Understanding Your Customer

One of the biggest challenges facing sales professionals these days is the vast amounts of client data that needs to be collected, organized and understood.  My own journey with this process began when I started selling software systems into the corporate  information technology marketplace.  There were two giant challenges for me to overcome.  First, was the fact that the software I was selling was extremely complex and was meant to address multiple operating environments.  Second, was that the clients I was selling into had extremely complex computing environments as well.  With all of this complexity I found myself focusing more on the technical aspects of the client than on listening to their needs.  Sound familiar?  Needless to say I had very little understanding of what their challenges were, what their buying cycles were or anything about them that would help develop the all important personal relationships I needed.

Perhaps the challenges I’ve suggested fit your business.  Does what you sell involve a complicated sales process (mortgages, software, original artworks, etc.)?  Does your client need to fit a certain mold in order for your transaction to work out (qualification process, needs assessment, etc.)?  I’m guessing that most of your sales processes are equally as complicated so I’m going to share the processes I created in order to overcome this complexity, smooth out the sales process and deliver those complex deals faster.

Out of Desperation

In these early days of my career I spent countless hours after everyone had gone home plowing through my client files and all of the notes I had taken trying to find a way to organize all of this noise into something I could understand.  The other challenge was that I was managing several hundred accounts at the time, so I needed to create something that I could pick up days or weeks later and start the conversation with the client where it left off.  What I developed was a focused questionnaire that I would use with each client.  It began more as a technical Q&A so I could discern whether the client was a “fit” for my products.  As I used it more I found it helpful to add more questions about the client’s business, budgets and buying cycles.  The cool part of this process was that by being able to relax about all of the data I needed to collect with the client (in order to qualify them) I was free to develop a conversation with the client, to develop a relationship with them which is a key ingredient to building business relationships and sales.

Has the Discovery Process Really Changed That Much?

I took a look back at my first versions of the documents I created over 20 years ago and compared them to the ones I continue to use with my clients today and I found that a lot of the process has remained unchanged.  Let’s take a look at the elements of a discovery process and the corresponding discovery document.

  1. At the core, this is all about qualification or alignment.  Does your client meet the basic criteria in order for a deal to take place?  Are budgets in place?  Do they offer the correct environment, architecture, financial characteristics, etc.  The idea here is to qualify them the client into (or out of) your list as efficiently as possible.  In the event that the client is not a fit remember that the most professional thing you can do is acknowledge that as soon as you know.  There is no reason to squander any more of their time (or yours) if there is not a fit.
  2. Once you have qualified the client into your world the next step is obtaining all of the details you’ll need to service them correctly and structure a deal(s) that they will act on.  Develop a brief list of interview questions for your market or product that will give you the data you need to put your project together.
  3. Find out why they would you buy from you in the first place.  I’ll bet you think I’ve gone off the deep end with this question right?  Trust me on this one.  You’ll uncover so much great information from your client if you are brave enough to ask the following questions.
    1. Why would you buy from me?
    2. Why would you buy now?
    3. .  You’ll find out about:
      1. Potential competitors
      2. Why they like you.
      3. Why they don’t like you.
      4. How they’d like to buy from you.
      5. What the disliked about the last challenging purchase they made (and how you can avoid those mistakes).
  4. What is their buying process?
  5. Who is involved in the purchase decision?
  6. When do they see this order/project/proposal being approved?

The Big Secret

So here’s my BIG secret about this whole process.  It’s the foundation for all the sales training I do.  Are you ready?  Here it is…

You actually have a process. Yup.  Pretty basic right?  Think about it for a minute.  How many sales people have you encountered in your travels that simply “wing it.”  They have no plan, no idea about their client’s world and no notes or documentation about anything.  Having a defined sales methodology based on the Discovery Process truly sets you apart from the pack.

In fact, this is one of the first things I recommend that my clients weave into their initial conversations and meetings with new clients as a differentiator – “We have a formal process that we’ve established as a best practice in order to fully understand your needs.”  I can’t tell you how many of my customers have told me that they actually received thank-yous from their clients after meetings they hosted.  I frequently hear “This is the first meeting where I’ve really felt heard” or “You guys are really professional.”  Not only does this work for the client’s benefit but also for you too.  You gain a client that is willing to work with you, take your guidance and allow you to be heard as well.  It’s a win-win for both of you.

Some Homework

Putting together your Discovery Document will require that you invest some quality time and really start thinking about your client and their sales process. Begin by defining questions that help you qualify whether a client is truly the right fit for you.  Start at 30,000 feet here.  This is the big picture perspective on potential clients.

Are we going to get along?  I’m a big believer that you should be working with clients that fit your style.  Find this out quickly.  There is nothing worse than getting involved with a “toxic” client.  Better to spend the time up front to ask the right questions and make sure this relationship can last.

Do our people, products and services match?  This is the basic blocking and tackling on your discovery document.  What pieces need to be in place in order for your relationship with the client to work.  For example, in this day and age if you want to obtain loan approval for a mortgage refinance there are a number of criteria that a customer must meet (long term job, no debt, clean tax returns, etc.) or there is no reason to move forward with the sales process.

What is the buying process.  It never ceases to amaze me how little information salespeople have on how a purchase is actually made by their client.  I think we assume it’s magic.  Let’s get focused with our client on how they move our proposal (quote, invoice, etc.) from verbal approval to payment.  I’ll bet you’ll find out one of two things.

  • They don’t know their own process.
  • They don’t want you to know it.

The key here is to educate the client.  Help them understand that this knowledge helps you run your business and will smooth the communication process between you and your company.  It’s also important to let them know you want to understand their process so you can speak their language.  Know their purchasing systems, what forms they need to complete, who the proposal is reviewed by and how long it takes for the process to compete.  In the end it benefits both parties by eliminating confusion and a ton of extra calls pestering each other about the status of the order.

Through the process of building your discovery document I’ll bet you find that it will smooth your path to sales growth by building that professional bond with your client.

Happy Selling!