Today, I had the pleasure of working with the students of Howard Dover’s UTD Digital Prospecting class. We were talking about the importance of business relevance and acumen in engaging customers. The session was fascinating, the questions were great. I’m so happy these undergraduate students, looking toward careers in sales, are tackling this issue (I wish experienced sales people were as sensitive to this, as they.).
I thought it might be useful to share some of the conversation:
- Why is it important to have an understanding of the customer’s business? Our customers want to know the sales people they engage understand them, their jobs, their companies, and their industries. They want to make sure we know what they face, and that we can help them address their challenges.
- Sales people who don’t have business, industry, customer acumen, are limited in their ability to connect with their customers. They don’t know how to connect what their solutions provide, specifically to the challenges the customer faces. As a result, the onus is on the customer to try to figure this out. The problem is, they are trying to solve a problem, but they have limited expertise in solving that problem, so they struggle to answer the question, “what does this mean to me/us? What are the risks? What are we missing? Which solution is best?” The sales person with deep understanding of the customer manages to teach them what the solution means to them.
- Words are important. Each industry has their own jargon. It’s shorthand that people in those industries and companies use to communicate with each other. If sellers are using the same language/jargon their customers are, the customers will have greater confidence that sellers understand them. I share an example from years ago. I had a team of specialist sellers that sold engineering design solutions. They had managed to get an appointment with the senior design engineers and body stylists for one of the largest domestic automotive manufacturers. In the discussion, the customers were concerned about how the tools would help in automotive body design. One of the people on my team started talking about the concept of “aerodynamics in automotive design.” The customer stopped the meeting, saying, “You really don’t understand us and what we are trying to do.” They walked out. We learned the problem was the words we used demonstrated our lack of knowledge of how they worked. It turns out the concept of aerodynamics is critical in airplane design. The same concept in automotive body styling is called flow lines. While we were addressing the correct underlying problem, our use of the wrong terminology shook their confidence in our ability to solve their problems (It took some determination, but we recovered and won a huge deal.)
- Industry/market knowledge is important, but specific knowledge of the customer is more important. It’s good that we understand the industry/market dynamics, that we use the same jargon they use, but the more we know about the customer, the more credible and relevant we are. I’m constantly shocked about how little sellers know about their customers. There are so many tools that enable us to get deep insights about each enterprise we go after. We can learn their performance, their challenges, competitiveness, priorities and key strategies. We can understand organizational changes and shifts, products/services they offer. Tools like LinkedIn and others, give us insights about the people we are actually engaging. We can know their backgrounds and experience, we can learn how long they’ve been in the job. If they are active on social media, we can begin to understand how they think, what’s important to them. We can even assess their behavioral and communication styles. Despite the wide availability of these tools, sellers aren’t using them as they should. They aren’t incorporating this specific and deep knowledge into their engagement strategies.
- Some people talk about this as deep personalization. I despise the term. And most people think deep personalization is addressing an email as “Dear Dave,” rather than “Hey there…” Personalization is a surpisingly sterile and impersonal concept. I prefer to think of this as “Deep caring.” The kind of research, trying to understand the organization, the individual, and how to connect with impact is the first indicator of deep caring. And it equips you to have the kind of conversations customer want and care about. We should seek engagements where the customer knows we care about them and their success.
- One of the students asked, “If you don’t have these tools, how do you get this information?” It’s actually pretty easy. To get industry, market information, follow them on the web, join the right groups in LinkedIn. Subscribe to Google Alerts. Everyday I get alerts a a number of industries I track, topics that are interesting, even specific companies. To get information on specific companies, look at their websites (do you know how many people have never done this or looked at a LinkedIn profile before a prospecting call?). Go to their investor pages, look at their most recent financial reports. Listen to some of their analyst briefings, you begin to understand how they want to be perceived in their markets, key challenges ans strategies.
- Someone challenged me, “What if they are a private company?” It’s hard to get specific financial and performance data from private companies. It’s hard to understand their specific strategies and priorities, unless they are talking about them. While not perfect, look at their public competitors. Look at what they are saying about challenges, markets, strategies, problems. It’s likely the private company’s challenges and strategies won’t be a whole lot different, so it’s a good starting point–at least to use as a trial balloon, “We’ve seen these issues in your markets, how do they impact you? How are you responding to them?”
- One student asked, “But this takes a lot of time?” Well, yes and no. If doing this is the difference between getting a customer to talk to you, to get value out of the first conversation, and to ask, “tell me more….,” Isn’t it worth the time? After all, how much time do we spend dialing and trying to get someone to answer the phone, or engaging them in a conversation about “Are you interested in hearing about my products?” Some years ago, I got into a debate with someone. He talked about the thousands of dials and voicemails, the sequences, he went through, the hundreds of conversations he had, to get about 25 meetings (I don’t remember the exact number, but you get the point.) I said, “Well it only takes me about 75 dials and 45 conversations to get 25 meetings. It’s because of the time I invest in doing the research. As the conversation continued, the time it took me to do the research took me about 60% of the time it was taking him to do all the work. The second piece about the time it takes, is once you start doing this, you know what to look for. If you know what to look for, 15-30 minutes before each call gives you everything you need to engage the customer with deep relevance.
- Finally, the advantage you have by doing this is you are probably the only seller that’s doing this. While we’ve known for decades that you have to know your customer, that you have to understand them, that you have to care them; no one does the work. They take the easy way out making thousand of emails and dials, mindlessly reading a script pitching their products, going from call to call to call…..producing nothing. By doing this, you stand out and differentiate yourself. The customer knows you’ve done the work, demonstrating both your knowledge and caring. You set yourself apart.
Thank you Howard and students for a great discussion. Because of your questions and attention, I have great confidence you will set yourselves apart from everyone else.