Learning about your unknown unknowns

Recently, I was talking with Kim Dority, a friend and colleague and one of the smartest people I know, and she was telling me about how she had recently pivoted the focus of her business. First, she developed a compelling write-up of the services she could provide to graduate schools to better attract, support and retain qualified students. She then sent this out in an introductory letter to a few of her top prospects to see how it was received. She followed up with conversations, either in person at a conference they were attending or on the phone, to discuss what she could do for each of those prospects. It turned out that no one wanted to buy any of the services she had so carefully crafted. Instead, they all asked for something specific to their needs – to run their internship program, or to develop a series of workshops for alumni. She could not have predicted the outcome of any of these conversations, but each one resulted in some type of consulting engagement.

I asked her for her thoughts on how she was able to learn so much from her time with her prospects. She told me:

My insights came from having face-to-face open-ended conversations with highly-qualified prospective clients. My approach was to have no expectations for the conversation; we were just going to get to know each other. At the end of each of these conversations, my prospect would bring up a big pain point that I knew I could address. It was never something I could have anticipated beforehand but something that came up organically during our conversation. I finally realized that I have done so many things in my career that, if we talk long enough, we’ll find something in my background that is an exact fit for what they need. I can’t guess what that will be until I have the conversation. I can solve so many pain points but until we schmooze for a while, I don’t know what their pain points are.

I think the key takeaway for me, the behavior I’d try to repeat given similar opportunities, is to be willing to simply hang out with people and let them talk, enjoying their company and their stories, and sharing my own when they resonated with what the other person was talking about. It might happen that we stumble on a need that I had the background to meet, but also possibly not.  But the true goal in that first conversation wasn’t to sell a service or land a client, but rather to create the basis of a long-term relationship that could evolve into a client relationship based on our mutual understanding of and respect for each other’s professional stories and circumstances.

Following this, she and I recorded a half-hour conversation going into more detail about how she was able to learn to see the world from her clients’ point of view and to identify and challenge her unknown unknowns. Listen to our conversation here. (Apologies that the audio on my end of the conversation is a little muddy. Fortunately, Kim came through clearly.) And read the transcript of our conversation here.

One of my favorite lines? “What am I missing? Would this be valuable, and if not, why? You’re looking for answers that tell you that you have an incorrect assumption, that you haven’t vetted your assumptions and have simply taken them for granted (which generally we all do).”


See more of my tips for managing your clients.


One comment on “Learning about your unknown unknowns

  1. What an interesting chat between two smart ladies. Love that approach of asking lots of questions and listening for surprises. Often when starting projects, it’s also interesting to think about “what you know you don’t know,” one of the 4 boxes of intelligence gathering. It helps to remove some of the bias we all have.

Leave a Reply