A long time ago, I was fly fishing with a grizzled, old, big company leadership consultant. I asked him what he thought differentiated good consultants from great consultants—those at the pinnacle of the game.
He said, "Let me think."
A little while later, we were in the middle of the river when he turned to me and said, "A great consultant will say what he has to say to the client—what the client needs to hear—but that might get the consultant fired. Though, at the end of the day, the consultant has the interpersonal skills not to get fired."
In other words, great consultants are assertive, but also have a deep well of emotional intelligence.
What makes for a great consultant, in this case, also makes for a great insight seller. In fact, assertiveness is one of the 12 key attributes of insight sellers.
Assertiveness is a hallmark of an insight seller. Insight sellers push back on buyer thinking. They question the status quo. They are change agents.
They insert themselves into situations where they can help buyers, and they do so without a formal invitation. They are bold, but not arrogant.
Insight sellers who are assertive tend to:
- Take control and lead
- Take and defend a point of view
- Insert themselves into important situations
- Be willing to prospect
- Debate as appropriate with buyers
Being assertive in sales is critical. Without it, you won't be able to change buyer thinking and influence agendas. It's also one of the most misunderstood sales attributes. It requires finesse, confidence, bravery, and a good dose of gravitas.
There is much advice in the world of sales these days suggesting sellers be more assertive. But there is not enough emphasis on A) being assertive in a way that isn't perceived as antagonistic by buyers, and B) being assertive in a way that will help the buyer. Some sellers who hear the advice to be assertive and to push back on buyers end up being provocative, but they push back on buyers just for the sake of pushing back. When they do, buyers can tell the sellers don’t have anything real to add.
Insight sellers worth their salt plan to use assertiveness at very specific times and places to achieve three outcomes: disrupt, reframe, and direct.
- Disrupt: They disrupt the flow of thinking or action a buyer may be considering. When a buyer is set in their thinking or their direction, they’re on autopilot. When a seller can get a buyer to question their direction and strategies, they get them thinking and open the buyer's mind.
- Reframe: When the buyer's mind is open, insight sellers reframe issues. A buyer often misses opportunities because of their mental models. When a seller introduces a buyer to new mental models, they open the buyer to new possibilities for strategy and action.
- Direct: And what should those strategies and actions be? Insight sellers direct buyers to ways the seller can help them solve problems and reach goals with the seller's help.
Insight sellers don't push back for the sake of pushing back. They do so because it’s in the best interest of the buyer.
How can you tell if someone is assertive? It's not hard to see. Do they guide, redirect, take charge, and move the conversation in new directions? Do they question the status quo? Do they insert themselves into conversations without a formal invitation? All of these are indicators of someone's assertiveness.
Yet how do you know if someone is likely to be assertive before you get to know them? When hiring salespeople, it's difficult to observe them long enough to know if they have this tendency. Here at RAIN Group, we use sophisticated psychographic sales assessments that test and measure assertiveness, along with other key insight seller attributes. It tells you who has what it takes to be successful as an insight seller.
We've written a lot about how buyers want your ideas and advice—in fact, it’s the topic of our most recent book, Insight Selling. Often, buyers either aren’t thinking about something in the best way, or they literally don't know better possibilities exist compared to what they are doing.
Insight sellers must be assertive to help buyers hear what they need to hear and do what they need to do. At the same time, the best insight sellers lead buyers where they need to go without raising the buyer's ire and getting themselves kicked to the curb.