Critical Thinking: What It Is & Why It Matters in Sales
The dictionary definition of critical thinking is “the objective analysis and evaluation of an issue in order to form a judgment.”
The term critical thinking is used to describe a thought process where you don’t accept information at face value. Instead, you are discerning about sources, question underlying arguments, challenge assumptions, and work to more fully understand conclusions.
This ability to analyze information and expand our perspective comes in handy in selling. Here are seven examples where critical thinking counts in selling.
- Achieving sales quotas
- Time management
- Finding ways to gain prospects’ attention
- Conducting efficient discovery meetings
- Linking prospect needs to your solutions
- Invalidating objections
- Negotiating terms to close the sale
Let’s take each of these, one by one, to better understand why critical thinking matters so much in sales.
How Does Critical Thinking Improve Sales Effectiveness?
Consider these seven selling situations. In sales, you’re responsible for each one. But you’re largely left to your own devices to figure out HOW to be effective. Beyond the rote steps and basic training, there’s a secret ingredient that makes some sellers more successful than others. That secret ingredient is critical thinking, and it takes a variety of forms — problem-solving, objective analysis, sound judgment, asking purposeful questions, decision-making, nimbleness, creativity, and conflict resolution. All of these are companion skills and natural outcomes to improved critical thinking.
- Achieving sales quotas. There are an infinite number of ways to attack your sales goal. Who will you call on? What will you offer? How will you juggle the pursuit of new business with the opportunities to renew and grow established customers? What cadence will you use in making outbound calls and when will you make them? Even if you have a plan, there are always contingency plans and details of the plan to work through, too. This requires strong problem-solving skills.
- Time management. As a general rule in selling, the best time management formula is E=O (Effort = Opportunity). You should apply time and effort proportionate to the size of the opportunity. Bigger opportunities deserve more time and effort. But determining the amount of time to spend on any activity requires good judgment. Scoping the size of the opportunity requires objective, logical thinking.
- Finding ways to gain prospects’ attention. There is no magic bullet that will cause prospects to call you back. There are no email subject lines that are guaranteed to get a reply. There simply aren’t copy/paste ways to appeal to buyers. You have to personalize. To compel a response, your outreach must demonstrate your value to the individual. Wading through information and pinpointing what someone values isn’t easy. It requires sound judgment.
- Conducting efficient discovery meetings. You want to ask questions that pique your buyer’s interest and create meaningful value for the time they spend with you. You also want to qualify the buyer and understand what they need and how you can help meet that need. You want to establish rapport, build trust, differentiate yourself, and advance the sale. And you’d like to do all that in as little time as possible in the discovery call. Being effective and efficient requires strong questioning, listening, and processing skills.
- Linking prospect needs to your solutions. After you’ve gathered information from the buyer, it’s time to link their needs to your solution. You have to create compelling links that make sense to your primary contact, to the decision maker(s), and to others who influence the decision, too. You have to take into account all their decision criteria (budget, preferences, etc). And you have to persuade them that you are the best provider for this solution. This requires an ability to make decisions and influence others as you do.
- Invalidating objections. Pat answers and defensive responses won’t get you very far when buyers object to all or part of your offering. Instead, you have to fully understand their perception. Then you have to respond in a way that is not canned or scripted. You have to respond fully, not just to the portion you’re most comfortable answering. You can’t duck or dodge a price objection, for example. After fully answering the objection, you have to maintain composure and confidently return the conversation back to what the buyer values most. Being nimble and thinking on your feet is required.
- Negotiating terms to close the sale. Collaborative negotiation is the gold standard. In a true collaboration for negotiating terms, all the needs of all the parties will get met. There won’t be any unmet needs remaining. No one gives up anything (that’s compromise, not collaboration). Expanding the zone of potential agreement (ZOPA) only happens when trust has been established and all parties are willing to invest the time and think “outside the box.” This requires creativity and conflict resolution skills.
Critical thinking is a skill that’s worth working on. It will make you more effective in selling and in everything you do.
Overcoming Barriers to Critical Thinking in Sales
Everyone thinks. Everyone has a process for thinking and a preferred approach to thinking. As we think, we access memories of our past experiences, inputs from others we trust, and emotions or gut reactions. We weight those inputs and act on them, each in our own way.
Much of our thinking is a process that’s occurring sub-consciously. We’re driven by conditioned responses and reactions that come from past experiences, unconscious biases, and emotions. We oversimplify and act before we fully assess a situation.
Our own experience and emotions are the biggest barriers to critical thinking. We become lazy in our thinking because we don’t fully appreciate the value of being intentional and objective. The more we know (or think we know!), the less we’ll evaluate, ruminate, and investigate before acting on information.
This is why so many sellers peak a few years into their careers and then seem to fade. They stop learning and growing. They put too much stock in their own experience and succumb to lather-rinse-repeat approaches that no longer serve them well.
In short, we are our own biggest barrier to critical thinking. To move past barriers, we first have to acknowledge them. They include:
- Resting on your laurels and becoming complacent. The truth is what got you here won’t get you there. What worked in the past isn’t necessarily the best approach for the future.
- Operating in an echo chamber and listening, primarily, to the same sources of information over and over again without accessing and fairly considering other perspectives.
- Valuing efficiency over effectiveness. Making more calls and making them faster won’t produce more sales. To be effective, you may have to slow down and become more skillful in your approach.
- Flying by the seat of your pants. An odd phrase that means making it up as you go along, not having a plan. Lots of sellers prefer this approach. While it’s true that you need to be nimble, it’s also true that a well-reasoned plan is essential.
- Overindulging emotional responses. Emotions are one data point. They should be considered. They should not be the sole determining factor in making decisions.
- Over-relying on logic. Being objective and rational is important. Being emotionless and ignoring the emotions of others isn’t effective. There’s a balance you need to strike.
- Not thinking for yourself. Thinking is hard. It’s much easier to accept the prescribed narrative or repeat the talking points you’re given. But selling is a human-to-human experience, and that means opting out of thinking isn’t going to work well.
Next Steps for Developing Critical Thinking Skills in Selling
Most importantly, though, to build your critical thinking skills, you’ll want to focus first on what prevents you from being objective, open-minded, curious, and evaluative. Assess your responses in all parts of your life. Work to more frequently challenge the assumed norms and accepted approaches. Question information that isn’t fully explained and doesn’t make sense. Don’t let yourself be swept along in a current just because it’s easier.