06/14/2013 01:24 pm ET Updated Aug 14, 2013

Why Insight Is Urgent for Today's Sales Team

A year ago I wrote about the economy's gradual turn out of a recession, and the pressure that the recovery put on sales teams to understand not just their customers -- but their customers' customers. Fortunately, the economic recovery has continued and many sales teams within our economy's biggest companies still find themselves in a position of being understaffed, under competitive pressure and struggling to make the kind of methodology transformation in their customer interactions necessary to achieve their urgent sales productivity goals.

The reason for this is because the kind of customer focus that comes from understanding your customer's customer is only part of the equation. Companies also have to ensure that their sales teams are equipped with the skills to put this knowledge into action and this need is being answered by a new boom-time in sales methodology consulting from creatively named systems such as the Corporate Executive Board's 'The Challenger Sale', The TAS Group's 'Target Account Selling', Miller Heiman's "Strategic Selling", etc.

What these and similar frameworks have in common is the expectation that salespeople will perform to a higher standard of insight and analysis. Specifically, these modern approaches all require that salespeople will educate themselves and get to know their customers extremely well.

Pre-recession, the assumption was that salespeople could do well enough by building relationships, recognizing opportunities as they presented themselves and pushing hard to close deals through enthusiasm and perseverance.

But what all these sales methodologies teach us is that a salesperson's responsibility extends to understanding her customers' business well enough to be able to challenge that customer's assumptions about his own (internal) operations and (external) markets. As a CEB study found, in today's hypercompetitive market it turns out that the salesperson that usually wins is not the one with the best customer relationship, but the one who can teach the customer something that he didn't already know about his market, opportunities or risks. The winning sales rep needs to know enough about the customer's customer to i) suggest a prescription for action, ii) describe the risks of inaction, and iii) so reflect the urgency of acting sooner rather than later.

While today's salesperson doesn't actually need to drive the customer's ship, she needs to be ready to provide some pretty enlightened navigation. This requires an in-depth knowledge of not one, not two, but three steps of the value chain: her own portfolio of products and services, her customer's solution, and her customer's customers' businesses and growth opportunities.

The insight gap is challenging many sales teams today but strong enterprise sales leaders are investing in the knowledge and systems for their sales teams to bridge the gap.