As B2B sales professionals selling value, understanding the customer is one of the single most important factors to success, both in terms of the customer partnership and to us, personally. Yet when a recent Forrester survey asked executive buyers if sales people were prepared for their meeting by being knowledgeable about the executive's specific business, 75 percent responded "no."
If understanding the customer is critical, but three in four of us are still missing the mark with key decision makers, we've got a long way to go as a profession.
Why Is Understanding the Customer Important?
Prior to joining IMPAX, I was actually in a client role at two different organizations. From my very first exposure to B2B sales, the importance of understanding one's customer - truly understanding their business, not just their solution needs - was introduced and reinforced to the point it became thematic. The message I heard then, and consequently live by now, is the first premise of the IMPAX Process. It reads like this:
"Senior-level decision makers are more likely to buy because of what you know about them and their business than what they know about you and your product specifications."
This is true now more than ever.
In a time when procurement is on the rise and sales is increasingly being devalued and commoditized, value leaders know how important it is to get to the people who can truly buy value. These decision makers are located higher in the customer organization and have no time to waste listening to a sales rep present the features, cost and benefits of their products or solutions.
If we're going to sell value effectively to those who can actually buy it, we had better be prepared to reflect an understanding of what truly matters to them - their business objectives, strategies and issues, and how partnership would help support them to attain their objectives.
4 Areas of Focus
We know that to be successful, we've got to understand the customer. But, what does that really mean?
Let's break it down. As sales professionals, there are four key areas we should research to gain well-rounded insight into a company: solution or application knowledge, business or strategic knowledge, the competitive situation, and our customer relationships.
Solution / Application Research
This is where the majority of us excel and feel most comfortable. Solution / application research gets to understanding the "needs" of the customer in relation to the products and services we offer. When conducting this type of research, our goal is to understand the customer's current state, the solution they currently have in place, and their desired future state. Also key, we want to learn how the customer wants (or needs) to further develop from the current state solution. Securing this information allows us to properly qualify the opportunity and discern the strength of our solution to the customer's needs.
Business / Strategic Research
For B2B sales professionals needing to sell value beyond product and price, wider research on the business in its entirety is essential. When gathering business / strategic knowledge, we want to get a sense for the customer's past, their current state, and where they're looking to go in the future. Particularly as it pertains to their desired future state, we want to learn about their critical business objectives, key strategies for attaining them, and issues they may be addressing along the way. Doing this research allows us to begin tying ourselves to the customer's critical business outcomes, helping to position us as a trusted advisor.
To create an optimal competitive sales strategy, we need to understand the other players in the picture. Which of our competitors are also in the running? Of those competitors, what are their different strengths and weaknesses? Who are they aligned with? How are they known to compete? Asking these questions and learning the answers will help us conceptualize how the competition stacks up against us and one another, and more importantly, how we can set ourselves apart from the rest.
This one pertains specifically to B2B account management. Are our products or services meeting their needs as expected? Are they receiving the support they need from customer service? How are their relationships with the account team? Even more importantly, we need to understand the value being created for and with the customer. Keeping a beat on these things helps us to retain and grow customer relationships.
Now that we've highlighted the four most important areas we should be learning about, let's touch on how we can research these four key components. To me, there are two key categories: data (publicly available information) and people (contacts or coaches you may have).
Data is undervalued these days. It's overlooked. Easy access to the internet made available by smartphones and tablets has made data so readily available at a moment's notice, that fewer and fewer of us seem to take it seriously.
New sources, sites and social media platforms are seemingly popping up by the day, which can help us better understand key individuals and the company's current state and business direction. With a few taps of a screen, we can quickly: scan an analyst review for real-time business and industry information; check out Twitter to gauge customer sentiment regarding the company and its products or services; and read the latest news and updates about a company (as well as employee and customer reaction or engagement with them).
