Think Like A Customer Or Lose The Sale

April 12, 2002
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Thinking like a customer isn’t easy. In fact, it’s so difficult that many companies are unable to do it. Coca-Cola is a classic example. In the mid-1980s, it changed its long-standing formula in an effort to attract younger customers. The public outrage was instant and unyielding. It didn’t take long for the company to give back what it had taken away. Coke sales, after languishing for a number of years, took off.

Evidently, Coca-Cola forgot what it had learned. When the water wars heated up and the power drinks appeared a few years ago, Coke ignored the message, while Pepsi-Cola embraced the trend.

What does it mean to listen to the customer? Here are some guidelines designed to make sure you hear the customer’s message.

Do you find your company making these common mistakes?

1. Doing it your way. After searching for heating system filters of a certain size, the homeowner found a supplier. “We’ll call you when they come in,” said the person taking the order. “Since I am ordering a full carton, would it be possible just to have them drop-shipped to my home?” the customer asked. “No,” came the reply. “We don’t do it that way.”

When a seminar leader asked what bothered them most about their suppliers, a group of farm store dealers were unanimous in their response. They did not like “all the little charges” vendors tacked on to their invoices. Then the seminar leader asked, “How do you think your customers feel when you charge them for deliveries?”

Listening to the customer means figuring out ways to avoid unnecessary aggravation.

2. Focusing on your objectives. A marketing executive was meeting with a nonprofit organization’s development officer and its event-planning firm regarding an upcoming activity. This was basically a get-acquainted session.

Less than two minutes after being introduced, the event planner began talking about other services she could provide the marketing executive’s client. She went as far as wanting to get together with the president of the company he represented. It was brutally clear that the event planner had her own agenda and that her goals took precedence over those of anyone else.

Her behavior sent a clear message: Her No. 1 customer was herself. Everyone wants more customers, but elbowing your way to the head of line is not the way to create confidence and earn new business.

3. Pushing for meetings. “Oh, you want us to send you the information. We can, of course, but it might be more helpful if we met.” Those who push for a meeting are generally pushing in the wrong direction. Even worse, salespeople believe that they can make a sale if only they can get in front of the customer.

Perhaps they feel like the Dodge dealer from Phoenix who complained that the Internet denied him the opportunity to meet face-to-face with the customer and “work his magic.” The task is to engage customers by capturing their interest. Few meetings can possibly accomplish that objective. However, if you connect with what is going on inside the customer’s head, you’ll be invited through the door.

4. Deciding when the customer should buy. Perhaps the most costly mistake made by salespeople is not just failing to think like a customer but brazenly thinking for the customer.

It’s normal to want to get the order signed, whether it is a retailer selling a sport coat or a defense contractor closing a deal for a nuclear submarine. We all want to get it done because so much depends on “making the sale.” The merchant wants to keep her doors open and the defense contractor has years of R and D hanging in the balance.

Since the mid-1980s, a far-reaching change has taken place, one that is more pronounced now than ever before: Decision-making is more complicated (corporate buying committees lengthen the process), and no one wants to make a mistake (people who do so get replaced).

Instead of viewing a buying decision as an opportunity to improve efficiency, increase productivity, or solve a problem, it is more often than not a dreaded experience. As a result, it is delayed as long as possible. The point is simple: The salesperson can no longer control the buying cycle. This means that getting the order depends on shadowing the customer until the customer gets ready to buy. If you don’t, someone else walks away with the order.

5. Pushing the customer. Traditionally, selling has been something of a “push process.” In other words, the salesperson develops strategies for getting the customer to buy. “I know you have been considering our color copier for some time now,” said the salesperson. “I just wanted you to know that we have a trade-in special for the next two weeks that I think you’ll find quite attractive. When would be a good time to go over it with you?”

While the “push” technique is used every day of the week, it is less and less effective, since it flies in the face of what can be called the “pull approach.” This is just one more example of how the Internet has changed the way customers think and how they expect to do business.

