Salespeople Can’t Sell Without Making Assumptions

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“When would it be convenient for you to talk next week?”

Did you catch the assumptions in the question? How about:

that you consider a conversation useful and valuable?
that you want to converse?
that you have time next week?
that you have time at all?

You get the picture. Without assumptions, we’d be stuck having to nitpick every bleeping detail, and never getting our discussions out of the gate. In selling, assumptions are as natural as breathing. Yet salespeople are beat up for having them. You’ve heard it ad nauseum: “Assumptions make an (idiot) of you and me!” A recent blog posted on CustomerThink advises, “above all, never make assumptions.” I understand the appeal of Total Certainty, but it ain’t gonna happen. In case you can’t tell, I’m a card-carrying Assumer, and proud of it!

So why do assumptions get such a bad rap, especially when humans are wired from birth to make them? I don’t know, but I can’t sell without assumptions, let alone get out of bed. Now that I think about it, without assumptions, I couldn’t even use . . . Twitter! (Tweets get read, and don’t try to tell me otherwise!) So recommending to a salesperson not to assume anything makes as much sense as telling a resident of Baku, Azerbaijan not to breathe. Sure, the atmosphere is filthy, but holding your breath indefinitely will kill you faster than inhaling dirty air.

Before the bad vibes about assuming were popularized, assumptions and selling had a happier relationship. Remember the assumptive close championed in sales training courses? “Would you like your Pontiac Aztek in Electric Blue or Fusion Orange?” OK, maybe the technique has the taint of an ugly history, but it still has merit.

I’ve assumed lots of things throughout my sales career. Some of my assumptions continue to work fabulously well, and they’re the nucleus of my sales approach. In my prospect universe, I generally assume that

• the people I work with represent themselves honestly
• they don’t have malicious intentions
• there is a gap between their current business situation and where they want to be

Assumptions don’t come one-size-fits-all. If you’re selling encryption solutions to agents of foreign governments, the first two are dubious, but I would take the third one to the bank!

Other assumptions I’ve made have failed miserably. For a long time I assumed that customers want the best solution for their business needs. Admit it. You’ve assumed that too, right? Bad assumption, though—at least in my experience, because I lost an opportunity when my decision-maker prospect said, “Andy, you’re assuming I want the best solution. I don’t. I want a system installed by November 17th.” (True story. And the prospect was a Federal agency. You can rest assured our tax dollars are being spent wisely.)

“Assumptions make an (idiot) of you and me.” Maybe. But try “no assumptions” for a day, and see how much you accomplish. That’s why when you read an annual report for a publicly-traded company, you’ll find assumptions are given well-deserved prominence. Without assumptions, you cannot have a strategy. No shame! Be out there with your assumptions!

What’s needed is a kinder, more-nuanced attitude about assumptions, not blanket prohibitions from making them. My recommendations:

1. Know what you’re assuming. Many people don’t, and that’s how they get in trouble. After wrongly assuming my government prospect wanted the best solution, at least now I know I’m assuming it! (though I now ask some different questions).

2. Know the risks to your sales objectives if your assumptions don’t come to fruition.

3. Continually test your key assumptions for validity.

4. Get rid of assumptions that have a pattern of biting you in the rear. Replace those assumptions with questions that are effective in exposing the truth.

So whether you’re an executive designing strategy, or a salesperson developing an account plan, know what your assumptions are, and embrace them, because nothing in sales happens until someone assumes something!

7 COMMENTS

  1. Good one, Andy. I hadn’t thought before about how many assumptions we operate on. By the way, having been a public servant, I understand the point of view of the guy who did not want the best solution: that’s not to say I would endorse it! One example of an assumption I learned (via the Sandler Sales System) to get rid of was that if someone said they could make the buy decision themselves they were telling the truth. How naive! In fact, people often lie about this or delude themselves. I learned how essential it is to find out “who else” is involved, e.g. a business partner, financial controller, etc and then find a way to not be blindsided by that. E.g. “I love your product but my finance people say we don’t have a budget for that right now. Good luckwith it though!”

