“Beware the hippos!” isn’t a regular phrase spoken within the sales engineering community. But maybe it should become a common phrase. I first heard this phrase in the TedTalk “Want to Help Someone? Shut up and Listen” by Ernesto Sirolli. Ernesto recounts his early experiences with aid teams coming when they set up in a new area.

After arriving at a new posting in Africa the team noticed how fertile the fields near the river were. They observed how big everything in the area grew – and so an idea was formed. With the goal to build relationships, teach skills and allow the local village to generate income they came up with the idea to grow watermelons near the river.

The plan seemed fool-proof to the aid team and Ernesto, they were excited but noticed that there was little enthusiasm and no desire to help from the villagers. Regardless the Ernesto pressed on. The seeds got planted, the earth and sky cooperated and before you knew it larger than life, ripe watermelons grew – the team was now convinced that they would gain the attention of the local villagers. The day arrived to harvest the watermelons. Ernesto and the aid team walked to the river only to discover that the watermelons had been eaten and trampled by hippos.

Yes hippos showed up! Real life hippos – not the cuddly stuff-toy kind – but the massively sized, trampling, hungry watermelon eating kind!

The local villagers were there as well and they were not surprised by the trampling hippos. The villagers knew the fields along the river were fertile but they were also the migratory area for hippos. So nothing was every grown there as the hippos usually showed up just in time to eat whatever was planted.

The aid team was taken back by this information. And then the question arose with them about why none of the villagers had told them this. The answer was simple one of the villagers told them – ” you never asked”.

You Never Asked…

How often do we engage with people and don’t take the time to ask questions about them, their roles, their organization, issues or team? As a sales engineer a key skill is the ability to ask questions. Beyond the value of the answers to questions it also demonstrates respect for your customer. How do you believe the aid team felt once they recognized their failure to engage. They were so busy doing the right thing that they forgot to ask a critical question from the local villagers.

I believe we can get into the same trap as the aid team. Being so busy trying to solve the problems – we have seen this all before – that we don’t pause, show respect and begin to engage our customer by asking respectful questions.

Asking Questions = Building Relationships

As a sales engineering professional it’s imperative that we acknowledge we may not always know everything about our customers. With this as a starting point, it should allow us to safely pause and begin to consider what questions we can ask to fill in those knowledge gaps. This approach is not always what sales team do.

I worked with some sales leaders who emphatically believed that we had to know it all before we could visit a customer – needless to say they were no successful! In fact that approach often created more work for the team and rarely built a deep value-added relationship with a customer. The reason this occurred is that the with the goal to know it all means that few if any questions should need to be asked. Instead of questions being seen as something positive, they were seen as not knowing the customers business.

There are many best practices required to be a world-class sales engineer – one of them is respect for the customer by asking questions of them. in doing so you learn about those local issues (ie: the migration of hippos) which only they would know about and you would have no idea of.

I am not advocating that you go into customer meetings without any understanding of the customer. Being prepared is a core skill of a sales engineer. But with all your preparation you should remain curious enough, and comfortable enough, to ask questions.Allow your curiosity to ask questions and respect the customer by allowing the customer to share that local context.

Avoiding Hippos!

Hippos can show up anywhere we fail to ask questions of your customers. We can become blind to their local customs and practices.

When you listen you learn – learning allows you to lead more effectively.

Whether engaging with a new or existing customer – stay curious of them and what is going on. Some ice-breaker questions to ask customers include:

  • what significant events have occurred recently (or since our last visited)?
  • has your role changed?
  • what key projects are you involved with right now?
  • what are your departmental key project?
  • what changes have occurred in your organization that impacts you or your team?

There are many more questions of course for your situation and specific customer. Taking the time to be curious and ask them avoid those trampling hippos from showing up and trampling all over your great idea.

Don’t let a question get in the way of understanding your customer. Asking questions shows respect to understand their local issues. When you listen you learn – learning allows you to lead more effectively.


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