The Curse of Knowledge

In their book Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath talk about the concept of providing too much information as the “curse of knowledge”. Too much knowledge can become the culprit in hobbling sales performance. I recall a story that Dan Weilbaker, professor at Northern Illinois University shared that I included in my book, (Jerry Acuff with Wally Wood, Stop Acting Like a Seller and Start Thinking Like a Buyer (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2007), p 128-129.):

“When IBM was selling a lot of hardware, new salespeople would grow their business for about 20 months, and then business would suddenly plateau. Management tried to figure out what it was and finally learned that the salespeople, by the end of 20 months, had so much product knowledge and other information they could walk into an account and immediately tell the customer what would solve their problems.”

But having this knowledge wasn’t enough. It seems that they lost the art of selling and how to communicate. They didn’t even try to learn the customer’s situation—because they knew so much, these IBM sales people thought of themselves as the resident experts. They had developed the ability to diagnose the problem quickly so they did not bother to engage the customers—to ask them what they thought. And they didn’t spend the time to develop a relationship.

Imagine the scenario. You as the customer set up a meeting with a sales person—and that sales person comes in and without bothering to learn about your concerns and needs, just starts telling you what your problem is and how they can fix it. We call that prescribing without diagnosing. This is similar to going to the doctor and having him prescribe a drug for you without first performing the examination. You would definitely be suspicious of that prescription!

Most people like to be able to explain their situation, the issues that they face—and then ask for help in solving them. People also like to be validated. Listening is an extremely valuable tool when selling. It gives your customer the opportunity to explain their situation, and perhaps, vent a bit. Besides, one size does not it all. The customer may begin by describing something you are familiar with but wind up with an unexpected twist—that could change the diagnosis. You may find that you do need to recommend a different option or product than you originally thought. Listening also gives your customer the opportunity to feel validated.

One of the best tools sales people have is their knowledge. But that knowledge is worthless unless they can use it appropriately. It is hard to know how to communicate effectively without first learning more about your customer. And the best way to do that is to ask questions. The best questions engender thinking. It can open new doors for the customer—a different way of looking at things. Often the power of asking a question is to help your customer see or think of things differently because of the way you framed the question.

So don’t assume because you have learned so much you know more about what is important than your customer. Some sales people may feel that they know what is important and their customers don’t. Don’t be one of those—involve your customer in the conversation. Take the time to formulate well thought out questions—and as importantly, take the time to really listen to what your customer says. That’s the way you can establish yourself as a valuable resource—and can indeed sell more.

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  • The physicians seem to be more willing to share information. When I ask in the ways you’ve suggested, I’m also able to get into a deeper conversation with the doctor, even the non-committal ones.

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  • Since our work with Delta Point began, our sales have consistently increased despite significant competitive activity.

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