Critical Thinking as a Sales Superpower
Over the past few years, our profession has witnessed an exciting evolution. Products and solutions have become more complex, buyers better informed, and this convergence has created a demand for highly skilled sales professionals, not just sales reps who know how to overcome objections and learned a few rebuttals. Modern sales professionals are trusted advisors that can process complicated and disconnected information. In other words, they need to be able to think critically. Critical thinking is an underemphasized skill needed to be successful in modern selling. In this article, we explore what critical thinking is, why sales reps need it, and real-life examples of how to apply it.
What is Critical Thinking?
Critical thinking is more than the ability to recognize a problem. The Foundation for Critical Thinking defines it as, “the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action.” That definition could be included as part of the job description for a sales professional.
Critical thinking can be misconstrued as growth hacking or data analysis. Using an algorithm or A.I. to solve a problem is not critical thinking. This is why critical thinking is such an in-demand skill for sales professionals. Critical thinking is not something you plug into software for a solution, but something the thinker values and enjoys doing, like finding a clever way to solve a problem. Stanford University states that a critical thinker, in their view, is someone with “a propensity to override suboptimal responses from the autonomous mind.”
The Need for Critical Thinkers in Sales
Most professionals entering a career in sales do not have a scientific background. But if you look at the sales process from finding prospects, discovering problems, and presenting a logical argument that persuades, it is easy to see how critical thinking will improve sales outcomes. Because every prospect is unique, without critical thinking, sales reps will have a propensity to “deliver suboptimal responses.”
Critical thinking is the science behind selling. The key benefits for sales professionals who develop their critical thinking skills are twofold. First, you can sell without anxiety because you know you are serving your clients in the best way possible. Second, because you are selling with integrity you will be viewed as a trusted advisor and hence, sell much more effectively.
The need for critical thinking in sales will continue to grow and only become greater. As sales evolves, it becomes more complex, with change happening faster. Therefore, the ability to generate, evaluate, and present novel ideas will become more in demand, not less. For this reason, sales professionals who develop their critical thinking skills will have greater career opportunities than those who do not. Critical thinking equals job security in complex sales situations.
How Curiosity Impacts Critical Thinking
Critical thinking starts with the premise that, as humans, we are flawed thinkers. This mindset acknowledges we all carry personal bias, irrational thoughts, prejudices, and distortion of the facts. This is not a pessimistic view of the world but one which feeds the thinker’s curiosity to uncover a previously unknown solution. The sales professional who thinks critically is inquisitive and reflective, not a cynic. Without this underlying curiosity, there will be contempt prior to investigation, which is the exact opposite of critical thinking.
Critical Thinking Applied to the Real World
The Opportunity: The following is a real-world example that happened a few years ago with a sales professional in the construction material distribution industry. The rep received an RFQ from a large multinational organization for a construction project in the United Arab Emirates. The project required an extensive material list with large quantity volumes. In other words, it would be the biggest project the sales rep’s company ever quoted.
The Challenge: Because the opportunity was so big, all the larger industry players would be involved. The rep’s company was a mid-sized national distributor. They were competing against worldwide distributors and even global manufacturers who would likely be competing for this business directly.
Additionally, because the project was so large, it would take days of sourcing inventory and data entry just to prepare the RFQ (request for quote). The rep’s sales manager thought that winning the project would have a low probability of success. But because the sales rep was new, preparing a large quote would be a good learning experience. The senior reps had seen large RFQs like this before and had no interest in spending days preparing the quote (personal bias, flawed logic) just to lose to the big players.
Critical Thinking Applied: Because the sales manager didn’t see the project as a total waste of time, he allowed the new rep to prepare a quote. Because the new sales rep was looking at the challenges with a fresh set of eyes, he saw opportunities the senior reps ignored.
The rep discovered during the quoting process that manufacturers would be quoting directly. As the volumes were extensive, no single source was capable of providing all the necessary material. The RFQ stated that all the material had to be at the freight forwarder in New York by a specific date.
The rep deduced that timing would be the priority over price. Further, the sales rep knew his company would require a wire transfer because international orders mandated cash in advance. This meant his company could receive an additional three percent discount if they paid the suppliers upfront if they actually won the business.
Outcome: The rep prepared the quote. Instead of quoting the standard 20 percent markup, he only added 17 percent. He considered the size of the order, the number of competitors, and the discount for cash in advance. He submitted his quote and the first call the following day was from the company in the UAE. They liked the quote and wanted to confirm they could deliver ALL the material — which they could. The company sent a purchase order, and the rep sent the wire transfer instructions.
Once he received the purchase order, the rep went to his sales manager and said, “I’ve got some good news and bad news.” The sales manager asked the rep to elaborate. “We won the UAE quote, but I quoted everything at 17 percent and we have two weeks to get all the materials to New York.” His sales manager smiled and said, “Looks like we’ve got some work to do.”
The result was that the material was delivered on time, and the project turned out to be the biggest order in the history of the company. It also started a long-term relationship with a whale of a client. Had the sales manager and the sales rep not processed all the information, stayed curious, and been creative, they never would have won the business. Due to their thorough processing of available information, they were able to identify weaknesses in their competitor’s solutions. This enabled them to provide their client with a more valuable solution.
In the real world, money flows to value and people and companies assess value differently based on their current and unique circumstances. When sales reps apply critical thinking to their profession, they are able to uncover hidden values others might have missed. By doing this, they can deliver superior service and position themselves as a trusted advisor. Critical thinking is not a new skill. In fact, it’s a method developed 2,500 years ago by Socrates. The Socratic principle states that the unexamined life is not worth living. For sales professionals, this could be said as the unexamined opportunity is not worth selling.
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