Change is a constant in today’s business environment. That’s why I value those rules/laws/insights that stand the test of time. In the recent Harvard Business Review blog The Best Leaders Are Insatiable Learners, author Bill Taylor refers to the speech John W. Gardner delivered in 1990 to McKinsey & Co. which has been described as one of the most influential business speeches of all time.

It was in that speech that Gardner shared what is needed for leaders to succeed—lifelong learning. Although his target audience was business leaders, I would contend that continual learning and growing are the ingredients to succeed in any field and this is especially true in sales.

What really struck home was Gardner’s contention that a big part of being interesting is being interested in what others have to say. Are you thinking of questions to ask your customers that will lead you to uncover things that you didn’t know? Ideas that could help you sell better? Insights that could help you build that business relationship?

Thinking back to my days as a pharmaceutical sales rep, I remember carrying a book with me In Search of Excellence by Tom Peters and Robert Waterman. I would begin my sales conversation by saying…

“I’ve been reading this book about how to be excellent.” [I often would hold up the book as I was saying this.] And one thing I’ve learned is that to be excellent in selling, we need to understand our customers better. So rather than sell anything today, I’d like to spend some time asking you questions, if that’s okay with you.”

I was prepared to ask questions to learn about their thought processes, their challenges and what they were looking for in terms of treatment options. Not only did I learn what I needed to know to position my product more effectively, but some physicians were practically begging me to tell them about my product and to sell to them.

This was quite an eye-opening experience for me. I found that being different and interesting works. But I think the biggest criterion is to be interested—to be inquisitive to discover new ideas and to gain understanding of what others think. As Gardner emphasized in 1990—before the explosion of the internet and social media that exists today—is that you will never know all there is to know. There is always more to learn. And the best way to learn about your customers as individuals and what they need and want is by asking them. Ask well-designed and thought-provoking questions. Then truly listen to the answers. That’s the key to successful selling—and building meaningful business relationships.