Fatal assumptions

Human performance and limitations

For many years I was an active private pilot. Throughout my initial training it was drummed into to me by instructors and through study materials that making assumptions in the aviation environment can have fatal consequences.

Following a major air disaster in 1977 where pilot error involving assumptions made by a very experienced professional crew was identified as the cause; all pilots are required to study cockpit crew resource management which includes human performance and limitations. In most countries safety bulletins are circulated to all aircraft owners by aviation authorities with almost every edition carrying reminders of the risks associated with making assumptions.

Millions of hours of safe flying all over the world are achieved partly because pilots are trained to overcome human factors, such as making assumptions.  It is easy to recognize that the outcome of making the wrong assumptions in aviation can endanger life. Making assumptions when trying to win business can endanger the sale.

Making assumptions kills listening and not listening kills relationships

Making assumptions is a human trait and is particularly evident in those of us with years of experience and knowledge. We are experts in our field, have extensive experience of solving customer problems and we might feel we’ve ‘seen it all’.

Some sellers will be anxious to ‘close’ the sale and can tend to be pitching their product or service from the moment they meet a potential customer. Some will be anxious to impress with their expertise and feel they need to get to a solution quickly. Some believe they have one solution to sell so it’s best to get that out onto the table quickly to test the interest of the prospect.

I’ve even had interesting debates with some very bright people in law and technology who have been quite blunt in telling me that as the technical expert they usually know more than the client and can therefore make judgments about what the client needs pretty quickly. One lawyer even tried to convince me that even if others should not assume his assumptions were safe to make.

The risks of making assumptions

I recently interviewed the CEO of Turkish engineering consultancy for the book I’ve been commissioned to write about Principled Selling. We discussed a recent project that his team had won to design and build a water treatment plant. Six companies competed for the project, all of them with the ability to provide the right technical solution.  ‘The client said we won the contract,’ Hakan told me, ‘because we spent lots of time understanding the importance to the community of this project and that they wanted us to involve the community.’ This public sector client  needed more than a water treatment plant.

Five major suppliers in the Turkish engineering sector had made the assumption that this project was all about delivering a technical solution. They were wrong but they probably assumed that it was won by the company who offered the lowest cost – wrong again. Only one company demonstrated that they really understood the client’s requirements in full.

I don’t care how much you know until I know how much you care

As well as losing a sale due to making assumption about what the customer needs, there is risk that the client will not share important insight with us even if we want them to because we don’t demonstrate we have more than our own interests at heart. Buyers increasingly choose who they allow to understand them.

A surefire way to demonstrate we only have our own interests at heart is to take too much time too early talking about ourselves. What I recently saw described as the ‘we we’ syndrome.

Ask a question then shut up!

I was listening to the BBC Radio 4 Today programme when I heard an interview with a business leader where the presenter didn’t just ask a question, they immediately followed the question up with three potential answers without waiting for a response. When the perfectly reasonable answer given was different from the multiple choices offered it was obvious the presenter didn’t want to explore that response.

We all know that questioning and listening count as two of the most important selling skills. In fact it is smart, insightful questions that best reveal our knowledge and credibility. To give ourselves the chance of really understanding the customer we need to ask a question, then shut up and listen to the answer.

Of course if our heads are full of assumptions then we won’t really be listening. There will be a tendency to be formulating the next question in our head, to be waiting for our turn to get our own point across, to interrupt or to make a judgment without exploring the response.

We  all know that it is easy to tell when someone isn’t listening to us. The signals we give as human beings range from obvious to subtle and we are all sensitive to them. There is nothing more that says ‘I’m only interested in me and my own view’ than not listening.

When we don’t listen we demonstrate that are not genuinely interested in the prospect and their world – and that can kill any sale.

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David Tovey

By David Tovey

David Tovey helps sales teams, business owners and professionals to build amazing business relationships, win more business and accelerate profitable growth.

2 Responses to “Fatal assumptions”

  1. Great blog David. Too true about assumptions, very easy in our fast-paced lives to try and short cut things by filling blanks in ourselves.

    I was told years ago by my late granddad ‘God gave you two ears and one mouth for a reason. Listen twice as much as you speak and you’ll not go far wrong.’ – Never forgotten that and try to use the mantra when engaging with clients / prospects.



  2. Thanks Ian – really appreciate your comments. I love ‘two ears and one mouth’; sadly I still meet professionals and salespeople who should be applying your granddads rule.

    Hope all is well with you.


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