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Value Is A Mystery

by David Brock on December 19th, 2010

I have to thank Mike Wilkinson of Axia Value Solutions for this idea, but when he emailed me with the notion of Value Is A Mystery, it really got me thinking.

From a sales point of view, it’s easy to understand that Value Is A Mystery, after all the only side of value that we know is what we can do, our products, services, capabilities, reputation, and so forth.  But until we  know how our customer define value, it’s a mystery to us.  Sure we can approximate what they might think of in terms of value.  Hopefully, our product managers have spent a lot of time talking to and living with customers, so we have some idea.  We also have probably sold our products and services to other similar customers and have had success within certain sectors or applications, so we aren’t completely clueless.  Knowing our customers’ business challenges, strategies, priorities, problems, opportunities and needs, give us more insight and clues.

I don’t want to mislead you, we have lots of clues and indicators, we have some great starting points, but until we have spoken directly with the customer–each customer involved in the buying process, Value Is A Mystery to us.  It takes deep conversations with each customer involved in the buying process to de-mystify value, to learn what they value, and then to translate what we can do about it–creating value for them.

So there’s the first part, how do we as sales professionals De-Mystify Value.  Not to difficult, probe, observe, engage in the right conversations with the right people, and so on.

However, I started thinking a little further, could it be that Value Is A Mystery to our customers?  The more I thought about it, I began to realize that perhaps I’ve been trivializing the task of determining what customers value.  I’ve written often about value being in the eye of the beholder–that is the customer.  I’ve written about methods sales professionals can use to engage the customer and determine what they value, then present their solutions in a differentiated manner.  But could it be the Value Is A Mystery to our customers?

As I reflected, we’re all pretty good at asking those glib questions, “What keeps you up at night?”  And customers are equally glib at responding.  We’ve been taught over and over to find the customers pain, to determine what’s in it for them, to assess needs, identify problems.  Those give us clues and insight, but they really don’t get at the issue of what customers value.

But asking a customer what they value probably brings back  a blank stare.  I don’t think there are any sets of questions and answers that get us to what customers value.  We certainly can get the data, but I think value has another dimension do it.  I think there is an emotional element in value that we can’t get by collecting the data.  I think there is an element of value that may be a mystery to customers themselves.  They may have never thought about it, they may not have been able to articulate it or even felt comfortable articulating it.  Like us, they know the data, but that data is only meaningful in a context–it’s that context where value becomes de-mystified.

When we start exploring the context in which value lives, we start understanding why customers may make what appear to be irrational decisions.  We start demystifying value, when in conversation all of a sudden you see the customer’s eyes light up, they have that “aha” moment.  Or maybe they sit back and think, they may say something like “I never thought of it that way,” or “I learned something new.”  Or there is this magic change iu energy level, engagement, openness–we suddenly move from question and answer (ping-pong-ping-pong) to a conversation.

Value Is A Mystery–  to our customers and to sales.  It’s the great sales professional that recognizes this, moves from questions and answers into a richer conversation, colored with context and emotion.  This is where value lives, this is where value becomes demystified.

What are your experiences?  Is value a mystery to our customers?  What are some of the ways you have de-mystified value?  I can put my fingers on part of this, but I’d love to learn more.

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  1. In the absence of the prospect being able to effectively explain their concept of value, many salespeople assume the role of mind readers and pose solutions based on unsubstantiated assumptions.

    Another trap too many salespeople fall into is listening to the prospect’s words through a sales filter that colors the output.

    Just appreciating the fact that Value is a Mystery begins to open your mind to better understanding.

    • Brian, thanks for another great insight! We all know the problem of making ASSumptions! Unfortunately, too much of how we sell is based on this. Likewise, we hear what we want to hear, not what the customer is really saying. Sometimes, it is so extreme, we never give the customer the chance to talk, but hear a couple of “trigger” words which launch us into our sales pitches.

      Thanks for your continued contributions to the blog. I really appreciate your insights. Regards, Dave

  2. I really enjoyed this message. I tend to disagree that it is more difficult to learn what a prospect values than it is to learn their “pain points”.
    There is a psychology to sales that is important to understand in order to be truly successful. Part of that psychology is knowing how to get down to the emotional side of what the prospect is considering buying. All purchases are made based on emotion.
    We buy cars that make us feel safe, sexy, or young, etc.
    If the sales person can reach the emotional side of why the purchase would benefit the prospect, their odds of selling increase for sure!
    Thanks for sharing I enjoyed the message!

    • Trish, thanks for the great comment. I tend to agree with you, getting to the emotional side of why people are buying is critical. One of the challenges, however, is that in our training and development we tend not to talk about the emotional side of selling, focusing instead on the business, logical stuff. To some degree it’s a cultural issue. However, until you begin to explore it, it is virtually impossible to de-mystify value.

      Thanks for the great insight! Regards, Dave

  3. Great points, thoughtfully made. As ever. IMO, there’s enormous value in honing the skills, methods, + tools used to explore + define value with buyers. It’s an artform that I’ve learned the most about from folks expert in pricing strategy. It’s hard to de-mystify value. But there’s enormous value (and margin) in doing so. It may just be the latest example of points Kevin Davis makes in his forthcoming book, ‘Slow Down, Sell Faster’. It also speaks to the potential importance of connecting with buyers via destination postcards on buyer value (which define the value of a change both logically + emotionally in terms shared by both buyer + seller) as a technique for making change when change is hard to make.
    With pricing, the change from properly defining buyer value may be much more than loose change.

    Trust this adds some value. – John

    • Great insight John, thanks for contributing. The pricing community (and buyer/procurement community) have made great progress in thinking about these isssues. Sales professionals would be well served by studying much of this work. Thanks for the reminder, always a great contribution!

  4. Great message, Dave. I also liked Brian’s emphasis on the presumed communication that happens, and on Trish’s reminder that all ‘value’ is ultimately emotional, if by ‘value’ we mean a driver of the purchasing decision. (I tend to think of the term ‘value proposition’ as being more the rational post hoc justification that buyers give for having bought. Which is also important, I’m not minimizing the need for rational explanations).

    What the post reminds me of is the power of shared communication. We should try our best to always assume that we don’t necessarily know what goes on in the minds of our customers. Especially when the customers tell us in words what is going on. It’s not that they lie, it’s that no human beings can really articulate their inner desires without articulating them to someone else.

    That’s the basis of the profession of analysts and counselors–they get you to talk, in which case you often solve your own problems.

    I think it’s an apt metaphor for selling: done right, it is about establishing a connection with an Other, such that each of you can articulate wants and desires with far greater clarity.

    And the happy byproduct of that conversation is that the one who was responsible for bringing clarity gets rewarded in a socially appropriate manner–by being given the sale.

    • Wonderful insight Charlie! Establishing the trusted relationship that enables true connections is vital. I think one of the big mistakes we see people make is assuming if we ask the right questions, we can elicit the data we need to determine and deliver value. Even if the customer wants to tell us, sometimes they don’t know how, or how to express it. The analyst example you cite is a good model, it allows introspection and self or mutual discovery. This starts de-mystifying value for all. And, as you point out, the process of doing this creates great value in itself.

      Thanks so much!

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