If you want to know what your customers are thinking, Brian Lambert is a great person to ask. Brian is the Senior Analyst for Sales Enablement at Forrester and works with product, marketing, and sales groups to align content, behaviors, and tools to the value that customers define. Over the past year he and his team have heard from 300+ senior level buyers in Fortune 500 companies who make executive decisions about buying technology and also hundreds of technology vendor salespeople who sell to those executives.
What is it that Brian is hearing from customers? Most customers find there are very few salespeople who can engage them in a way that creates a valuable meeting. For example, in a study of 299 executives only 15% of buyers believed the conversations they have with salespeople are valuable. Why the major disconnect? Brian attributes this to customers and salespeople having different definitions of what a valuable meeting actually entails.
When buyers were asked what they perceive the agenda of the salespeople who call on them to be they overwhelmingly described an agenda in which salespeople look for the need that triggers them talking about their solutions. But what customers truly want is a salesperson who is interested in understanding their business and helping them become more successful by driving their business outcome – meaning that needs become defined over the course of working with the salesperson
It is this disconnect between how salespeople define what customers value and what value means to customers today that has been a big part of the problem in selling. With self-educated customers the gap of understanding between buyers and sellers are only getting more severe. We have known for a while that senior decision makers don’t want a product pitch in which salespeople probe, listen for a “buzz word” and jump to their solution. In response to that Brian emphasized that customers want salespeople to help them identify their desired outcome and work backwards from that to create a shared vision of success that will allow customers attain the outcome they really need.
It is so important to understand a product need probing vs. a business need probing. Here’s an example where this difference between a product need dialogue and a business issue dialogue is surfaced:
Product Need Dialogue
The salesperson who identifies that a senior marketing executive’s need is to “make the shopping cart bigger in both the physical and online stores” and then who formulates a response by describing why his or her product can help (let’s say they focus on pitching how their reporting capability is better than competitors’), will very quickly be dispatched to talk with lower level people.
Business Need Dialogue
Compare the above example with the salesperson who meets with the same executive, identifies the same need but engages him or her (and in this sale environment this is where the decision and budget is controlled) to discuss the complexities of what it takes to fill the cart in the physical and online stores such as store displays, marketing, co-location (organizing all painting supplies together with suggestions), data, and analytics where many moving parts needs to work together across the marketing executives organization to create the desired outcome. It is highly likely this salesperson will have the opportunity to work backwards to arrive at a solution by discussing what it takes to fill the cart, consider ideas, and likely, only later, maybe two levels down, cover the topic of reporting capabilities. The salesperson will have an answer to that but in the context of the business outcome the executive values and is willing to pay for.
For salespeople to have these kinds of conversations, a shift must take place in a salesperson’s knowledge, skill, and perspective so they can succeed in the new environment. Salespeople must be able to understand the different lenses executives use to look at problems and outcomes and be ready to engage about business issues.
It is very interesting to note that Brian has found that he can determine how successful a salesperson is by how the salesperson describes his or her role. Lower performing salespeople quickly jump to describing their roles by talking about their products. In contrast, high performing salespeople talk about making customers successful, not about their organizations’ products and capabilities and they can do this for a sustained period of time, not just a few minutes.
The challenges buyers have are complex and Brian feels salespeople must “understand the reality of the customer” and be ready to develop a “high level of intimacy with customers” if they are to deal with the complexities. This will take organizational support and salespeople who have to shoulder the change alone will be at a significant disadvantage. Best in class organizations will provide greater support in the form of sales management, marketing, and other resources.
Brian described how in the new world of sales, marketing must play a major role in preparing salespeople to add value in sales conversations. For most sales organizations this will require that marketing makes the shift from a marketing approach to a customer approach which means treating the sales conversation as a marketing medium along with brand and other traditional marketing strategies. The focus must be on who is the customer and what the does the customer need to be successful.
Because the need for marketing to transition to a customer approach from a marketing approach is essential, I explored with Brian how he saw that in terms some of the current selling strategies that advocate that marketing provide scripts that negate or marginalize the need for a salesperson to engage a customer with a need dialogue.
When I posed this to Brian, he reinforced that the need dialogue was critical to developing the kind of “customer intimacy” he sees as essential and that salespeople must be more prepared to engage in a need dialogue and leverage but not rely on over generalizations about customer needs or priorities that are made available to them by marketing.
Another important change Brian focused on is the change that must occur in how salespeople communicate internally. He sees a need for them to clearly articulate their customers’ needs within their own organizations without being made to feel like whiners. When salespeople consistently close the feedback loop, they will provide their sales organizations with invaluable customer intelligence about customers and the changes in the marketplace.
The three major changes that sales organizations are facing – change in business, change in buyers, and change in their own sales organizations — have all converged at once to create the new and formidable challenges. But Brian sees some good news in this: Because expertise has been reset and no organization has figured it all out (yet) and all are on the same level in the need to learn and adapt, a real window of opportunity for differentiation has opened up for the sales organizations and salespeople who step up their game.
With greater preparation, knowledge, and skill salespeople can provide insight and ask focused questions around priority issues to get at the multiple perspectives and see the root of problems. Far from going in and telling customers what to do, salespeople must be able to create a vision of success with the customer based on the preparation, probing, and value add.
To conclude Brian suggests that each salesperson, sales manager, and marketer ask him/herself the question What role do I play with my customer? The answer will be different for each company and sales role but the key is to answer the question from the desk of the customer.
Brian’s dedication to sales excellence shone through without any pretense. I was particularly stuck with Brian’s thought that in our new complex sales world all of us, no matter how successful, experienced, struggling, or new to selling, take on the mentality of a toddler – fall down, get up, ask a lot of questions, and keep on learning.