Most everyone agrees that customers of all shapes and sizes in today’s marketplace are demanding more. They are more sophisticated, more knowledgeable, and more price conscious than perhaps ever before. From even cursory observations it is clear what customers are demanding: They want vendors who are easy to do business with—that is, who provide optimal service—and who provide the services and products that meet their needs.
Naturally, different customers will have different needs, and how they define excellent service will vary, but sales organizations must be able to identify these differences from their customer’s point of view, rather than relying on preconceived notions of how sales organizations and salespeople should sell to customers. The sales organization’s perspective of what customers value may not always represent what customers say they value. A strategy for identifying and understanding what customers value and how they buy is essential for providing the right solutions through the right type of sales interaction.
The following highlights key outcomes derived from our review of buying behaviors and attitudes from the customers’ perspectives and, more importantly, their implications for sales strategies.
It seems obvious, but to be successful in today’s competitive marketplace, it is critical that sales organizations know why their customers buy. IT customers reported that they buy because they require solutions that will improve the efficiency and effectiveness of their business, and they buy to better serve their customers. Knowing why they buy provides critical data to inform sales strategies, messages, and tactics so that salespeople are able to efficiently tailor solutions that best meet customers’ needs.
As alternative sales channels both within organizations and through third parties continue to grow in importance, salespeople will need to ensure that they provide the value that customers look for from a direct channel. Customers will go to different channels depending on their needs, but sales organizations must develop strategies that will make sure those needs are met regardless of the channel. While consumers have been the primary Web buyers, business customers will continue to increase their purchases over the Web as this channel becomes more sophisticated and robust in facilitating the buying experience.
For the sales organization, leaders must identify which customers prefer to buy through which channels so that they can allocate resources to each channel in the most effective and costefficient manner. For salespeople, it will be important to identify ways they can provide value to the customer beyond what customers get through other channels, such as the Web or resellers. Many nondirect channels look alike, and it’s difficult to add any unique value for the customer through these alternative channels. Thus, sales organizations must differentiate themselves through their direct sales force—those that can’t figure out how to increase value to the customer provided through their direct channel will become undifferentiated and lose sales to those organizations that can.
Ask salespeople what customers are most concerned with and many will tell you “price.” While almost always an important issue for everyone involved, customers in our study mentioned other factors that are equally if not more important in their decision to buy. According to the study, customers said they would pay more if they could get excellent after-sales service, and they placed premium value on service and product reputation. In fact, service was the most important factor they valued from their vendor organization.
Sales organizations can’t compete or differentiate themselves on price alone. Creating and maintaining an excellent reputation of both service and product should be a primary focus of sales organizations. Salespeople will need to perpetuate that reputation through their behavior in the field and ensure that they instill confidence among customers who have come to expect excellent service and after-sales support.
The question for sales organizations is how to identify which customers are merely looking for price and product information and which require a trusted business advisor—and which customers are somewhere in between.
Many sales organizations believe that the best way to be customer-focused is to diagnose their customers’ problems, act as strategic consultants, and calculate a return on investment for the customer. However, not all customers may want this. For many, all they want from their salesperson is the ability to negotiate a good price and information on the features and benefits of the product or service they are considering buying. With all of the competing sources of information available to customers, salespeople need to know when a customer relies on them for the simple facts as opposed to solving their strategic business challenges. A strategy for segmenting customers based on buying behavior and needs allows sales organizations to distribute resources in an optimal way.
Salespeople typically emphasize the importance of being friendly, developing relationships, listening well, and being persistent when interacting with customers. However, customers have simply come to expect these behaviors as given and they no longer view them as differentiators in the marketplace. Shouldn’t all salespeople be friendly? It may be nice to have a friendly and persistent salesperson, but it’s not a requirement.
What customers do require is that their salesperson be honest, responsive to their needs, and diligent in following up when they say they will, as well as knowledgeable about the products. According to customers, these attributes have the most influence on their decision to buy. Sales organizations have to develop policies, incentives, and sales practices to ensure their salespeople are exhibiting these behaviors.
The influence customers have today in the buyer-seller relationship in many industries is what drives the strategies discussed in this book. Clearly, customers have come to expect a high level of service and quality products at the best price. As these expectations cross alternative sales channels, leading organizations have stepped up to meet the challenge. Sales organizations will best differentiate themselves, however, by providing additional value through their direct sales channel, but only for those customers who need additional value and can’t get it elsewhere. Knowing who these customers are and what they value will be important to winning sales.
Having a handle on what customers want and value, how they buy, and why they buy is an important step in building strategies that win sales. This information allows sales organizations to best segment their market, appropriately allocate resources across the sales force, implement effective sales tactics, and develop training programs. Ultimately, such strategies of successful sales organizations are geared to meeting the needs of their customers regardless of how simple or complex, and regardless of what channel the transaction comes through.