Our ability to access this amount of information is more instrumental than ever. Leveraging key sources of data helps us research in-person more effectively, differentiate ourselves from others in our space, and deliver presentations that are more compelling to decision makers. People rarely review their own organization's materials anymore (annual reports, newsletters, etc.). If we do, we gain a huge advantage and distinguish ourselves from the competition.
On its own, gathering data won't get us where we need to be. In addition to data, we need to gain insights about the state of the business and future direction. This perspective can be learned from doing research with actual people who have some sort of dealing with or familiarity with the target company. The vehicle for gathering this information is a research meeting (or sales interview).
We're not talking about simply conducting a "needs analysis". In addition to understanding where and how our products fit, we want wider perspective about the business as a whole. This means tapping into our networks to find people inside AND outside the decision process to call on. Professional contacts in other parts of the business, friends, former employees, fellow sales professionals - anyone who knows the company well can be a great source of information. As a salesperson, one of your most valuable assets is your professional network; use it!
The more effectively we conduct research meetings with various contacts and coaches at a target account, the better our ability to position our value and the fit. Truly understanding our customer means grasping their business and needs, identifying and accessing the right people in their organization.
How Can We Best Leverage Our Understanding?
Let's dig a little deeper on how this research can be leveraged:
- Shortening the sales cycle. It would be easy to worry that spending more time on the research phase of the sales process would actually lengthen the cycle overall. In all actuality, by taking a little more time and effort up front to build our understanding of the customer and opportunity, it allows us to close much more efficiently and effectively.
- Optimizing your efforts towards opportunities that can be won. Conducting more effective research early-on allows you to qualify whether or not an opportunity is viable. If, through your research, you learn the probability of success is low, it allows you to spend precious time, energy and resources on other pursuits.
- Building credibility with customers and prospects. When sales professionals spend the time and effort on truly researching a company's business, the quality and depth of their knowledge makes a powerful impact, particularly with higher-level decision makers and key stakeholders in the customer's organization.
- Strengthening customer positioning. Salespeople who put the effort into learning not only product or solution needs, but the entire business from the customer's perspective, position themselves as a true resource to customers. Beyond someone who can make a simple solution recommendation, this research allows us to become a strategic resource and trusted advisor to customers.
- Delivering effective sales presentations. We all feel we're "customer focused," but do our presentations to customers really reflect this? When the content focuses primarily on the details of our products and services, it's nearly impossible to be compelling. Instead, delivering a powerful presentation means our message reflects on what really matters to key decision makers. We must convey an understanding of the customer's current state, future objectives, key strategies and critical issues, then define how, working together, we can support them.
- Differentiating yourself from the competition. In a day and age where differences among competing products or solutions (and prices) may be minimal at best, many value-leaders are looking to distinguish themselves from their competitors. As a sales professional who takes the time to understand your customer's vision and how your partnership can support it, you set yourself apart from the competition simply by the way in which you sell.
Challenge: Strengthen Your Customer Understanding
Let's wrap up this topic by proposing some challenge action items to help you strengthen your customer understanding immediately.
For a key customer or prospect opportunity on your list:
- Dedicate 10-15 minutes solely to gathering data. Consult any variety of publicly-available resources that can help deepen your understanding - for additional challenge, consider leveraging a source you may not have used before, like Twitter or LinkedIn.
- Schedule at least two research meetings with contacts not directly linked to the decision process. Use these meetings as an opportunity to gain insight about aspects of the company's business direction as a whole.
This article is the third in a series of six on "6 Strategies to Maximize Sales Results." The first focused on Growth Mindset, the second addressed Intellectual Curiosity and the third took on "Showing" Up for Sales Success. Watch for the next one soon. The series is a collaboration among Amy Franko (Impact Instruction Group), Brittany Shonka (IMPAX) and Jen E Miller (Marsh & McLennan Agency)--to create a resource to help other sales professionals maximize results. The goal is to help you go farther, achieve sales success, and transform into top performers.