Does Your Company Lack Customer Focus in Your Sales Process?


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Perhaps your management processes are standing the way!

There’s a lot of talk these days about the need to become more customer focused in the sales process. “What does that really mean? What should we be doing differently?,” sales managers and executives always ask me.

In turn, I ask these managers to show me their CRM tool. They pull up a screen on the computer or point to a chart on a wall. Invariably, the progress of each account is mapped against the company’s selling process, not the customer’s buying process.

I also ask them to describe for me what they use for their performance reviews and how they coach their salespeople. And what I hear is a lot of talk about measuring salespeople against the steps of selling, not the steps of buying.

Given that the company’s processes are emphasizing a focus on selling, is it any wonder that salespeople are doing the same? They think about their sales process and not the customer’s buying process.

This focus leads to what I think is the single biggest mistake salespeople make — the mistake that causes more lost sales and lost commissions than any other mistake: They salespeople sell too fast. They arrive at the end of their “pitch” just as the customer is beginning to recognize they have a need! They leave the scene just as the prospective customer begins shopping around for a solution by looking at the competition. Not good.

Assuming you are serious about becoming more focused on your customers, your leadership has to change how the sales process is managed (or I should say, how the “buying-facilitation” process is managed).

  1. Teach your salespeople about how customers buy.

    I’ve delivered hundreds of sales seminars, and always start by asking salespeople two questions. First, “What are the steps of your selling process?” Here, I get clear, concise answers. Most salespeople can describe how they sell. One answer I hear often is “Open, Needs, Support, and Close.” Another is “Prepare, Build Trust, Qualify, Present, Handle Objections, and Close.” While the answers vary from one salesperson to another, and from one company to another, the point is clear: most salespeople have a well-thought-out and well-defined sales process that they follow.

    The second question is, “What are the steps of your customer’s buying process?” Even today, with an increased talk of customer focus, that question still stumps people. Some have never thought about a purchase from the customer’s viewpoint. And even those who have at least considered the idea haven’t formalized their thinking to the point where they can outline the steps of buying.

    People and organizations buy in two ways:

    • Buy-knowing: When buyers already know as much as they need to know in order to buy, they quickly make a decision.
    • Buy-learning: When buyers do not have all the information they need to make an educated purchasing decision, they need to do some research and learn more first.

    Because the customers who are operating in a buy-knowing mode are likely to make up their minds without dealing with a salesperson, the customers who should concern you most are those in a buy-learning mode. They are the people who will go through a deliberate, predictable process in hopes of making a optimal buying decision.

    My own description of the buying process has eight steps: change, discontent, research, comparison, fear, commitment, expectations, satisfaction (divided into four phases, as shown in the diagram). But there are other descriptions available, or you could create your own model.

  2. Define the steps of your sales process in customer terms.

    Get very clear and specific about the steps customers take as they move through their buying process. Examples of customer actions include sharing inside information with your salesperson, enabling access to other decision-makers, calling your references, etc. Replace your “sales process” labels with “customer actions” or something similar, which then become the objectives for your salespeople when they call or meet with customers. And, more importantly, they get your salespeople to focus on the buying process. Understanding buying is where selling should start.

  3. Chart progress and conduct reviews with salespeople based on where customers are in their buying process.

    What should matter to you is not where your salesperson is in their sales process, but where the customer is in their buying process. If you want to be customer focused, the key issue isn’t how quickly the sales person goes from “Qualify” to “Close,” but how quickly and smoothly the customer goes from, say Research to Commitment in the buying process.

    Don’t ask a salesperson, “Where are you with XYZ account?” Instead, ask, “What actions has the customer taken thus far?” And, “What action do you want them to take next, and by when?” The answer to these questions provides you with a better understanding of the true status of the sales opportunity.

  4. Provide coaching early in the sales process; avoid last minute interventions by sales managers or executives.

    I’ve worked with thousands of salespeople over the last 30 years and a common complaint I hear is about a senior manager “riding in on a white horse” to save the day and close a deal. The end result of this white-horse ride is often three-fold: white knuckles for the salesperson, a bigger discount for the customer, and lower profit for the company! What kind of win is that?

    There are other problems with such late-cycle interventions:

    • Most importantly, your best chance at influencing the opportunity early in the customer’s buying process, when they are defining their needs and shaping their vision of a solution.
    • It diminishes the salesperson’s credibility, and sets a precedent that the customer will always get a better deal (read: bigger discount) if they go over the salesperson’s head.
    • Interventions are often timed because management wants to close a sale by the end of a business quarter. But rarely is closing by your quarter an objective of your customer’s buying cycle (unless they know that you’re willing to cave in on price at such times). Timing a close to coincide with your business cycle is another signal that you’re more focused on yourself than your customer.

    To avoid these problems, create mechanisms that allow you to monitor a sale throughout the buying cycle, and especially early on.

    For example, require your salespeople to send a Memo of Understanding (MOU) to the customer and bcc you on it. An MOU is a short email sent after the initial appointment meant to confirm salesperson’s understanding of critical information, such as the customer’s current situation, key goals and obstacles, and complications.

    Reviewing MOUs gives you an early indicator of how well your salespeople are defining customer needs, which has the biggest impact on their ultimate success. Plus you’ll recognize the larger sales opportunities sooner.

Becoming Customer Focused

Creating a more customer-focused sales force is largely a matter of creating more customer-focused sales managers and sales management processes. It won’t happen unless you reshape how to train, guide, and evaluate your salespeople.

Kevin Davis
Kevin Davis is the president of TopLine Leadership, which provides sales training and sales management leadership training programs to companies from diverse sectors. Kevin is the author of "Slow Down, Sell Faster! : Understand Your Customer's Buying Process & Maximize Your Sales". For more information visit


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