The Curious Case of Curiosity in Selling

What’s the top, number one, single greatest factor affecting success in sales?

There are often multiple answers to questions like that, because all the prime candidates overlap similar territory. You might argue for a can-do attitude, or customer focus, or a committed team.

Let me make the case for curiosity.

Imagine being in a constant state of heightened curiosity when you are with, doing work for, and thinking about your customers. What would that look like?

The answers fall into two broad categories, I think:

1. If you were curious on your customer’s behalf, you would:

• Notice an awful lot of things about their people, products and customers
• Formulate many hypotheses
• Ask a lot of questions to pursue those hypotheses
• Want to know lots of things on general principle: preferences, history, culture, practices
• Be other-focused

2. And while you were being curious, you would spend less time on:

• Worrying about how to get the sale
• Worrying about how to speed a decision, or close, or qualify a lead
• Trying to portray yourself in ways you assume will influence the customer

Now here’s the punch line. Most approaches to selling tell you to ask a lot of questions—basically like the first category.

But they also tell you to worry about that second category. In fact, they say the sole purpose of all questions is to get the sale. Most sales approaches say you absolutely should worry about getting the sale, speeding a decision, qualifying, etc. Which kills curiosity.

Curiosity says, to hell with that. Curiosity says, the purpose of questions is to find out what could be: what could be better, what the right thing is, what the customer should do.

The paradox, of course, is that curiosity-driven selling just plain works better. It works better because the questions are grounded in the customer’s world, not the sales person’s needs.

The linear, process-driven, metrics-based approach to selling that has become so prevalent has many virtues, but one gigantic, glaring defect: By trying to maximize the sale, it has devalued the customer—thereby reducing sales effectiveness (insert ironic music here).

Curiosity may have killed some cat once upon a time; but it serves salespeople well. Curiosity isn’t a sales tactic. Done right, sales are a natural byproduct of being curious.  There’s something very simple and right about that.

Digital and Analogue Social Networks and Pharma

Here are two big trends in marketing:

Trend 1. Companies organize programs around the customer. This is often called customer-centricity.

Trend 2. Customers are in charge of interactions. This also gets called customer-centricity.

When two phenomena get called by the same name—opportunities for merriment—and suffering—ensue.

Case 1—the occasionally obtuse but always interesting Harvard Business School Working Knowledge series.  In Authenticity over Exaggeration: The New Rule in Advertising,  Julia Hannah explores HBS professor John Deighton and Leora Kornfeld’s "Digital Interactivity: Unanticipated Consequences for Markets, Marketing, and Consumers."  An extract:

5 new rules of digital interactivity:

• Thought tracing. Firms infer states of mind from the content of a Web search and serve up relevant advertising; a market born of search terms develops.

• Ubiquitous connectivity. As people become increasingly "plugged in" through cell phones and other devices, marketing opportunities become more frequent as well—and technology develops to protect users from unwanted intrusions. A market in access and identity results.

• Property exchanges. As with Napster, Craigslist, and eBay, people participate in the anonymous exchange of goods and services. Firms compete with these exchanges, and a market in service, reputation, and reliability develops.

• Social exchanges. People build identities in virtual communities like Korea’s Cyworld (90 percent of Koreans in their 20s are members). Firms may then sponsor or co-opt communities. A market in community develops that competes on functionality and status.

• Cultural exchanges. While advertising has always been part of popular culture, technology has increased the rate of exchange and competition for buzz. In addition to Dove’s campaign, Deighton cites BMW’s initiative to hire Hollywood directors and actors to create short, Web-only films featuring BMWs. In the summer of 2001, the company recorded 9 million downloads.

These 5 aspects show increasing levels of effective engagement in creating social meaning and identity, Deighton suggests, noting that the first 2 (thought tracing and ubiquitous connectivity) change the rules of marketing but don’t alter the traditional paradigm of predator and prey.

In the last 3 (property, social, and cultural exchanges), the marketer has to become someone who is invited into the exchange or is even pursued (as in the case of the BMW films) as an entity possessing cultural capital.


This is Trend 2 type customer-centricity-recognizing that the consumer is actually in charge.  It means moving away from a “predator and prey” model of control and one-way monologue, to a genuinely interactive two-way model of dialogue.  In this model, the role of centralized control drops drastically, because the marketer and customer collaborate—even blend.

Hmmm.  D’ya think that model might work in the analogue world too?

Case 2. Pharma Voice Magazine, The Forum for the Industry Executive: The Salesforce of the Future  quoting Bill Pollock, CEO of Pharmagistics:  An excerpt:

In the future [of pharma], salesforces will be much more focused, and they will have the ability to look at each touch point, determine what’s the most effective way of communicating with a practitioner, and do so in a personalized way.

As a result, marketers will have to integrate their sales and marketing efforts into everything they do, treating each and every touch point as part of their total sales and marketing mix. This includes their e-portals, inside telesales efforts, Internet-based virtual sales reps, literature, and direct-mail programs—all of these tactics will be considered a part of the entire salesforce effort and must be integrated via the entire marketing program.

