EPISODE 472: A Fresh Perspective on Using Curiosity for Sales Success with Dr. Alison Horstmeyer

Subscribe to the Podcast now on Apple Podcasts!

Become a member of the elite Institute for Excellence in Sales and take your sales career to the next level!

Attend the next Institute for Excellence in Sales Women in Sales Leadership Forum starting April 22, 2022. Register here.

[EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a replay of the Optimal Sales Mindset virtual learning session sponsored by the Institute for Excellence in Sales on December 9. 2021. It featured an interview with curiosity expert Dr. Alison Horstmeyer.]

Find Alison on LinkedIn.

ALISON’S TIP: “I invite you to get real in terms of what aren’t you doing. What are you missing? In what ways have you not tried to engage with your customer? Are you just going to what’s familiar? The opportunity is, what is one new way you could engage with your customer that you haven’t? That deep down intuitively you know is something that you should be trying, and maybe something that’s holding you back is, “Well, that’s going to take a lot of time.” Yeah, probably because you haven’t done it yet. If we’re not challenging ourselves and stretching in a way that brings new insights, you are not going to be able to take new insights to your customers.”


Fred Diamond: We’re very excited today. We have Dr. Alison Horstmeyer, and we’re going to be talking about curiosity. Now, it’s quite interesting. Alison, curiosity comes up all the time. We’ve done close to 500 Sales Game Changers Podcast episodes. We’ve done over 250 of them live as virtual learning sessions. We used to call them webinars or webcasts. So many times I’ll ask the experts that we bring on, “Tell us something that sales professionals should be to be successful.” They need to be curious, passionate, of course, great listeners, all that stuff comes up. But so frequently, curious comes up.

We heard about you from Genein Letford, who was a guest on one of our shows a couple of months ago, and she said, “You need to speak to Alison, because she is the expert on curiosity in business, and the whole business process.” Specifically for our purposes today, sales. It’s great to see you. Let’s get started. Just define curiosity. Now, what exactly does it mean? Is it what we think it is, or is there something more to it? We’re excited to get into this.

Alison Horstmeyer: That’s a great question about what is curiosity. Even in the curiosity literature, there’s different definitions depending on if you are solely focused on epistemic curiosity, which is intellectual curiosity, or a more global definition of curiosity, which includes motivational, mental, and emotional qualities. I’m in the latter camp. When we think about curiosity, the number one thing we need to understand is it’s self-directed. You do choose to be curious. That is supported in the literature, that’s supported in my work. It is the self-directed seeking and exploring into experiences and searches that tend to be ambiguous in nature, or complex, or uncertain, because those have the highest potential for you to learn something new, to have a new experience, to get a new reference point.

The idea with curiosity is if we don’t choose to activate it, then we will stay stagnant. We’ll stay in status quo, we’ll always go to how we sell, the playbook will always be the same. Then we’ll be wondering why we’re not hitting those sales targets, why we’re not meeting our customer needs, because what customers need today is very different than what they needed six months ago. If COVID has taught us anything, I hope it’s taught that change is constant and you constantly need to change your playbook.

In curiosity, if I could just go a bit further before you go to the next question, is for your audience to think about it from a multidimensional standpoint. There is an element of not knowing, and I think that’s hard for executives, because we are groomed and conditioned to perform and to know, and that’s how we rise up the ladder. We’re expected to know everything about our customers. Then we get into that over-confidence zone and we end up actually not knowing, not recognizing that we don’t know. There does need to be an aspect of not knowing.

There is next aspect of exploration. How you explore is going to be up to you, and how open you are. The openness is really critical in that exploration. I think people think of curiosity often as being inquisitive. I say, great. How open are you to what’s coming in? Because if you’ve already made up your mind, if you’re asking in a way that’s just really supporting confirmation bias, or a framing bias, then you’re not really being open to the possibilities and to contradictory information, new information, things that would require you to pivot.

Then there’s this aspect of stress tolerance, which is managing the anxiety, doubt, confusion, stress along the way. This is the kicker to the whole thing, because how we manage that part is going to determine how we’re curious, when we’re curious, how long we’re curious. It is the part that builds us our resiliency in the process. In that way, curiosity is a wonderful meta-skill. It’s a double loop learning. You go into the unknown, you get uncomfortable, you stretch, you get a new data point, you figure out how to integrate and assimilate it, and then you decide what to do with it. There is a big part to curiosity that requires reflection. Kevin Cashman has the whole book around pause principle, that we definitely need to pause, to slow down to speed up. That’s also what curiosity allows us to do.

