Sales and marketing

The Most Important Customer Question Sales People Probably Can’t Answer

We equip our sales teams with the ability to answer any question customers might have about our products and services.  Sales people, can go on forever about features, functions, feeds, and speeds for each of the products they sell.  They sometimes can present feature –  benefits, for example, “improved productivity, reduced cost,” and so forth.

But the capabilities of our products and how wonderful they are, are probably not the most important things in our customers minds.

We know this qualitatively and quantitatively by the disinterest customers have in our marketing and prospecting programs touting our products.  Open rates, click throughs are plummeting.  Customers are rapidly finding other sources of this information, presented in their terms on their schedules.  Product management and marketing continue to provide endless content proclaiming the wonders of each feature in every product (“The implementation of our name and address fields is far more innovative and intuitive……….”)

The most important question on the minds of customers is, “How can you help me solve my problems and achieve my goals?”

Customer Requests

Yet they seldom pose this question in as straightforward a manner.  Instead, they may  present it in a number of ways:

  1. The customer might not recognize they have a problem or there may be a better way of doing things, sales people engaging customers with specific insights on their business can sharpen awareness and urgency around the issue.  Rather than the customer posing the issue, the sales person might say, “We’ve looked at what you are doing and believe there is an opportunity to reduce manufacturing cycle times by 12%, driving X reductions in inventory, Y reductions in manufacturing costs….”
  2. The customer might pose it as an opportunity, “We want to grow our customer retention and life time value by z%…. How can you help me achieve this?”
  3. The customer might pose it as sets of frustrations, “We’re just too busy to talk to you, we’re behind on our projects, we have more work than we can handle……”
  4. The customer might be oblivious, “We’re doing just fine, we don’t need to change anything…..”  (Yet their performance is trailing that of their competitors, they are losing customers, they aren’t growing.)
  5. ……you get the point.

It may not be the fault of the sales people that they can’t address this question.  After all, we focus our training on our products and what we think is important, seldom what the customer thinks is important.

Practical Sales Guidance

To help sales people answer this question from their customers, we have to be very clear about the following:

  1. What problems are we the best in the world at solving?  This can’t be generic–improve productivity, reduce costs, grow revenue.  They have to be very specific issues in the terminology of the customer.
  2. Who has these problems?  If everyone in the world has these problems, then we’ve defined the issues incorrectly.  No company can address the productivity problems, or cost problems, or quality problems, or growth problems of every organization in the world.  There is a set of customers—markets/industries, enterprises, individuals; for which our products and solutions are optimized.  These represent our “sweet spot.”  We want sales people to focus their time within that sweet spot.  It’s where they will have the biggest impact and greatest success.
  3. How does the sales person find out if a customer within that sweet spot is experiencing that issue now?  Whether they recognize it or not, what is it the sales person should look for, how do they understand the magnitude of this issue for the customer?
  4. How does the sales person engage the customer in talking about this issue?  What do the conversations look like, how does the sales person drill down, understanding the impact, urgency and specific issues the customer is experiencing?  In most cases in complex B2B sales, we have to be engaging multiple customers in differing roles who care about this issue and want to do something about it.  We need to equip our sales people with the abilities to engage these people as individuals and as a group–helping guide them through their problem solving process.
  5. What do we do in helping the customer solve this problem or address this issue?  Not generically, but very specifically.  “We can help improve productivity by X%, we can reduce DSO by Y%, we can improve customer retention by Z%……  and here is the data and analysis upon which we base these claims……”
  6. Why us?  Usually the approach is our long laundry lists of features and functions, or our long lists of irrelevant references.  The why us is seldom about our products, but about the way we engage the customer in thinking about and addressing these problems.  While others are still pitching their products, the why us becomes, “we are the people that are helping you actually solve this problem!”  But we have to equip our sales people to demonstrate this in each customer interaction, from prospecting, through close.  Then we have to make sure our customers are realizing the value we have claimed in the process.
Our success and that of our customers skyrockets when we equip our sales people with the ability to engage the customer in exploring and answering the question most important to them. Are you helping your sales teams do this?

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