You give and you give and you give and your customers are never satisfied. You offer training and they don’t show up. You make deliveries three days a week and they still want you to have a hot truck available any time of day just for them. Your pricing is competitive and they still ask you to match the price from some online outfit that doesn’t even have a warehouse.
It’s always been this way, hasn’t it? And it will never change, unless you do something to change how your customer sees you and your company.
Last time I brought up the idea that gathering the routine account analysis information is important, but the more important questions, and the ones that will be unique compared to your competitors, are questions like:
Which parts of your business are most critical to you?
Where do you see yourself in three to five years?
Are there areas of business that you might either reduce or grow?
What kinds of challenges do you worry about?
What would you like to see from a top supplier?
I suggested that these types of questions create a different level of interaction with your customer principal and are more likely to get to the heart of what is important to him or her in running their business. No sales person can know as much about the customer’s business as the owner. Knowing what’s important to him you will lead you to what is expected from his suppliers.
Your customer expects you to be an expert in your company’s products and processes. He doesn’t necessarily expect you to be an expert on his history or the details of his business. Even with that, most customers would understand why it would benefit them if their supplier did have that expertise. We know from experience that some of the strongest supplier-customer relationships are founded on the customer and salesperson working together to help that salesperson develop that deeper understanding of the customer’s business needs.
Asking the customer to help educate you on his or her business establishes a different kind of relationship – a client-consultant relationship. When consultants go in to help businesses the first thing they say is, “Tell me as much as you can about your business and how it works. Tell me what your goals are and the challenges you have so that we can determine how to best reach those goals.” When top salespeople go into a new account the first thing they say is, “Tell me as much as you can about your business and how it works so I can do the best possible job of helping you be successful.”
We are probably misleading you a bit when we refer to the “questioning” phase of the sales process as “account analysis” because that term conjures up the idea of a filled out form that includes a lot of details about the customer. It is that, but it’s also a lot more. We could refer to it as “the basis for more a consultative selling relationship.” The purpose of having customers talk to you about their businesses is not just to get the information, it is to set you apart from other suppliers. It’s a way of communicating that you want to go beyond just selling your product but, instead, you want to be a part of your customer’s business.
There are at least three good reasons that today’s customer has embraced the idea of having a more strategic relationship with fewer suppliers.
First, business history has demonstrated that strategic supplier-customer relationships can reduce costs for the customer. This results from having a supplier focused on reducing mutual business costs, from having fewer purchasing processes to worry about, having more rapid correction of issues when they do arise, having “most favored” status for pricing, and so on.
Second, having this kind of relationship can be like having added an unpaid part time employee to the customer’s company. Customers learn to depend on the supplier to assist in training employees, help with processes like ordering, pricing, returns…and even get involved with strategy development and implementation.
And third, strategic relationships can be more pleasant for both supplier and customer. It’s a lot more fun planning for ways to increase sales than it is to spend time haggling about price.
If we’re paid to grow our territories, and if our territories reflect the 80-20 principle where most of our business comes from larger, and fewer, accounts, the implication is that we need a process to identify and grow target accounts. I use the term “proposition selling” to refer to that process.
If our ability to grow our territories demands that we are not just “better” than our competitors but “different” from our competitors, that’s going to require not only that we act differently, but that we think differently about our businesses.
A salesperson who embraces proposition selling will view all of her accounts as other businesses with whom she might be able to form mutually beneficial business relationships. A salesperson who embraces proposition selling will also have a process to identify and approach target businesses for specific growth.