Not many months ago, I was involved in a very complex sales situation with a client. This client sold high end capital equipment into specific manufacturing processes. They had an opportunity with to do a deal that represented a couple hundred million dollars. They had asked me for help in developing and executing their sales strategy.
As I listened to the team describe the account history, goals, the sales situation, the competition, and everything else, one question kept going through my mind, “Why would the customer ever make a decision for my client?” Based on everything they told me, I just couldn’t understand why the customer would do this.
When I posed the question to the team, they quickly replied, “Our solution is clearly superior to the competitor’s….” They went through all sorts of data, analysis, justification and rationalization about why they had a superior solution.
I told them I understood it, they had a great technical solution, but I still couldn’t understand why the customer would select them. See, the competition was the incumbent vendor. The customer had invested hundreds of millions in their equipment. They had invested over $50 million in programming and internal support of the competitor’s product. The key customer executive was the “poster child” of the competitor’s user group—he had been their keynote speaker, there were all sorts of testimonials and case studies the competitor used that were based on this customer.
I told the team, that while they seemed to have a superior solution, I didn’t understand why the customer would ever change vendors. Had the team ever asked the customer why?
They looked at me in sheer terror, “We can’t ask the customer that! They might agree, then where would we be?”
“Well that’s the point isn’t it?” I replied. “Why do you want to waste your time on this deal if there is no way they would ever make a decision for you?” (This was an opportunity that would require a significant commitment of company resources to sell the deal–several $100’s of thousands.) “I understand the superiority of your solution, but when you look at it from the customer point of view, when you look at the investments they have made, the commitment they have to your competitor, why would they ever make a decision for you? If I were in the decision maker’s shoes, knowing what I know about your solution, I would still not select you.”
“So why don’t you ask them?” I posed.
After some discussion, they asked me to go to the decision maker with them. After the introductions and social niceties, I posed the question, “The team has briefed me on your company, your needs, and what you are trying to achieve. But I have to admit, that if I were in your shoes, I don’t know that I would even consider my client’s solutions. I’d really love to understand why you would ever consider buying my client’s solutions. Are we missing something?”
There were a few seconds of silence that seemed like an eternity. The executive smiled and said no one had ever asked him that question. He then went into a 30 minute diatribe—about how dissatisfied he was with the current supplier, how they had not supported them, how their change in system architecture would require them to completely rewrite all their software, and on and on. He was clearly angry with his current supplier. He told us he was looking for every excuse he could to shift all his future investments to another more trustworthy supplier.
After 30 minutes, he calmed down enough that we could ask a few questions. “What do we need to demonstrate to earn your business?” He crisply outlined 6 areas that he and his team were concerned about and what we needed to prove to them. “If we meet your expectations in those six areas, is that sufficient to win your business?” Without hesitation, he told us that if we were successful in those areas, they would sign a contract with us. You know the rest of the story….
In many sales situations, there seems to be that obvious, but very awkward question—Why would you consider doing business with us? The question has nothing do do with the merits of our product or services, but when you look at things from the customer point of view, it’s hard to understand why they should do business with you. It may be commitments to competitors or a whole variety of other things.
We don’t ask it partly because it’s one of those questions we are never taught to ask–why would we ever question the fit of our solutions to a customer that we had qualified? It’s a question that we don’t ask because we are afraid of the answer. The customer may respond–“You know you are right, it just doesn’t make sense.”
Isn’t that actually good news? It’s a deal we would have competed for, but having no chance to win. We now know not to waste our time and resources–or the customer’s.
We’re passionate about what we sell. We want to compete in every opportunity we can to demonstrate we can provide superior solutions to our customers. But every once in a while there are those deals where things don’t look right. There are those deals, where we don’t know why the customer would buy from us.
When that happens, take the opportunity to ask the customer. You might be surprised with the response!