In a world focused on CRM systems, pipelines and metrics, it’s easy to lose sight of the human side of sales leadership. We often hear the same broad edicts that promote positive encouragement, reinforcement and recognition, team building, empowerment, and getting the highest performance from our teams, but how about curiosity? You probably haven’t heard curiosity identified as a critical component of sales performance or a pillar of exemplary leadership, and that may be one of the greatest oversights within the business community today. In a recent Harvard Business Review article, “The Business Case for Curiosity,” author Francesca Gino cites new research that has identified dramatic and widespread benefits to adding curiosity to your team’s skill set, as well as your own. Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it seems we humans, particularly sales professionals, benefit tremendously from it.

A foundational element of sales is an exploratory process that enables sales professionals to better understand their customer’s perspective and diagnose his or her needs. That insight is critical for developing solutions of significant value and identifying value opportunities that competitors have missed. The ability to uncover needs and provide insights is a competitive advantage for any sales professional, and exponentially so across the entire sales team, because it delivers radically superior solutions for your customers.

There are significant benefits in having knowledge beyond the basics. Intellectual curiosity reflects a sales professional’s interest in, commitment to and concern for his or her customer and profession. It creates credibility, which fosters the sales professional’s progression to the “trusted advisor” role. In addition, curiosity boosts sales professionals’ creativity in addressing customers’ needs and problems, thereby generating unique solutions.

Consider the benefits of curiosity with regard to the productivity and harmony of your own team members. In her article, Gino shared her experience working with executive participants in a leadership program at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Some of the participants completed a task designed to heighten their curiosity prior to a simulation that tracked performance. This curiosity-heightened group shared information more openly and listened more carefully, with better outcomes.

What can leaders do to foster curiosity on their sales teams? Here are some ideas:

Create an Environment that Fosters Curiosity.

Leaders like to think that we encourage new ideas and creativity, but, in reality, we often favor efficiency over innovation. To promote curiosity among our team members, we must first learn to recognize curiosity for what it is and take care not to misinterpret it as a challenge to our authority. We should also be sure to approach future unknowns with a sense of curiosity rather than fear or judgement and share that perspective with our teams.

Perhaps the most powerful thing leaders can do to facilitate curiosity is model the behavior by being inquisitive themselves. This behavior can be counterintuitive, since as leaders, we tend to feel we should be answering questions, not asking them. We must ask questions and then genuinely listen to the answers. Even if the feedback is not what we were expecting or wanted to hear, it is valuable as a launching point for further discussion and idea development. Recognizing and rewarding curiosity and learning is key to ensuring that it becomes a part of your organizational culture.

Provide Team Members with the Skills and Processes to Explore with Confidence.

A customer recently said, “I did not think it was possible to learn relationship-building skills.” The ability to learn better, more impactful communication practices is real, and these skills have a dramatic impact on both personal and customer relationships. An intentional and planned exploratory process provides a framework for seeking feedback and insights and accomplishes several key objectives in sales:

  • The structure increases creativity and curiosity by focusing on the customer and his or her needs rather than the sales professional’s impulse to fill the silence with product information.
  • In the face of customer resistance, it promotes better insight to generate a thoughtful response on the part of the sales professional, instead of a defensive reaction.
  • Most importantly, it provides sales professionals with a safe means for uncovering needs and even the unspoken resistance or objections that often undermine the sales process.

Using curiosity and a defined diagnostic process will foster an interdependent relationship by cultivating trust, credibility, rapport and respect between the customer and the sales professional.

Curiosity has generated virtually every great invention and every game-changing concept or process throughout history. As sales leaders, we owe it to our respective organizations to ensure that we are facilitating and not squelching curiosity among our teams. In a world where we are always in search of another competitive advantage, curiosity may be fertile, but untapped, territory.