A short time ago, when customers asked “What do you have for me today?” and salespeople answered, they usually talked themselves out of a sale.

Customers typically asked this question at the beginning of a sales call. It seemed like an invitation to sell, but in fact it was a trap. Intentionally or not, it bated salespeople to start pitching before they involved the customer and asked the questions they needed to ask to connect and be relevant. Customers expected to and were pleased to answer discovery question after discovery question after discovery question! That was yesterday…

More than ever, the question “What do you have for me today?” is on today’s customers’ minds. The big difference is today you must be ready to answer it or your sales conversation will be short-circuited. At the same time, there still is a trap.

Insights have all but replaced features and benefits. The insights that you share start to answer the question, “What do you have for me today?” Customers want expertise, and your answer must show that you know your customer’s industry and business as well as provides them a signal that there is value in continuing to talk to you. For instance, a software business can provide an insight into how their product has helped other companies to grow. The information might convince a potential customer to go further and buy the software. Similarly, there can be other SaaS sales models (check this site to learn more) which can be employed to improve the business of an IT company.

The insights you share can add value in two ways. Some insights add a new perspective around a business challenge that is already on the customer’s agenda. It causes the customer to see other possibilities and leads to your strengths. Other insights, often the more valuable, introduce an issue that is not on the customer’s agenda or an issue the customer has underestimated.

A challenge most salespeople face is how to develop insights. Where do insights come from? It is not an easy question to answer. There isn’t even a universal definition. But we know for sure that knowledge, research, experience, creativity, and intuition feed it. While there is a mystery about where insights come from, insights cannot be theoretical or vague. You must translate them to how they solve business problems and achieve business outcomes. Professor Theodore Levitt famously made this point to his Harvard Business School students when he told them, “People don’t want quarter-inch drills. They want quarter inch holes.”

Your plate is already full, but relevant insights are within your reach. First, best-in-class sales organizations have enlisted the support of their marketing teams to provide insights to their sales forces in the form of research, analysis, specific customer profiling. You may seek the assistance of a consumer insight agency if your marketing team finds this challenging. Second, technology makes it possible for you to conduct research quickly and deeply. There is no excuse for not being prepared with insights to spark your customer’s thinking and disrupt their status quo.

For example, during a three-hour new sales conversation workshop, I asked participants to take 5 minutes to use their iPhones to source an insight relevant for a customer described in a case study. Within those few minutes excitement filled the room as participants found relevant data, etc. and shared results with one another. As each salesperson reported his/her findings, others scribbled down notes. And soon they were shaping the data into relevant insights they would share with their real customers.

But as invaluable as insights are, there remains a trap. While so much has changed in selling, what has not changed is the need for collaboration with customers. Customers still want to be involved and, despite all your preparation, there still are questions you must ask early – for example, how does the customer feel about the insight you shared or what outcome does the customer want to achieve. So how do you reconcile the need to share a relevant insight right up front, but also gather the information you need?

An insight can be used as the platform for engaging your customer in a dialogue. The insight heat maps a business challenge you want to explore. After you present the insight, volley it to the customer by asking, “What has been your experience with this?” or “What is your perception?” Then, explore the business challenge the insight has raised.

Insights open the door to change. They start the kind of conversations your customers value. Insights set a path to closing.