"The customer rarely buys what the company thinks it is selling to them." —Peter Drucker
While current market conditions are forcing some sales teams to play their best game, others are wondering how to react to their customers' current situations. Others are guessing how to approach vastly different customer situations when the market does return. What does a sales team do when customers simply aren't buying now or are slow-rolling buying decisions? How do salespeople maintain relationships so they are well-positioned when the bounce does come?
Here's a glimpse of what might lie ahead for many sales teams. A February 2009 McKinsey Quarterly Economic Survey revealed what is on the minds of 2,000 executives who described what they were doing or planned to do to recover from the economic crisis. While most companies (75 percent) are cutting costs, almost 40 percent said they also were going to restructure; another 36 percent said they were going to introduce new products and services to gain market share from competitors. Approximately 20 percent said they were going to hire new talent that would not have been available otherwise, and the same percentage said they were going to leave certain markets.
It appears a significant number of companies are going to take some bold steps to take advantage of the recovery by reorganizing and fielding new products and services. At the same time, many other companies appear to be hunkering down, with cost cutting and productivity increases as the primary steps to take to weather the storm and eke out what profits they can.
What does this mean to sales teams? In simple terms, some business clients are going to be focused on profit, cost, savings, and efficiency. Another group of clients are going to be—or are currently—rolling out change in many different ways: products, services, innovative organizations, and technologies.
The implication is that sales teams are going to have to listen even more closely to what the customer needs from them. Smart sales teams are going to have to adjust how they approach customers so the sales process itself delivers value that meets customers where they are.
For example, what can a sales team offer a customer who is planning to develop new delivery mechanisms? Regardless of what that team is selling—whether it's financial services or industrial parts—the customer would benefit from ideas, news, networking relationships, links to others who are struggling with the same challenge. A sales team can deliver that kind of information; it is a perfect place to see what others are doing in the marketplace and deliver that unique perspective to their own customers. But the sales team has to realize that customers can benefit from that kind of information; that's different from the usual products and service pitches they know and feel comfortable with. When sales teams stretch to bring more news and insights to that table, there's value added.
Similarly, for customers looking for productivity increases, cost reduction, and efficiency, sales teams are going to bring ideas for better use of their own products and services. Experts brought in by the sales team can help customers trim, leverage, and reduce costs or gain effectiveness in using current products and services. That kind of sales action cements relationships, builds loyalty, and keeps the competition away.
Adding value through the sales process only works if sales teams are in touch with what individual customers and their organizations are experiencing. Ironically, many companies aren't integrating the voice of the customer into key sales and marketing processes. According to a January 2009 study by the Chief Marketing Officer Council, only 36 percent of 400 executives said their companies have programs to gather customer insights from customer engagement situations. So a significant majority of companies do not systematically monitor what their customers are experiencing through important encounters such as the sales process. Many attribute this to lack of tracking tools designed to measure the customer's sales experience.
Preparing for the Bounce
How can sales teams add value now and get ready for the bounce? Understanding what value customers need and expect from the sales relationship is a first step. Taking a wider perspective of what kind of help and information they can provide customers beyond the usual products and services is another. Re-establishing relationships with new faces in the customer company through expertly executed basic sales skills and applied business savvy are surely critical tactics.
The key is listening to the voice of the customer. Singularity Group, Inc., a Hamilton, MA-based consulting firm, has developed a new way to measure what customers are saying. Called Customer Lens Index, the tool gathers information from customers about what they expect from the sales process. With that perspective, a sales force, working with management and marketing, can craft a sales process that delivers maximum value, making the sales process an integral part of the customer experience.
Customer Lens Index is based on 25 years of monitoring and defining sales actions, especially those that make a difference to customers. In operation, sales organizations identify a group of customers to approach. The sales organization can approach all customers as a group or it can define customers by a specific attribute. For example, the C-Lens Index can be directed to the most important customers, the most profitable, the newest, or any other customer attribute the sales organization is interested in. An e-mail is sent to these customers who link to the C-Lens Website where they complete the 27-item survey index in about three minutes. Leaders of the sales team compile and review the data.
With a profile of customer expectations about the sales process, sales leaders can design ways to add value for the customer. This may take the form of new tools and resources for sales teams to use face-to-face with the customer, new skills to develop through sales force training, referrals to other experts, advice on optimizing the use of the products or services, or surprises about what customers don't want to see.
Bouncing back when the economy does turn around is going to require more than business-as-usual in approaching customers. Zoning in on what customers need from the sales process can be an important way to re-establish relationships. To paraphrase Peter Drucker, knowing what the customer is really buying can be a distinct advantage. Many can really be buying—in addition to products and services—the value they get from the sales process. The challenge is to know what value they are looking for.
Michael D. Maginn has been working with and studying selling for more than 25 years. As vice president, Research and Development, for The Forum Corporation, he completed one of several landmark sales competency studies and subsequent best-selling sales programs. Since then, as the president of Singularity Group (www.singularitygroup.com), Hamilton, MA, he has worked with many sales organizations in defining how the sales process can add value to the customer's experience. He is the author of "5 Skills of Salespeople" (Singularity Group, June 2009)