What do customers want now?

By Michael D. Maginn

As the Great Recession continues to abate, there are signals companies finally are shrugging off the siege mentality of 2009 and cautiously looking ahead for opportunities to cultivate markets with new products and services. According to a McKinsey global survey (Economic Conditions Snapshot, December 2009: McKinsey Global Survey results, McKinseyQuarterly.com), executives are looking for external funding and actively returning to planning medium- and long-term initiatives. This is in stark contrast to the “cut-and-cover” tactics of the last two years.

What do these hopeful signs mean for sales teams working with these companies? One implication is that it is also time for sales teams to switch gears. Calling on customers can be more rewarding and productive for everyone if sales teams are in touch with what customers want from them as they plan for growth.

So, what exactly do customers want from the sales relationship as signs of growth return?

A recent study conducted for an industrial distributor (C-Lens Index, Redacted Proprietary Report, Singularity Group, Inc., January 2010) provides some answers. Distributors and dealers were asked to rate what was important to them in the buying process, and the frequency with which they saw sales teams demonstrating sales actions that delivered value. The results from 410 respondents paint a picture of customers looking for both basic efficiencies in getting things done, as well as stimulating ideas and creativity. On the other hand, the data also reveals that many customers in the sample felt a significant percentage of sales teams weren’t delivering value beyond product and service transactions.

When asked to rate what was important to them in the sales relationship, a set of sales actions that had a theme of “getting things done” percolated to the top of the list. The highest-rated of these reflected taking steps within the vendor company to fulfill customer requests, solving problems effectively, making sure the customer was getting the benefits of the product or service, and knowing enough about the customer’s business to understand its needs. Straight talk about the products and services and how different they were from the competition was also highly important.

The customers seem to be saying that what is important to them, first and foremost, is a sales process that matches a need to the right product or service and gets it efficiently delivered and installed. This is a more or less transactional set of expectations that view the sales process as an ends to a means. Why is that so important to customers? One possibility is that this narrow focus serves a hunkered-down economy where expectations are lowered across the board to completing basic functions. Also, it could be that customers don’t expect much more than that from sales teams. Have sales teams literally trained customers to view them as “order-takers,” that old nemesis label? There is additional data to suspect that might be the case. When customers were asked how frequently these “get-it-done” sales actions were demonstrated, most of these were highly rated. That is, sales teams were responding to the transaction urgency of customers by performing sales actions that do, in fact, get it done. That’s the good news.

The not-so-good news is it appears salespeople are doing the obvious, the relatively easy, and not much more for customers. Other important sales actions are seen less frequently; this is a red flag for sales teams, especially now. While still rated relatively important, this set of sales actions reflects a more consultative selling approach. What customers see less than transactional skills—in some cases significantly less—are sales actions that revolve around offering unique and fresh ideas and advice, finding other resources, creating alternative approaches to problems, providing business advice, and exploring the future. These and other similar consultative sales actions require more skill; more sophisticated knowledge and business acumen; and perhaps most importantly, an attitude about the sales team’s role as a customer’s ally. The data suggests that at least half or more of the sales teams in the sample infrequently demonstrate these kinds of consultative sales actions. Bear in mind: these actions were still viewed as important to customers, only slightly less so than the “get-it-done”-oriented sales actions.

The risk for sales teams, especially in this fragile market environment, is to be absent from the planning table when those mid- and longer-range plans mentioned earlier are being contemplated, and the opportunity to influence decisions passes by. If that is the case, the challenge for sales teams is to re-brand themselves as resources, not just vendors. If sales teams can position themselves as sources of advice and ideas, act as liaisons to experts and valuable resources that are connected to industry networks and stimulate thinking about not only product application ideas, but future business solutions, then their immediate value and the value of the sales process goes up astronomically.

Do salespeople know they need to improve on these more idea-, resource-, and network-oriented aspects of the sales process? In three separate studies (C-Lens Index Sales Self-Assessment, Proprietary Research, Singularity Group, Inc., Sept., 2009), a total of 99 salespeople were asked to rate themselves on the importance of sales actions to customers and whether they rated themselves as “Do It Well” or “Need to Improve” on each. Ironically, the highest Need To Improve scores provided by these self-ratings were given to many of the same sales actions that reflected a consulting orientation. So, salespeople know there is room for growing into a bigger role.

What can sales management do to close this gap? Salespeople have to be both excellent facilitators, ensuring customers get what they need, but at the same time, they have to offer more than just a delivery service, providing additional value to customers and differentiating both themselves and their products. There are three routes to the re-branding process.

First, training has to go beyond pitching, questioning, objection-handling, product knowledge, and order-fulfillment activities. Specifically, sales teams need industry-oriented education where salespeople are taught to think like customers, understand a customer’s business priorities and concerns, and evaluate decisions from the other side of the table.

Next, sales coaches have to step up to a critical development role. They have to be focused on developing customer-focused business skills in the sales team. Sales meetings can include customer application stories, cost justification models, product configuration examples that demonstrate how solutions can be more tailored to customer needs, and discussion of problems actual customers are facing in their businesses. The task is to get sales teams to think through all these like a customer, sorting through what fits and what doesn’t. Consistently practiced over the long haul, this customer focus will become a sales priority for all sales teams, not just a pocket of engaged salespeople who have learned the importance of this point of view.

Finally, sales and marketing must work together to create materials and processes that can be built into and delivered through the sales team. While not every salesperson will be quick to learn and apply analytic skills, he or she can learn to use an analytic checklist or deliver industry news, present documented application stories, and provide access to technical experts and resources. The combined focus of both sales and marketing on enriching the sales experience can be vital in giving ongoing value to customers in ideas, education, and connections to industry networks.

If the sales team finds itself stuck in the role of facilitator of deliveries and order fulfillment, then it is only providing a portion of what customers want. What customers also want now are salespeople to help them engage with the problems and challenges of growing their businesses out of the Great Recession.