An assumption is an idea or belief we accept to be true with little or no evidence. We make assumptions every day. Assumptions are essential because they give us a starting point for moving forward.  Research and science depend on assumptions but they don’t stop there.  Some assumptions are warranted and some unwarranted.   But left at the assumption level there is no way to tell which is which.

Alan Alda, director, actor, screenwriter, and writer, makes the point when he compares assumptions to windows to the world but warns that they must be scrubbed for light to come through.

The problem with assumptions is they are convenient, they save time, and they are seductive because we are confidant that we think we know what we know.  I was reminded of how very easy it is to get locked into the assumption trap when I read about the discovery of a “new” book.

I was delighted to learn that after 50 years Harper Lee, author of the masterpiece “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which was universally accepted as her one and only book, would be releasing her second book.  Up to this point it was believed that she never wrote another book.  But it was discovered that the “new” book, “Go Set a Watchman,” had been written more than 50 years ago, before “To Kill a Mockingbird.” “Go Set a Watchman” takes place 20 years later in the same fictional town with the same inhabitants.  Amazingly though all of the scholars (and there were many) and even her biographer despite finding numerous references to the earlier book, assumed it was just an early title for “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Their job is to dig, dig, and dig but they never asked one question about that title.

If scholars and biographers with lots of time and research documents on their side can make assumptions how easy is it for salespeople under time, skill, and resource pressure to jump to conclusions? In many ways Harper Lee who retreated from the spotlight and who never shared that there was a second book, is like customers who intentionally or unintentionally withhold essential information.  Mining key information takes curiosity, perception and probing and a respect for nuance and depth.

It would be impossible to calculate the number of assumptions that sales managers hear during coaching sessions and salespeople tell themselves:  the client will leave if we don’t make the price concession, unless I get better leads I can’t achieve quota, the incumbent is in tight and we can’t win, my contact prefers us and it’s a sure thing, my customer wouldn’t be interested in that… and on and on.  Customer objections are a particularly dangerous place where the risk of making assumptions fester.  Most objections are vague, for example “We think we can hire really top performers in this market and won’t need to train them.”   Without understanding all the variables of why the customer has this perspective and digging into that any argument a salesperson offers would likely be unconvincing.  Salespeople can create an enormous competitive advantage if they explore possible meanings and don’t operate from the assumptions their competitors are acting on.  Questions of others and self are the remedy for assumptions.

To avoid relying solely on subjectivity, instinct, and faith and risk drawing wrong conclusions, patience is needed and so is listening.  But the key is the mind-set to test with questions. It is all about possibilities.  Sales managers who are told, “My customer won’t renew if we don’t …” must broaden a salesperson’s perspective by saying, “ I know you are concerned and worked hard on this relationship. That is a possibility.  What’s another possible outcome?”  When a salesperson’s self-talk tells her or him  “I’ll offend my contact if I ask her to introduce me to the SVP.” the salesperson must challenge that self-imposed obstacle.  And when a customer says, ”We think staying with our current provider is likely the best course of action.” that does not mean the deal is done.

Assumptions help us make sense out of what is happening around us. We need them but we must recognize them for what they are.  They are an early stage of enlightened thinking.  But it is dark until we question, analyze, and ask another question.

So, let the light in!