Fred Diamond: There’s a lot there we want to get through. One of the big lessons that we’ve heard over the last 18 months – again, we’re doing today’s interview in December. We’ve been in the pandemic for almost two years now. Alison, we’ve been doing a webinar every single day, we actually even changed the name of it. It’s crazy that we’re doing these every day. But one of the cool things is that since we’ve been doing them every single day with sales experts and sales leaders, is that we’ve seen things evolve, and we’ve seen things in the sales process rise to the top. One of the most critical things that we’ve seen is the fact that you need, as a sales professional, to bring more value to the customer than ever before.

Sales has always been about value creation, and Neil Rackham said it in SPIN Selling. But even more so, as we continue in the pandemic space, customers are dealing with their own stuff, let alone with what you’re trying to tell them. They have to also deal with their customers’ stuff. From a curiosity perspective, as we tell sales professionals, you need to be more valuable to your customer than ever before, you need to bring more value. I’m just curious, from your perspective, does the curiosity come from talking to the customer, or does the curiosity come from you doing your own research or your own work, or are both of those tactics part and parcel of discovery, like you talked about?

Alison Horstmeyer: Yes, it’s an and. I always say watch out for the tyranny of the OR when you’re saying it has to be this or that, this way or that way. That’s when our anxiety goes up because we are limiting our options. When we limit our options, we tend to get into survival mode and then we’re going to be hitting hard with our customers, and probably not on point of what they need to hear and not taking into consideration what is going on around their world. When I was in business development and sales, I was known as the connector. I knew more people in the customer’s world in their own company than they did. I was able to connect things holistically in a way that actually really helped them to say, “Hey, this is what’s going on over in Europe,” because I had global purview, and, “Here’s how we can coordinate it in the US,” or whatever it is.

But certainly the whole idea with sales and your ability to lean in with an aspect of, “What can I explore? What can I discover? How can I frame it in a way that my customer really can hear it? How do I align agendas?” I think that takes a lot of curiosity. You have to be open to letting go what you’re so emotionally attached to and discover a way to really compromise in a way that can support both the agendas. That takes incredible courage and vulnerability, and saying, “I don’t know about this part of your world. Can you help me understand that? Because that would actually help me provide maybe a more holistic solution, something that really comes to light.” Always at least there’s something else.

So the first idea is usually not the idea. You want to be unpacking in a way that it has this cascade effect and dialogue where you can really get to the crux of the issue. Because I think oftentimes, our customers come to us and say, “We need to X.” Sometimes because we’re in a hurry, we have a full portfolio, we say, “Okay, got it. I’ll deliver you X.” Instead of saying, “Wait a minute, why do you need X? What’s going on? What’s happening? What’s going on politically? What’s going on organizationally? What’s going on culturally? What is the pressure that you’re feeling? Pains and gains, what’s going on and what are you really trying to solve for?” Because I bet what they said they need is not. I could probably guarantee it.

Fred Diamond: It’s interesting. On the flip side of that too, which is the courage and the vulnerability to tell the customer that you don’t have that solution. When you ask these questions and you get deep into the customer and what they’re dealing with, that may lead to you saying, “You know what? We really can’t help you, but find someone else who can solve the problem.” It’s not like, “We can’t help you with this. Nice to know you.” It’s like, “We can’t help you,” but bring in a resource that can, and hopefully potentially you’ll continue to develop that relationship.

I want to talk about questions, as you’re talking about this here. We had a great guest. His name is Bob London. He’s known as the Chief Listening Officer, and he’s fantastic. He proposes 15 different types of questions. They’re actually quite fascinating, about knowing more about you, and you would love these questions. Knowing more about you, knowing more about us, and things like, “What does your board of advisors or your board of directors expect from you?” It’s a random question.

Talk a little bit about the questioning that sales professionals can use as it relates to curiosity to get deeper. We didn’t really discuss this too much, but we always talk about understanding the customer’s why. Simon Sinek’s why, what is the customer’s why? As great sales professionals, you don’t just want to be conscious of that, you want to get deep into that and maybe even before you even engage with the customer to show that you’ve given some thought. Could you talk a little bit about some questioning approaches from a curiosity perspective that would help a sales professional get better?

