Since my earliest days of selling, I have been taught, to create real value and differentiation, I have to know more than my customers.
I have to know their markets/industries better than they. I have to know their business better than they, I have to know the issues they face better than they, I have to know what they don’t know but should know.
As a result, I’ve always done a lot of research into both my customers and target customers. In my first sales role, I sold exclusively to Money Center Banks. I was able to go to “Banking School,” at Wharton. I was naturally curious and read a lot, studied, hung out with bankers. I knew a huge amount about banking, emerging issues, trends. I could hold my own in any conversation, at any level within my banking customers.
Likewise, I studied my account and their competitors. I analyzed performance–I could look at all their reporting documents, plus, because of the relationships I built, I had good perspectives on internal performance data.
This helped establish my credibility with my customers, I could more quickly identify issues important to them, getting into high impact conversations with them. Together, we could identify problem areas to go more deeply into.
In that process, I became expert at certain problems my customer had. Part of that is that I knew the problems our company solved, and became expert in understanding the impact of those problems on the customer. This enabled me to ask them different questions, to help them question themselves and what they had been doing. We could have conversations about what to do, how to solve them. We could assess the risks, change management issues, and the critical success factors.
While I often understood the problems more deeply than the customers did, I started reaching my limits of knowing more than the customer.
Part of it is that I wasn’t doing the job–or even managing the team/organizations doing the jobs. It turns out that problems — and solutions don’t exist in isolation. They are messy, with all sorts of things impacting the ability to address the problem, or the solutions creating other challenges.
Make no mistake, customers and prospects appreciated my deep knowledge and the ability to engage them in high impact/high value conversations.
Over the years, I’ve made it my business, and to know as much as I can about my customers’/prospects’ markets, industries, their customers, and their businesses.
But I’ve realized, in many areas, I might know as much as my customers/prospects. But in other areas, my customers always knew more–I had general thoughts/ideas, but since they were living in the job, doing things day to day, they knew more about their businesses than I did.
I discovered, that deep knowledge sometimes limited or blinded them. They needed to get some distance and think differently. They needed some slightly different ideas.
I’ve come to learn my real value to my clients/prospects is that I think differently.
Most of my customers are wickedly smart. They’ve been very successful, they may be leaders in their markets, they frequently outperform their competition. As top performing professionals, they study their industries, markets, customers, competition. They look at emerging trends.
They recognize some of their problems, looking to address them. As good as they are, they may be blind to other problems or opportunities. And often, it’s that outside perspective that helps them recognize these opportunities.
But I’ve found that the greatest conversations come from not necessarily knowing more, but knowing different.
If I know the same things my customers know, we may be equally blind.
But what customers really value is that I have a very different experience base, I see things differently, I’m think differently, I’m exposed to very different experiences than they may be exposed to, as a result I contribute something different to the conversation.
I’ve written, before, about the principle of “artful plagiarism.” Since I work with organizations in many different industries, addressing many markets around the world, I get to see a lot of different ideas and approaches. I get to bring very different insights and ideas to my customers and prospects.
I might say, “You know, organizations in the fashion industry do these types of things…..What would happen if we tweaked these ideas, adapting them to what you do in enterprise software?” Or, “In commodity markets, these are things high performing organizations do to create value, how might we tweak those ideas to apply them in technology professional services?”
I’ve learned it’s not helpful, perhaps a little arrogant, to try to know more than my clients–particularly since they tend to be the best of the best. I do have to know a lot, that’s table stakes. They don’t have any interest in training me about their industry, markets, customers, they want me to know something. They want me to know as much as I can about their businesses, but they realize there’s a limit.
Plus they are relatively more expert than I.
But what they want to know from me is different. We recognize by bringing differing perspectives, different experiences, different ideas; we can achieve more together, than either can do separately.
We learn, grow, and develop through collaborative learning. From working together, to figure out how to grow and improve.
Again, knowing as much as you can about your customers is table stakes. But knowing more is less important than contributing different ideas and figuring the solutions together.
Together, we help our customers imagine, and realize a better future.