In sales, a primary principle of success is to put the customer first. In practice, however, many salespeople fall short.
“Often when we work with salespeople, they say, ‘I already talk to customers about their needs and provide them with solutions,’” says Mike Moorman, a Managing Principal at ZS Associates. “The reality is that sales professionals are rarely doing these things as well as they need to be.”
Consequently, these companies follow a sales process that reflects the way they want to sell, not how the customer prefers to buy. That’s one reason why, when working with B2B sales teams to help them improve sales effectiveness and drive organic sales growth, ZS Associates uses the term “customer engagement process” instead of “sales process.”
“We want to highlight the fact that sellers must always align their efforts with how the customer wants to buy,” says Kelly Tousi, a Principal at ZS Associates. “It reminds our clients to consider how they’ll provide value for buyers.”
What does it look like when sales teams do a better job of understanding value? Consider the experience of one ZS Associates client, an industrial manufacturer that sells injection-molding equipment. ZS found that, while the salespeople at this company knew the technical attributes of the product, they did little to really understand their customers’ needs.
Not until the client’s competitors made significant inroads did the sales team recognize that the larger issue for its customers was managing overall cost of ownership and minimizing business risk. By reengineering the customer engagement process, the ZS client was able to determine and quantify how its unique solution best addressed these larger needs for each customer’s situation. Increased profitable organic growth soon followed.
Clearly, identifying this level of value via a customer engagement process has many advantages, including an ability to win more deals and command higher prices. Tousi says that companies also put themselves in a much better position to win new business with less effort. “Some sales teams find that customers decide to work with them without soliciting bids from other companies,” she says.
The biggest challenge related to adopting a customer engagement process isn’t formulating the process itself, but rather a culture change. “The quality of the customer engagement process is important, of course,” Tousi says. “But it’s not nearly as important as getting the buy-in from the organization and getting salespeople to execute it consistently. There’s more value in that consistent execution than people realize.”
Moorman agrees. “The technical design of the customer engagement process is only 15 percent of the challenge,” he says. “The real challenge is getting people to understand, embrace, and rigorously execute it.”
Companies that form a small, early-experience group that develops and refines the process will have implementations that are more successful than those initiated by companies that take a top-down approach. Participants among such groups become advocates and develop convincing success stories. These stories help change the sales organization’s understanding of what it means to align its selling behaviors with customer needs.
“I have a client currently going through this,” says Tousi. “They’ve talked for 10 years about the need to engage differently with their customers. They chose to do an early-experience team, and this really helped bring the skeptics on board. We started to hear things like, ‘I don’t know why I’ve never taken this approach before. It really works.’”
It’s important to note that many customer-engagement skills among salespeople are best developed via coaching, not training. “Value-based selling and solution selling are apprenticed skills,” Moorman says. “You become good by practicing them and being coached by someone who understands them. Training has its place, but without good coaching to support customer engagement, you’ll have a hard time driving adoption and effective execution.”
Buyers today don’t want information; they want insight. Ditching the pitch is a much-needed step toward winning more deals and achieving higher levels of customer satisfaction. The fact is, customers don’t want to be “sold to.” They prefer that sellers engage them instead.
“Customers who experience a powerful customer engagement process almost always comment on how different the process feels,” Moorman says. “As one customer recently shared, ‘I thought you were going to come here and tell me about your products, but we came to this meeting and you only talked about our needs. This has been great.’”