The Real Trouble with Assumptions

Honest, effective communication hinges on being able to make a distinction between what we know and what we think we know, and to apply this to our professional and personal interactions with clients, friends, colleagues and associates. This is a concept that was articulated at length by Dr. Brad Blanton in his book, Practicing Radical Honesty: How to Complete the Past, Live in the Present and Build a Future with a Little Help from Your Friends. He describes this distinction along the lines of what is noticed and what is imagined.

To explain this important distinction, let’s look at some examples:

  • You notice a colleague arrives 30 minutes late for an internal sales review. You might think that this person simply forgot about the meeting, and your manager sitting across from you might notice the late arrival and assume that this person just doesn’t care about the meeting.
  • You notice that the man across from you at a sales meeting is wearing a red tie. What you think you see is a tie that is fashionable, and someone else might notice it and think it’s not fashionable.
  • You notice that a client did not return your phone call as promised. You might think it’s because they have chosen a competitor’s product instead. Someone else might assume there’s another reason for the unreturned call (e.g., because the client is on vacation).

The things we see—what we notice—are matters of fact, such as appearance, words or actions. The rest of our experiences are based on subjectivity—what we think we see or what we imagine.

Assumptions can cloud the path to honest communication. People can confuse what they think they see with what they know by verifiable fact to be true. In other words, they can think their opinions are facts. In sales this can lead to trouble.

Learning to distinguish between imagination and fact—between what we think we see and what we know—can pay important dividends in our professional lives. Let’s look at some case studies that explore how this simple distinction can affect the sales success of an organization.

1. Motivating a Sales Force

A reward can be a great motivator, but there are perils in giving rewards that you think people will want. Consider the following example:

Recently during a coaching session, Brian, the sales director of an international software company, shared an example of how he attempted to motivate a series of teams. The end of fiscal year was fast approaching and his teams were dangerously close to not hitting their revenue targets. To get things back on track, Brian promised each team that its members would be treated to a company-sponsored ski trip if the sales numbers were met. Sales started to grow everywhere except for one team on the West coast. Brian reminded this team about the ski trip, hoping to increase their productivity, but to no avail. Later, the leader of the West coast team gave him an insight into what went wrong: none of the team members were enticed by the skiing offer because none could ski very well…and no one owned the equipment required to participate in the trip. By attempting to use what he imagined would be a good motivator for everyone; Brian accomplished the opposite with his West coast team.

2. Initiative

In sales and in life, imagined assumptions can cripple us if we’re not careful. It not only affects how we interact with others, it can also significantly influence our careers.

Not long ago, I noticed that a client in the insurance business — let’s call him Kevin — had stopped taking the initiative for new marketing ideas and business development. Several months earlier, Kevin’s boss, Susan, had told him he was in line to be promoted as the new sales director for the region. But months passed without a follow-up discussion about the promotion. Kevin began to imagine that his boss had changed her mind. In retaliation, he stopped assuming a leadership role, ceased all initiatives and performed only the necessary tasks associated with his position.

After a lengthy period of feeling resentful, Kevin sought out and found a new job. In his exit interview with Susan, he confronted her about being overlooked for the position. He maintained that this demonstrated a lack of respect for his work and that was why he was leaving the company. Susan was genuinely surprised and said she would have promoted him a long time ago, but had assumed he didn’t want the promotion because of the extra hours it required. She explained that she had noticed how Kevin had earlier complained about working long hours and not having time enough for his family. Later, Kevin’s frustration appeared to Susan to be a lack of initiative.

A short conversation could have prevented this misunderstanding. Instead, valuable resources went untapped, hard feelings were harbored and everyone lost something.

3. Customer Feedback

When consulting with clients, we often observe salespeople avoiding or refusing to deal with a problem, because they imagine that addressing it could anger a customer and send them to the competition. In these situations, we’re inclined to ask whether this behavior creates customer-service issues or disloyal customers down the road.

A customer-service team at a software company was dealing with an error in their software that a client had complained about. The team sensed there was no satisfactory answer to the problem. The development team indicated that it would take more than nine months to fix it. The customer-service team assumed that the client wanted the problem fixed immediately and that they would be unhappy to hear this news. Weeks passed. The customer-service team delayed calling the client back. Not surprisingly, the client became angry and imagined that the company didn’t care about them. Finally, the client called and demanded to know what was going on.

In the end, this team was responsible for losing the client to the competition because of a perceived
notion that the company was indifferent to their needs. Engage Selling Solutions later reviewed this
case and concluded that if the customer-service team had chosen to double-check what they had imagined
to be true and had provided up front, honest answers, they would have solved the matter to everyone’s

I often observe sales managers or sales teams wrongly concluding that a customer offering negative
feedback is simply a troublemaker or a problem client. Worse still, sales teams will make a concerted
effort to avoid communicating with that client. That’s when trouble ensues. When an organization ignores
its customers, it has to rely on more — but has to make decisions with less — factual information.
The client, in turn, must do the same. With both parties relying on their imaginations to guide them
instead of the facts, a bad situation can easily become worse.

Keep this statistic in mind: sixty-seven percent of business is lost every year because of customers
who imagine that their service provider is indifferent to their needs and wants. That’s a staggering
amount of lost sales for any organization — and it’s especially difficult to accept when mistaken assumptions
are at the root of the problem. Without honest communication, an organization cannot understand the
true needs and wants of its clients.

4. Customer Service

Credible customer service must be rooted in good faith. Consider the following example in which a salesperson made promises that turned out to be too good to be true.

A project group with a hardware manufacturer lost millions of dollars on a contract simply because they wrongly assumed (imagined) they knew what the client expected. In this case, the client made requests for items and services that were not part of the existing contract. The group assumed that if they signaled that they were unable to fulfill such requests within the allotted resources, the client would become upset and possibly terminate the existing contract or refuse to grant work to the group in the future. The group fulfilled the client’s requests, figuring they would somehow find a way to satisfy everybody.

Instead, it was unable to satisfy anyone. As time passed, they fell behind in their work…very behind.
Rather than say anything, they used excuses to protect themselves in the event the truth was discovered.
But these excuses took up even more time and caused further delays to the project. Eventually the project
had to be stopped. Not only did the company lose the client, the group was also dismantled. Many talented
people lost their jobs. The client hired another company and paid even more money for services because
that company was up front and managed expectations of what could and could not be accomplished.

The Trouble with Assumptions

Assumptions abound for each of us every day. It’s a valid and important part of human thought processes.
The trouble with assumptions — arriving at conclusions based on what we think we know — arises when
we don’t check them against verifiable facts. In business and sales, this can present a significant
problem in the way we interact and communicate with clients and potentials.

Consider the missed opportunities when a prospect reaches a completely wrong conclusion about you, because of assumptions made by either party (or both). Have you ever hesitated to ask whether your prospect was the real decision-maker for a project, worried that you might offend him if he wasn’t?

We have covered many examples in which people hurt their credibility and undermined their own potential simply by not keeping their assumptions in check. Learning not to assume, and check in to find out the real reason an action was taken is an indispensable skill to have—one that will serve you well in your career whether you’re an ambitious junior sales associate or a seasoned vice-president of sales for a Fortune 500 company. Watch for an upcoming tip that will help ensure you never make another assumption again.