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Are You Prepared To Have A Customer-Specfic Conversation?

by David Brock on March 12th, 2013

Insight is the word of the year. We are all being trained in providing insight–ideas about the customer’s business; how they might grow, opportunities they might be missing, how they might improve, how they might achieve their dreams and goals more effectively. If, we’ve done it correctly, we get the customer interested and the conversation begins.

The conversation is the most important–and perhaps the most difficult. In order to maximize our value creation and our success, we need to get “up-close and personal.” Our conversation has to move through a number of levels–each of which requiring great knowledge.  Regardless of the size of the company-customer, we need to be specific.  Whether we are working with a Global 50 corporation, small or mid sized businesses, or the sole proprietor, we must move from general insight to customer specific conversations.

These conversations require deep knowledge, understanding, and demonstrated credibility in a number of areas.

Industry/Market Knowledge: We have to understand the critical issues, trends, metrics, and structure of the customer’s industry and the markets they serve. We need to be able to speak with great credibility about what’s happening, how it impacts the customer’s organization, how it impacts the customer’s department, and how it impacts the customer. We have to tie this conversation to the insight that initiated the conversation.

Customer Organizational Knowledge: We have to understand the top priorities, strategies, and performance metrics of the customer’s organization. If our initiative does not directly tie to these priorities, regardless how urgent the issue we are addressing, it is unlikely to be approved. We need to determine and help the customer understand the financial impact and risk of what we are proposing, and we need to help them align with their CFO and how they evaluate new opportunities. We need to know how the customer organizes to buy, how they align different agendas, priorities and interests in making a decision. We need to provide leadership and support the customer in their buying process. We need to help the customer identify all the issues in their organization, and how to overcome them to move forward with the insight and the initiative.

Customer Functional Knowledge: We have to understand the strategies, priorities, and performance metrics of the function we are working with. We have to understand and communicate how the insight will impact and improve the operations of the function it impacts. We need to address work flow issues–before, after. We need to help the customer understand the change management issues–within their function and organization–to achieve success in implementation. We need to understand and discuss the impact we will have on the function.

Customer Knowledge: Customers are people, not enterprises or organizations. Each has strengths, weaknesses, fears, dreams, and ambitions. Each has a different agenda in any change initiative. We need to understand these–for each person involved directly or indirectly in the decision-making process.  We need to translate our insight into meaning for each individual involved.  We must continually address, “What’s In It For Me?”

Conflict/Disagreement:  Our insight sparks interest and engagement.  It doesn’t mean acceptance and doesn’t translate in buying.  Insight starts the conversation, but people have varying points of view and opinions.  We have to understand these points of view, differences in opinion and address them.  We have to have the knowledge and ability to manage these differing points of view and to address disagreements.  Ultimately, we have to have enough knowledge about the value we create, specific to the customer to persuade and align them around what we are trying to achieve.

The Numbers:  It all comes down to the numbers.  However good our insight and ideas, they have to produce results for the customer.  We have to understand the customer’s numbers and the impact we will have. We have to be able to engage the customer in discussions about the numbers, their numbers.  We have to defend our analysis and get buy-in from the customer, the function, the CFO, and the organization.

Insight is the spark that may get things going.  But that’s where the tough work starts.  We need to engage our customers in conversations and actions to move forward.  Those conversations require deep knowledge, thoughtful listening, leadership, and focus.  They can’t be generic, but they have to be specific–down to the individual.

Are you prepared to have customer specific conversations?

Postscript:  Some great comments have come in after the original publication.  I thought it worthy to add these to the post:

Competitive Knowledge:  There are several dimensions to this.  First the customer’s competitors and the the positioning of the customer with respect to those competitors.  We have to have conversations that engage the customer in beating their competition.  Second, our own competitors or the alternatives the customer may be considering (including nothing).  We have to be able to position ourselves directly with these and how we create greater value.  We need to defend this positioning with the competition, establishing ourselves as the standard that others must meet.

Solution Knowledge:  I add this with some trepidation.  Sales people are well schooled in and knowledgeable about solutions.  We are eager to jump in and pitch our solutions.  There’s an important difference in this knowledge.  It is the ability to connect directly and with relevance to the specific issues the customer faces, and how we can address them better than any other solution they may be considering.  Dumping a lot of irrelevant data about our solutions is wrong.  We need to understand what the customer is trying to achieve presenting only what is relevant and impactful to them.

This post was written as part of the IBM for Midsize Business program, which provides midsize businesses with the tools, expertise and solutions they need to become engines of a smarter planet. I’ve been compensated to contribute to this program, but the opinions expressed in this post are my own and don’t necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.


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  1. Another great post, Dave.

    Question: where would you put competitor insight (both your competitors and your client’s)?

    • Great observation Tim. It was implicit in my Industry/Market Knowledge component, but I really think it should be explicit. We need to be conscious of the alternatives, the customer’s attitudes toward them, and how we taaalk to the customer about them.

      Which brings up another thing I should have brought up: Solutions Expertise–understanding the solution area and being able to translate that to customer impact.

      Thanks for the great prompt. Regards, Dave

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