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What Is Your Customer Trying To Achieve?

by David Brock on August 6th, 2013

Too often, both we and our customers get so caught up in activities that we lose sight of what we are trying to achieve.

A few weeks ago, I was participating in a deal review.  It was a huge software deal, the customer was evaluating new systems to replace something that had been in place for a long time and was, apparently, no longer serving them.  As I listened to the review, there was lots of discussion about the requirements, what the customer was looking for, the competition, activities that had taken place, ideas about next steps, the decision-making process, strategies/counter strategies, and the things that normally go on in a deal review.

As I listened to the discussion, I was confused.  It was clear what the customer was trying to do—they needed to replace their current system.  The thing I couldn’t get was what the customer was trying to achieve.

Eventually, I interrupted the conversation, I asked, “What is the customer trying to achieve?”

There was a pause.  Half the time I know people are thinking, “Who invited this crackpot consultant anyway, he’s just slowing us down.”

Finally, someone patiently replied, “They need to replace their old system.  It had become to cumbersome and complex, newer systems provide much more capability for them.”

“I get that,” I replied, “I know what they are doing, but what are they trying to achieve?”

I’ll fast forward to the end of the discussion, there was a lot of it, a lot of guesses, but no one knew what the customer was trying to achieve.  Everyone was looking at it as “the customer needs a new system.”  Patiently, the team agreed that maybe we should ask the customer.

I was invited to participate in the meeting  (I was a little surprised, usually I’m only invited to the “pissing on the ashes calls,” to try to rescue something).  We had the key customer people involved, and after we went through the introductions and niceties, we started the discussion about the new system.  I was teed up to ask the question, “What are you trying to achieve?”

The customers looked at each other, and replied, “We need to upgrade our systems, it’s become to cumbersome, newer systems have better capabilities.”  I responded in the same way that I did in the deal review, asking, “I know you what you are trying to do.  I know your system is very antiquated, and suspect all the problems it might create.  I know the newer systems like those offered by my client have a lot of great new capability?  But I don’t understand what you are trying to achieve.”

It happens so often–both to sales and customer buying teams.  It seems the more complex the solution offerings, the easier it is to lose sight of “What is the customer trying to achieve?”

In the complex worlds all of us live in, with too much on our plates, too little time, too few resources, and inadequate funding, too often we confuse what we are doing with what we are trying to achieve.  Both we and the customer get caught up in the tasks of buying and selling and our focus becomes completing the tasks–in this case, buying a new system.  But lost in all of this is “What is the customer trying to achieve?”

In the meeting with the customer, after everyone suddenly realized how they had gotten caught up in the activities and lost sight of what they were trying to achieve, we had a fascinating discussion.  It switched from what needing to replace the system to a discussion of who the system was for, what they did with it, why they needed to do those things, how they might simplify and improve, and on and on.

Together, the customer and my client went back to basics.  They discussed what it was they were trying to achieve–it was not about replacing an old system, it became all about their business and what they were trying to achieve in their business.  The discussion both grounded the customer and my client in what they were trying to achieve.  It wasn’t the replacement of the old system, it was about their business and what they needed to achieve in their business.  It refocused both the customer and my client.  The competitors still tried to sell a replacement to the old system, the customer and my client focused, instead, on what they were trying to achieve.

Our worlds, our customers and our own, are very complex.  Too often, we confuse what we are doing, replacing an old system, with what we are trying to achieve.

As we try to simplify our and our customers’ worlds, perhaps the greatest Insight we can provide is to help the customer have clarity on what they are trying to achieve.

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3 Comments
  1. Wow, Dave.

    I wasn’t sure whether I should swoon from the fact that you had to chime in with “I get that. I know what they are doing, but what are they trying to achieve?” Or, whether I should die laughing at “pissing on the ashes calls.”

    Reminds me of one of my old stand-bys… The 5 Whys. And how often we miss the dirt-simple stuff.

    Great post. Again.

    • Mike, the 5 Why’s is powerful stuff.

      I was looking for responses to my “pissing on the ashes call.” Glad to cause a chuckle. They are actually fun calls because they are absolutely no lose. They free you up to be real with the customer and that’s where a lot of break through comes.

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