Sales: Here’s what Dennis should have said

In our last column, we described a customer advocate mindset as a way of thinking characterized by a sense of subservience to the customer. Disguised by euphemisms like "responsive" or "customer focused," this mindset results in a master/servant relationship with customers, not the business peer relationship we would all rather have.

We suggested an easy first step toward making the migration to a mutual value mindset – encouraging your salespeople to stop saying things like, "Thank you for meeting with me." Opening a customer meeting with, "I’ve been looking forward to our meeting. I’m glad we were able to make our calendars connect," elevates the interaction to a peer level. As you may have already heard from your salespeople, it works. It lays the groundwork for the customer to think differently about this interaction and, ultimately, the relationship.

Let’s get back to Dennis and his faulty olfaction. Obviously, changing their opening comments is not enough to prevent your salespeople from chasing opportunities that aren’t real in the first place. Last time, we introduced the example of Dennis, who sells I/T and networking hardware and related services. He received a call from an I/T director for a big company in town who said, "We’re going to be doubling the size of our network, so could you help us put together some preliminary designs and cost estimates?"

A month, and about 10 man-days of tech support work later, Dennis met with the I/T guy to go over his company’s recommendations. Smelling a sale in the works, Dennis confidently pored over the plans and cost estimates with Mr. I/T. Then the waiting began. In the end, Dennis had wasted his and his tech’s time on this one. Turns out, network expansion was not really the issue. The point here isn’t that Dennis’ story is remarkable. The point is that it’s all too common.

Let’s walk through the customer advocate dialogue Dennis had with the I/T director, as well as the mutual value one he should have had with him that would have prevented this costly exercise.

Customer: "We’re going to be doubling the size of our network, so could you help us put together some preliminary designs and cost estimates?"

Dennis: "Great, thanks for calling us. Can I ask you a few questions before we get started?"

Customer: "Sure."

Dennis: "How big is your current network and how many users will you be adding?"

Customer: "Five hundred across four departments, and we’ll be adding at least that many more to the user base, maybe 500 to 700 more."

Dennis: "What’s your timing?"

Customer: "We’d like to get our estimate together in four weeks."

Dennis: "Sounds like you’re on a pretty fast track. Let’s look at calendars to see when I can get a technician out there to take a look at the configuration."

Customer: "OK."

This is the essence of the exchange (Dennis did ask another question or two about the

hardware configuration). Let’s look at three key elements of this customer advocacy

exchange:

1. "Can I ask you a few questions before we get started?" indicates that Dennis is taking the customer’s request at face value and will deploy his resources to develop designs and cost estimates. No wonder the customer agrees to a few quick questions.

2. The type of questions Dennis asks. Because he takes the customer’s request at face value, the questions he asks are only about the opportunity itself.

3. The result: A month of work, a proposal presentation, the waiting. Because Dennis allows the customer to be solely in charge of the exchange, the opportunity is not qualified, and his company’s resources are subsequently squandered.

Now, here’s the mutual value dialogue Dennis should have had.

Customer: "We’re going to be doubling the size of our network, so could you help us put together some preliminary designs and cost estimates?"

Dennis: "Great, thanks for calling us. There are a few different ways that we can get you what you’re looking for. If we could take 10 to 15 minutes to step back so I can get a better sense for the big picture, then I could recommend an approach. Make sense?"

Customer: "Sure."

Dennis: "Before we get into the specifics of the project itself, maybe we could spend a few minutes on what’s behind the expansion. So, just why are you expanding your network in the first place?"

Customer: "We just merged with another company, and they’re looking at consolidating I/T services."

Dennis: "No kidding, who’d you merge with?"

Customer: "XYZ Company."

Dennis: "Was it really a ‘merger’ or did one acquire the other?"

Customer: "Well, technically, I guess XYZ acquired us."

Dennis: "Where is XYZ’s I/T group located?"

Customer: "Mostly in Omaha."

Dennis: "Do you think they could consolidate I/T in Omaha?"

Customer: "I guess so, but we’d obviously rather they do it here."

Dennis: "Sounds like you’re looking for ballpark numbers then, right?

Customer: "Yeah, I guess so."

Dennis: "Great. If I can ask you a few more questions about the network, we can give you a pretty good estimate in just a couple hours. Do you have another 15 minutes?"

Customer: "Yeah, I guess so."

Wow, what a difference. Let’s look at the three key elements of this exchange:

1. "If we could take 10 to 15 minutes to … then I could recommend an approach. Make sense?" Here, Dennis would not have committed to developing designs and cost estimates. He would set up a peer "contract" for 10 to15 minutes to discuss the big picture.

2. The type of questions Dennis should have asked. They are about the business issues driving the request, not the request itself.

3. The result: Learning that the opportunity is not really real. A couple of hours vs. a month of work. Time and resources freed for real opportunities.

Need we say more? Is the high price of customer advocacy one you can afford?

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.

July 9, 2004, Small Business Times, Milwaukee, WI

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Steve Jagler
Steve Jagler, former BizTimes Milwaukee editor.