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What is Insight Selling? A Beginner’s Guide

Paula Fernandes Contributing Writer
Dec 25, 2018

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

The term “insight selling” has been floating around in the business community for quite some time, but when pressed to define it or explain how it works, the average salesperson struggles to move beyond industry jargon. In fact, only about 10 percent of salespeople have actively embraced this methodology though it has long been heralded as the next step in the evolution of sales. 

In response, has put together a quick guide to help newbies who want to give insight selling a try, but aren’t quite sure where to start. 

Insight Selling Defined

So, 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 you apply insight to sales, you use data, trends analysis, market research and experience to help customers sift through all relevant information, diagnose problems, determine their needs and ultimately, make informed buying decisions.

The RAIN Group’s Mike Schultz and John Doerr, who have written extensively on the topic and published a book by the same name 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 that helps 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.”  

A Brief History of Insight Selling

To understand what insight selling is, it’s helpful to get a grasp on what it is not. Brian Signorelli offers a detailed overview on HubSpot‘s blog: 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, and buyers often didn’t have the means to compare their product to competitors’ offerings to determine if, in fact, 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 obviously more effective and personalized, this approach 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 of “Costovation: Innovation that Gives Your Customers Exactly What They Want — and Nothing More” (HarperCollins Publishing, 2018). “Buyers no longer need to listen to a sales presentations to understand your product; they simply browse online.” 

Wunked added that buyers are looking 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 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 studies cited in Forbes, 79 percent of business buyers say it’s absolutely critical or very important that they interact with a salesperson who is a trusted advisor. Additionally, 94 percent of B2B decision makers report looking for sales teams that demonstrate specific insight into their organization’s struggles. 

“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.”  

Two Categories of Insight Selling

There are two types of insight selling: opportunity insight and interaction insight. 

Sellers who make use of opportunity insight aren’t sitting around waiting 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. Instead, the salesperson proactively brings up a specific idea, engages the customer, and guides the buyer through the process of realizing that that idea addresses one of their needs. 

Opportunity insight often works hand-in-hand with interaction insight. It 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 zone. As a result, customers may come to their own realizations about what solutions work best for them, and the salesperson will be there to help craft a product offering in response. 

3 Keys Actions to 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 faced by their customers and offer them new and innovative ways of addressing their concerns. You can 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. Synthesize

Salespeople often service one particular industry or profession. Thus, they are in the unique position of being able to spot reoccurring or distinctive issues in their focus market long before they are even 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. Listen

Getting insights requires the ability to ask really good questions and actively listen to the responses. Insight selling works most successfully when salespeople start their interaction with the buyer by listening. They use their knowledge to help customers identify what they need instead of simply telling them what to buy. 

Though it seems simple enough, listening does not come easy, especially to a salesperson who may be 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, nor 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.” 

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Paula Fernandes 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