Moving From Product Features To Insight

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Recently, I was doing a workshop with a really great sales team. We were talking about how to engage prospects and customers more effectively. They enthusiastically embraced the idea that we have to talk about what customers are interested in; we have to engage customers in issues critical to them and their business.

But then we decided to practice these principles. We started looking at the conversations we needed to have with prospects. As good as this team was, they always started with, “Our products do these things….”

As much as they tried they were stuck, they always started the discussion with a description of product capabilities. Some of them tried to convert those features to discovery questions. They started asking, “Do you need a product that has these capabilities….?”

“You’re still talking about your product,” I said, “how do you ask the question differently, focusing on what might be happening with their business that would cause them to need a solution that provides these capabilities?”

The team struggled for a few minutes, they kept asking questions that were product focused. They were getting a little frustrated, I kept pushing them, “What causes the customer to need these capabilities?” I goaded them further, “You have to discuss the issue without ever talking about a solution or product—You have to understand the business issue that might cause them to have a need. You have to understand the impact of that issue on what they do!”

They kept trying, they were getting good at asking discovery questions, but they were all product capability focused. Suddenly, one sales person got frustrated with my goading. He said, “The reason they need these capabilities is because these thing are happening in their business…….”

It was a breakthrough! The group finally got it. We went through the exercise again, the discovery questions had changed. They were now focused on identifying the specific business issues. They went further, asking the impact of those issues on the customer and what they were trying to do.

We tried this experiment across a number of their key solution areas. We went through the same pattern, initially they would focus on the product and it’s capabilities, then we would pause to consider: “What has to be happening in the customer’s business that would cause them to need this capability?”

In a very short time, the team got pretty nimble in focusing their discovery questions around things that might be happening with the customer that might drive the need to consider a solution that addresses these issues.

Then I challenged them to go one step further, “What if the customer doesn’t know they might have that problem, how do you turn those questions into insight?”

They struggled with the idea, they kept asking very good business focused questions. Playing the customer, I kept saying, “I don’t know if that’s an issue with us….” Some of the sales people started suggesting things we could do to discover if it was an issue.

Pretty soon, one of the sales people made the statement, “We are seeing a lot of customers similar to you struggling with this issue. How does this impact your business? What are you doing to manage this?”

It was a first step into providing insight to help the customer learn what similar customers were discovering, then getting the customer to think about the issue and the impact on them.

We practiced this for a while, getting the team comfortable in moving from business oriented discovery questions, to converting them into insights. We tried this approach across several of their key solution areas, quickly moving from a product features focus, to a business issue focus, to providing some insight.

It’s a starting point, we have a way to go in converting the conversations from product feature/function discussions to business discussions, to creating discussions around insights. But it’s changing the way this sales team is engaging it’s customers and prospects, particularly very early in the cycle.

Try this thought experiment for yourself:

  1. Take one of your key solutions. Identify the top 3-5 features or capabilities of the product that are most important to your customer. Write them down. Write down some of the key questions you might ask a customer or prospect about their need for those capabilities. This should be easy, it’s probably what you are doing right now.
  2. For each of those key questions, ask yourself, “What is happening with the customer’s business that might drive the need for that capability?” There are some rules around doing this:
    1. These are never about a product or a feature of the product, so something like, “I need a solution that enables me to do this….”
    2. It is always about something that is happening in their business, typically the customer might say, “We are struggling to do this …….; We are having a problem achieving that…….; We would like to be able to do this…..”
    3. Test these, they should not be solution focused or product focused. If they are, you are falling into the same product pitching trap. They should focus on identifying key business issues, opportunities, challenges.
  3. Take each or these business issue oriented questions, develop some questions to drill down to understand the impact of these on the customer. Some ideas:
    1. “How is this issue impacting you/your company/your ability to achieve your goals?”
    2. “How are you dealing with this now?”
    3. “Why is this important to look at now?” “What happens if you do nothing?”
    4. ….and you can go on. The purpose is to really understand the impact of the issue and the need to change.
  4. Dealing with 1-3 may be a very good first step to moving from conversations focused on products to conversations focused on business issues. But you may want to take this further….
  5. Look at your current customers. For the business issues you have identified, think about the following:
    1. How have the issues impacted them?
    2. Why is it important to them?
    3. What are they doing about it? Be careful, the answer is not “buy your products.” Focus on the change and business management issues?
    4. What are they discovering in the process?
    5. Look at the collective trends and issues you see across customers–both those you have won, even those that you have lost. How do you present these as insight or observations to open conversations with customers.

This is just a starting point in moving from pitching your products and capabilities to move the conversations to what the customer cares about. It helps you translate what you may have been trained in–your products, to conversations about your customers’ business issues. They help you engage customers where they are at, about what they care about, in terms they care about.

Once you’ve understood these issues, it becomes much easier for you to present your capabilities in the context of things that are important to the customer.

It takes practice to make this a habit. Managers, consider leading team meetings where you can go through this exercise with with the team. Choose one of your solutions, list the key features and capabilities that seem to be most important, then start identifying what might be happening in the customer that might drive a need for these capabilities. Go through items 1-5, write them down, then have the team practice in their calls on customers.

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