Alison Horstmeyer: I think fundamentally where the invitation is, or my invitation to your audience is, how can you become an ally versus just a vendor? When we come from the place of an ally, you are there for a number of different reasons. You can be there to listen, to be a coach, to come up with a solution, you’re playing different hats. You may even be bridging conflict, or two opposing camps within the same customer, and what a great place to be and what a great conduit you could be for that.

I think fundamentally what I also invite is how can you have an explorer mindset? An explorer mindset is about listening with the intention that, “What I hear changes what I do.” Because oftentimes, I think we listen to win, or listen to fix. I know that sounds maybe counterintuitive for sales, but the idea is, what if you listened with the intention that what you hear changes what you do? Why I say that is because, you’re right, we are dealing with somebody who has an immediate world that they are in. But that world inevitably connects wider and wider. It connects to other parts of the organization, it connects to the culture. It just extends out. If you could get really clear on what the cascade effect of what is triggering the client’s need, anxiety, pressure, and get really familiar with all the triggers around them, then your questions become different kinds of questions.

Usually, I ask sales folks to practice open-ended questions, which usually start with a what or a how. “Hey, Fred, you said you wanted X. How would that benefit you? What are you really looking to achieve? What will success look like? What other ideas have you had, or have you been contemplating, or what is the ripple effect of if we do this, what does that mean exponentially for the company? Tell me more.” If you get stuck, if you can’t figure out a how or what question, tell me more is a great go-to. “Tell me more about that.”

Especially if you’re feeling like you’re getting on the defensive, like, “Hey, this guy doesn’t know what he’s talking about,” hold on. Just take a moment. I always say pause, reflect, choose. Pause, reflect, choose how you’re going to respond in that moment. The best way to keep yourself together and to still be listening and leaning in, is with the, “Tell me more about that,” or, “Help me understand that. I don’t get that part.” Before you come into the conversation on attack, with like, “Hey, that’s not going to work. Let me tell you why. Here’s what you should be doing.” The very directive approach.

I think you have to tune into your customer and really it requires some emotional intelligence. How does your customer like to partner? Do they want the directive? Do they want to co-create? When you said earlier, “I don’t have the solution.” Well, what an opportunity to co-create with your customer. Go back to headquarters, or to your engineers, say, “Hey, there’s this idea and it actually looks similar to what we’ve been incubating. I might have a pilot customer to test this,” or like you said, go and partner.

I’m just asking that you slow it down. I think that’s what fundamentally curiosity is. Curiosity means fundamentally about the pause. Slow it down to unpack. I think we’re always racing. We think racing through a meeting, checking off the boxes, gutting the very minimum business requirements or product requirements is a win. I’m saying, it’s not. If you haven’t slowed down, and maybe you only get to half the agenda on the meeting, that’s actually a really good meeting, because you’re unpacking.

Fred Diamond: I like the way you said, “Tell me more.” One of our favorite stories is from the great Rob Jolles, who said that his favorite question was and, “And?” He did it with a nice Southern drawl. I want to ask you about transparency and vulnerability. We’re obviously all going through the pandemic, and we still are. Various parts of it are going to continue for a lot of people. We’ve talked a lot about empathy and we’ve talked a lot about getting deeper and richer with your customer. I’m just curious, talk about how far do you go.

Now, a second ago, you just talked about understanding your customer and what types of conversations they may or may not be comfortable being with you on. But because of the pandemic, since we’ve all experienced this, everybody on the planet has experienced this in multiple ways, and in a lot of ways, similarly. There’s been a lot of guidance and advice on getting a little bit deeper with the customer. I’m just curious on your opinion there, you must get that all the time. What is your advice for sales professionals right now about holding the curiosity to things that relate to business, or being comfortable and being curious about other parts of the person’s life?

Alison Horstmeyer: If we’re going to be an ally, then when we’re supporting our customer from both a business and I would argue in an emotional standpoint, I mean, this has been a highly-charged two years, and we’re all pretty tired. The nice thing about COVID, if there is such a nice thing about it, is that we are all experiencing it. We do have this common bond of which we can come from and acknowledge and say, “Hey, it’s been pretty rough, huh? Like, no joke.” I think what turns people off is the inauthenticity of everything’s rose colored glasses, everything’s fine. Not everything is fine. I think when we tune into our customers in a way like if I said, “Hey, Fred, how are you?” And you said, “Fine.” My next question is, “No, how are you really?” Because that says, “Hey, I really want to know,” because I think that’s an important construct for us to be able to communicate.