Such a trend would mean that pharma companies will need the ability to track everything that is done and monitor the impact of their efforts on their prescribing customers.

This is Trend 1 type customer-centricity.  It retains the predator-prey model and focuses on making sure all the guns are pointed in the right direction—at the customer.  The problem is perceived as one of alignment and control.  The new world isn’t qualitatively different, this model says, just quantitatively more complex.  It retains the focus on centralized control because it’s still an us-vs.-them view of the world.   It is restricted to the first two levels in the HBS piece—there is no conception of becoming "someone who is invited into the exchange or is even pursued…" much less of becoming "an entity possessing cultural capital."   This kind of  "customer-centricity" is not collaborative.  It is customer-centric  in the way a vulture is customer-centric—laser-focused on its prey.

The confusion around the term “customer-centric” isn’t just a matter of definition or market power.  Marketing is only one  battlefield in a much larger contest between a network-driven commerce-based view of the world and a command-and-control-driven competition-based view of the world.

Life imitates art.  Sometimes we learn more about the analogue world by observing pale avatars in the digital realm.

Customers and Strategy Part 2 of 2: Customer Centricity vs. Customer Vultures

In my last posting I talked about the weakness of current business strategic thinking when applied to issues like climate change, using the current issue of Harvard Business Review as an example.

The same HBR issue offers two object examples. One views customer-centricity as about the customer. The other exemplifies the customer focus of a vulture. It’s a snapshot of old strategy vs. new strategy in action.

First up—in this corner, the Vulture guys.

In How Valuable is Word of Mouth, by Kumar, Petersen and Leone, the authors critique the popular metric of Lifetime Customer Value—typically calculated as the present value of lifetime purchases by a customer. They suggest adding referrals, and introduce metrics and financial formulae to do so.

There are the usual MBA tools: 2×2 matrices with cute psychographic names, NPV calculations, and formulae featuring summation signs, multiple independent variables and exponents.

My aim is not to critique their point—it is to note the language and the mental frameworks of the article.  When it talks about “value,” it means—but of course— the value of a customer to the seller—but not the reverse.  And the term “value” is purely financial. In this mindset, a customer is truly nothing more than a financial variable to be tweaked and optimized for the seller’s ends. Some flavor:

“Understanding how much value a customer brings in [from purchases and referrals can help companies target their marketing…enabling them to achieve superior marketing ROIs and reap the full value of all their customers.

“A year’s projected business gives a number that is normally half of a customers full lifetime value.

“If the cost involved in acquiring type-two referrals exceeds the cost of alternative acquisition methods, type-two customers can be a liability.”

The authors launched a 1-year marketing campaign to test their ideas.  What do they consider of “value” to the customers?  Discounts on subscription fees; financial rewards for referrals; direct mail offering up-sell and cross-sell opportunities.  Price, price and price.

Did it work?  “Extending the campaign to 1 million customers would increase their total value by almost $50 million.”  In other words, it works very well.  For the vultures, I mean marketers, that is.

Second Up—in this corner, Customer-Centricity for the customer’s sake.

In the HBR Interview, a CEO: can you guess the company?

“Some of the most important things we’ve done over the years have been short-term tactical losers

“We don’t make money when we sell things; we make money when we help customers make purchase decisions

“We’re not always asking ourselves what’s going to happen in the next quarter, and focusing on optics

“In the old world you devoted 30% of your attention to building a great service and 70% of your attention to shouting about it—in the new world that inverts.

“Whenever we face a “too-hard” problem, we ask what’s better for the consumer?

“Years from now, I want people to look back at us and say that we uplifted customer-centricity across the entire business world. If we can do that, it will be really cool.”

Here’s a hint: it’s a publicly traded $13B company—up from $150M in 1997. Its stock price has tripled in the last year. Yet only a few years ago, analysts were calling it Amazon-dot-toast. That’s right; meet Jeff Bezos, CEO of

It’s a stark contrast. One approach values customers only as means to the seller’s own ends—and only financial means at that. Customers are to be managed in the short-term, through—of course—price discounts and price promotions. What else do customers want, after all, besides price?

This is the classic form of customer centricity as a vulture: slick, smart, and born of an ideology that defines competing with one’s customers and suppliers as an integral part of business strategy.

The other approach builds businesses, communities and economies around customer relationships. The time-frame is long—Bezos probably agrees with the dictum “be a good ancestor.” Its cornerstone is not competitive dynamics, but relationships.


The slowly emerging strategic ideologies of the future belong to the Jeff Bezos’s of the world, not the tweak-optimizing marketers or the competitive strategists. In a connected world, a knee-jerk belief in dog-eat-dog is no longer the “obvious” choice. It makes strategic sense to think big, long-term and customer centric. For the customer.

Just ask the folks who bought Amazon at 32 last year. Beat the heck out of the vultures.