Think Like Your Customer: Aligning Selling to Buying Process


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I recently read Bill Stinnett’s excellent book, Think Like Your Customer, which should be required reading for anyone in Sales and Marketing, especially if you market high-value products and services.

A glaring Marketing Operations (MO) disconnect for many companies is our tendency to over-focus on What and How we want to sell, when we really need to develop a deeper understanding of What, Why and How our customers buy. Those of us in MO need to assert leadership in aligning our company’s sales process with our customers’ buying process.

The healing starts at home. Our collective lack of effectiveness in supporting one of our primary customers, Sales, surely speaks to the growing emphasis today on Sales and Marketing alignment.

Yes, Sales and Marketing have equal roles in this often dysfunctional relationship. Yet it is incumbent on us as marketers to take responsibility for cleaning up our side of the house if we want a shot at a healthy, mutual partnership with Sales. If you’ve been in a long-term business relationship or a marriage, you know what I mean. Our unilateral thinking and actions impact the overall health of the system, for better or for worse.

So how does all of this relate to Stinnett’s book? I’ve gleaned a couple of key insights below that are especially meaningful to me. I also discuss some possible implications of these insights, which I recommend my fellow marketers and MO practitioners seriously ponder:

1. We need to remember our customers are buying a desired outcome, not a solution. Our organizational focus should be on understanding the gap between our customers’/prospects’ current state and their desired future state – the motive, the urgency, the payback, the consequences of inaction, the means to act, the perceived risks in acting.

Implications for marketers: We can best support Sales by providing the process and means to better understand this gap. We also need to deliver collateral and marketing programs that attract prospects interested in bridging the gap. We need to continually ask ourselves some key questions to ensure that our selling process is not just aligned with the customer, but with our business goals. How well can we fill the gap for the customer and still meet our profit objectives? How can we support Sales to ensure that new sales reps are properly trained to act in accord with this customer-centric approach?

2. We need to understand our customers’ buying process and imperative to buy. Where are they in the buying process? What do they need to do next? Who else is part of the decision process? How can we enable our customer champions to take the next step in the buying process? We need to understand the motive behind the potential selling opportunity motive to support sales reps. Is the reason to buy a planned replacement, an unplanned replacement, a new purchase to keep up with the competition or a new purchase to get ahead? Is the initiative supported from the top-down or is it bottom-up? How does this initiative rank in terms of priority compared to other initiatives the customer might choose to fund? If we don’t understand these fundamental buying factors, we won’t be able to support Sales with strategic intent. We’ll just be providing air cover, absent a battle.

Implications for marketers: The programs we establish, the campaigns we develop, the tools we create need to be geared toward helping Sales help our customers to buy. Does Sales believe our marketing programs, campaigns and sales tools contribute to gaining greater access to qualified prospects? Reaching “hidden” decision makers? Equipping customer champions to sell on our behalf? Is there significant tension for the customer to buy? Our credibility with Sales is at stake. Our sales reps need to trust that the leads we provide are legitimate qualified opportunities. They’ll have much greater respect for us and the quality of our leads if we take the responsibility to nurture prospects until they are truly ready to buy. This means, when the customer has demonstrated that they know what they are buying, why they are buying and how they are going to buy it. The last thing we want to do is waste our sales resources on a sourcing decision (“Who will I buy from?”) when we (and/or our prospect) don’t have a strong handle on the why, what and how.

It really comes down to aligning our internal sales and marketing process (with our internal customer, Sales) with our customer buying process. This is a fruitful area for Marketing Operations to focus. Our contributions can make a real difference in our organization’s ability to:

  • Attract and win the right prospects and customers
  • Nimbly and appropriately respond to sales opportunities, based on a sound understanding of where prospects are in their buying cycles
  • Optimize our sales resources to focus on high-touch, ready-to-buy opportunities
  • Empower our customer champions to be highly effective advocates of our value proposition
  • Mobilize our marketing resources – programs, campaigns, collateral – where they will have the greatest impact

For more of my thinking on Marketing Operations and related topics, check out my Marketing Operations at Work blog at

Gary Katz
Gary Katz, founder and chief strategy officer of Marketing Operations Partners, is a visionary and thought leader in the emerging Marketing Operations field. Marketing Operations Partners is a firm that helps enterprises overcome dysfunction, execute strategy, build shared vision and accountability, and strengthen strategic impact in all areas of marketing. Gary is a veteran with more than twenty years of marketing and change management experience in the technology industry in corporate, agency and entrepreneurial positions.


  1. Gary: Well stated that we need to understand our customers’ buying process and imperative (motivation) to buy. Many sales executives have well-documented sales processes, but don’t know how the teeth on their selling gears mesh with those on corresponding buying gears–or whether they correspond at all! So they have a sometimes disconnected, free-spinning selling gear. The results: long sales cycles, missed targets, and sales force churn.

