Offbeat signals

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Developing a deep understanding of your customers’ business is a key Business Resource trait. That understanding is based on customer issues, not just customer needs. Issues are the external and internal drivers that determine needs for your products and services. If you are literate in your customers’ business you can help anticipate and shape their needs.
Yet just encouraging your salespeople to develop a deep understanding of their customers may not be enough. You and your team can still be surprised, blindsided even, by changes that seem to come out of nowhere — a merger or acquisition, a new CEO, the sudden departure of a key contact, a new competitor in your customer’s market, a change in supply chain direction … . There are any number of fluctuations in direction and organization that can potentially threaten your standing with a customer.
As a leader, your job is to get out in front of customer change. How do you do that? Our response is that you must be able to read "offbeat signals" at your customers — those indicators that something is about to happen. You are powerless to affect something you don’t even see coming. Here are a few ways to position you and your team to get out in front of change.

Reading offbeat signals
1. Check in on the future regularly
2. Develop a vertical and horizontal network
3. Position your team to respond quickly
1. Check in on the future regularly. It borders on the simplistic for us to point out that any business environment is dynamic. Yet in our experience many salespeople build their understanding of their customers’ business on a static model. They do this in two ways.
First, they build their understanding on one or two Knowledge Calls devoted to "the business" and spend their other interactions on immediate opportunities or sales situations.
Second, they devote those Knowledge Calls to the present state of the business, to what’s going on right now. The result, of course, is a snapshot "frozen" in time. Instead, you should encourage them to take a step back from time to time to revisit the "big picture" with their customers.
In addition, any conversation about the business must include the future. Questions about the future need not be overly formal. Not every customer is prepared to provide "the top three priorities for the next quarter." But they usually can respond to questions about "what’s the buzz around here?" or "what are executives likely talking about in their meetings?"
The salesperson needs to probe any number of "offbeat signals" — among them, priorities that seem to be stymied, rumors about management changes, impending senior retirements, launch of new programs, anticipation of consolidation in the marketplace, investments in technology, facilities reconfiguration, outsourcing plans.
If you don’t scan the landscape regularly you cannot anticipate change that could threaten — or bolster — your company’s supplier standing. In a dynamic environment, nothing is secure and no customer can be taken for granted.
2. Develop a vertical and horizontal network. A sales team is only as strong as its network. That reality is very different from traditional salespeople who relied on a "buddy-buddy" relationship with a single contact.
A Business Resource sales organization develops peer relationships throughout its customer companies.
In our columns we have written extensively about getting to executives. In this column, our point about developing a vertical and horizontal network is that the more you are linked into your customers the more information will come your way. Ideally, when change is pending you would like someone to pick up the phone and let you know. But that won’t happen unless you and your team are top of mind. You stay top of mind by regularly revisiting the "big picture" with your network. Your customers won’t think of you in a business context unless you are perceived as a Business Resource.
3. Position your team to respond quickly. It’s not any good picking up on "offbeat signals" if you cannot get out in front of them. To be positioned to do that, your salespeople must first of all know what they are listening for. Then, they need an effective internal process for sharing information.
Offbeat signals should be a regular feature of your team meetings. In the press of daily sales situations, salespeople are not naturally inclined to scan the broader landscape. By asking them and introducing the language, you can build and reinforce this behavior. Try this at your next team meeting. We predict that your inquiry about offbeat signals in their key accounts will be met with empty stares. Those stares should concern you.
Once you identify impending change, you need to develop a "rapid response" instinct. Building it into your strategic thought process is the best way. As a leader, you are responsible for helping strategize the response to impending change.
On the tactical level, you must be prepared to reorder immediate priorities and/or to redeploy resources to meet the challenge.
The sophisticated sales team is vigilant about picking up on potential changes at their accounts. The effective sales leader makes it a priority. It’s good 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
April 16, 2004, Small Business Times, Milwaukee, WI

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