What is discernment and why is it so important in enterprise sales? According to the Merriam-Webster on-line dictionary discernment “is the quality of being able to grasp and comprehend what is obscure”.  My old fashioned paper back version of the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines discernment as the ability “to come to know or recognize mentally”. Over the years, I have observed in amazement the varying discernment skills in enterprise sales people and consistently seen evidence of how important the skill is to successful sales people.  Simply put, the best sales people are experts at seeing, hearing and understanding what others don’t when presented with the same evidence.

In any enterprise sales cycle, there is a huge amount of information that you need to process as a sales rep. There are ebbs and flows to the signals from the prospective customer. How can you effectively synthesize what is important, what isn’t and what it really means? The answer is through strong discernment skills.

Now that is easier said then done because most sales people don’t have good discernment skills and it is a skill that can be enhanced through mentoring only to a certain degree. In other words, you can’t transform a sales rep with marginal discernment skills in to an excellent discerner.

There is a visceral aspect to discernment that simply can’t be taught. The best sales people view their sales efforts as a strategic investment of their time and resources-they are “CEOs” of their territory.  As such, they carefully and constantly assess where they will receive the best return on their investment. Expressed differently, they are constantly thinking about how they can maximize their earnings.

The best way to do that is to develop an ideal customer profile that you qualify hard against. But it goes much deeper than the initial qualification step, as great sales people always objectively ask themselves at the end of each step in the sales process “a go or no go question”. Top sales reps use their discernment skills to determine through initial qualification, discovery, and negotiation process whether it is a winnable deal and a deal that you want to win. They will walk from a sales opportunity that is not a good fit or not worth the resource investment.

Here is a real world anecdote that illustrates the importance of discernment. A small software start-up that I was working with years ago, was involved in a highly competitive and lengthy enterprise sales cycle with a F100 company. One of the key inflection points in the sales cycle was a multiple day off site strategy session with the prospective customer, which we were invited to participate in as one of the vendor finalists.

The first day was filled with marathon technical sessions and a conference room that rotated with up to 25 people from the prospective customer’s end with different agendas. We were in the proverbial “hot seat” all day with rapid fire questions and various tests that we had to satisfy. At the end of the day, we went to a nice dinner with the core project team including the key influencers and decision makers.

We strategically placed our team around the table so that we paired up with our peers. I was siting next to the decision maker and the project manager along with our CEO. It was a wonderful meal accompanied by some delicious wine which both the decision maker and I were both quite fond of. The dinner conversation tone was more relaxed than the fire drill session tone that we were in all day and afforded us the opportunity to bond and ask some questions with their guard down.

At the end of this marathon day, our team regrouped in the hotel for a debriefing on how the day had transpired. Our CEO took the lead and effectively said that the deal was lost and gave the rationale behind her assertion. My sales rep, who was verbally liberated courtesy of the wine and exhaustion of the 15-16 hour day at this point, asked “What meeting were you in today?”.

Our entire team was exhausted and thankfully that question made us all laugh. We went on to share our interpretations of how the meeting went and the signals that we received during the day and dinner. We were able to convince the CEO that there was strong evidence that supported us being in a strong competitive position based on the feedback from the prospective customer and we decided to stay engaged in the evaluation and sales cycle.

We went on to win a $1M+ deal with this customer and it was a seminal moment in the company’s history. The irony was that if the decision was purely left to the CEO (with poor discernment skills), the deal would have been lost as we would have cut bait.

For those of you that follow the television show “House”, the picture I associated with this post is indeed that of Dr. House portrayed brilliantly by the actor Hugh Laurie. I’m a huge fan of the show and he has brilliant discernment skills constantly demonstrated by how the team of intelligent doctors try to diagnose what is wrong with the patient and he constantly sifts through the evidence and comes up with right diagnosis to save the patient’s life.

That metaphor applies to the importance of discernment in the enterprise selling world!