One of the biggest fails in sales today is ‘Don’t Know Syndrome’

Every day I read about how sales is broken and that new and better processes, sales tools and coaching would fix the problem, or certainly significantly improve the performance results. But hasn’t this been the case for a long time, hasn’t there always been opportunity to make things better? Whilst such investments in time and money would help there is one discipline that is so fundamentally simple but its importance is all too often overlooked, it’s gathering knowledge about the company and contacts that you are trying to sell to.

Unfortunately, this is such as simple principle that’s is easily ignored because everyone thinks that the problem is something much bigger and struggle to comprehend that a principle as basic as knowing more would help them.

Getting many people in the sales industry to focus on this is like trying to get a vampire to eat a side serving of garlic bread, they step away and nobody wants to acknowledge that it’s an industry wide failing.

Don’t agree? Then ask yourself the following question, and be honest:

‘Do you think if you knew more about your prospects that you’d be more effective in selling to them’?

Of course you would, I’ve never met anyone yet who has said no to this question. So why is there so little focus on addressing it? Sales people have a tendency to believe that selling leads to buying, and after explaining the capabilities and benefits of their proposition to the prospects that there will be a hallelujah moment and that the buying process will begin. This couldn’t be further from the truth and shows how little sales people know about their prospects and how they buy.

‘Don’t Know Syndrome’ in sales could also be referred to as the ‘Columbus Syndrome’ after famous explorer Christopher Columbus.

He left but he didn’t know where he was going

When he got there, he didn’t know where he was

When he got back he didn’t know where he had been

….. And he did it three times in seven years

The point being made here is that sales people often follow the same risky strategy by leaving too many things to chance by not knowing what they should do. For Columbus it turned out OK, but how many sales people have a successful career by blindly sailing without a plan and the requisite knowledge?

There is so much extensive research available from highly reputable sources that prove not enough sales people know what they really need to know to sell effectively. Let’s break this issue down into some bite size nuggets:

Know the problem and priority

About half of all B2B deals forecasted last year didn’t happen, they stayed with the status quo. Just think for a moment about the cost of all this wasted effort by so many sales people, plus all of the colleagues that supported them, across so many companies.

It should come as no surprise that the root cause starts with the qualification process, or lack of it. Sales people are so excited about adding an opportunity to their pipeline that they’re prone to ignore the need to know how real it is and they don’t know where this sits in terms of the prospects business priorities. Take a step back for a moment and try and understand how many business initiatives are ongoing in your prospect companies at any one time. There are so many departments or internal groups looking to solve existing problems or implement new ideas, all them competing for the limited funds and resources available so it’s inevitable that many, if not most of them, will never materialise. But that won’t stop sales people being high on ‘Hopium’ and leaving it in their pipeline because opportunities are gold dust and they’re directed to maintain a minimum value pipeline, a classic quantity over quality conundrum.

Sale training experts have been preaching the value of good business questions for a long time and most companies have invested in sales training at some point so this won’t be a big surprise to anyone. The more you know at this stage the better equipped you are to qualify a deal in or out, after all with only so many hours in the day surely, it’s better to focus more efforts on deals that will happen and you can win.

You all know by now that you should ask questions that enable you to identify or understand the business problems or uncover the business needs that your product or service could help solve, including the symptoms, the impact and who’s affected, because without knowing this information you aren’t in a position to propose a suitable and effective remedy.  In addition to these questions you really need to know the level of priority this problem has when compared to other initiatives internally. The lower the priority the less likely it will change from the status quo. A simple way to understand this is to ask ‘what happens if you do nothing about the problem’? If the impact of doing nothing is low then you have your answer.

The modern trend is to sell outcomes, but you need to know what outcome the prospect wants to achieve and how they will measure it, most sales people try to coerce their prospects into the outcomes that their product or service can deliver, the two aren’t always aligned. Don’t try a squeeze a square peg into a round hole as you’ll be wasting everyone’s time and your prospect will go as cold as a penguin’s chuff on you.

Knowing your own product or service is not enough, you need to know your prospect problems and priorities to be able add relevant business value and context.

Know the people

The number involved in the B2B buying process is now much larger (the average is 6.8 people), but I’m not sure that enough sales people know this piece of research intelligence, which may explain why around 80% of all sales people don’t identify or engage with all of them. It’s bonkers that they don’t know who is involved in the decision-making process in an age when committee or consensus based decision making is the norm. The days of solitary decision makers or sales people mainly focusing on the C suite have long since passed. Complex selling is now like building a jigsaw puzzle, you need to have all of the pieces in place to complete it.

So, if you’ve got a bunch of people involved in the decision-making process then it’s logical that you need to know more about them and what’s important to them to know how to sell to them. A larger buyer team will involve a wider range of different people with different roles, responsibilities, needs, challenges, criteria, concerns, risks and so on. This is not rocket science, we’re talking about people like you and me with emotions, pride and a heavy workload who want to feel that you’re trying to help them individually not just collectively.

