Curiosity & Sales
Posted on December 16th, 2014

by Randy Sabourin

“All great literature is one of two stories; a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town.”

― Leo Tolstoy

Every Salesperson’s objective is to establish trust within their relationship with their client. It’s a concept we take for granted but understanding why trust in a sales relationship is important is critical to understanding, and more importantly for us and our clients, teaching both fundamental and advanced sales concepts.  

Tolstoy’s quote reflects the fact that fundamentally we don’t like strangers, they are considered a threat. It’s a deep psychological survival instinct called the approach-avoid response. According to Integrative Neuroscientist Evian Gordon, the ‘minimize danger and maximize reward’ principle is an overarching, organizing principle of the brain (Gordon, 2000). This survival instinct sets us in the ’avoid’ state when we’re facing something unknown. The ‘avoid’ state may have kept our ancestors alive but today it prevents us from thinking creatively and seeing subtle signals, it makes small problems seem large, and is the state before we launch into ‘fight or flight’. Most new people you meet, from the prospect on the other end of a handshake to the phone, the participants in a workshop, start in a closed and suspicious ‘avoid’ frame of mind subconsciously. 


It’s why when a salesperson in a clothing store smiles and pretends to be your new best friend feels so uncomfortable. In order to establish trust in a relationship it is critical to move the person from avoid to approach. In an ‘approach’ frame of mind people are much more open to collaboration, influence, creative solutions and trust. It’s why we intuitively shake hands (“I have no weapons”) and smile (“I’m not a threat and I like you”) when we meet a stranger we want to relate to. It’s also why facilitators start with an ice-breaker activity that makes everyone laugh and relax, they are designed to move participants from avoid (“this workshop is new and why am I here and who is this person telling me to change”) to approach (“I’m excited to learn something new today!”) where participants are open to new ideas and therefore learning. If we are aware and understand the ‘why’ we can create strategies and tactics to execute the ‘how’.

For a salesperson there are two closely related ways to move someone from ‘avoid’ to ‘approach’. The first is status. Status is worthy of its own article, which you’ll find here (Sales & Status – Business Improvisation at its Most Valuable) and here (Body Language and Status. If you want to read them before continuing I’ll wait.

Welcome back.

The second way to move people from ‘avoid’ to ‘approach’ is curiosity.

When e-roleplay delivers our Curiosity in Sales Program we stress to the participants that they should bring the same level of genuine curiosity to a client conversation as they do to an informal conversation with someone they’ve met in a  social situation. It seems like a simple premise that most salespeople struggle with this because subconsciously, or even consciously, they feel compelled to move their sales agenda forward quickly. Curiosity as a process revolves around asking open ended questions that challenge your own assumptions. The challenge becomes actually listening to the responses with empathy and not succumbing to the sales instinct of controlling the conversation and talking about your solutions. Engaging in a real and natural conversation with your client will lead you to understanding the value you can offer throughout the course of the conversation and prevents you from product dumping. During e-roleplay’s workshops and 1:1 telephone sessions we spend a significant amount of time practicing this concept. We practice using a questioning model of a current state, problem, ramification and  solution questioning model (CPRS) combined with an overcoming objections model which focuses on empathy. Research tells us the combination is highly effective when practiced with professional roleplayers. If Salespeople are genuinely interested in solving a problem and can demonstrate a significant ramification to the client of how one of their products can help, the conversation flows naturally.

One of my sales heroes is the ancient Native American legend Kokopelli. Kokopelli appears in rock art as early as 200AD in several tribes in Southwestern America as a trickster, traveller, trader, deity, musician, to name a few, that journeyed between tribes. Perhaps he’s the original ‘man going on a journey or stranger coming to town’ from Tolstoy’s quote. Back then strangers posed much more of threat Kokopelli used his charm, and his flute, as a way to introduce himself to the new tribes he encountered. Many think he was the first traveling salesman from the Aztecs sent north to trade. It is a well held belief that that Kokopelli was more than a trader; he was also an important bearer of information and technology from afar. As a Story Teller par excellence Kokopelli had the gift of languages and  a formidable repertoire of body language storytelling skills to complement his many talents. Kokopelli was important in linking distant and diverse communities together. He would have had to overcome each tribe’s strong nature fear of strangers with curiosity and status. Curiosity is also one of the most important tools of gathering new stories. It’s depicted in the legends and stories that Kokopelli was very good at ingratiating himself quickly with the tribe. Natural, real, empathetic curiosity overcomes the fear of strangers.

If we transpose Kokopelli’s task to today’s sales environment, meeting a client or making outbound calls to prospects can be seen as the same process. Again, natural, real, empathetic curiosity overcomes the fear of strangers. This means that sales is not the art of persuasion but a process of natural genuine interest in the person you’re talking to and your authentic desire to be helpful. This transparently is what makes the connection with people, and after all, people still buy from people. 

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