As we’ve already pointed out, some salespeople are exceptionally talented, in the sense of being naturally customer-focused. Our best guess is that they make up about 10 percent of the sales population. These are gifted, intuitive salespeople, with the remarkable ability to transform (mostly irrelevant) product training into a coherent message—one that is tailored to the title and function of the person they are calling on.
To reiterate: Calls made by customer-focused sellers are conversational. These salespeople relate to buyers, establishing their credibility by asking intelligent questions. Rather than leading with offerings, customer-focused salespeople ask questions. They seek to understand a buyer’s needs, so that they can focus on the parts of their offerings that provide a fit. By so doing, they are preparing buyers to want what they are going to offer, later in the conversation.
Naturally customer-focused sellers are the only salespeople who are capable of doing an adequate job of positioning offerings without Sales-Ready Messaging. Their opinions of what is qualified and what will close can be taken to the bank. (Even customer-focused sellers, we should note, may have trouble forecasting when opportunities will close.) They rarely waste time—yours or theirs—on unqualified opportunities.
Customer-centric salespeople need minimal coaching. After completing new-hire training, they find the best product and support people, and pick their brains to understand what this offering allows the buyer to do. customer-focused sellers make their first sale quickly, and most make their numbers the first year. In subsequent years, they almost always exceed whatever quota they are assigned.
Some organizations, having spotted this pattern, conclude that the best approach is to recruit and hire only naturally customer-focused salespeople. Two problems: First, there are not enough to go around. And second, customer-focused sellers are selective about the types of companies they join. They know how good they are. As a rule, they seek smaller companies. They like to be recruited and interviewed by senior executives. They want situations with equity and highly leveraged compensation plans, reflecting the difficulty of selling the first several accounts. They do not want to be managed, they hate red tape, and they like to have the freedom to do whatever it takes to get the business—even if that sometimes means stepping on toes internally. This means, therefore, that companies that don’t fit this description have to either develop their own customer-focused salespeople or do without.
When asked to summarize the difference between customer-focused and traditional sellers in a single word, we respond, “Patience.” Customer- centric salespeople are patient; traditional sellers are not. Once a buyer shares a goal or reveals an organizational problem, traditional salespeople launch into a “here’s what you need” product pitch. This creates problems at several levels:
Most people don’t like to be told what to do or think. This is especially true when the person telling you what to do is a salesperson—who almost always has a quota to meet, and therefore can’t be seen as an objective party.
When assaulted by a “spray and pray” pitch, buyers are likely to realize that there are features in this offering that they don’t need. The conclusion that the offering is too complicated, and therefore too expensive, may not be far behind.
By failing to ask good questions and listen, the traditional salesperson fails to understand the buyer’s current environment and the reasons he or she cannot accomplish the goal or solve the problem being discussed.
Similarly, the traditional salesperson has no way of discovering if the offering is a good fit with the buyer’s needs. The buyer hasn’t been allowed to describe his or her current situation. Failure to understand the customer environment leaves the door to misset expectations wide open.
Customer-centric sellers, by contrast, are patient. They ask buyers why they are having trouble accomplishing the stated goal. They dig into the barriers that are standing in the way of a solution. By so doing, they can home in on the capabilities of their offering that may actually help the buyer.