The Big Picture: Stay Passionately Curious

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Albert Einstein famously said, “I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.” While I think Einstein might have been selling himself short, he did make a great point. Curiosity is essential to achieving great things. In fact, Michael Dell, chief executive of Dell, remarked in a 2015 PriceWaterhouseCoopers survey of more than 1,000 CEOs and executives that both curiosity and open-mindedness are leadership traits that have become “increasingly critical in challenging times.”1 A summary of the survey findings said, “Welcome to the era of the curious leader, where success may be less about having all the answers and more about wondering and questioning.”

In sales, we often want to be viewed by our customers as the person with all the answers. If we don’t take the time to fully understand our customers, however, we may not be providing them the answers that really set us, and what we’re selling, apart from the competition.

According to George Loewenstein — a Herbert A. Simon University Professor of Economics and Psychology at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, who has researched curiosity extensively — curiosity is the feeling experienced when there is a significant gap between what we know and what we want to know.2 And this gap only exists when we’re honest about what we have knowledge in and demonstrate a desire to learn more.

As far as selling is concerned, I would argue that it’s essential for salespeople to remain curious about their customers. It’s about more than asking the right questions. It’s about having the desire to understand customers’ experience with your products and your competitors’ brands. It’s also about understanding what makes your customers tick. A genuine interest in the customer will not only yield valuable intel you can use in future sales calls, but you’ll also be forging bonds with customers that will pay off many times over. Think of the dentist who remains focused on his patients all day. He’ll be thrilled to get the chance to talk about himself rather than his patients’ gingivitis.

Sales coach Douglas E. Rice put it well when he wrote, “While most salespeople enter the sales conversation as if they are marching into battle, the better approach to take is to enter the sales conversation as if you are exploring a new land.”3

Maintaining a healthy level of curiosity, however, is often a struggle for salespeople. The “Always Be Closing” mantra and an intense focus on hitting sales numbers can run counter to the customer discovery process. You may, understandably so, feel pressured to take control of conversations with customers to drive them toward the desired conclusion: purchase of your product.

There are a couple tools salespeople can use to satisfy their curiosity: quiet observation and a gap analysis of the dentist’s practice. Quiet observation, to be clear, does not mean passive. Although you’re not speaking to anyone, your mind is busy processing all the stimuli entering it during a visit to a dental practice. Be sensitive to the subtle clues that can tip you off to your customers’ goals and values. Clues can be found in sources as varied as an off-hand comment a dentist makes about something he or she did over the weekend to a picture hanging on the waiting room wall. As I mentioned in my February column “Try Emotion to Unstick Clients,” while many of us are motivated by similar things (career success, strong personal relationships, etc.), the importance we place on each varies between individuals. Once you determine what your customers value most — not just in their dental practice, but also in life in general — you can demonstrate how buying your products will help them achieve their goals.

Gap analysis helps you determine how well your customers’ needs are being met and what the gaps are between your customers’ ideal scenario and their reality. You could talk about any important area of their practice, from their patient acquisition efforts to the installation of crowns. Try to understand what perfection or high performance looks like to each dentist, and ask for examples where the dentist has achieved perfection and where things have fallen short.

How might your products or services bridge the gap? In what situations have your products played a starring role and when have they been a disappointment? Hearing how your product came through with shining colors helps strengthen the case for the use of your product when speaking to the next dentist. And understanding less triumphant moments will uncover situations where your product may not be the best choice. And perhaps you’ll unearth situations where your product or service would have likely done a better job than the one the dentist used.

So, on your next meeting with a customer, bring along your 6-year-old self. Park your preconceived notions about the customer at the door, and try to learn something new about her. Be an explorer. Be a student. Be curious. And see what you learn.


  1. Berger W. Why curious people are destined for the c-suite. Harvard Business Review. Available at: Accessed August 24, 2017.
  2. Alexander L. To see your status soar, be more curious. Psychology Today. Available at: Accessed August 24, 2017.
  3. Rice D. Always be curious: the power of curiosity in sales. Available at: Accessed August 24, 2017.

From MENTOR. October 2017;8(10): 8-9.

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