Amazon.com is the master of “pull.” It constantly invites the customer to look more and to follow new, interesting, and worthwhile “paths.” Instead of buying being painful, negative, and unpleasant, it becomes an exciting experience because the customer is invited to see more, learn more, and most importantly of all, to participate more. Amazon.com customers recognize that the retailer is walking with them.

It is even permissible to put items on a “wish list.” What a wonderful “pull” technique. From time to time, the customer is reminded of “wish list” items. Wooing customers is the key to selling success.

6. Failing to listen. Unfortunately, failing to listen isn’t just a matter of not hearing what’s being said. More accurately, it is deliberately ignoring the customer’s agenda. In the past, customers were more forgiving than they are today.

A Pitney-Bowes salesperson once met with a company executive regarding ways to improve personalized direct mail functions. The salesperson asked about typical jobs, the types of mail involved, the approximate quantities, and the personnel who would be operating the equipment. When the meeting ended, the customer felt that the salesperson seemed to understand the requirements.

When he opened the proposal a week later, he thought the wrong document had been enclosed. The recommendations did not even remotely fit the company’s needs. The salesperson didn’t fail to listen. Listening was unimportant, actually irrelevant to what the salesperson wanted to sell. Not surprisingly, that salesperson rung up a “no sale.”

7. Keeping your sales strategy a secret. Contrary to what some salespeople would have us believe, selling is not warfare. The customer is not an enemy to be subdued. The first principle of selling should be to dispel any adversarial feelings. By the way, just using such words as “partnering” or “consultant” fails to disarm today’s customers.

Selling must be a mutually agreed upon process that involves both salesperson and customer. What do we want to accomplish?

What is the best way to get there? How can we do this together?

A collaborative approach creates trust and establishes credibility because the customer knows where you are going and what to expect.

8. Making the sale the goal. How many times have companies bought three to ten times as many brochures as could ever be used?

The print salesperson offers an attractive per unit price. Five years later, cartons of brochures are still stashed away in the warehouse. Now obsolete, they will eventually be trashed. All the so-called “savings” were actually a cost.

One advertising account executive takes a different approach and actually cautions clients to buy a limited supply initially. “Once a brochure is in use,” he says, “I recommend that clients keep track of comments and suggestions so that changes can be made sooner rather than later.” He points out that clients appreciate the recommendation because there is always the tendency to look at the per unit cost. “If the brochures cannot be used, there are no savings.”

The primary goal should be to satisfy the customer.

9. Limiting options. Too many choices can confuse and overwhelm customers and render them unable to make a buying decision. At the same time, offering a single solution may only serve to drive a customer to seek other alternatives.

Most customers respond positively to a limited number of relevant options. This also provides the salesperson with feedback as the customer evaluates each one.

A marketing firm developed a series of dealer programs for a client. The presentation included two or three options for each program. With the rationale in hand, the client reviewed the choices and made the necessary decisions.

In the same way, a computer software salesperson presented a client with a rationale for making recommendations. Once the client had accepted the rationale, the salesperson returned with three specific software approaches for the client to review. Today’s customers want choices, but they want them to be relevant to what they need to accomplish.

10. Writing off the customer too soon. There are those occasions when customers have an immediate need, but they don’t come up too frequently.

More often than not, buying decisions are not made quickly. Customers take more and more time deciding what course to take. Unfortunately, salespeople often misinterpret such delays as a lack of interest. Delays in decision-making — even long delays — are normal today.

The key to making the sale is managing prospects over time. This is why agreeing on a step-by-step sales plan is important. Failing to do this usually results in dismissing the prospect too quickly. If you’re not there when the customer is ready to buy, the sale goes to someone else.

If there’s a common theme or thread running through these 10 issues, it is this: Understanding what’s going on inside the customer’s head is more important than anything a salesperson wants to accomplish. Thinking like a customer isn’t just an interesting option, it’s a prime requisite if you want to make the sale.

Graham is president of Graham Communications, a marketing services and sales consulting firm. He can be reached at 617-328-0069; 617-471-1504 (fax); j_graham@grahamcomm.com (e-mail). The company’s website is www.grahamcomm.com.

Publication date: 04/15/2002

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