  2. Hi Des: I wish I had your insight before my government opportunity went south . . . I hadn’t encountered the install-by-deadline-X-above-all syndrome before–or since. Up to that point, all my prospects shared that they had concerns about a solution’s future capabilities for solving a specific business goal. So this government procurement was especially unusual, but as you suggest, not implausible.

    Your point about purchasing authority is especially valuable when it comes to assumptions. If salespeople consistently take the ‘purchase authority’ information at face value, they’ll find a rocky road ahead. Like you, I have also learned that what a prospect tells me about buying steps requires validation–and not just once, but throughout the buying process.

    “I don’t have the authority to make a decision,” is sometimes a dodge. “I will make the decision on what to buy” sometimes isn’t totally true. The purpose might not be so much to intentionally mislead, but could reflect the prospect’s own confusion about how his or her internal collaboration works.

  3. My hunch is that the “I will make a decision on what to buy” rersponse is more often than not reflecting, as you say, the prospect’s own confusion. Like the old journalistic adage, “between a conspiracy and a stuff-up, choose the stuff-up every time”. In that vein, I learned (again with the Sandler system) that it is a smart move to work on getting the prospect to take you through the decision-making process so you can actually help the prospect see that others are involved. Then you can coach your hopefully positive prospect on how to handle objections you won’t be there to deal with. But in my experience this needs to be handled carefully, or the prospect can get annoyed at your “intrusion”. My hope these days is that in developing more capability with social selling there will be less need for such relatively elaborate processes- the dance – or is there too much “wiring” in our social natures for it to ever be simpler?

  4. “. . . But in my experience this needs to be handled carefully, or the prospect can get annoyed at your ‘intrusion'”

    No joke! I can’t tell you how many sales training programs I’ve worked with that recommend salespeople get involved int the purchase process. Great advice–on the surface. “How about if I talk with your VP of Marketing and help get the appointment on the calendar?”

    Of course, the unsaid assumption is that the prospect point of-contact-wouldn’t have apoplexy at the notion that you’re usurping their role. Instead, the would be conversation plays out neatly in scripted “role play.”

    Of course, it’s best to expose what is actually assumed, but sales trainers sometimes fail to offer that perspective.

  5. What if we had a real conversation that went something like: Seller – “well, you seem pretty happy with the idea, could you tell me who else will have to be happy with the idea for the deal to go ahead?” and then share that sometimes in your experience the process can come unstuck because the other person misses some crucial point, through no one’s fault, then offer to be available for a face-to-face or skyp video chat or whatever? It seems to me that if you handle that thoughtfully and genuinely, the other person has to be hyper-sensitive to rebuff the very idea. What would you think of that Andy?

  6. Des: I like your approach because it acknowledges the assumption that the prospect is respected within his or her own company or department, but offers a backup resource to help out.

    Early in my career, when I bought products and services, salespeople attempted to sell around me in their zeal to reach the “c-Level.” They assumed I didn’t have the wherewithal to get things done.

    Of course, the message they send is a non-starter. It says, “this initiative is more sure to happen when I talk directly to your boss.” Which is ironic, because while the salesperson can proudly report to their boss that they got the c-level appointment (assuming it happens), they’ve just made an enemy in the person they stepped on to get it. Many sales opportunities don’t survive the risks that cascade from “the enemy within.” Why create them?

    I think sales outcomes are largely shaped by the assumptions brought in at the outset. If you think of the initial point of contact as a “gatekeeper,” your sales approach will reflect that assumption. If you think of him or her as an “access provider,” another set of assumptions kicks in, and the sales behaviors change accordingly. . .

  7. You remind me that I’ve been in that prospect position too. And perhaps a tad unworthily I recall a degree of grim satisfaction when the smug salesman had left and the decision-maker turned to me and asked, So, should we do this? and then followed my advice. 🙂

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