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“I Don’t Know What You Do, But I Know What You Need To Do!”

by David Brock on August 31st, 2012

We know we have to challenge our customers to think differently, that we have to bring ideas and insight.  We try to be provocative to catch our customers’ attentions.  But absent an understanding of the customer, being challenging or provocative is just another pitch!

My good friend, Tamara Schenk, shared a story with me.  A vendor approached her, stating, “You need to make some changes in the sales enablement strategies you are driving in your organization!  You need to do this………”  You guessed it, it was a pitch for his solution.  I laughed when she told me her response, “Thank you for telling me what we need to do, you’ve never spoken to us, you don’t know our strategies, you don’t know our priorities, you don’t know what we are trying to achieve.  Yet you already have the answers to all our business problems.”

As we commiserated about the “poor state of selling,” we chatted about what she and her company were trying to achieve.  It struck me, the solution this sales person represented could help them.  The problem was, the sales person never invested the time to understand.  The sales person hadn’t done his homework, hadn’t taken the time to engage Tamara, and hadn’t started to build their own personal credibility with her and others in the organization.

In contrast, yesterday, I spoke with a team from one of my clients.  They were preparing to meet with the CFO of one of their customers (a Fortune 25 organization).  This company was a long time customer of my client’s, and they had a good relationship.  But they had some ideas for the customer.  They had spent time wandering around the organization.  They had been talking to people in the organization, understanding both what they were doing and seeing opportunities they wer missing.  They understood what the customer was trying to achieve.  They saw roadblocks to their ability to achieve their goals–barriers the customer was unaware of, purely because of their lack of experience.  My client had a lot of insight about these specific issues.  They had experience in helping other companies address this issue.  They had specific data about the problems this customer was having and ideas about the improvements they could achieve.

This team was preparing for the meeting, challenging the customer to think differently, teaching them about a new approach to their business, and backing it up with data and recommendations very specific and relevant to the customer’s strategies, priorities, and needs.  Based on what they presented to me, the specificity of the data and it’s relevance to the CFO’s priorities, and the potential their insight offers this customer, I know the CFO will be receptive and interested.  I know they will at least be able to engage the CFO and his team in discussing these ideas.  I don’t know whether they will be successful in closing the deal–it depends on this meeting, but they will have an impactful meeting.

Effective challenging, effective teaching, effective insight must be done in a context that is relevant and specific to the customer.  Absent that, it’s arrogance, puffery, and just today’s form of the classic sales person’s approach, “Buy my product.” 

Having an opinion, providing insight, getting the customer to think about their businesses differently is critical both to catching the attention of our customers and in creating value to them.  But can’t do this blindly, it has to be done in the context of what’s important to the customer.  It has to be presented in terms relevant to the customer.  We have to do our homework and earn the right to challenge, teach, and provide insight.

Are you preparing to challenge your customer?  Do you have insights and are you ready to teach them?  Are these insights structured in a context that is meaningful and relevant to the customer?

Have you invested the time to understand your customer’s strategies, priorities, problems, and needs?  Have you wandered around the organization to see really what’s happening?

Do you have data that’s specific and relevant to your customer and what the customer is trying to achieve?

Have you tied your insights to that data and can you talk about specific results the customer can achieve?

Can you tie your insights to “stories” and observations meaningful and specific to the customer–observations of what they are doing, things their customers are doing, things their competitors are doing?  Do you tie these to the impact you can have on the customer?

Absent this, your provocation and teaching is just meaningless noise!

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  1. Dave, this is really spot on!
    It’s amazing to see, how bad sales examples can lead to an excellent blog post! “The sales person hadn’t done his homework” was exactly the problem.
    All the questions, the solution selling people (no, wait a minute, somebody pronounced this selling strategy dead, right?) were asking all over the place, should have been asked here!
    Or even better, many of these questions could have been answered beforehand, using all kinds of CMI and social media…

    • Tamara: It was your unsettling story that provided much of the inspiration for this post. Our customers want us to bring them ideas, they want to learn new things, they want us to challenge them. The most powerful insights tie directly to them—marrying our experience, insights, and views directly to issues they face.

      Thanks both for the inspiration and joining the discussion.

  2. Nice post Dave. Thanks for sharing.

    In some reserach we did this past year, the importance of “non-traditional due diligence” emerged as a clear high-performer behavior. Non-traditional means that the reps have to know something about the customer that the customer themselves doesn’t know. You don’t find non-traditional info in the 10-K or annual report. The company already knows this info (not to say you ignore that important context!), but that’s table stakes.

    This includes leveraging other account managers, who are selling into that account. Leveraging purchasing consultants that can help offer, at least, directional guidance without violating NDAs, etc. Leveraging “Talkers” inside the account, who are willing to discuss what’s happening and who’s who, all before you talk with “Mobilizers” and Key Buyers.

    I’ve put together a blog on these findings here:

    • Thanks for the comment Nick. It’s great to see that your research continues to confirm great sales practice I’ve seen since I first was trained as a sales rep in the late 70’s/early 80’s.

      Frankly, sales people limiting themselves to the annual report, 10-K, or the company’s website or press releases will not get much meaningful insight at all. After all, those are vehicles the organization uses to let you know what they want you to know, not necessarily the real issues or opportunities. They are a great starting points, but great sales people immerse themselves in their customer’s business. They understand the markets, their customers’ customers, the competition. As you mention, they may talk to other account managers, purchasing consultants, and others. Most importantly, they wander around the customer. They get to know many people, they seek to understand what’s really happening (and not happening), what the people are seeing/experiencing. They look at the operations of their customers, testing ideas, getting up to their elbows in what’s going on. They see things the customers may not see or are blind to (prisoners of their own experience). From this they identify opportunities, challenges, problems they can present. Things the customer may never have been aware of, yet was going on right under their noses, things that other organizations may be doing that the customer might tweak and adapt.

      To the degree sales people have the opportunity to “wander around,” the relevance, context, and impact of the insight provided is orders of magnitude greater than that we can provide without wandering around. So wherever possible, sales should be doing this. This structured process is a fundamental part of any account planning process. Without this, sales people can still have significant impact and insight–but only through immersing themselves in the business/markets, etc.

      Then, as you mention, great sales reps focus on engaging decisionmakers and those with a vested interest for drinving change in the organization. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

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