Channel markets, Sales and marketing

Putting Yourself In Your Customers’ Shoes

Author: David Brock, president, Partners in Excellence
Author: David Brock

As sales people, we need to put ourselves in our customers’ shoes.

Organizationally, we need to understand their business, markets, industry, key strategies/drivers, key challenges, how things get done within the company, and more.

Individually, we need to understand what makes them tick, what they worry about, what their personal goals/ambitions are, how they are measured, how they spend their days, and more.

The better we are at connecting with them–where they are, the more effective we will be in identifying how our products and solutions might help them achieve their goals.

We want to be able to mirror their experience, sharing ideas and engaging them in relevant conversations about them and their organizations. The more we understand and can be empathetic, the more effective we will be in engaging them in meaningful ways.

But how do we do this?  How do we do this fast?

Yes, experience helps. When I ran an organization that sold engineering and manufacturing systems, I used to hire people who had actually been design  or manufacturing engineers but could sell. Their experience, having “been there/done that.” enabled them to engage their counterparts–our customers with greater credibility.

But we can’t afford to take the time to gain the insights of having been in those roles. As a young person, roughly 30 years ago, I was expected to call on “C” level executives, engaging them in conversations about how to improve their businesses–yet I had never had the experiences they had, or been in the roles they had been in (I don’t think being president of my college class counted as a “C” level job).  How do we fast track our learning process?  How do we compress years of experiences into much shorter periods of time?

Some thoughts—but the most critical requirements are incessant curiosity and a drive for constant learning:

  1. Learn the industry!  Subscribe to blogs, newsletters, magazines that your customers subscribe to.  Ask them what they read, who they pay attention to, who they think are the “thought leaders” in their industries.  If you can, attend some of their trade shows.  Learn the structure of the industry, key participants, key issues, key threats.  Learn their “language,” and how they measure themselves.  For example, in semiconductors/electronic components, you won’t understand much until you understand Book/Bill.  In retail, consumer products you need to understand inventory turns and profit per cubic foot (for stores).  In telecom you have to understand what ARPU is, and in SaaS companies the same concept is ACV or ARR–but if you use ACV in telecom, you won’t connect.  If you deal with aeronautical engineers, you will talk about aerodynamics, but the same concept in automotive body design is expressed by flow lines.   But if you talk about flow lines to an aeronautical engineer, they will think you don’t understand them, you don’t care about what they care about.   If you can’t talk your customer’s language and know how they measure success, you won’t connect with your customers.
  2. Learn the companies you are working with, particularly if you are doing anything that’s account based.  What are their goals, strategies, priorities?  How are they perceived in the markets, how do their customers perceive them, how do their competitors perceive them?  How are they organized and structured?  How do they work and get things done?  What’s their culture?  What are their KPIs?  What’s their performance?  Are they leaders, laggards?
  3. Talk to your customers’ customers.  Find out why they buy your customers’ products, what they look for, what separates one supplier from another, how they create value with the  customers.  Understanding what drives your customers’ customers enables you to engage and create much better value with your customers.
  4. It’s hard to understand things from your customer’s point of view if you’ve never been in the role.  How can you understand the way “C” level people think/act if you’ve never been one?  It’s actually much easier than you might think.  Find every opportunity you can to meet these people with no agenda other then getting to know them, learn how they think, learn how they spend their days, learn what drives them in their roles.  A great way to do this is look within your own company.  Never met a CPO?  Go meet the CPO in your own company.  Spend time asking him about the role, how she prioritizes her time, how she is measured, how she establishes goals.  Ask her questions, like, “What do you expect of a sales person who’s trying to reach you and arrange a meeting?   Who do you respond to?  What do you see great sales people doing when they meet with you?”  Do the same thing for every  key persona you are expected to call on.  It’s in the self interest of the people holding those roles in your organization to spend time helping you understand those people better.
  5. Go to some of your current customers, those you already have relationships with.  Ask them, “Why did you buy from me?  What was it that I/we did in the sales process that resonated with you?”  They may be tempted to say you had the right solution at the right price, but probe them.  Talk about their buying process and their perception of how you engaged them.  What did they like, what didn’t they like?  What have they seen others do that resonated with them?  Go beyond the sales process talk about them and their role.  What are their goals and ambitions?  How do they spend their days?  How is their performance measured?  While it’s unfashionable, what keeps them awake at night?  Understand them in their “role” in the company, as well as personally–as human beings.
  6. Where you can, “hang out where your customers hang out.”  When I sold to banks/brokerages in NYC, they hung out at place like Harry’s at Hanover Square.  I’d go there, meet them, listen, learn, build relationships.  The lessons I learned there, enabled me to engage my customers much more effectively.  Today, many of your customers are “hanging out” in discussion groups or other online venues.  Listen to the discussions, learn, ask questions.
  7. If you are in sales enablement, help your sales people do these things at scale.  Provide them playbooks, content, training, and tools to help them understand the industries, companies, and people.  Try to get the stories and communicate them in a meaningful way.  Something as simple as a “lunch and learn” with your own CFO helps your sales people better understand what drives CFOs.  Give sales people the chance to ask the 10,000 questions they always wanted to ask CFOs but were afraid to ask.  Make a video of the session and keep it available for people to review.  Add interviews with key customers.  Focus less on why they bought your products, but on who they are, what drives them, what they are trying to achieve.

This process never stops. Top performers have an insatiable curiosity about their customers–the markets/industries, the enterprises, the individuals.

One of the interesting by products of doing this is the perception of your customers.  Learning about them, what drives them, how they work, how they get things done shows that you care.  That’s often the most important thing to customers, just knowing that you care about them and their success.

David Brock is president of Partners in EXCELLENCE, a management consulting firm focused on sales productivity, channel development, strategic alliances and more. Read more blogs from Brock here.