A Rational, Relevant, CustomerCentric Selling Approach


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ESR has covered CustomerCentric Selling for years. I’ve gotten to know and respect John Holland, one of the company’s co-founders. John sent me a copy of Customer Centric Selling (Second Edition) a while back, which he co-authored with Frank Visgatis and Mike Bosworth. (Here is my podcast interview with Mike.) Among many other things, I really liked the relevance of the book as it relates to the selling challenges salespeople and their managers are up against today.

I thought it would be of value to you to hear some of what John has to say, so I asked if he’d spend a bit of time with me for an interview. He agreed. You’ll see that what John has to say makes a lot of sense.

Here is the interview. It’s longer than most, but well worth the read.

Dave Stein: One of the many things I liked about Customer Centric Selling (Second Edition) is the focus on the customer buying cycle. Isn’t this where you feel some selling approaches are missing the boat?

John Holland: People have an innate desire to exert control over situations in their lives. It is remarkable that so much training focuses on selling (where a salesperson tries to control/influence buyer behavior). Empowering people to buy is a welcome change from traditional attempts to convince or persuade buyers and provides a superior buying experience. The reality is that the Internet allows buyers to get further than ever in determining their needs without talking with a salesperson. When knowledgeable buyers contact sellers, it is more a buying than a sales cycle. Sellers that cling to old sales approaches run the risk of being out of alignment with buyers.

You don’t have to go any further than to ask vendors if they considered customers’ buying processes in defining their CRM milestones. While many senior executives believed CRM would allow them to be more “customer centric, ” I strongly disagree. In most cases CRM amounts to: Here’s what we need to track progress and forecast opportunities, so this is how we are going to sell to customers and prospects. In other words, this is our road map and buyers will just have to accept it. Companies making sellers use this approach institutionalize misalignment with buyers.

Compounding the problem, most companies have multiple types of sales—renewals, add-on business, new accounts, professional services, major account, national account, etc.—that vary in size and complexity. The primary focus is on major opportunities when defining milestones. This is a disservice to both sellers and buyers. The steps/deliverables required for major transactions will not provide a good fit for smaller transactions. It is analogous to trying to use a cannon to kill a mosquito. If the process doesn’t fit and sellers try to use it the buying experience will be compromised. The other option is that sellers will have to work around it and therefore compromise adoption and benefits realized.

Ultimately, pipeline milestones should be defined for different types of opportunities (start with the most complex and then “water the steps down” for smaller transactions). In addition, typical steps buyers will need or want to take should be incorporated into the milestones.

DS: We all talk about getting in to companies early at the senior executive level. What if that isn’t possible. What recommendations to you have for selling solutions to mid-level managers?

JH: Buying cycles begin either proactively (outbound contacts) or reactively (inbound contacts). Higher win rates are likely with proactive contacts that target levels within organizations that can cause unbudgeted funds to be allocated. The focus should be on business results that can be achieved through the use of a given offering. If a company isn’t looking, no budget exists. If successful in developing a Key Player’s needs into a vision, the executive can provide access to other people that would be involved in the buying decision (lateral or downward access). People at this level have the ability to fund unbudgeted initiatives, often by reallocating funds earmarked for other projects.

If an executive’s admin refers a seller to a lower level or if a non-Key Player makes initial contact, the objective is to have the buyer share a goal, problem or a need that the organization is willing to spend money to achieve or resolve. Such goals are often also goals of higher levels. Our suggested approach is to do need development with lower level buyers after a business goal or problem is shared that executives would spend money to achieve or resolve. A few thing happen in taking this approach:

  • Discussions of offerings can be deferred until buyer requirements have been established.
  • Lower levels are careful about speaking on behalf of the executives
  • There are likely some questions the buyer is unable or unwilling to answer, making the request to access higher levels (sometimes with the mid level person accompanying the seller) reasonable.

If successful in processing one or more goals (fully or partially) we teach a way for sellers to document each goal, reasons it can’t be achieved without the offering being discussed and the specific capabilities that the vendor can provide to allow the goal to be achieved. In this letter and/or email we also show how to ask for access to the Key Players (titles a seller wants to talk with in order to sell, cost justify, fund and implement the offering). If the mid-level person can’t or won’t provide access the seller and his or her manager would then discuss if and how they should proceed.