Trust is earned. You don’t get trust, you earn it. What you model is how you’re going to earn trust. Are you modeling a way that says, “Hey, I got you. I hear you. No, I actually really want to hear what’s going on with you before we dive in”? How much do you know about them in terms of their families, of their peers, of their boss? Understanding their relationship with their boss is really important, because it informs a lot about how you strategically position what you’re trying to sell in, and you have to help them do that. You guys can figure that out together and then that’s how you become an ally.

Providing a strategic way of socializing what you’re trying to sell in, because there’s always going to be your primary advocate, and then there’s going to be the influences around that person. Then are you taking the time to find out who those are and are you building relationships with those people? Often when I’m coaching, I’m like, “Don’t just keep it to that person. You got to go all around, up, down, across, and please be really nice to their assistant.”

Fred Diamond: Alison, I want to ask you a slightly different question here. We have a lot of sales leaders who listen to the Sales Game Changers Podcast, and they’re managing junior people in many cases. What would be your advice for sales leaders who are managing junior people to get their junior people to understand some of the concepts we’re talking about today, and some strategies and ideas to get them to be not just more curious, but more functional in using curiosity?

Alison Horstmeyer: Number one is, what is that leader modeling? Is the leader modeling, “Come to me with a fully baked idea, just with good news”? Or are you as a leader saying, “I just want to be in an information bubble because I don’t really want to coach or delegate, I just want to drive home, It’s all about the target”? My invitation to the leaders is to check how you are engaging in a way that says, am I really a coaching leader? Am I coaching? Am I having difficult conversations that require me to say, “Hey, I observed you doing this in this meeting, what that does is X, Y, Z. What could be another way for you to engage with the customer?” and have that person come up with some ideas and go forward.

Again, what I get pushback from leaders like, “Wow, that takes time, Alison. It takes time to coach.” Yeah, it does. That’s actually a large part of your job. The junior folks, especially as Gen Z comes into the workforce, they want feedback a lot, and they want it face-to-face, and they want it continuously. Millennials wanted our feedback in a soft ball kind of way. The Gen Z’ers are like, “No, give it to me direct. Give it to me now.” Because they’re used to instant information on the phone.

By asking them to think about different ways they could approach the client or approach the problem or the issue, that engages their curiosity. It says, “Hi, I want to hear your thoughts,” and then you can help shape those thoughts in a way that could be really beneficial. Then the key part is how are you holding that person accountable to actually go do it? Are you just saying, “Hey, that’s a great idea, go try it out,” or are you saying, “Okay, go try that out and let’s talk about it next week and tell me how it went”? Because if there’s no accountability, nothing’s going to change.

Fred Diamond: That’s very powerful. Alison, before I ask you for your final action step, you’ve given so many great ideas, I’m curious on how you got into this. Again, it’s interesting that curiosity has come up so frequently. We’ve done over 480 shows, close to 500 shows, and it’s a ubiquitous answer, “You need to be curious, of course.” We’ve talked about you need to be passionate, et cetera. There’s so many things you need to be to be successful at corporate and B2B sales, but you have to be curious.

When we were talking to Genein Letford on a show back in June, she mentioned curiosity and I said, “You know what? That’s interesting, because it’s something I’m really interested in getting deep on.” She said, “Well, you need to talk to Dr. Alison Horstmeyer.” I’m curious, how did you pick this? There’s no one else that we’ve had, and we’ve done 480 shows, who’s the expert on curiosity in business. If you don’t mind, give us a little bit of insight into how you decided at this time in your life to make this your career and what you focus on.

Alison Horstmeyer: Having built businesses at the intersection of tech and media, I was always fascinated what motivated people to act a certain way, to behave in certain ways. I was very successful at forming strategic partnerships that really catalyzed businesses forward. I always wanted to really understand the connection between the mind and the body and behavioral science. But really what threw me into the world of curiosity was the anxiety that I saw around me, and the complacency. I had started studying anxiety through mindfulness, psychoimmunology, and all these other kind of modalities and science-based disciplines. It was very naive of me, but the question I asked myself was, “Can you be curious and anxious all at the same time?” I thought, “Well, maybe that’s it.” Certainly that’s not true because stress tolerance is part of curiosity. There is anxiety and curiosity.

The research, and there’s eminent curiosity researchers that I’m standing on the shoulders who continue to do wonderful research and are pretty prolific when it comes to curiosity. It’s only now that that research is accelerating in the workplace because we have companies like Microsoft, Novartis, Google, others, even companies that work in healthcare, are trying to figure out, “How do we harness the thing of curiosity?”

