"It's not the customer's job to know what they want."
- Steve Jobs
Common business wisdom dictates that the key to building a successful business is to find a need and fill it. For years, this wisdom was spot on. Salespeople were charged with the task of asking the customer what was needed, to diagnose the existing pain and to propose a solution.
Today this approach kills profits. Simply put, the fastest way to be thrown into the commoditization trap is to ask a customer what they need. There are 5 key reasons that the traditional approach to sales isn’t working and you need to stop listening to your customer to be successful:
1. There’s no one left to educate you.
The management level that used to exist in your customer’s business that could understand both the process and results needs of the business no longer exist. When you’re relying on your customer for insight, you're either talking to someone at a level that lacks the authority or understanding of the business, or you’re talking with someone who doesn’t understand the implementation issues that you address.
2. If you need to learn from the customer, you’re too late.
Second, research by a number of organizations (most recently the Sales Executive Council) demonstrate that when dealing with B2B sales, customers conduct almost 2/3rd of the buying process without engaging a salesperson or solution provider. By the time they can answer your questions effectively, it’s too late!
I’ve always said that the definition of a great salesperson is someone who can sell when there is nothing to buy. This is not just another way of saying a good salesperson can sell ice to an Eskimo. It means that a good salesperson is the catalyst to discovery and initiates action rather than reacting to it.
3. Your customers don’t understand their problems.
Before speaking with a prospect for the first time, you should already be an authority on their industry, as well as the business itself. You should have a clear take on what their high probability problems are, as well as the opportunities. An effective research process allows you to focus your inquiry on level 3 issues, while your competitors are stuck asking level 1 and 2 questions.
When you’re relying on what your customer thinks about their issues, you’re simply creating no value. What the customer is telling you is what they’re telling your competitors, thus increasing the odds you end up sounding like everybody else.
What’s more, it’s probably wrong! How often have you lost a sale because a competitor provided a solution that was different than what the customer asked for? In disgust, you look at your proposal and feel shafted as you hit every point they asked for.
4. It makes you vulnerable
As the previous point indicates, relying on the customer makes you vulnerable. Noted entrepreneur and billionaire, Mark Cuban, tells the story of a company whose product was not only best in its class, but far ahead of its competition. As Cuban shares, they made the fatal mistake of asking their customers what features they wanted on the next version.
Unfortunately, their competitors didn’t ask. Instead the competitor had a vision of how business could be done differently – and better. Customers didn’t see the value or need until they saw the new product; and when they saw it, they loved it.
5. Your job is to challenge, influence and provoke
More often than not, there's a gulf between what your client will say they want, and what their behavior reveals about what they actually want. A flawed theory upon which salespeople have based their efforts for generations is that prospects want you to say what they want to hear.
Customers value and desire advisors who challenge their thinking, provide unique insights into how they can do their job better and enable them to navigate unseen risks. We call it a Commercial Teaching Point of View, and it’s critical to the success of your selling efforts.
A Final Note
Please do not misunderstand the point of this post. I am not saying that you should merely go into your customer/prospect’s business and tell them what they need and how to do their job. You do need to listen to the extent that it allows you to tailor your value proposition to their unique needs.
The job of a salesperson today – and, in reality, always has been – is to teach and influence. Listening skills are critical to do that successfully. But remember, it’s your job to command the process and provide the leadership. Doing so not only differentiates you, it makes you different. You sales and profits will accelerate as a result.