SPIF Tip #56: In Uncharted Territory, How to Create a Map?

In the last article, I was left in the middle of a lake in little motorboat stuck on tree stumps I did not know were there.  It was my first time on that lake. The fact that the trees had been there for years didn’t help me.  I needed a map.

Today most of our businesses, suppliers, partners, and customers have been disrupted in one way or another. We wish we were dealing with things that matched our mental models. Like everyone, we’re making operational and financial adjustments.

We listen as customers tell us the impact and offer words of encouragement.  Everyone wants to think farther out, but there are constraints. How far out are our customers thinking? How can we learn how their business is changing? How is their customer’s business changing?

Consider the stories of companies shifting to produce medical supplies or equipment, from bulk products and packaging to consumer, from maximizing occupancy to occupancy caps. Are these business models of the future?  Or are they short-term detours?

Getting customers to engage in a “what are you thinking?” conversation is not like typical sales conversations. It requires a different mindset. We need to understand a deeper context – a business context. The privilege of learning this sort of thing must be earned.  How do you earn it?

Like everything in sales, if you haven’t done the thinking required it is not going to work well. You have to do your homework. Here are some principles to guide your preparation:

  • Chose customer segments wisely
    Choosing who to talk with is more than just having a sense of who might be willing to have this kind of conversation. Think about the cross-section of your customers. Certainly include some of your large customers. Also look for those that serve different/varied geographic or consumer segments, those located in different areas and some you wish would buy more.
  • Select who to talk to
    This is a situation where you are probably going to talk to only one person within an organization. Ideally, you want someone who has a good perspective about their business.  It definitely needs to be someone you have a relationship with so each of you is comfortable talking openly.
  • Do your homework
    Collect what you know about them – their geographic area, their company, their industry, their customers, their key players, and backgrounds. What do you know of the individual you will meet with, and their role in the business? What have they accomplished? What publications have they appeared in?
  • Prepare open-ended “research questions”
    What things might look like to them? What are they trying to accomplish? What challenges do they face? Have there been any silver linings? Any truly unexpected changes? Also, what hidden challenges might the business be facing?
  • Prepare to be valuable and respectful
    You already know this, but it bears repeating: Humans implicitly perceive through a WIIFM filter. Therefore, everything you say or do must be of some value to the other person.For some, it might be summarizing what you have heard from similar but different customers to help them tri-angulate where they are. For others, it might be how other businesses are experimenting to serve their customers (obviously, anonymously). Or it could simply be a chance to think out loud with someone outside their business.People appreciate when you have thought about them and their context. Ask specific rather than general questions. “What challenges do you face?” is not as effective as, “I saw that you delayed launching your new product. What signs are you looking for to put that back on the schedule? What challenges did that create?”
  • Keep the focus on them and their business
    Resist the urge to talk about yourself and your business. This is harder than it sounds, which is why it earns respect.
  • Set the customer’s expectations by how you request the meeting.
    When requesting this meeting, wording is crucial. You want to distinguish it from the typical kind of meetings you may have had with them. Here’s an example:


“Bill, we’ve all been buried in urgencies in the past few weeks. So, we decided to do some homework to learn what might be coming in the future. That homework is giving us a bit of new perspective.

“We’re curious where you see your customers heading, and how your firm is adapting. Not specific projects or products, so much as what might be driving those things. This might help us be prepared when you need us.

“In addition, we may have gleaned some useful ideas from others that we can share with you.

“We’d like to ask you for 30 minutes or so to step back from the day-to-day and share what you see happening at a broader, business level. What day looks better for you? Do you want to pick a time or play it by ear?”

So, we’ve discussed the objective – creating a better mental map of what is going on with your customers. And we’ve presented a bit of method for how to get that kind of information.

Next time we’ll describe some of the powerful things you can do with this kind of information.


P.S. Do you have concerns or see obstacles in taking this direction? If I can help you think through it, give me a call (770) 410-1601 Eastern Time.

P.P.S.  A good model for conducting meetings like this is included in “Beyond Selling Value, A Proven Process to Avoid the Vendor Trap,” by Mark Shonka and Dan Kosch (Dearborn, 2002).


Michael Webb

Michael Webb founded Sales Performance Consultants to create a data-driven alternative to the slogans and shallow impact offered by typical sales training, sales consulting, and CRM companies. Michael helped organize and delivered the keynote speeches for the first conferences ever held on applying Six Sigma to marketing and sales. Connect with me on LinkedIn.

Click Here to Leave a Comment Below

Leave a Comment:

Verified by MonsterInsights