What I would say to you, I know you just said, “Hey, listeners. We tell you you need to be a lot of things.” I can tell you that if you start activating your curiosity, it’s a doorway, Fred, to all those other things. It’s a meta-skill. A meta-skill is a higher order skill that energizes these other skills that you’re talking about, creativity, collaboration, empathy. It’s a doorway to all these things.

So I was always fascinated, and the more I dug into it, I was like, “Wow, if we’re not even accessing the doorway, we can’t even get to these other things.” By accessing that doorway of curiosity, that learning agility comes forward and it allows these other attributes that you’re asking your sales folks to really energize, it’s going to start with curiosity. You may say, “Hey, you’re being biased,” I have really tried to look at the other way, like, “Are you empathetic and then curious?” The more I dig into the research, the more I do my own research, the more I work with clients, it’s like, fundamentally we have to start with not knowing, being open, explore, and then managing the ambiguity and the unfamiliarity, which can be stressful, which gets us to these other places.

Fred Diamond: Actually, when we talk about how you can be super successful in sales, the truly successful people in sales are so deep into the customer’s mindset. Really from the perspective of what are the customers’ customers’ customers facing? Over the last year, we’ve talked about, it’s obviously not about you, it’s not about your products anymore. It’s not about what you bring or what your company brings, because your customers can figure that on their own. With the internet, they could find all of the solutions. They don’t need you to tell them what they probably already know, but what they do need from you is you giving them insights, you giving them ideas. I like the way you said before that you’re a connector. The opportunity to meet other people who could help them to get deeper into what the challenges are that they may be facing. I’ll tell you, man, the only way they can get there is by having that type of the curious mindset, to really go deep into figuring out, “How can I help customers?”

We talk a lot about preparation. That’s another word that we haven’t really touched on here. A lot of the sales professionals that we talked to on the Sales Game Changers Podcast, they’ll say, “You got to be prepared.” I’ll always ask the question, “All right. Give us some advice on better ways to prepare.” There are some very simple hacks that you could do three minutes’ worth of research on the internet to find a whole bunch of things, but you’re not really getting deep into helping them solve their problems. If all you’re doing is preparing for the sake of having some tidbits to throw out during the conversation, your value is not very high. Your value is going to be you really being curious about, “What’s my customer facing?” More and more, Alison, and we talk about not just what they’re facing, but what their customers’ customers’ customers are facing.

I’ll tell you, we’ve been talking a lot about the great resignation recently. When we first started talking about it, we said, “How can your company combat the great resignation?” Then we realized, we had a guest on, her name is Joanne Black. She lives in Northern California, not far from you. She said, “The bigger problem isn’t what you are doing, sales organization. It’s what’s happening at your customer, and what’s happening at your customer’s customer, and your customer’s customer’s customer, as it relates to the great resignation, because that’s really going to impact you.”

Before I ask you for your final action step, I want to acknowledge you for doing some amazing work. Again, I’ve been looking for someone to talk to about curiosity as a discipline, as a skill for a couple of years. When Genein mentioned your name, I went to all the places that we usually go to find out who the person is. Kudos to you for your success and for the great work that you’re doing with this discipline. Not just with the discipline, but in helping the hundreds and thousands of companies, and in that case, business professionals and sales professionals that you’ve done. Good for you and congratulations on all your success.

Alison Horstmeyer: Thank you.

Fred Diamond: Alison, as we wind up every show, you’ve given us 15, 20 brilliant ideas. Give us one more specific action step that people can take right now to be more successful as a sales professional.

Alison Horstmeyer: I invite you to get real in terms of what aren’t you doing? What are you missing? In what ways have you not tried to engage in your customer? Are you just going to what’s familiar? The opportunity is, what is one new way you could engage with your customer that you haven’t? That deep down intuitively you know is something that you should be trying, and maybe something that’s holding you back is, “Well, that’s going to take a lot of time.” Yeah, probably because you haven’t done it yet. If we’re not challenging ourselves and stretching in a way that brings new insights, you are not going to be able to take new insights to your customers.

Fred Diamond: Once again, I want to thank Dr. Alison Horstmeyer for being on today’s show. For everybody who watched or listened to today’s Sales Game Changers virtual learning session or podcast, thank you.

Transcribed by Mariana Badillo

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.