For decades, salespeople were measured by their product knowledge. When salespeople's main challenge was to differentiate the features of their products from those of their competitors, this approach produced results. Customers needed product experts. Later, when solutions became the name of the game, it became critical for salespeople to understand the issues faced by customers in implementing the products they purchased. For most products, there was a somewhat finite set of implementation issues, and the best salespeople mastered that territory. They became experts in assembling the right set of finance, system integration, delivery, service, support, and quality assurance components to support each customer's solution.
As the world of sales shifts, executives view each major purchase as a potentially strategic decision. To provide value in this context, salespeople who routinely call on executives are learning to become experts in understanding each of their customers' businesses. They are learning what drives each business, what challenges the business faces, and what global and industry contexts the business operates within. To make it easier to gain this expertise, many leading sales organizations are reorganizing their sales forces around vertical markets, or industry groups. But what sales leaders are finding is that having sales reps call on accounts within a single industry is no guarantee that they will learn their customers' businesses at a deep enough level to make an impact. There's more to this than simply reorganizing sales territories.
"To provide value to me," said one of the 115 corporate executives we interviewed about their involvement in making strategic purchases, "a salesperson has to know the background of my company, what's important to us, our culture, and what we're looking for to drive success in our business."
To truly understand a company, you have to understand the larger landscape in which it operates. Today, all companies are merchants in a global village. Globalization changes the context for corporate decisions. Companies also struggle with changing dynamics in their marketplace. While every industry is different, there are a series of common marketplace challenges that many companies struggle with today. Finally, each company has its own internal challenges that it must overcome if it is to execute its strategy successfully. Again, while every company is unique, a number of themes are common across organizations, industries, and cultures. The bottom line is that to help customers accelerate their success, salespeople have to understand the challenges the companies face.
As a sales professional, it's easy to think about selling your customer something. But the next generation's leading salespeople instead look at sales from the customer's point of view. It's not about selling. It's about helping your customer buy. And to do that, you have to understand why they buy and how they buy.
Most salespeople have been trained to think about their work in terms of a sales cycle: Prospects are identified and qualified. Contact is established. Presentations and proposals are made. Objections are handled and negotiation occurs. Deals are closed.
Think instead about the point of view of the customer, who experiences a buying cycle, not a selling cycle. To a customer, the notion of a sales cycle is totally irrelevant. Customers recognize needs, evaluate options, resolve concerns, make decisions, implement the purchase, and evaluate impacts. By shifting from the salesperson's perspective, or selling cycle, to the customer's perspective, or buying cycle, a salesperson can align her actions with the needs of her customer.
How do you ensure that your customers' purchases have a strategic impact? By understanding the five ways your customers create value through their purchases:
- Your customer's purchase not only helps your customer, but helps it directly add value to its own customers—that is, to your customer's customers
- Your customer's purchase strengthens its value proposition to its customers
- Your customer's purchase improves its business processes, allowing it to deliver its value proposition more productively and efficiently
- Your customer's purchase creates a solution to a business problem one of its business processes is experiencing
- Your customer's purchase is a product that fills an operational need
Time and again, we hear from sales leaders that the difference between the most successful salespeople and simply average salespeople is the difference between the research they do, the understanding they have, and the questions they ask their customers.
In the minds of your customers sits the secret to the next generation of selling. Customers are clear about what they want from sales professionals. They want salespeople who:
- Understand the customer's business and the world of business
- Do their homework and align the necessary resources to add value beyond the products and services they offer
- Are able to work equally well with executives and technical buyers
- Understand and align with how customers buy and are not obsessed by how their own companies sell
- Meet their commitments and advocate their position internally and externally
- Are always looking for ways to add value to the customer and the customer's customer, and are not just selling products or services
- Differentiate themselves from all the noise and myriad of alternatives available
Executives want the salesperson to invest in the long term and find ways to add value at every opportunity along the road. They don't want or expect miracles. They expect deep understanding, innovative ideas, and multiple ways to add value along the way. They don't want a best friend; they don't simply need faster, better, and cheaper products or services; they need and want value.
By providing value in a variety of ways for each and every one of their customers, companies transform themselves from simply selling solutions to accelerating the achievement of their customers' business results.
© 2006 The Real Learning Company
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Richard Hodge is founder and president and Lou Schachter is senior vice president of the Scottsdale-based sales training firm The Real Learning Company. Together, they are the authors of The Mind of the Customer (McGraw-Hill, 2006), which has already made Amazon's list of top-selling sales books. Within the book is an extended discussion of the topics in this article. The book also contains a rich set of ideas and tools that salespeople and sales leaders can apply immediately. The book and a large set of these tools can be accessed at www.mindofthecustomer.com.