Learn your customer’s business

There’s probably no more common cliche of selling than, "know your customer’s business." The phrase is a mantra in even the most elementary seminar on improving your sales skills.
Yet, for all the exhortations sales trainers and managers make telling front-line salespeople to understand the customer, the single most common complaint senior executives make about the salespeople they encounter is, "they don’t understand our business."
So, where’s the disconnect? It comes from salespeople not asking themselves three key questions: How do I want to be perceived by the customer? How do I get good business knowledge? What do I do with it?
How the customer perceives your value
First, you have to accept the premise that customers perceive your value based on how you sell, not what you sell.
If you want to be viewed as a vendor, then knowledge of your own product is all that counts. Your discussion of the customer’s business is no more than a gimmick to help you find an opening to pitch your product. But is being viewed as a vendor really your goal? Almost certainly not.
Most salespeople prefer to be viewed as problem-solvers. Yet in the real world, the difference between a problem-solver and a vendor is hardly noticeable. The problem-solver asks business questions simply as a means of identifying a need for which the problem-solver wants to force a solution. When all you sell is hammers, it’s funny how everything can look like a nail.
Your goal as a salesperson should be to be seen as a true business resource to your customers. And to get there, you need to develop a holistic view of the customer’s business beyond that which merely relates to the solutions you’re selling.
Sounds easy enough. But put yourself to the test with these questions: How much do you know about your customer’s customers? Your customer’s competitors? The evolving marketplace in which your customer operates? What are your customer’s top three strategic initiatives? What do they view as their core competencies? A true business resource can answer those questions with confidence.
How to get meaningful business knowledge
But how do you get that depth and breadth of knowledge about your customer?
Start with the easy and obvious sources, publicly available information on your key customers, mostly from their Web sites and Internet searches.
A vendor or problem-solver stops there, but not a business resource. One of the most powerful tools to a business resource salesperson is the knowledge call. A knowledge call is fundamentally different from a conventional needs analysis meeting and should become a standard part of your selling repertoire. Indeed, it should be your tool of choice.
A true knowledge call requires you to leave your solutions outside the door when you visit the customer ( even if, during the knowledge call, the customer happens to mention a problem for which your solution is a dead ringer.
Otherwise, you simply turn the knowledge call into a needs analysis meeting. And what could have been a valuable source of honest and in-depth understanding of the customer’s business descends to a dialogue about your customer’s problems and your solutions, sort of a sales pitch in disguise.
We can’t stress this enough. On the knowledge call, you are not there to discuss solutions. You’re there to ask strategic business questions and to listen aggressively.
How to put customer knowledge to use
Once you have this knowledge of your customer’s business, what do you do with it? The very best place to use it is in a business presentation to your customer ( preferably at the executive level. Executives assign value to your understanding of their business.
To see how it works, consider Ed, a national account salesperson for a major credit card transaction equipment and services company.
Ed had spent time learning about his customer through knowledge calls with low- to mid-level contacts at the company. With that knowledge in hand, he wrote and delivered a business presentation to the president of the customer firm, a mid-sized Chicago-based financial institution.
Up front in the presentation, Ed took five minutes to quickly confirm his perception of the customer firm’s business environment, its objectives and the strategies to achieve those objectives ( not just his perception of the customer’s problems.
As Ed wrapped up the summary of his understanding, and before even saying a word about his own company, he asked the chief executive, "Let me do a reality check: Are we in the ballpark with our perceptions of your business?" The president paused several seconds, then replied: "You have a better understanding of our business than many of the people who work here. I know your boss is here so I shouldn’t be asking this question in public, but are you interested in coming to work for us?"
Now, Ed didn’t go to work for the customer firm. But the president’s question didn’t bode well for Ed’s competitors (and yes, Ed did get the business).
So, if you’re going to be a business resource, act like one. Leave the solutions at the door, ask strategic business questions and get some mileage for your knowledge of the customer’s business.
Jerry Stapleton and Nancy McKeon are with Stapleton Resources LLC, a Waukesha-based sales force effectiveness practice. They can be reached at (262) 524-8099 or on the Web at www.stapletonresources.com.
October 1, 2004, Small Business Times, Milwaukee, WI

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