The old adage in sales was that ‘People buy from people’, but the value of relationship selling has declined and it’s now more along the lines of ‘People buy from people that help them’. If you want to do that then firstly you need to understand them. Don’t be blinded by focusing on the decision makers, often the key players are the trusted and influential side-kicks who make recommendations that decision makers sign off.

Just consider for a moment your tolerance levels for people trying to sell products or services to you that have no relevance for you or your needs, from a personal perspective you know that the value of anything is in the eyes of the buyer rather than in the eyes of the seller, so you know that their efforts are a lost cause. So why should your prospects be any different than you when the boot is on the other foot, why should you not know want you need to know about them. Buyers are now busier than ever and therefore have less patience and time than in the past, if you want to help them you have to know them.

If you don’t think this applies to you then you must be one the embarrassingly low 15% of sales people that Gartner stated are able to provide business value to their prospects. We can all get better in this area, and the way to do this is to know more about our prospects business and buyer teams.

Know the process

It’s probably the same 80% of B2B sales people that don’t know what the decision / buying process is. All too often sales people fixate on the order decision date, a solitary stage in an otherwise complex series of events that is now known as the ‘Buyers Journey’.

By doing this sales people are dismissing all of the stages and all of the hurdles that they expect the buyer team to jump unaided. Always be mindful that buying is the last thing that the prospects want to do and they will explore every opportunity to stay with the status quo where possible. Remember the stat at the beginning of this article, half of all forecasted deals don’t happen for anyone, if you dig deeper you’ll discover that half of these don’t do anything because the buyer team isn’t aligned or can’t agree. The more people in the process, the less likely anything will be decided, that’s one of the challenges of consensus or committee based decision making

Complex sales are exactly that, they’re complex. That means there are no shortcuts and it will take hard work by buyer centric savvy professionals to navigate them successfully. You have to remember that some decisions for products or services may be made every 5 – 10 years and therefore it maybe something the buyer team don’t have experience of, or maybe there’s no standard internal process for this. What an opportunity this is for you, to be able to give them the benefit of your relevant knowledge, experience and wisdom through the stages based on having done this for so many other companies like them.

Take the time to understand what needs to happen and by whom. I’ve seen buying processes with 10’s of buyers and buying stages, complex sales are not easy to manage but you certainly increase your chances of success by staying close to the people and offering valuable advice. The closer you are the easier it is to see potential misalignment within the buyer team and by understanding the individuals and where there are differing or opposing interests you are well positioned to help by focusing them on their shared interests and finding common ground on their conflicting ones. Not only will this reduce the risk of a no decision but it will also promote you as somebody who understands their business problems and is trying to help solve them. Conflict between buyers rarely results in benefits for the business, this misalignment between stake holders is often a turf war rather than a collaboration, so work to remove the bottlenecks.

Think of a buying decision as a change management problem which will involve a series of different evaluations, definitions, approvals and sign offs across the buyer team, much of which evolve along the way so it’s not an understand once scenario. The more you know about it at any given time, the more you can help.

‘Don’t Know’ Leaders

What makes the ‘Don’t know’ problem a bigger problem is that sales leaders don’t know that their sales people don’t know what they need to know because they focus to on the numbers and not enough on the knowledge and actions that win the deals. That’s probably why there’s more deal autopsies than celebrations for many of them.


No one said that selling is easy. It requires a lot of smart work and plenty of knowledge to be successful.

  • Know your product or services inside out
  • Know your marketplace and your position
  • Know your competition and your strengths and weaknesses comparison
  • Know your prospects business problems, needs and priorities
  • Know how you can solve their problems and add business value
  • Know each member of the buyer team and understand what’s important to them
  • Know what their decision / buying process is so you can help, guide and advise them along the way

Knowing leads to doing and doing contributes to closing.

Sales people who don’t know what they need to know can’t do what needs to be done to win the deal. Simple!

There is a saying that drives how I think about sales ‘I know what I know, I know what I don’t know and I don’t know what I don’t know’.

Now before you start thinking this is some deep, meaningful, profound and Zen like garbage, think about it like this: We should all know what we need to know about our products or services. We should also know what we need to find out about the companies and buyers we are trying to sell to. Beyond this there is universe of information that could be useful to you in your sales roles, information that you hadn’t thought about and didn’t know existed that can be uncovered through research and constant learning. This could be information that would enable you to add more value to your prospect conversation and proposals, and as we all know adding value is now the key differentiator. The most successful sales people have an innate curiosity to discover and an open mind to learn.

Knowledge is one of the biggest assets you can have. The day you stop learning is the day you become uneducated.

Always be learning.

Check out my blog called ‘Couldn’t Sell A Black Cat to a Witch’ 

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