Class Takeaways — The Fundamentals of Effective Selling

Five lessons in five minutes: Professor Jim Lattin and Lecturer Barry Rhein on curiosity-based selling

July 26, 2023

| by Kelsey Doyle

Learning to be authentically curious is critical for effective selling.

In their class, The Fundamentals of Effective Selling, Professor Jim Lattin and lecturer Barry Rhein show what might stand in the way of getting a deal done. This quick video outlines five key takeaways from their Stanford GSB course.

Full Transcript

Jim Lattin: Hi, I’m Jim Lattin, Professor of Marketing at the Stanford Graduate School of Business.

Barry Rhein: And I’m Barry Rhein, lecturer at the GSB. We teach a course called The Fundamentals of Effective Selling. Here are five key takeaways from our course.

Jim Lattin: Effective sales is about discovery. We need to learn what is important to a customer. We need to learn about the negative consequences of the customer’s current situation and understand the customer’s thinking about what might constitute an ideal solution. With this information, we can drive a wedge, that is, create a stark contrast between the customer’s current situation and their ideal and then map our product onto the customer’s ideal solution.

It turns out that many people are reluctant to ask questions, or they just haven’t been trained to ask effective questions. Instead of being curious, they make assumptions without exploring the points of view expressed by the customer. Learning to be authentically curious is critical for effective selling.

Barry Rhein: Now, you don’t get good at sales by reading a book. I have over 35 years of experience as a sales trainer and consultant, and I am firmly convinced that effective selling comes from skills that can be learned but that must be practiced. While MBA students are accustomed to learning by reading books and analyzing case studies, my approach leans much more heavily on small group exercises and lots of role plays.

For example, we have students create a value-based prospecting script that they will use when cold-calling prospects. The students learn by presenting to each other and discussing what is effective, but in the end, they come away with ideas of how they would do things differently.

Our goal is to help the students develop the confidence they need to apply all selling skills. A lot of sales comes down to getting the answer to these two questions, is there a real deal here, and can we get a deal done?

Jim Lattin: The process used in sales to get the answers to these two questions is called qualification. We can use questions such as, where does this project fall on your list of key business priorities in order to get some insight into whether the customer is serious about a deal, but when it comes to understanding how to get a deal done, it is absolutely essential to understand the customer’s decision-making process.

Effective sales people know that each customer has a unique set of steps they go through in deciding on a course of action. It’s like the hurdles in track and field in which a runner has to clear a number of obstacles in order to reach the finish line. It’s the job of sales to use curiosity to identify each hurdle and discover what it will take to clear each obstacle successfully and move on to the next stage.

Barry Rhein: Now, students might get nervous about the prospect of closing a deal because they may fear rejection or because they’re just unsure how to close a sale. We know closing is just being curious about how to get a deal done. Now to help them get more comfortable, we put them through a series of role-play exercises in which one student, the sales rep, tries to close the deal and another student, the customer, raises objections. Instead of thinking of an objection as an obstacle that needs to be overcome or beaten down, we encourage the students to think of an objection really as a gift. It’s an opportunity to understand the customer’s thinking and discover what might stand in the way of getting a deal done.

Jim Lattin: Most of our students say that they don’t intend to go into a traditional sales role, and yet they take our class because they’re convinced that the process and the skillset will be useful in all types of selling contexts.

Barry Rhein: For example, aspiring entrepreneurs are essentially selling their ideas to investors. We have heard many success stories from students who have used a curiosity-based approach to fundraising, and students looking for an employment opportunity are essentially selling themselves. They can use a curiosity-based process to learn about a company, discover an executive’s priorities, and really create the ideal job where none existed. Learning and practicing curiosity-based selling can help anyone further their vision and accomplish their goals.


Jim Lattin: Barry and I are so complementary.

Barry Rhein: You like to fish, well, you don’t, but you’re going to like a lot more fishing.

Jim Lattin: I think Barry could get me out fishing. I’d look forward to that.

Barry Rhein: What about motorcycle riding or ATVing?

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