Being “Customer-Centric” Shouldn’t Be Lip Service to Your Buyers

Vendors that create organizations that can listen to their customers and articulate needs to Product Development enjoy the advantage of creating offerings people are more likely to want to buy.

An August 23rd newswire summarized the findings of a survey done by Pegasystems with 250 global financial services companies. Some of the results:

  • 79 percent agree financial institutions will move from product-based selling to focus more on personal relationships in the next five years.
  • Only 31 percent deploy relationship-based sales models to any degree and only 1 percent fully leverage them.
  • 29 percent are mired in product-based selling.

As with changing the direction of a battleship going full steam ahead, getting your organization to migrate to relationship and buyer outcome selling is not something that can happen overnight.

A common misconception is that becoming “customer-centric” or “buyer-centric” is something to be done by Sales with support from Marketing.

Merely making someone responsible for “Sales Enablement” (SE) means paying lip service to an outcome that is difficult to achieve.

  • The first issue with the term, “sales enablement,” is that it fails to recognize that people prefer to buy than to be sold to. Choosing “sales” as the first half of the term perpetuates vendors’ inward look and focus on selling products.
  • You quickly see the problem with the second half of the SE term when you answer the question: Who are companies trying to enable? The answer is salespeople, once again putting the spotlight on selling and continuing the inward focus on viewing selling as convincing or persuading buyers.

The major hurdle is overcoming the intense focus on products, a company-wide affliction that stifles attempts to put customers/buyers first.

Product sales are more about offerings, less about buyers, and more likely to result in lower margins.

One suggestion is to embrace the new term: Buyer Empowerment. This would at least have vendors looking outward, putting buyers first.

Buyer empowerment means that for salespeople, the first hurdle is to uncover latent needs. These are the business outcomes executives would like to achieve. Salespeople can identify needs by interacting directly with key players or by having lower-level employees share desired organizational goals. Once business goals are shared, good things start to happen:

  • Buying cycles begin.
  • Buyers realize there is potential value.
  • Buyers are willing to give sellers time to have conversations.
  • Sellers are perceived as consultants if they know the right questions to ask.

In coauthoring “Rethinking The Sales Cycle” (published by McGraw-Hill in 2010), we were unable to find a business-to-business (B2B) vendor that could serve as a model for being customer-centric. Instead, we had to use Apple as an example. It remains to be seen how the longer term will be, but the brilliance of Steve Jobs had a tremendous impact. Unlike virtually all competitors, Apple has not sold computers. Other computer companies sell processing power, disk capacity, etc., that lead to commodity decisions.

CEO Steve Jobs had the remarkable ability to understand what the market wanted and then create offerings people wanted to buy.

He was maniacal about dictating the design and functionality that would resonate. As an Apple customer since 1990, I’ve continually bought their desktops and laptops without considering alternatives that likely cost 50 percent less. Apple offers reliability and support and has become an integral part of my life via iPhones, iPads, iPods, etc.

Absent a genius like Jobs, it’s incumbent upon companies to learn their customers’ requirements.

Product-focused companies create offerings they think buyers will want and then ask Sales and Marketing to use “push” strategies to sell to their markets.

I hope you see how flawed this approach is.

Shifting to a “Pull” Strategy

As an alternative, vendors that create organizations that can listen to their customers and articulate needs to Product Development enjoy the advantage of creating offerings people are more likely to want to buy. They can enjoy higher revenue due to the “pull” of market demand.

The primary takeaway from the changes in buying behavior over the last 15 years that vendors should realize is that buyers want to exert more control in making buying decisions. They don’t want to be “sold” (manipulated by salespeople). Instead, they want to be empowered to buy offerings that enable them to achieve desired business outcomes.

Organizations that want to be customer-centric can’t get away with a new coat of paint.

Teardowns are required to shift from inside-out views of markets to outside-in views where customer needs are the fuel that propels Product Development.

This requires significant organizational change, but vendors that are successful in this migration can enjoy a sustainable competitive advantage over their competitors that continue to use selling approaches that buyers have rendered obsolete.

Since the turn of the century, we’ve never seen the runaway revenue growth of the 1990s that vendors enjoyed. I find it odd in light of all the do-it-yourself (DIY) purported “buying activity” via the Internet and social networking. It is time to realize the difference between product evaluations done by mid- to low-level staff versus corporate initiatives to improve business results that will provide the necessary value to provide payback.

Vendors need to position themselves to proactively use top-down strategies to qualify opportunities. In order to do so, vendors must provide sellers with business results that have been or can be achieved through the use of their offerings. When calling high, executives don’t want to learn all about a vendor’s offerings.

To better align, sellers should discuss business outcomes and how offerings can be used to achieve them.

Executives would be more open to vendors that realized product pitches are relics of the past when sellers pushed products.

Remember: Buyers are sick and tired of being sold to! Selling has become old-school. Enlightened vendors can enjoy something that has become a rarity—a sustainable competitive advantage—but only if they teach sellers to empower buyers and as an organization, put the buyer first.

Frank Visgatis is president and Chief Operating Officer of CustomerCentric Selling (CCS), which delivers sales training through a suite of sales training workshops around the globe to provide sales organizations with the selling skills and tools necessary to win in a highly competitive marketplace. The heart of CustomerCentric Selling lies within the buyer-driven sales process that guides the sell cycle, so salespeople can be more effective and close more deals. For more information, visit:

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