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.
In 15 years of analyzing company perceptions about their own customer values based on blind surveys, we have turned up a disturbing finding: in our study of over 100 organizations, less than 5 percent of companies actually “sell” what’s most valued by their customers.
Your rep finally got that coveted face-to-face meeting with a great big prospect. How did he prepare? Your company offers a specific set of values; your prospect is looking for someone to supply some of those values (or they wouldn’t have agreed to the meeting). What has your sales rep done – what can be done – to find out where your offers and their needs overlap?
The rep likely checked out their website as well as any marketing materials he could get his hands on. What about all the other places on the web they are mentioned like the business data aggregators, social media sites, as well as the Google search for their news. What, exactly, was learned from that effort? Perhaps they are privately held and/or family owned? Manufacture or only distribute? Offer only B2B or do they sell retail also? And so on. What does their mission statement or vision or value proposition tell you about what they want from you? What is usually NOT available in all the presale research is the indisputable answer to, “What is their highest buying criteria?” and thus the inability to answer the question, “Why should they buy from us?”
Let’s assume the rep learned from his research that they are growing, and plan to open new stores in the next year to sell their own product lines. What will he do with that knowledge? What might it say about their current needs?
Many salespeople are provided a company-mandated “canned” presentation touting the company history and self-declared strengths. (I chuckle when I see five competitors all self-proclaiming to be the “leader in the industry.”) Often these are delivered in a core set of PowerPoint slides. Some salespeople are better than others at customizing the presentation. Fewer yet are really good in their efforts to address what the prospect really wants, rather than what your company wants to crow about.
In the 12 to 15 years we have been analyzing double-blind market research for thousands of customers in efforts to learn their hierarchy of buying criteria, not once have things like “awards,” “your client list,” “longevity,” or the amount you donate to charity ranked anywhere in the top five attributes.
Also surprising, we rarely see things like “green” rated highly. Many things that sound like something meaningful to value do not tip the scales as being the most important or the sales tiebreaker. But how much precious meeting time is spent touting these very things?
So, what should be discussed? The gold standard answer is to invest in some double-blind research to learn the unbiased answers to what your customers value most. Less than 10 percent of small and midsized businesses make such an investment. Large companies make the investment but rarely do the findings make it to frontline salespeople. Those who have invested in Voice of the Customer research and heeded it wisely have reaped big rewards in higher close rates, fatter margins and shorter sales cycles.
Short of hiring a firm, you must spend a good deal of time with your customer learning the “importance” and “relevance” of their needs to know what best to address. If they don’t care about your company history (few do), why do so many sales pitches start there?
What Prospects Want To Hear About
Here are some general findings we have witnessed in research studies. Several years ago, before this recession, the most common top attributes – the things customers wanted most when making a buying decision – were often elements of quality or convenience. When the housing/financial bubble caught up with us, a change occurred in what customers most valued. Very quickly the top attribute, almost regardless of industry, became financial stability. And the bigger the project or the more expensive the product, the more important that financial stability registered.
In hindsight, of course, it makes sense. Would you want to do business with a company that may not be around to finish the work? Do you want all the hassle of finding and vetting a new supplier because your old one went belly-up? But way too many companies were still trying to sell with quality or convenience being the lead selling point. It was no longer the top buying point.
Now, several years into our economic downturn, things are shifting again. Many companies had to cut their inventories, for good reasons – carrying costs, lower cash flows, higher raw material costs, etc., along with fewer buyers. As a result, today, when orders do come in, there is now a higher risk of delay in fulfilling it. And what attribute has risen to the top? You guessed it: on-time delivery. This is not to say customers no longer value high quality, but now they want it on time and from a company that is financially stable. Does your sales pitch address those attributes? What else might they value? We also see a surprising number of customers who highly value “accurate invoices.” This means your company should be measuring invoice error rates and credit memos so you can brag about your “less than 0.5% credit memos for all last year.” You will be amazed at the results when you sell to them what they most value.
So there you have it – if your pitch starts with “we are a privately-held, family-operated company that values our employees and have been so for over 80 years,” don’t expect much from your meeting with that big prospect. But (because you now know your prospect is opening new stores and ramping up production) if you start by proving you’ve been delivering on time at 96.6% since 2008, and this year you have brought the rate up to 98.1% by paying off your debt and building up a 62-day forward inventory, you have a much better shot of closing that coveted prospect, maybe by the end of the meeting!
Jaynie Smith is CEO of Smart Advantage, a Florida-based consultancy that helps companies uncover their competitive advantages.