The Value Of NOT Knowing It All

February 2020

Smart Selling: Distributor Sales Strategies From HIDA

By Elizabeth Hilla
Senior Vice President, HIDA

How curiosity can be an asset in your sales efforts

If you’re like me, you like to be well-prepared for a sales call. You check out your prospect’s LinkedIn page, study their corporate website, and review all your own product information before you meet with the customer.

All this knowledge is valuable – but there’s a risk to it as well. It’s hard to resist spouting all the information you have during the sales call. And what happens? You do all the talking, instead of using that valuable face-to-face time to hear from your customer.

If you think about it, sometimes your ability to admit what you don’t know can be even more valuable than your ability to use what you do know.

Of necessity, I got really good at this during my first job out of college. I landed a position as a television news reporter at a tiny station in eastern North Carolina. I was 21 years old, both naïve and somewhat ignorant. Every day, I was assigned to do a news report on something about which I had no prior knowledge whatsoever. I covered the opening of the tobacco markets even though I knew nothing about agriculture, reported on advances in medicine even though I had only taken two science courses (physics and meteorology!) in college, and interviewed government leaders about civic issues in towns I had never visited before.

There was no internet available at the time, so I had neither the resources nor the time to read up on these topics before heading out to cover them. Instead, I had to admit my ignorance and ask the folks that I was interviewing to educate me. Happily, most people were very willing to talk.

Use Ignorance As A Selling Tool?

I’ve found in my career since then that my willingness to confess that I’m unfamiliar with a particular topic or issue has become a very valuable professional tool. I ask a lot of questions, and as a result I gain useful information. What’s more, most people love to talk about their work or their expertise, so asking questions is a great tool in building relationships.

Here are a few ideas for turning your own areas of ignorance into potential advantages, along with my own personal examples:

  • Networking: When you meet people at a professional function, ask them about their jobs or their organizations. If they describe a challenge or a business process that’s unfamiliar, don’t nod your head and pretend to understand. Ask them to explain.

“Hi Josh, nice to meet you. I have to admit I’m not familiar with Healiant – can you tell me about your company?”

“Bruce, you said that you’re responsible for category management at your health system. I always thought of category management as something that suppliers do – what does it mean in a hospital?”

  • Training sessions and other meetings: Let’s say the leader uses an acronym you don’t know. Chances are other people in the room are wondering what it means too. Why not take one for the team by raising your hand and asking the trainer to back up and define the term.

“Cara, you said the new competitive bidding program applies to CBAs. What are those?”

“Todd, what did you say your company sells? CGMs? What does that stand for?”

  • Sales calls: Don’t assume you know what the customer needs. Ask questions at every stage of the call, and ask follow-up questions as appropriate. You’ll need to read the customer so as not to overdo it and annoy them, but most folks will be happy to know that you really want to understand their situation and meet their needs.

“Charlie, you guys said you want to grow your business in the post-acute market – how do you define that exactly?”

“Maureen, you referred to your company as an MRO distributor. I’m not familiar – what’s that?”

It’s a good thing that people don’t like know-it-alls, because we as salespeople definitely don’t know it all. However, by turning our ignorance into curiosity about the customer and his or her needs, we can make it an asset in our sales efforts.