“Houston, We Have a Problem.” How to Use Appreciative Inquiry to Overcome Sales Challenges

By Joan Kelly-Kincade, Strategic Sales Advisor

Remember that line from the movie Apollo 13? “Houston, we have a problem.” The engineers at NASA had to figure out what to do to help in an emergency using only the resources already available to astronauts in space. The best minds at NASA had to work with the best minds in a spaceship to be creative and imagine a way to make what they had on-hand work for them. They were doing discovery by focusing only on what they already had and what worked best. This is not only an example of how Appreciative Inquiry works at its best, but it’s an out-of-this-world example!

The NASA team members first focused on their available strengths. Then they imagined and created opportunities for what was to happen next.

When we begin the discovery process with our prospects, are we focused on learning their strengths and opportunities? Are we working with them to imagine and define what could come next in their lives based on what works well for them already? Or are we launching into a litany of features and benefits about our product?

Discovery should help define the prospects’ path forward and imagine how they want to live in the future, identifying new opportunities based on the strengths of their life now.  

Some perspective

Let’s compare the typical approach to discovery with an approach based on Appreciative Inquiry, which applies the forward thinking and growth mindset we discussed in earlier blogs, “Connecting With Prospects and Thinking Forward Together,” and “Adopt a Growth Mindset to Enhance Sales Success.”

  • The typical approach to discovery has a beginning and an end and is based on us and them.
  • Appreciative Inquiry sets the stage for nearly limitless possibilities and is based on connecting.

Which do you think sounds more appealing to someone that has an important decision to make?

The typical path to discovery

In much of our industry, discovery was—and often still is—based on a decades-old medical model for gathering information for consideration (diagnosis) and providing solutions. This is a linear approach where someone (the expert) asks a lot of questions of the prospect (a person with a problem), and then the expert provides a solution for the prospect’s situation. This approach is based on transitioning the decision process from thinking about what is wanted to thinking about what is needed. It often looks something like this:

illustration of wants versus needs and where situation, challenges, and solution fits on that line

Sometimes it is a little bumpy along the way, but essentially, it is a straight line controlled by the person asking the questions! This linear approach does not work with our prospects because we are not there to fix issues. We are there to better understand how they want to live. We are there to get to know each other. Regardless of the level of care, discovery should be about the actual discovery of what the prospects or the family member aspires to. What opportunities make sense for them based on where they are now? Instead of looking backward to intervene and stop or fix something, we look forward. Together we imagine what comes next.

This means having a thoughtful and genuine two-way conversation where most of the conversation comes from the prospect. Our role is to ask smart questions, and then to listen, summarize and reflect what we have learned. The Dalai Lama said this beautifully: “When you talk, you are only repeating what you already know. But if you listen, you may learn something new.” By definition, discovery is inherently about learning something new. In sales, we do this so that we can connect with each other, understand what is most important, and focus on opportunities that work moving forward.

The purpose of discovery is to connect

Discovery should not focus on needs or wants or on features or benefits. If that is the focus, we are focused on the product. When discovery is about learning something new, it is 100% prospect focused. This means discovery:

  • Appreciates the past
  • Affirms the present
  • And focuses on what opportunities work best going forward

Rather than negativity and diagnosis, this approach is about learning what is possible, and partnering in imagining the future. Because it’s about connecting and not selling, it’s transformative rather than transactional. No doubt you’ve experienced this yourself when a great salesperson was asking about what matters to you and not immediately trying to sell their product. If it was genuine and transparent, it felt great, and you were willing to share more information. This changes how you and that salesperson felt about the decision you were considering. That is what you want to happen between you and your prospect.

Paths merge when we connect

Early discovery with a prospect is about the experience of the two of you being together with the purpose to connect rather than for you to sell.

When that happens, your path and your prospect’s path merge and the conversation is a win-win discussion. You each recognize that empathy and rapport are present. This is how we begin to earn respect and trust and agree to decide something important!

What does that look and sound like? We still want to understand the current situation, but in a shared way that goes beyond the surface. Most importantly, we want our understanding—and theirs—to be about where prospects see themselves in the future based on the best of where they have been before you met each other. When this occurs, identifying and agreeing to a logical next step becomes much clearer.

Decision-making as a circular and Appreciative Inquiry process

Meeting with a sales professional who employs Appreciative Inquiry is a welcome relief to many prospects, especially after the past few years. Approaching discovery this way puts challenges into perspective for you and your prospect. At the same time, this process continues to evolve as the relationship grows, building excitement for what’s possible. Prospects look forward to being with you to share what has been positive in their life and plan all that they still aspire to.

Here is what this process might look and sound like. Compare this circular process and conversation to the wiggly line aimed at defining needs and fixing issues.

graphic of appreciation cycle

How to build Appreciative Inquiry in the sales office

  1. Notice what you say when you begin discovery. How much of it is a true conversation that is prospect-centered, forward-thinking and strength-based rather than focused on issues or deficits?
  2. Shift your perspective to see from the prospect’s viewpoint and not your own. Pay attention to what the prospects says works best for them. Consider this as you think about what you will ask next.
  3. Don’t rush into connecting what matters to the prospect with the strengths of the community. Be sure you have a deep and shared understanding of what is important to the prospect.
  4. Instead of overcoming objections, reconsider what you asked for. Be sure you know enough about what matters to suggest a logical next step.
  5. Be aware of other prospects that have had similar experiences as they decided how to proceed. Think about how you identified what mattered most to each of them and how that helped define how they would move forward. Use this information to inform a positive and affirming approach with prospects.
  6. Be willing to share what matters to you, and why your role is important to you.
  7. Ask powerful and open-ended questions that are focused first on appreciating what came before and followed by what that means for the future.
  8. Show appreciation for the prospect’s good ideas and decisions. Summarize and reinforce what you heard and what it means.
  9. Create an environment that supports your own selling success and enables you to do your best work. This contributes to a win-win-win for you, your prospects and the community.

Discovery should be a competitive advantage

What sets you apart from the competition is the experience of being with you. Center that experience in discovery that is focused on affirming and appreciating what matters to your prospects. Begin with what works well for them now, and use that to help them imagine all the possibilities for their future.

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