Your Customers Are Ready. Are You?

In the past year, all three of our top clients came out of the blue. In all cases, a senior executive telephoned me personally, and asked if I could come in and see him or her to discuss his company’s needs. In all three cases, I nearly fell off of my chair. In all three first meetings I realised that the sale was almost complete, and it was just a matter of figuring out the details. Of course, I’d like to take the credit for the quality of our work, but actually, there’s something else playing an important role here.

In a controversial article in a recent Harvard Business Review called The End of Solutions Selling authors Brent Adamson, Matthew Dixon, and Nicholas Toman concluded that most customers had completed about 60% of their purchasing decision before they even saw a sales person. The actions that customers can easily take by using the power of telephones and of the internet include: researching solutions, ranking options, setting requirements, benchmarking pricing, and so on. They then took the initiative to call a supplier expressing their needs, and the most important decisions were first, “Can they take care of my needs?” and second, “Can I work with this person/company?”

To tell you the truth, I found this Harvard article a bit scary. I have always been trained to believe that the best sales people in the world always uncover existing problems and needs, (preferably at the most senior level of executive that they can access,) and then offer a solution that would take care of the headaches. Now this basic belief has been challenged, and when I look at the way my clients purchase our products and services, it isn’t always about the way in which we have approached them. Indeed, when I look at the most important and expensive purchases that I have made in my life, I have usually done my homework beforehand, and I also rarely buy from a person that has approached me first.

Does this mean the end of cold-calling and prospecting as we know it? Probably not, because there will always be a need to let prospects know about your existence and your offer – but there are some important points that need to be made in this new world of marketing and sales. Customers will always buy things that they need or want, but your job of persuading them to buy now shifts to persuading them to buy from you. What are the implications?

First, and most importantly, you can obviously see how important the power of word of mouth and referrals are for your business. Given that potential prospects are probably already 60% down the road in making a decision to buy from you, how do they find out about your business and what you sell? What are your current and past customers saying about you, “live” and in the various media? And would they be willing to recommend you to others, or supply you with a list of people whom you can contact? The implication here is that your business had better be taking care of your current customers, or you will be disqualified before you even start the race. Therefore, you need to first get the basics incredibly right and stop doing the dumb things that upset your customers. Constantly find ways to add value for them – and also for your prospects. Build relationships which don’t make them feel threatened or experience a desire to avoid you. Conduct all business transactions – and even create special events – that give them something positive, memorable and newsworthy to talk about. Find new and creative ways of attracting their attention or their curiosity so they don’t feel the impulse to run away.

Second, customers have become very adept at avoiding sales people. When bombarded by too many marketing messages and too many sales people wanting an appointment, customers switch off and ignore it all. It’s very much a case of “Don’t call us, we’ll call you- when we need it.” This means you have to challenge all of the actions and resources that your business puts into advertising, promotions, prospecting, cold-calling, and so on. Evaluate your prospects and stakeholders not by their seniority in the organisation, nor by the friendly attitude they have towards you, but by the state of flux in which the organisation finds itself, and by the emerging demand that exists rather than the established demand. Train them how to make their buying decisions, (what to look out for,) rather than spending too much time quizzing them about their purchasing processes.

(One of the best deals we ever made was at a meeting where four competitors had been invited to make a 30-minute presentation to a request for proposal, RFP. When my turn came, I handed over my booklet with full details, but told them that they could read it in their own time. I told them what I wanted to address in my half-hour, however, was the three questions that should have been asked in the RFP, but weren’t addressed. I explained why they were so important, and why they couldn’t afford to ignore these issues. There and then they cancelled the RFP and asked me to present my new proposal.)

Third, your business needs to ensure that it is readily and easily visible to customers who seek information. My plumber did this in two very effective and relatively cheap ways. He gave us an attractive fridge magnet with his details, and also sent an SMS with his electronic business card straight to our ‘phones. The entry says “Plumber – Malcolm,” and gives his details. If we need Malcolm, we don’t have to scramble to find his ‘phone number: it’s there already. For some of you reading this, it may be about ranking higher on Google and other search engines, and making sure your website looks good and is easy to use. For others, it may be about giving away lots and lots of business cards.

Fourth, you need to have some high-quality information and insightful knowledge of your competitors and your customers if you are to play in the new game of business. How are your rivals communicating with your customers and prospects, and what are they promising? And, more importantly, what are the questions that your customers and prospects are asking? What information do they seek? Does your business compare favourably?

So the news is not all bad. The sales environment is certainly tougher than it has ever been, not only because of decreased spending, not only because you are competing with everyone from everywhere for everything, but also because customers are more demanding than ever before. But if you arm yourself with the knowledge that your customers are better prepared than they have ever been before, (I even venture to say that some of them are even better prepared than you are,) it makes your role easier than before – provided you follow the advice given here.

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