Sales: How to recode the customer advocacy DNA of your salespeople

Last updated on May 13th, 2019 at 02:33 pm

How would your salespeople respond to the following question? Which of the following best characterizes your own thought process as it relates to how much of your company’s resources (including your own time) to devote to a particular sales situation?
A. I always want to appear responsive, so I probably err on the side of being accommodating.
B. I’m basically pretty protective of my time and my company’s resources, and I want prospects/customers to understand this.
C. Neither best describes my
thought process.

Last month in these pages, we argued that the notion of "the customer is always right" is a dogmatic belief that is part of the DNA of salespeople. Rather than being a sales virtue, we argued that belief is actually a vice.
We closed by citing a question from a diagnostic that our company uses to assess sales organizations. In summary, that question demonstrates that some 90 percent of all salespeople believe customers are doing them a favor merely by meeting with them.
Let’s look at another question from this same diagnostic, shown above. How many of your salespeople would select answer B? Only about 5 percent of our respondents have. Some 10 percent choose C, leaving 85 percent preferring to "err on the side of being accommodating."
It should be obvious that a customer/supplier meeting is a mutually beneficial interaction. Nobody is doing anyone any favors. Both parties derive value. The feeling that prompts salespeople to think they should send a thank you note after a customer meeting is the customer advocate mindset in action.
Likewise, is the desire to "appear responsive." It is this mindset that is at the heart of why salespeople spend too much time on the wrong opportunities and, by default, not enough time on the right ones, to say nothing of the direct cost of sales associated with chasing bad business.
Mark Twain said, "The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug." If, as sales leaders, you want your salespeople to shed their old master/servant ways you will have to recode their DNA. There are three steps in this DNA recoding process. The first is to recognize how the wording your salespeople use in customer interactions makes all the difference.
Here’s an everyday illustration of the business consequences of the customer advocate mindset and the implications of using the right words vs. the almost right words.
Dennis sells I/T and networking hardware and related services. He received a call from an I/T director for a big company 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 meets with the I/T guy to go over his company’s recommendations. Smelling a sale in the works, Dennis confidently pores over his designs and cost estimates with Mr. I/T. Then the waiting begins. Fast forward to the end of the story, and it turns out that Dennis had wasted his and his tech’s time working on this one. The company was never going to expand the network in the first place, at least not at this location. We’ve discussed this dialog before, but it’s worth repeating. Let’s see how this story unfolded.
First, we’ll walk through the customer advocate dialogue Dennis had with the I/T director. Then, we’ll show you the mutual value one he should have had with him that would have prevented this costly exercise.
The customer advocacy dialog:
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 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: "O.K."

This conversation is at the essence of the customer advocate 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, let’s look at 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. There are three key elements of this exchange worth note:
1. "If we could take 10-15 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 to 15 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.

The point here isn’t that Dennis’ story is remarkable, it’s that it’s all too common. But we use it to illustrate the first step in the DNA recoding process: salespeople have to replace their master/servant accommodating language with business peer mutual value language.

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

July 8, 2005, Small Business Times, Milwaukee, WI

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