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Customers Don’t Know What They Don’t Know

by David Brock on October 19th, 2011

Where do we find new deals?  How do we get customers energnized about the deals we are talking to them about?  How do we unstick stalled deals?  What about those “no decisions?”  These are the top issues I hear from sales professionals every day.  They’re tough challenges.

I think one of the root causes of these challenges is the conversations we have with our customers (if we even are having a conversation, rather than pitching).   We’re having the wrong conversations at the wrong time!  Here’s where these conversations go off target.

We qualify our customer, start our discovery process with the same 20 questions–the same ones we ask every single customer, the same ones our competition is asking them, the same one’s they’ve already researched and answered in social media.  We aren’t helping the customer discover anything new, we’re just learning what we want to pitch and propose.

We may get lucky, the customer may not know or may not understand something.  They know what they don’t know and asking us for information to fill in gaps in their knowledge.  Increasingly, that’s rare because so many are finding “answers,” right or wrong, on the web.

In each of these cases we are leaving the heavy lifting to the customer.  We are decreasing our value and importance to the customer.  We’re waiting for them to discover a problem, we’re waiting for them to determine they want to do something about it, we’re waiting for them to figure out their requirements and to learn enough to consider us, to have the ability to answer our questions, or to have the ability to answer our questions.  We are being relegated to the final phases of the selections process.  The likelihood of winning is probably about the same as your probability of winning the RFP you haven’t written (or influenced).

Our ability to create value, our ability to influence, our ability to differentiate has been substantially narrowed because the customer either knows everything they need or they know what they don’t know and are just seeking answers to those questions.

The real opportunity for sales and marketing is to change the conversation–the timing, content, and quality of the conversation.  Our real opportunity is with customers who don’t know what they don’t know!  Our opportunity is to help customers to think about their businesses and markets differently, to help them discover opportunities they had never considered before, to help them discover new ways of running their businesses–to improve efficiency, effectiveness, customer responsiveness, quality, or any number of other things.

We can’t wait until the customers know what they don’t know, we have to help them discover it, creating a sense of urgency around addressing it.  Our standard 20 discovery questions won’t help us do this.  We have to have to start different conversations much earlier than we typically do.

How do we help our customers know what they don’t know?  We have to become students of their industries, we have to become students of their markets, we have to have ideas and solutions that help them identify and address opportunities they have never imagined.

Steve Jobs and Apple never ran focus groups.  People didn’t know they needed an Iphone or Ipad.  They didn’t know they needed to swipe a screen or talk to the device, rather than typing and punching a button.  If they asked customers what mobile phone or problems they had, they probably wouldn’t have discovered what have become the break out product categories of the past few years. 

Helping customers know what they don’t know isn’t just sales’ job–it’s a core part of marketing, product management, product development–it reaches into many parts of the company.  Tactically, however, the implementation and execution fall on marketing and sales shoulders. 

Changing what the conversations are about, when  you are having them, where you have them, and how those conversations progress are critical to creating awareness, urgency, and demand.  The leadership we provide, redefines our role, our value, and our relationships with customers. 

Listening to conversations is important–in the customers’ offices, on the web, at conferences and trade shows — where ever they hang out.  But we need to be starting conversations–we need to be starting new discussions, inviting our customers and prospects to begin to know what they don’t know.

What are you doing to help your customers know what they don’t know?  What conversations are you initiating?

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  1. The absolute now for sales and the answer for the future success of many companies! Thank you for a insightful article.

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