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It All Starts With The Customer

by David Brock on September 9th, 2009

The other day, I was speaking with my friend, Niall Devitt.  He had invited me to speak at a conference focused on the issue:  It All Starts With The Customer.  It seems so simple and obvious, but too many companies have an inside-out approach to working with customers.

We tend to focus on our organizations, our products, our processes, our needs, and our policies.  Our efforts are focus on how we attract and motivate customers to buy our products and services.  Our strategies are generally driven by this inside out approach.  We launch products based on an inside out approach—and we fail to meet our launch objectives.  We build our channels and routes to market based on an inside out approach, then find that we aren’t reaching the market or touching the customers the way we should.  We focus on our marketing and our selling processes, rather than focusing on the customer’s buying process.

Wouldn’t things be simpler and produce better results if everything we did started with a customer?

What if we went to our key accounts and asked them, “How would you like us to be selling to you?”  We did this with a client many years ago—based on customer input, with our client, we redesigned the approach to covering key accounts, reduced the headcount covering those accounts by 60%, improved sales, improved customer satisfaction, and developed profoundly deeper relationships with these key accounts.

What if we look at our key customer segments, asking them, “How do you buy these types of products and services?  Who do you buy them from?”  Based on the input, build your channels so that you are aligned with how these customers buy.   We not only have the partners they want to buy from, but we have the programs and processes that are most attractive to them.  Instead, we build the channel from the inside out, hopefully built on some sort of targeting, but somehow driven by internal priorities and not by customer priorities.

What if we started designing our selling processes by thinking like buyers?  We might then design our process around supporting and facilitating their buying processes?  With a large office products manufacturer, we went to their customers and started looking at how they bought copiers and faxes.  We learned about how they identified their requirements, how they researched and got information, how they started selecting vendors to consider, and so forth.  We focused the client’s selling process to align with the key activities their customers went through in buying these products — both improving the efficiency of the sales teams, and aligning them more effectively with the customer—they were doing the right things, at the right time, with the right people.

What if we started focusing developing our sales strategies around what biggest problems problems we can help customers solve or how we help them improve our business, rather than focusing on pitching the features, functions, feeds and speeds of our great products?  A large software client went to their customers to understand how they designed airplanes.  They focused on the two biggest problems these customers faced then started talking to those customers about how they could solve those problems.  they focused their sales efforts only on customers with those problems—because they had done their homework, it happened to be most of the industry.  Their competition continued to sell features and functions, letting the customer figure out how those features solved their problems.  Within three years, this client had share leadership in that market.

What if we started designing our products and solutions, by collaborating with our customers—from the very inception of the product idea?  What if we put customers on our design review teams?  Would we have better success with our product launches, would we have fewer misfires?  With a large software supplier of data analysis solutions, we engaged a few key financial services customers in defining a new relationship management solution.  They were involved in the definition, at major milestones, and in all the testing.  The resultant product became indispensible to these customers.  Time to revenue at launch was reduced by 30%–because of the customer driven innovation.

What if we change the way we talk about customers?  Too often, I’m involved in discussions, where we talk about the customer in the abstract.  There seems to be a great distance between the “real customer,” the people who buy, and the way we talk within our organizations.  We tend to talk about issues, strategies, problems and solutions with customers being spoken of in the abstract.  We lose sight of specific companies and people.  Too often, this gives way to an attitude, “everything would be great if it wasn’t for those damn customers!”  We complain about them complaining rather than reveling in it because it shows they care.  We become unresponsive and indifferent.  We find ourselves having to invest more resources and more money in getting customers to listen to us.

I’m not naive, these issues are all part of what organizations do everyday.  Everyone knows about customer segmentation and developing programs targeting these segments.  Everyone knows about customer input as part of the product design and development process.  As sales professionals are trained in consultative selling.  But some how the context and prioritization doesn’t seem the same.  Too often and perhaps unconsciously, the customer moves out of the forefront of our minds, and we begin to focus on our internal goals, deadlines, processes.  We do things the way we have always done them?  The inertia of the past inward-out focus overcomes the focus on the customer — then we kind of forget about them.

I’m also not an idealist, believing the customer is always right or that we need to support every customer and every need.  We need to run our businesses to be profitable and achieve our goals.  However, we need to root our decisions in the customer and how we most effectively and efficiently reach and support our customer, and this process starts with them.

To help accelerate this change, let’s surround ourselves with customers.  Imagine what might happen if every conversation started with “I was talking to Jill at XYZ Company and she ….”  or “We met with these customers at the conference and they are talking about this….” or “I was watching how the people at ABC are using are products and they suggested….”  Imagine how our decisions might change if we actually had pictures of our customers—not just their logo’s, but pictures of people scattered around our facilities–simple reminders to everyone about who pays the bills.Book CoverFor a free peek at Sales Manager Survival Guide, click the picture or link.  You’ll get the Table of Contents, Foreword, and 2 free Chapters.  Free Sample

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4 Comments
  1. Thanks, Dave, for this insightful post.

    In my own point of view, the customer is the ultimate focal point in marketing and if you have any other priorities in mind then you’re simply doing it wrong.

    Keep those great articles coming!

  2. Barney Austen permalink

    Hi David.

    An extremely and comprehensive post. Thanks for sharing your thoughts (and Niall for pointing me in it’s direction!).

    All your points are valid. In a nutshell, put the customer at the center of everything that your company does and you will have success (all other things being equal). Customer centricity has been a buzzword/bible for many organisations on paper but few have successfully implemented it. Certainly any new companies that are getting up and running should follow this advice to the letter. Its certainly something we will be doing!

    Thanks again

    • Barney, thanks for the comment. It’s always amazing how things change when you put the customer at the center of your thinking. It changes attitudes, relationships and results. It’s also amazing how simple things become. For instance building your routes to market starting with the customer and working in is always more effective than the tradional inside out thinking.

      Appreciate your comment, hope to see you as a regular commentor here. The quality of your discussion is great!

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