The Importance of Understanding

6 min readMarch 31, 2020

Summary: Instead of analyzing the opportunities in your pipeline based on how far a buyer has progressed through your sales process, assess your chances of winning their order based on the depth of your understanding of their needs, their desired outcomes and where they stand in their decision-making process.

As humans we feel a burning need to make sense out of uncertainty. We detest the unknown. And ambiguity makes us anxious.

As sellers we feel a burning need to make sense out of uncertainty. We detest the unknown. And ambiguity makes us anxious.

So, in sales, when we are trying to figure out what is happening with a particular opportunity and we don’t have a complete set of facts, we take whatever information we have at hand and weave it into a narrative that tries to make sense of the uncertainty.

In short, we jump to conclusions. Which is a problem. One of your most important functions as a seller is to understand. It’s not enough to know what your buyer’s needs are. You have to understand why these are important to them. It’s not enough to know the outcomes your buyer wants to achieve with your product. You must fully understand why they chose those outcomes and why they are important to the buyer’s business. It’s not enough to know who the stakeholders are in the purchase decision on your opportunity. You have to understand the relationships between the stakeholders and which ones have the most influence on the ultimate decision.

Think of that big sales opportunity in your pipeline that you forecasted to close this month. You’re anxious to convince your manager that you’re on top of your accounts. But you don’t have the complete understanding you need of all the various moving parts of the deal.

So, the temptation is to take the limited set of data points that you actually have about the opportunity and stitch them together into a story that attempts to create certainty and logic where none exists. (And, then you compound your problem by aggressively and emotionally defending the fake logic of your own made-up story against the raised eyebrow skepticism of your manager.)

Here’s the thing: fiction doesn’t strengthen your pipeline. Only a clear-eyed understanding of the buyer does.

However, there’s an easy way to avoid the ‘jumping to conclusions’ habit. It’s a simple technique you can use to assess how well you understand each of the opportunities in your pipeline.

Studies have found that there are three stages of understanding that we all pass through when we attempt to figure out exactly what is happening in a particular situation in our lives.

First, you enter The Uncertainty Stage. Your level of understanding at this point can best be expressed as: “I really don’t understand what’s going on yet.”

From there you transit into The Ambiguity Stage. Your level of understanding at this point can be summed up as “I think I know what’s going on but there are factors at work that I don’t fully understand yet.”

Assuming you do the necessary work to explore those unknowns, you’ll finally enter The Certainty Stage. In this final stage of understanding you can now assure yourself, and others, that “I’ve worked through all the alternatives and now I understand exactly what’s going on.”

This is the level of understanding you need to achieve for every qualified opportunity in your pipeline.

Let’s see how that translates into sales terms.

Imagine that you have just developed a new qualified opportunity for a potentially big deal. As you work the opportunity you will need to pass through the three levels of understanding (outlined above) before you can close the deal.

You enter the opportunity through The Uncertainty Stage. This is the initial data gathering stage. It’s where you connect with your buyer on a personal level. It’s where you begin to ask great discovery questions. And listen slowly and carefully to their answers. It’s okay to say to yourself, “I think this could be a great opportunity. However, there are plenty of things I need to learn before I understand what’s going on.”

Therefore, it would be premature at this stage to draw conclusions about this new opportunity, one way or another. When your manager asks for specifics about the deal and an indication from you about timeframes and probabilities you have to be honest and give the straight answer. “I haven’t spent enough time with this prospect yet. I don’t have all the information I need to fully understand the situation. However, I’m getting there.”

After initial conversations and some preliminary discovery you’ll find yourself in The Ambiguity Stage. This stage can be frustrating for sellers because at this point you want to be able to visualize a clear path to success. You want to have some certainty about how you can best help the buyer across the finish line but it hasn’t quite materialized.

However, this is where the complexity of a sales opportunity kicks in. This is where you extend your efforts to connect with a broader range of stakeholders in the decision. In this stage you’ll conduct in-depth discovery and detailed qualification with multiple people. This is when the buyer starts to finalize some of their choices with regard to the approach they want to use to address their pain points.

You’re making progress but there is still much to learn and understand.

However, it’s during this Ambiguity Stage where sellers typically feel the pressure to create the narrative to convince their manager and themselves about the value of the opportunity. It’s important not to jump to conclusions. There’s still a lot to be learned. So, be honest with yourself. And your manager.

When you’re doing a deal review at this stage it’s okay to say the following:

  1. “I think I understand what’s going on with this buyer.” (Then explain to your boss what you think you know.)
  2. 2.”But, I have to admit there are factors at play that I don’t fully understand yet that could change the outcome.” (Share with your boss the factors that could influence the decision that you are still working to understand.)

If you’re going to close the opportunity then you have to work up to The Certainty Stage. To reach this point you’ll have to identify and completely address all the known unknowns with your buyer that you identified in the Ambiguity Stage. Most importantly, you have to confirm your understanding(s) with each of the relevant stakeholders. Once that happens to the buyer’s satisfaction, you can have confidence that you’ve achieved a clear understanding of the buyer, and their needs, motivations and their desired outcomes. Plus you’ll understand their decision making process and what you need to do to close the deal.

As a result, you’ll have a realistic assessment of your chances of winning the opportunity. You can confidently state to your boss that “I’ve examined and worked through all the options with the buyer. As a result, now I believe that I know exactly what’s going on. Here’s what I need to do now to close this opportunity.”

Uncertainty. Ambiguity. Certainty. Three logical steps to help you develop a clear understanding of the buyer, their needs and what you need to do to close the deal.

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About the Author

Andy PaulringDNA

Bestselling author of Amp Up your Sales and Zero Time Selling, Andy Paul is #8 on LinkedIn’s list of the Top 50 Global Sales Experts to follow. With more than 170,000 followers, Andy is a highly sought-after speaker and sales sage who interviews the world’s foremost sales minds and extraordinarily interesting people to bring you strategies and insights that you can use to generate epic wins and massive value.