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What Is Insight Selling? A Beginner’s Guide

Paula Fernandes
business.com Contributing Writer
Updated Oct 19, 2022

You've heard the term, but can you actually define it?

The term “insight selling” has been around for a while, but most sales professionals struggle to explain how it works. This technique involves making a sale by using strategy to coach the customer through the buying process. This article will serve as a quick guide for anyone who wants to try insight selling, but isn’t sure where to start. 

What is insight selling? 

According to most dictionaries, insight is the ability to form an accurate and intuitive understanding of a person or thing. When applied to sales, it means you use data, trends analysis, market research and experience to help customers sift through the relevant information. This helps them diagnose problems, determine their needs, and make informed buying decisions.

The RAIN Group’s Mike Schultz and John Doerr have written extensively on the topic and published a book, Insight Selling: Surprising Research on What Sales Winners Do Differently. They define insight selling as “the process of creating and winning sales opportunities, and driving change with ideas that matter.” In other words, the salesperson, especially in B2B environments, must become a strategy consultant or business coach to help a customer navigate the purchasing decision. 

As Eric Quanstrom, chief marketing officer of CIENCE, explained, “Most buyers are looking for ways to address the problem behind the problem. They tend to favor sellers who can teach them useful things about their own business.” 

Did you know?Did you know? According to Gartner, 77% of B2B buyers stated that their last purchase was very complex or difficult. This is partly because of the many people involved in the sales process, and because each person comes into the deal with their own information. Insight selling can reduce this complexity.

What is the history of insight selling? 

To understand what insight selling is, it’s helpful to get a grasp on what it is not. Not so long ago, sellers didn’t have to work very hard to pitch their product to potential buyers. They simply explained its benefits and features to buyers who often didn’t have the means to compare the product to competitors’ offerings to determine if it was the best option for them. 

In the 1980s, sellers began asking customers big open-ended questions, such as “What are your top three priorities this quarter?” or “What keeps you up at night?” and using the answers to shape potential solutions for the customer. 

Though this approach is obviously more effective and personalized, it lost some of its luster with the advent of the internet and the oversaturation of information. Customers began to conduct research on their own, but were overwhelmed by the barrage of information they encountered. They had a hard time sorting through all the choices and determining what mattered most. 

“Increased access to information has made traditional solution sales a thing of the past,” said Steve Wunker, managing director of New Markets Advisors and co-author (with Jennifer Luo Law) of the book Costovation: Innovation that Gives Your Customers Exactly What They Want – and Nothing More. “Buyers no longer need to listen to sales presentations to understand your product; they simply browse online.” 

Wunker added that buyers look for advice to help them make sense of all the noise. They want to learn from what others are doing in situations similar to theirs, and to ultimately feel confident in their decisions, he said. 

Today, this information overload continues to leave buyers confused, overwhelmed, and searching for sellers that can cut through the clutter and partner with them to make sense of it all. This is where insight selling comes in. 

According to a Salesforce study, 79% of business buyers say it’s very important that they interact with a salesperson who is a trusted advisor. “With insight selling, you come to the table bubbling with new ideas, perspectives and potentially, data points,” said Wunker. “Insight selling is about becoming a true partner to your customer, not just a salesperson. You need to offer value beyond the research that buyers can conduct on their own.” 

FYIFYI: raditional sales focuses on solution selling – that is, the salesperson treats the customer like a patient, diagnoses their problem and recommends a solution. But there’s very little attempt to listen or coach the customer to discover their own solutions.

What are the categories of insight selling? 

There are two types of insight selling: opportunity insight and interaction insight. Sellers who make use of opportunity insight don’t wait for prospects to raise their hands and ask for help. In fact, they recognize that the customer may not even realize that a problem exists. The opportunity insight salesperson proactively brings up a specific idea, engages the customer and guides them through the process of realizing that that idea addresses one of their needs. 

Opportunity insight often works hand-in-hand with interaction insight. This type of insight focuses on building connections with customers by encouraging creative thinking, inspiring “lightbulb” moments and challenging assumptions. 

Sellers who use interaction insight ask questions and push customers to reach outside their comfort zones. This nudges customers to come to their own realizations about what solutions work best for them. The salesperson will be there to craft a product offering in response. 

What are the components of insight selling? 

1. Research

How do you pull off insight selling? The key is to do better sales research, according to Wunker. “Don’t just learn the basic metrics about your customers – instead, push to develop a deep and holistic understanding of the jobs your buyer is trying to get done,” he explained. “Some jobs might be functional, like building a business case for a new venture. Other jobs might be more emotional, like being the hero to a tough, unsolved problem.” 

Salespeople need to dig deep to understand the issues and challenges their customers face and offer them new and innovative ways of addressing their concerns. Use data analytics tools to help identify trends, pore through statistics, follow buying patterns, and tap into a range of other methods to source information that will get your clients to their ideal solution. 

“Once you understand what your buyer is trying to do, you can pinpoint obstacles that are getting in the way of that, and you can help them overcome those pain points,” added Wunker. 

2. Synthesizing

Salespeople often service one particular industry or profession. That means they are in the unique position of being able to spot recurring or distinctive issues in their focus market long before those issues are a blip on their customers’ radar. 

 “Sellers have a useful seat at the table in that they typically sell to a similar cohort and can listen, synthesize information, and see patterns across businesses dealing with the same problems,” said Quanstrom. 

Communicating the insight amassed from varying interactions within an industry is preferable to old-school sales tactics, according to Quanstrom. 

3. Listening

Gathering insight requires the ability to ask really good questions and actively listen to the responses. Insight selling works most successfully when salespeople begin by listening to the buyer. Then, they use their knowledge to help customers identify what they need instead of telling them what to buy. 

Though listening seems simple, it may not come easy, especially to a salesperson who is conditioned to always be ready with the next pitch. 

“The risks are that this is hugely demanding of salespeople,” said Quanstrom. “They cannot be transactional, tone-deaf [or] shallow in their approach.” 

But salespeople who get it right are well on their way to establishing themselves as trusted advisors. 

Wunker added, “Your customer will relish feeling heard.” 

Jamie Johnson contributed to the reporting and writing of this article. Some source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.

Image Credit: Rawpixel.com / Shutterstock
Paula Fernandes
business.com Contributing Writer
Paula is a New Jersey-based writer with a bachelor's degree in English and a master's degree in education. She spent nearly a decade working in education, primarily as the director of a college's service-learning and community outreach center. Her prior experience includes stints in corporate communications, publishing, and public relations for nonprofits. Reach her at fernandes.write@gmail.com.