DS: How do you get people in your accounts to share information with you if trust hasn’t already been established?

JH: Many sellers believe that if buyers have goals or problems they will readily share them. Our belief is that it is easier for a buyer at any level to share a goal (“I’d like to improve margins”) versus admit a problem (“I’m not achieving my margins”). In most cases, however, a buyer has to believe the seller is sincere and competent before they’ll have a business discussion about their goals or problems.

Assume for a moment that you’ve moved to a new city and have an embarrassing medical condition. When talking to the doctor’s admin you feel that he or she is sincere, but not competent as relates to your malady. For that reason you’ll share the absolute minimum amount of information necessary to secure an appointment.

When meeting a new doctor you assume competence (diplomas on the wall) but not necessarily sincerity (bedside manner). You may start with a minor ache that you are experiencing to get comfortable with the doctor before discussing the real reason you came in.

The sequence is different when meeting a salesperson, who may have to overcome negative stereotyping. The buyer must conclude that you are sincere—the way you greet the buyer, your call introduction, brief overview of the company, etc. If you pass that hurdle then competence must be established. This can be done in a number of ways. If the buyer has already done a fair amount of research then uncovering his or her requirements early is important. Offering industry and title specific results one of your customers has achieved. Having a menu of high probability goals for the title you are calling on. Having prepared environmental questions to learn about the buyer’s current methods.

Within our methodology buying cycles begin when a buyer shares a goal, admits a problem or a need that they are willing to spend money to achieve or resolve. If a seller fails to earn the buyer’s trust (be perceived as sincere and competent) it is likely the call will not result in creating a qualified prospect.

DS: I know that messaging is another important component of the CustomerCentric approach. Share with us how that works for your clients?

JH: Within most sales organizations, product training and sales training remain separate silos. By default, each seller must decide how to position offerings to each title/vertical they call on. Our approach integrates product and sales training to allow more consistent positioning of offerings.

With our help, clients start by identifying the typical titles sellers should call on to sell, fund and a menu of goals (business outcomes) that can be achieved through the use of the offering is created. The final product is a list of conversations where each title/goal becomes a conversation a seller should be prepared to have.

The next step is to map only features that are relevant to achieving the goal, putting them in a format that will make sense to the buyer and populate the right side of a questioning template with these capabilities. A series of diagnostic questions are formulated to uncover whether or not it is likely the buyer will want or need the corresponding capability. Based upon the buyer’s responses only the relevant capabilities become part of the buyer vision.

These templates help sellers have more consistent conversations. Each buyer’s vision is determined by how they respond to questions. Their solution will be comprised by some or all of the capabilities on the template, thus ensuring more consistent positioning.

Our clients have seen strong improvements in top line revenue and forecasting accuracy using this approach. The conversation list approach steers sellers toward titles they should be calling on as well as what to talk about from the menu of buyer goals. As indicated by an 8-year success story, a reseller of Canon printers and copiers was able to transform their sales approach from a box (hardware) sale to an application (workflow) sale that had significant impact on their average revenue per rep, margins and EBIDTA.

DS: Thanks, John.

John Holland cofounded CustomerCentric Selling® (www.customercentric.com) in 2002 and has helped many different types of organizations implement sales process. He coauthored Customer Centric Selling and Rethinking The Sales Cycle both published by McGraw-Hill.

Note: CustomerCentric Selling is an ESR Sales Training Provider subscriber. ESR’s evaluation of CustomerCentric Selling as well as other training providers is here.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Dave Stein
Dave specializes in helping his clients win critical B2B sales opportunities as well as helping them hire the best sales talent.Dave is co-author of Beyond the Sales Process. He wrote the best-selling How Winners Sell in 2004.


  1. This is one of the best articles I’ve read about selling in a very long time. Customer-centric selling is exactly what great salespeople do. They help me make my own decisions by providing information that is relevant to me, by helping me solve my problems, without trying to manipulate any particular outcome.

    Nicely done.

    Matt Trifiro
    SVP Marketing


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