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How Well Do You Know Your Customer?

by David Brock on May 14th, 2015

My friend, Tim Ohai, has a brilliant bet he makes with sales people.  He puts a $100 bill on the table, saying, “If you can talk about your customer, their problems, opportunities, and challenges for 20 minutes, without ever mentioning your products, the $100 is yours.”

The tragic part of this story, is that Tim has never had to pay the $100!

The unfortunate imbalance is, any sales person can talk for hours on end about their products, pausing occasionally to take a breath or a sip of water.  They can fill whiteboard after whiteboard with facts, figures, feeds and speeds.  When they run out, they can pull out decks of Powerpoint pitches, endless product brochures, and case studies.

But that’s not what the customer cares about.  That’s not the help they need.  They can get all the same stuff on the web, downloading brochures, sitting on webinars, talking to others.

What customers really need and value is someone who can talk about their customers, competitors, markets, industries, and their own companies.  Customers struggle to get through the day to day, so they need help learning about opportunities they may be missing, things they could improve, ideas for growing, or simply reducing the stress and problems they face daily.

In virtually every survey asking customers about the biggest problems they have with sales, the following issue is always in the top 5:  “They don’t understand me, my company, our markets, or our business!”

Going back to Tim’s story, he reports, on average, sales people can only go on a little more than 3 minutes before they are forced to start talking about the product.

Stated differently, sales people can only speak for about 3 minutes on the things most important to the customer!

It’s no wonder we have problems engaging our customers!  It’s no wonder why customers don’t want to talk to us until they are 57-70% through their buying process.  We are irrelevant to them until that point.  We create no value on the things that are most critical to them.

There are two levels to this problem.

The first is organizational.  Billions are spent on training every year.  The bulk of that investment is training on products and services.  Some of that training is on sales skills/techniques.  Some, in fact, may be on how to deliver insight, but not about the insight itself.  If you sell to financial services companies, when was the last time your company took you through comprehensive training on the financial services industry?  What is the structure of the industry (it’s hugely diverse with lots of business models)?  What are the key drivers, trends, issues?  Who are their customers?  Who are the competitors?  What are the strategies of the key players?  How are the companies organized/structured, how do they work, how are they measured?  What are their biggest problems/challenges/opportunities?  What are the problems we help them solve?  What are the things they are talking about, what should they be talking abut?

Name an industry or segment, to be relevant to our customers, being conversant in these issues is table stakes.  If you are a sales or corporate executive, it’s critical to provide this foundation to your sales people.  They have to understand how businesses work, what drives the decision makers we work with in those businesses.

The second element of this problem is at a sales person level, and their preparation to meet with customers.  Who are they meeting with?  What’s their background?  What’s their role?  What are their concerns (or what are they likely to be)?  What’s happening with the company?  How are they performing?  Have there been any big changes?  And the list goes on.  Unless we research and prepare, we aren’t equipped to talk about the things the customer most cares about.

Sales managers, try this in your next team meeting:  Take a tip from Tim, put $100 (or the equivalent in your currency) on the table.  Ask your sales people to talk for 20 minutes about the customer, their strategies, challenges, opportunities, performance, markets.  They have to do this without mentioning your products or services.  It’s a bet you want to lose!

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  1. Steve Ryder permalink


    A great article and an element that I have been pushing for some time. I give the sales guys one day per month to “learn about one of their customers”. It does pay dividends.



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