3 blocks to curiosity, and how to avoid them

Today I attended a training for a remarkable audience. A company trained its suppliers on contextual interviews. This is what it learned me about curiosity.


Leaders from the suppliers were invited for a course of two days, during which they learned how to ask questions, how to listen to their customer and show curiosity. The suppliers had the opportunity to conduct an interview with vice presidents, the CTO and even the CEO. The goal of these contextual interviews was to uncover unmet needs.

As I have conducted hundreds of contextual interviews in different regions and in different industries, I was asked to observe and give constructive feedback afterwards. It was a great experience to watch the interviews, and I want to share some of my observations and conclusions.


Curiosity block 1: the presence of the comfort zone

The training was organized by the purchasing department. The people who were invited were persons working in leadership roles in finance, sales and marketing and R&D. Although the training focused on uncovering unmet needs by asking open questions and showing genuine curiosity, the interviewers had a very tough time to escape their comfort zone. Their comfort zone is the customer – supplier relationship.

A comfort zone is a gravity point, it pulls you back. If the comfort zone would not be there, we would be more comfortable with asking questions.

Curiosity block 2: the short-term thinking that the most efficient way to use customer time is to talk about yourself

The customer – supplier relationship involves negotiations on price, quality, shipment terms and volumes. Although the interviewers had a tremendous opportunity to ask whatever question possible to the customer, all interviewers lost time by stating what they do, why they are unique and what they excel in. They threw in their sales pitch and started talking about themselves.

We have the idea that every moment with the customer should be used well. Very often we think the most efficient way is to start selling. We think customer time means sales pitch time. Start thinking on the long term. The better you know your customer, the better you are able to adapt your offering to his needs. So put time in understanding the customer and ask questions, instead of talking about yourself.

Curiosity block 3: the fear of putting existing relations at stake by putting the interviewee in a vulnerable position

Another difficulty for the supplier as interviewer, is that asking open questions puts the interviewee in a vulnerable and naked position. The interviewer feels this vulnerability, and fears that this will put the customer – supplier relationship at stake. As defence, the interviewee switched roles very often. He started to ask questions to the interviewer. He did this because he did not feel comfortable with being interviewed.

If you are an interviewer, you have to know that every question from the interviewee is a possibility to switch the roles back. Just answer and end with a question. However, during this training, the interviewer fell back in his role as supplier. He fell back into his role as sales man and started his sales pitch again. And once in the comfort zone, it’s very difficult to get out of it again.

I understand the fear, certainly for a sales manager who needs to manage customer relations. But after each interview, the interviewee stated that the interview felt refreshing. It was a possibility to shed a different light on the needs of the customer.

Practice, practice, practice

So very interesting psychological dynamics going on in this rather weird setting, and it was a pleasure to observe this. What I learned is that it takes practice to make the uncomfortable zone your comfort zone. It requires practice to get out of that comfort zone, to start asking and dare asking. It requires practice to stop talking about yourself. It requires practice to listen actively, and take each input from your interviewee as a new item to hook on a question. Curiosity requires practice.

Credit: Header picture by caribb (Flickr)