Today, the eagerly anticipated second novel, Go Set a Watchman, by Harper Lee will be released.  Originally written in the 1950’s, but only recently discovered, this novel was written before her best selling, Pulitzer Prize-winning book To Kill a Mockingbird.   In Go Set a Watchman we again meet the characters from To Kill a Mockingbird, including Atticus Finch who is now 72 and suffering.

Harper Lee has said over the years she wrote one good novel and that was enough. She assumed Go Set a Watchman had been lost.  But this blog is not about this historic literary event.

What caught my attention and astounded me is that the many biographers, scholars, researchers, and even her brilliant and dedicated editor, despite numerous references to Go Set a Watchman, assumed it was an early version or alternate title of To Kill a Mockingbird, not a complete rewrite and separate novel.

If a circle of professionals, who dedicate time and expertise to contribute and enrich a body of knowledge around a subject, can fall into the assumption trap, how easy is it for people in sales, pressured and rushed, to make assumptions which can kill a sale.

We make assumptions every day. They are necessary to moving forward.  They are based on what we value, observe, think, and know.  We couldn’t exist without assumptions.  The problem isn’t in making assumptions.  It is in not recognizing assumptions as such and failing to take steps to confirm them.   The antidote to the assumption trap is curiosity, patience, and reflection.  It is understanding that we take for granted what fits with our perceptions or what seems so obvious.

The list of common sales assumptions that lead to lost business is almost infinite:

No one can’t beat the incumbent.  As the incumbent, we can’t lose.  It will close by the end of the month. My customer won’t tolerate an increase in price.  Price is the key thing for this customer.  My customer likes me and she’ll get this through.  We’ll keep the business, because changing is too expensive.  They would let me know if there was a problem.  We lost because of price. They will never leave their current provider. We’re not known for x, so why compete… 

Problems with assumptions really surface in forecasting, when deals that are predicted to close don’t.  Assumptions can be so convincing, but also so wrong.

Especially with the ability to conduct research and get information with a click, the risk of falling into the trap is even greater. Certainly that doesn’t mean not being as prepared as possible, but it does mean taking measures to check out what we believe we know.

We make assumptions when we think other people think as we do.  To avoid making assumptions:

  • Recognize you make assumptions. As a part of your sales strategy, make a list of your assumptions, things for which you do not have factual evidence, and then set about to influence, confirm, or disprove them.
  • Ask questions that drill down (I understand you are… How are you going about that? or I’d like to understand. Why is that?). Most of the time, customers provide partial information – intentionally or not.
  • Probe what you don’t understand (How does that work?). There is no such thing as a dumb question – unless it is something you could/should have researched…
  • When you share an idea or information ask, what do you think? How might that fit here?
  • Be the one to summarize and then check if your customer agrees.

If you are wondering why Harper Lee never raised the subject of her earlier book to scholars, biographers, researchers, journalists, or her editor, that may never be known, but it seems no one ever asked her…  What salesperson hasn’t had a sale derailed because he or she learned critical information too late and wondered why the customer hadn’t revealed it—or he or she hadn’t uncovered it…?

To Set a Watchman is the most pre-ordered book in the history of Harper Collins. What promises to be a major literary work might have been lost because of an assumption.  The bottom line is, assumptions that go unrecognized and unchecked can be very costly…