    While it’s theoretically beneficial to preserve selling resources for the highest-value activities, the idea that Marketing would nurture a lead until the point of a purchase decision (“They’ll have much greater respect for us and the quality of our leads if we take the responsibility to nurture prospects until they are truly ready to buy. This means, when the customer has demonstrated that they know what they are buying, why they are buying and how they are going to buy it.”), might create unintended conflict. Could Marketing and Sales subscribe to the same definition of ready to buy? What if they don’t? How would goals, commissions, and financial incentives be kept congruent? Should they be congruent when the value they provide to their organization–and their missions–are different? The answers are interesting to debate, and I certainly don’t profess to have them.

    From an operational and process point of view, can Marketing, through its portfolio of one-to-many tactics, be effective in the steps of the sales process up to the point of purchase action? At what point in the sales process does the one-to-one strength of Sales present the best tactical advantage? Much of what salespeople do is help prospects vision a “to-be” state, something that begins (in many cases) very early in the sales process, and that requires strong discovery and analytical skills, which the sales team is best organized to manage.

  2. Gary, Well, welcome to what selling has been about for not just years, but centuries. I don’t mean this to be facetious, I mean to be that almost all to many in marketing and in all aspects of business management seldom have spent any time “behind the counter”or “knocking on doors.”
    The closest they came to do this was applying for college or a job.

    The result is that, while they are customers, too, they do not take what they don’t like about the way they are treated or that products/services offered or are looking for and apply it to what they do when they are on the selling side of the picture.

    For example, they resent going into stores, being called on by salespeople who do not understand what has been, is, will go on when they are customers. They don’t want to be faced with glitzy brochures, blocks of copy done to look artful, that do not give them answers to questions that will arise if they get into discussions about the should/shouldn’t I/we buy it. Nor, do they want to go into a store, trade show booth, vendor showroom and be faced by, at best, clerks who not only do not know very much about they are selling, they know less about who the products/services are used by customers. Yet, they do what they don’t like when they are pitching whatever they want to sell.

    Other examples are
    * they look at sales salaries as expenses and not as a form of inventory that has to produce more than it costs. Is a salesperson’s commission gets too high, they will up the “nut” or cut their territory or both, or they will fire them and replace them with less knowledgeable sales people. As Charles Goren, the bridge guru said when talking about playing trump cards,, “never send a small boy out to do a big boys job.”

    * they seldom understand that many people who are in on the buying decision process have little or know experience in buying. They took on the job or task by default. If they don’t, as you wrote and is the theme of the book, understand what problems potential buyers have internally in the buyer’s environment, sales suffer.

    * customer loyalty is not bought. . . . it is earned when the customer profits in some way from what the resource sells. Sometimes that profit is monetary, sometimes it increases turnover, sometimes long life span, sometimes multiple uses many times . . . all aspects of not having to replace, replenish, reuse, what customers have bought.

    * promises are made that what is offered will help increase sales and/or profits when that’s a downright lie. It is the customers’ customers who determine if the customers’ sales will increase and increased profits not only can come from increase sales but also the efficiency within the customers’ place of business.

    * sales materials, brochures, store/booth layouts, media are seldom made with the first-time viewers’, readers’ , listeners’, buyers’ points of view.

    I was very fortunate that my mentors were, in my early days in business, by family members in the business, the employees and, lastly, Peddlers who took the time to teach me not only what to buy but not what to buy and when not to buy it. Those in the store learned by reacting to what wasn’t working, it was innate in their psyche. The Peddlers did it so that I would not buy due to ignorance of the marketplace because if my buying was faulty, it would tie up money for what they were selling. When someone walked in the door, if they had been looking at some windows before coming in, putting them in the right area eliminated the need for either to ask questions. If they could not see which window or the customer called on the phone, wrote a letter, the question they asked themselves, “What caused them to come, call, write?” They also, due to experience, knew that what a customer asks for may not be what they came in for . . . they just didn’t know what to call what they came in for.

    In my business, as stated in the articles on my web site, I have taken all those inputs and put them into, I hope, ways that would allow readers adapt them to what they do – manage, work, sell, buy, assist others, etc.

    It is not what marketing people do, it is what customers do as a reaction to what marketing people have done. Understanding the “why” of the latter is what makes the former what it should be.

    Thank you for writing about a very important part of what all business persons, not just those in marketing, should be doing . . . think like your customer thinks.

    Alan J. Zell, Ambassador Of Selling, Attitudes for Selling
    [email protected]
    Winner of the Murray Award for Marketing Excellence
    Member, PNW Sales & Marketing Group
    Member, Institute of Management Consultants
    Member, International Speakers Network

    You are invited to suggest to your associates, acquaintances, family, friends, customers/clients to learn why everyone has something to sell by visiting


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