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What Do Your Customers Do?

by David Brock on August 19th, 2013

As sales professionals, we’re supposed to really understand our customers-their markets, industries, businesses, functions–and their jobs.  It’s critical in engaging them in discussions about the things the care about.  It’s critical to be able to relate to them on their terms so we are credible and can build a trusted relationship.

So it’s easy to say that.  If we’re lucky, marketing has provided us a lot of content and tools to help us better understand.  We may have training on the industries and markets.  We may have various “personas” that help us understand the roles of the people we call on. 

But in reality, we struggle to relate.  We can read about “CFO’s”, if those are our target customers.  We can get a lot of data about them, even the LinkedIn profile of a specific individual.  But unless we’ve been a CFO, it’s really difficult to “understand” them, to “know” what they worry about, how they think, how best to engage and connect with them.

Unless we’ve walked in our customers’ shoes, it’s really difficult to understand what they really do, how they think, what the work of a CFO, VP of Manufacturing, or whoever it is, is really about.

So how do we fix this?  We can’t go out and be a CFO for a few years, or a VP of Manufacturing, or a VP of Human Resources, or whatever it might be.  Without actually doing the job, how do we better understand what our customers do?

It’s actually not that hard–I’m amazed at how few people do this.  But virtually every company has the people doing similar jobs to those our customers do.  Or we have friends who do the jobs our customers do.

Your company has a CFO.  If you make products, you have a VP of Engineering/Development, a VP of Manufacturing, and so forth.  They face similar challenges to those our customers face.  How they spend their days is not dissimilar to our customers.  The things that worry them are pretty similar.  They get sales people calling them every day, they have opinions about why they see sales people, what they want to hear.

So if we really want to find our what our customers do, if we want to try to walk in their shoes, make an appointment with  the person who has the same title or holds a similar job in your company.

Ask the 1o,ooo questions you always wanted to ask a customer but were afraid to?  Ask them the silly questions:

  1. What does your typical day look like?  How do you find yourself spending your time?
  2. How are you  measured?  How does that impact what you do?
  3. How do you set priorities for your function?  How do you manage your team?
  4. What kinds of reports do you look at to know whether your team is doing what they should?  Would you mind walking through one with me?
  5. What kinds of things do you talk about in your staff meetings?  Do you mind if I sit in one sometime?
  6. What are the biggest difficulties you face in doing your job?
  7. What are the biggest issues you and people in your function face?
  8. What are your dreams?  What are your goals?
  9. What keeps you awake at night?
  10. What do you read to keep updated with things going on in your function and industry?  What blogs, what magazines?  How do you keep informed and up to date?
  11. What’s your reaction to sales people who are trying to meet with you?  How do you decide which sales people you will meet with, which you will push to someone else, and who you will ignore?
  12. What do you like to see a sales person talk about in meetings with you?
  13. What do you see sales people doing really badly when they meet with you?
  14. What did the best sales person you ever worked with do to earn your respect?
  15. What about gate keepers?  (You may also want to talk to that person’s assistant and ask them similar questions.)
  16. How do you like to be sold to?  How do you buy?
  17. When you decide to buy something, how do you really get the approval, how do you really get things done?
  18. How knowledgeable about your function do you expect sales people to do?

The list can go on and on—they’re busy people, so respect their time.  But leverage these people in your company.  They have a vested interest in your success–it keeps them working. 

While every organization is a little different, and individuals are different, you would be amazed at how much your VP of Manufacturing can teach you about what VP’s of Manufacturing do.  It will make you much more comfortable in your next customer meeting.

Talk to people who do the jobs similar to those your customers do.  Learn from them, they’ll give you a glimpse into their jobs and lives.  Later on, you can also talk to your customers about the very same thing.

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8 Comments
  1. Excellent ideas to start understanding your customers role. I would like to add another aspect if I may. What about engaging your CFO in a role play of an important conversation/presentation to practice before you go to see your customer’s CFO. This will give you an extra level of comfort and competence to interact with these folks.

  2. Dave,
    You may become the most hated man in next month’s CFO magazine!
    [http://www3.cfo.com/]

    Dave, you are, of course quite correct,
    using your own C levels is a great way of rehearsing
    a first call…………..just don’t expect the same answers,
    but you may use similar questions!

    If you have a ‘Customer Visitable’ CFO,
    then take them on the Sales Call with you.

    But, be careful WHO you bring!

    http://brianmaciver.blogspot.com.es/2010/08/should-top-execs-visit-customers.html

    • Brian: Thanks for the comment. Leveraging our own executives with their peers in our customers can be very powerful, presuming they are customer visitable, they understand their role and agree to play their role, and we have a well thought out sales call plan that leverages their experience and capabilities.

      Without this, it could be a huge disaster!

  3. John Sterrett permalink

    This post will be lost on the approximately 50% of sales reps I know who take zero time per week to improve their knowledge base and skill set.
    The other 50% understand that stagnation in sales ability is a death knell. I know that I have been saved from layoff TWICE vs. peers who were performing at the same or similar level, only because I was taking classes to improve my knowledge base.

    I USED to have a broad product offering and an extremely narrow account base. I couldn’t be an expert on over 300 lines, each with thousands of unique products. So I invested the time in learning about my customers, their challenges, their timelines and their general careabouts.

    NOW I have an extremely narrow product offering and a VERY broad account base. So I spend more time learning about my product’s applications. Then, before each sales call I research the company, its history and potential, its competition and market position. I ask many of the questions you list here to discover their pain, and then ask some more, until I know more about their business. Usually my first follow-up email isn’t about their propensity to buy, but another clarifying question, to show them that I am acutely interested in their job.

    • Thanks John. First, the 50% of sales people who don’t learn, prepare, and change will soon be those on the street looking for new jobs.

      I think your approach to learning and preparation is outstanding. At the same time, customers have a higher expectation of our knowledge of their functions and businesses, and don’t have a lot of time to teach us. So we have to raise our skill levels in other ways, so we can focus most of our discussions where they really care—about their problems and how to eliminate them.

  4. Great idea, Dave. One of my clients used this same approach, but rather than have 200 sales reps (or even the 10 or so who would actually go the extra mile), contact the CFO individually, the company had the CFO put together a presentation. He graciously agreed to spend a half hour at every training session we would put on.

    • You mean a CFO doesn’t want to spend their time one on one tutoring 200 sales reps? 😉 In reality, getting them to participate in classes, taping interviews and making them available to sales people as resources, engaging them with groups in Q&A’s are all very powerful and use their time well. Thanks, as always for the great idea.

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