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We Don’t Know What We Don’t Know

by David Brock on September 25th, 2009

As consultative, solutions, customer-focused sales professionals, we know that we are supposed to probe our customer’s needs, problems and challenges.  Doing this is the mark of any good sales professional.

Probing our customers, understanding their problems, quantifying and qualifying their needs is critical to proposing solutions to their issues.  Customers appreciate sales professionals who provide value based and business justified solutions to their problems.

But what happens when the customer doesn’t know that they have problems, or doesn’t recognize  opportunities?  What happens when they don’t know?  No amount of good questioning and probing will get the customer to know what they don’t know.

The mark of truly great sales professionals is to help the customer discover what they don’t know.  Much has been written of provocative selling (including some rants from me).  One of the things I like about provocative selling is that it helps customers discover what they don’t know.  But we don’t need to make this as complicated and overwhelming as it is with provocative selling.  All it takes is curiosity and a drive to help your customers improve and grow their businesses.

Spend some time looking at your customer’s operations.  Learn how they work, look at how other organizations do the same thing.  Are there things they do that your customer might do to improve their operations?  If you were running the business, what would you do to improve it—either to reduce costs or to drive revenue. 

For example, many years ago, as a young sales person, I did the best to discover my customers needs.  I wanted to sell them more computers.  At the moment, they didn’t have any problems or needs.  Their computer capacity would support them for years, they had no need, no budget, or desire to upgrade their computer system, let alone buy a completely new one.  Unless I did something differently, I wouldn’t be able to sell anything for years. 

Well they were a credit card processor.  It was in the days when merchants would have to call in for approval on credit card purchases (yes, I’m really dating myself, we had just come from exchanging stones as currency).  I spenttime watching the clerks who were processing the approvals.  There were hundreds of them.  All of them wore phone headsets, all of them sat at computer terminals processing approvals.  The management team tracked performance of these clerks and didn’t see any problems with performance.  As workload went up, which was fairly predictable, they would bring in more temporaries to handle the increased workload.  Everything was humming along smoothly, they were meeting all their goals and metrics.  They had no needs or problems in this department.

So I started learning about credit card processing, everyone was doing it the same way.  Then I started doing some other research.  I started looking at how response time impacted productivity.  I discovered for every increase of 1 second in response time, the attention of the clerk was diverted and they lost another 2 seconds for a total of 3 seconds of lost productivity (not to mention the frustration they went through as things slowed down)(Thanks to Walt at IBM Research for the idea).  It was interesting, but even the clerks didn’t perceive that as a real problem.  I then thought, what if we could reduc the response time from its current level. to a new level, what would the impact be on productivity.  Well you can guess it, just improving the response time a small amount, multiplied by hundreds of transactions a day, multiplied by hundreds of clerks presented a significant opportunity.  The productivity increase, the intangible increase in employee satisfaction, and the increase in merhant satisfaction (which we didn’t measure), produced millions in savings each month.

Jumping to the end of the story, I started talking to my customer about this.  They started to get curious and together wee explored the opportunity.  I presented a business case for a new $20M computer system (and that was when a $20M sale was something big) that had a payback of slightly less than 6 months.  The customer had no budget for this, but when presented with the opportunity to significantly improve their operations, they immediately found the money.

To be honest, my curiosity was driven by desparation.  I needed to make my quota.  I had spoken to the customer about their problems and needs—they didn’t have any.  My desparation drove me to start asking “what if.”  In doing this, I helped my customer discover things they didn’t know about their business.  I helped them envision ways they could improve their business.

Help your customer discover what they don’t know.  Ask yourself the what if questions about their businessTake the time to study and learn.  Be curious.  Ask yourself “what if they did this, how would it improve their operations,”  “what if they did that, could they create a new revenue stream to grow their business.”  Explore these “what ifs” with your customer.  Together you’l discover what you don’t know you don’t know.  In the end, can identify great opportunities for them and new sales for you.

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  1. Another great article and demonstrates the high impact of understanding and knowing your clients business. I love the idea that you thought and explored how their operations could benefit thorough increased productivity when there was no apparent need.

    I did work for a company in the software industry where the product was at the early adaptors stage. It was a really great product that identified (very accurately) inappropriate material resident on corporate networks. the difficulty was two fold a) most IT managers/directors didn’t believe they had a problem b) even if they were aware they did were VERY reluctant to do anything about it.

    the sales was therefore initially an education excerise and no matter how well you knew the clients business they considered the service to be an add on if they had the budget. It was in a lot of cases only after they had an “incident” were material was sent ou of the org or a colleague complained about material that they came TO the company looking for something to be done.

    I’ve never fully got my head around this early adaptor sale – any insight would be most welcome

    Warm Regards

    • Randal: Thanks for your comment. The “early adapter” challenge is particularly interesting. I’ve faced it a number of times in my career and in advising clients. There is no doubt that it is an educational and evangelical sale.

      The greatest challenge is getting your first few “cornerstone” customers. I could go on about that–perhaps another blog post, but I like Geoffrey Moore’s early work (Crossing the Chasm, etc.) on this topic.

      One of the biggest challenges I see many organizations doing is casting far too wide a net in their sales and marketing efforts. It creates real problems in gaining deep understanding of customer needs, establishing some level of credibility about the “reality” of the problem, and establishing traction after the initial couple of sales to accelerate market penetration.

      It may sound counter intuitive, but very narrow focus is most critical for success in these areas.

      Another thing, that accelerates acceptance of these types or products is getting customers very early in the product development cycle. We’ve seen great success in doing this—accelerating launch success by having a thought leader customer involved in the development and testing, and providing testimonials at launch.

      Finally, I’ve seen many companies with “revolutionary” early stage products brag about no competition. Actually, with these types of products that’s about the worst thing you can do. Having competition, even if it’s very distant provides customers a better context to understand your offering and positioning. It makes it much easier for them to understand the potential it might offer them. So if you have a product like this, make sure you can help customers position it by comparing to some level of competition.

      I could go on– and probably will in another blog post. Thanks for the thoughtful comment and the interesting question.

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