Picture a Lexus. What comes to mind?
Few brands are as well associated with success as Lexus. In fact, Lexus has been America’s best-selling luxury brand for six years in a row. If you’ve driven a Lexus, you are familiar with the brand’s attention to detail, superior performance and outstanding customer experience. How does Lexus do it, and what can we learn from that about customer-centric selling?
Everyone believes in customer-centric selling, but only a few do it really well. The secret is this: Customer-centric selling works when it is focused on accelerating the customer’s desired results. Most of us think of Lexus as selling cars to consumers, but the real business of Lexus is selling cars to dealers. The independently-owned dealers sell them to consumers. A central element of Lexus’s success is the way it sells to its dealers, which is different from almost every other manufacturer in the industry.
Lexus focuses on understanding its dealers at a deep level. While every automaker analyzes data and talks to dealers about what vehicles they need and who their customers are, Lexus goes several steps further. “We work closely with our dealers to help them with their business strategy, plan their facilities and manage their inventory,” says Mike Wells, vice president of marketing at Lexus. “We help them get data from Gallup, the National Automobile Dealers Association and J.D. Powers to understand their customers’ interests, needs, satisfaction and loyalty. We help dealers understand the engagement of their staff and partner with them to train, educate and even inspire their teams. We work to add value to their operation.”
The reason this works is that the focus is on the dealership’s desired business results. It’s not about dumping data on the dealership; it’s about using data to help the dealership owner achieve his business goals. But what does that mean for those of us who aren’t in the automobile business or who don’t sell through channels?
For the last four years, we have been researching exactly this question. We interviewed 115 corporate executives about their decision-making process for strategic purchases. We also spent time with some of the world’s best sales forces. Our findings, which were published by McGraw-Hill in our 2006 book, The Mind of the Customer, reveal some surprises.
Solution selling, the leading business-to-business sales model for the last 20 years, is falling behind the horizon. The notion of selling integrated solutions€”rather than individual point products€”has been so widely adopted that it no longer serves as a differentiator. What really matters to business leaders today is not solutions but results. In response, a cadre of top global sales forces has adopted a new approach. Top companies like UPS, Lexus and Nokia are increasingly organizing their selling efforts around the acceleration of their customers’ business results.
Of course, the selling of solutions continues to be essential, just as selling products and building strong relationships continues to be essential. However, solution selling itself is no longer a winning strategy on its own.
The idea behind solution selling has been that a buying company almost always needs more than a solitary product or service. It may need to finance the purchase; it may need customized specifications or features; it may need assistance with implementation or integration with existing systems; it may need ongoing training, support and service. Not only has providing these enhancements been useful to the buyer, but also these extra services have added handsomely to top-line growth for sellers. Offering all these enhancements still makes sense, because customers now expect and demand them. But they are no longer sufficient to support an enhanced value proposition.
Interviews with over executive-level buyers in global companies reveal how the world of buying€”and therefore, selling€”is changing. In today’s increasingly competitive global markets, each purchase has to meaningfully improve the buying company’s business and provide a return on investment. It has to accelerate the purchasing company’s success in achieving its goals. The purchase, the strategy and the decision-maker all have to prove themselves within 24 months.
Lexus has integrated the notion of accelerating customer business results into the operation of its sales force. Building business acumen is more than a buzzword. Lexus salespeople call on the individual dealerships that purchase vehicles from the manufacturer. Historically, automobile manufacturer salespeople were product experts. They knew more than anybody about each car’s features and specifications. Over time, they, too, became solution sellers, by offering assistance with advertising, merchandising and financing vehicles.
Today, Lexus salespeople are changing the face of the auto industry by becoming experts in each specific dealer’s individual business. That means understanding each dealer’s personal and business goals, the nature of the dealer’s business cycle, the unique market and key competitors, the dealer’s financials, operating challenges and strategies. What the salesperson brings to the dealer are those ideas, techniques and best practices proven to work elsewhere, relevant to this dealer’s specific situation and tailored to the particular dealer. This approach is accelerating the adoption of successful strategies throughout the Lexus dealer network.
To make it work in your company, salespeople need to develop a deep understanding of each customer’s business goals and challenges. Companies like Lexus that have made the transformation let the customer define value and then position their capabilities and organize their selling process around the customer’s buying process.