I plead guilty to enjoying a cold beer or two, and I’ve watched with amazement as the decade-long bull market in the craft beer industry shows no signs of abating.
The time has long passed since a sales team could assume that a great presentation about their product or service would get them the orders they were after. With all the information now available through digital channels, your potential customers are probably already well versed in what you’re selling.
According to Harvard Business Review, “Traditional sales methods are increasingly unproductive. In fact, aggressive sales styles and product-focused selling are now so outdated that some customers are simply refusing to meet with salespeople using these techniques. In this situation, focusing on product features in the sales meeting is a waste of everyone’s time. In fact, there is plenty of evidence that high-performing sales people are those who listen and respond, who are flexible, and who think in terms of developing a solution to an emerging customer problem.”
Collaboration Is Key
What customers increasingly want from their vendors are collaborators. But what exactly does that mean? The tricky part is defining that with your potential customer.
It could mean relationship building. In this scenario, you learn everything you can about your customer, the decision makers, their goals, their challenges, the environment they’re working in, and their competition. You provide customers with the wealth of knowledge you’ve gained by noting what organizations like theirs have done to become best in class. You are not just selling, you are becoming a trusted advisor.
Other customers may view collaboration as more of a business partnership. They see you as willing – even dedicated – to identifying cost savings that benefit both of you. This could mean sharing risks, being flexible in pricing and contractual demands, interacting with their other vendors, customizing products and even co-developing completely new solutions.
For example, Bank of America has laid out several broad areas of new collaborative expectations the company has for its tech vendors. According to Technology Infrastructure Executive David Reilly, the bank wants open standards and interoperability between vendors, they want tech contracts whose costs scale down as well as up, and they expect vendors to share the bank’s risk and regulatory posture, including in some cases agreeing to contracts that make clear they share in the liability if their technology causes problems that lead to losses or fines for the bank.
Taking collaboration a step further, Ahold, a Dutch food retailer, initiated a specific collaboration program in 2013 to better align Ahold USA with its suppliers to improve operational execution, achieve efficiencies and, ultimately, to improve product availability and customer service. The program’s focus uses data and analytics to drive efficiencies in on-shelf availability, promotional efficiency, inventory management, and unsaleables reductions.
These examples clearly go far beyond mere order taking and even relationship building. But before you go running to your executives to identify how far they’re willing to collaborate with customers, take a breath and do some initial homework.
What Do Your Customers Want?
Your first step is to figure out if your customer actually wants an order taker or if they are open to collaboration to drive innovation. It’s important to understand where they’re coming from because if they do, in fact, feel more comfortable with you as an order taker and you push them too hard, you may just turn them off.
But, if they are open to collaboration:
A good executive sponsor can help because they can identify roadblocks and push through initiatives that are outside the bounds of the typical sales organization.
Order taking may make your salesperson’s job easier, but typically what your customer really wants is a trusted partner. Collaborating with your customers builds relationships, adds value, and helps further entrench your key strategic accounts. It helps keep the competition at bay. And, it keeps your offering from being commoditized.
Sharon Gillenwater is the founder and editor-in-chief of Boardroom Insiders, which maintains an extensive database of the most in-depth executive profiles on the market, from Fortune 500 companies to independent non-profits, to help sales and marketing professionals build deeper relationships and close more deals with clients.