In The Mind of the Customer: How Great Companies Like UPS, Lexus and Nokia have Reinvented the Sales Process to Accelerate Their Customers' Success (McGraw-Hill, 2006), Richard Hodge and Lou Schachter outline tips and best practices gleaned from interviews with nearly 100 sales executives at the world's most successful corporations. The focus of their book is on a new approach to selling based on helping customers achieve their key business objectives.
Training recently spoke with Schachter about the book.
Training: You say that the world of sales is changing. How? And how can companies create competitive advantage amid that change?
Schachter: In the 1930s and '40s, selling was all about relationships. Then, in the '50s, '60s and '70s, it became about products, so great salespeople at that time had deep product knowledge and they basically figured out what their customers needed and then gave them the right product to meet those needs. Then, information technology exploded and as a result, products became infinitely more complex. In the 1980s and '90s, we started to hear a lot about solution selling-where sales reps packaged a whole set of services around their product or service and became experts in assembling the right set of finance, system integration, delivery, service, support and quality assurance components to support each customer's solution.
The next stage of selling is starting right now. In that stage, the focus continues to be on customer needs and customer problems that need to be solved. One additional factor that salespeople have to consider more prominently now, however, is their customers' desire to achieve results.
Today, great salespeople are able to articulate how their product helps accelerate customers' business results. Typically, they do that by putting their product within the context of helping customers to overcome the challenges that stand between them and the results they're after. And because executives now view each major purchase as a potentially strategic decision, salespeople who provide value in this context are learning to become experts in understanding their customers' businesses. They are learning what drives each business, what challenges the business faces, and what global and industry contexts the business operates within.
Training: How does sales training need to change to keep up with the ways in which the sales process has changed?
Schachter: There are two keys to training salespeople to sell in this new way. One is that sales reps need to have sufficient business acumen. Second, they need to be able to articulate how their product or service will help customers scale to the business challenges they face. That's what the value proposition is today. Customers want to know, "Can you help me with the challenges that stand between me and the business results I need?"
Training: In your research, what was the biggest "aha" or lesson you learned?
Schachter: When we started our research, we didn't have this model in mind of a new type of sales environment where the focus is on customer business results. We were familiar with that type of selling, but we didn't realize how much potential it had to impact sales and how few sales forces are actually employing the approach.
Training: What advice do you have for training managers interested in reengineering their programs to facilitate this "new approach" to sales?
Schachter: First, establish business acumen training. You don't need to make accountants out of your salespeople, but they do need enough financial knowledge and understanding to hold an intelligent conversation with a CFO.
Second, give your sales reps the ability (e.g., the time, tools and knowledge) to do their own research on customers, and reorient the entire selling process so that the focus is on how customers buy, not on how to sell.
Third, create value the way that your customers define it and teach your reps how to create a value proposition in a way that quantifies the business results customers will get from purchasing a product or service.
Fourth, provide training to your team on how to communicate differently. Most sales reps go through communication training, but there are two things that need to be done differently to sell in today's world. First, walking into a customer meeting with a PowerPoint presentation is a fading technique. Customers no longer have the patience to sit through 40 slides followed by five minutes of Q&A with your reps. They don't want PowerPoint slides; they want a discussion from the start. Also, in the past, lots of negotiation training in the sales world revolved around ways to "trick" customers. Today, successful reps don't want to trick their customers. They want to build lifelong relationships. As a result, collaborative and cooperative negotiation techniques are gaining more steam.
The key in all this, of course, is to teach reps to think about the point of view of the customer, who experiences a buying cycle, not a selling cycle. To a customer, the notion of a sales cycle is totally irrelevant. Customers recognize needs, evaluate options, resolve concerns, make decisions, implement the purchase and evaluate impacts. By shifting from the salesperson's perspective, or selling cycle, to the customer's perspective, or buying cycle, a salesperson can align her actions with the needs of her customer. It's not about selling. It's about helping your customer buy. And to do that, you have to understand why they buy and how they buy.