mistakes, and (one hopes) higher results.

At the same time, there is great danger in this expertise and experience. The science-fiction writer, Frank Herbert, wrote in his book, Chapterhouse Dune, “Ready comprehension is often a knee-jerk response and the most dangerous form of understanding. It blinks an opaque screen over your ability to learn.”

In our quest to meet our goals as quickly as we can, it is tempting to arrive in our clients’ and prospects’ offices expecting something in particular, “ready comprehension” in mind – calibrating, analyzing, listening for typical patterns of clues that tell us which likely solutions are most appropriate, and recommending them as fast as we can so we can move on to the next potential sale. After all, a quota is a quota and we are  burning daylight.

The trick lies in the question we ask ourselves as we prepare before our calls. One question – “What’s similar about this business compared to others like it?” – leads us down the path to Frank Herbert’s ready comprehension.

An alternative question – “What’s DIFFERENT about this business compared to others like it?” – leads us to begin sales call conversations without expectations, without expecting anything in particular, open to the possibility that the client or prospect might be different, perhaps remarkably different, than anything we expected.

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