Sales through a customer lens: phase 1

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I find that when people first start their career in sales, they often have all the wrong ideas of what sales is all about. Their expectations are built on portrayals of salespeople in a negative light. They often think that to be in sales you have to have a pushy personality or use manipulation and deception to coerce people to buy something they don’t need. The good news is neither of these is true and as sales people mature in their understanding of sales, they begin to recognize it has little to do with the seller and everything to do with the buyer. Professional, successful sales people recognize it is all about relationships and building the right kind of relationship at the right time with the buyer. People buy from people who are sincere, competent and who empower them. When sales is examined from the point of view of the customer, there are three distinct phases of the buying process – and each requires a different approach to facilitate the buyer’s progression from one to another. This week we’ll look at phase 1.

Phase 1: Recognizing you have a problem. People who are looking to purchase any good and service are not simply looking to indulge their whims. They have come to realize that there is a problem in their life, in their work product or in their business that is worth trying to solve. This understanding can come from a variety of sources, but most typically is generated by some outside force: an industry expert at a conference describes a best practice, an article they read explains a major mistake another company made, a benchmarking exercise helps them recognize they’re not measuring up or they’ve introduced a new factor in their life or business that forces them to recognize that they need to integrate that new factor into everything else they do.

The key to sales in this early phase is that this is not a time to close hard on a prospect. This is a time to educate them, be a resource, help them understand the problem more fully, help them explore the various nuances of the problem that they may not yet be aware of. This is where becoming a trusted advisor is so important. People turn to advisors in this phase and you want your sales team to be viewed as such. Successful salespeople find ways to gain speaking engagements where they can be the industry expert introducing the problem, white papers that explain the problem and resource materials that articulate the problem. The key is to be talking with the customer about their problem as early as possible in their recognition of it. The later you come into this phase, the more discovery you will have to do to catch up with the customers’ thought process.

As a customer-centered sales representative at this phase, demonstrate your industry knowledge and expertise – don’t focus on product features/functions. Talk deeply about challenges and the costs associated with those challenges. Also, don’t focus solely on the decision maker. They are being influenced by a lot of other people in the organization in a B2B setting or are being influenced by friends/family in a B2C setting. Help them all to see the problem the same way. At the end of this phase, the customer will have a clear articulation of a specific problem they are trying to solve and why it’s personally and professionally important to them.

Recognize there are multiple stages within this phase and you should use a customer scoring system so that everyone on your sales team can recognize what level this particular customer is at. Further, create a well-defined, objective, measurable way to indicate that this phase is complete for your business. A clear advancement criteria that is measured by some behavior that everyone can objectively agree your customer has exhibited. When the customer does x, we advance them to the next stage. Link that into your CRM/SFA system so that all customers that have moved out of this phase into the next are defined in a consistent way. This will improve your pipeline visibility and forecasting. Next week, we’ll examine the next buying phase.

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