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The Power of Usage Scenarios

Our experience has taught us that great salespeople rarely have to close, and that great sales calls are conversations, rather than presentations. customer-focused salespeople are able—usually with very little help from their Marketing department—to translate the feature knowledge they are given by Product Marketing into usage scenarios. These are simply hypothetical examples that are highly relevant to the buyer and that the seller can use to conduct intelligent conversations. They somehow just roll off the tongue of a customer-focused salesperson.

As noted, those are the lucky 10 percent. But what about the other 90 percent? What about salespeople who are unable to do the feature-to- usage-scenario translation on their own?

Let’s say we have a seller in his late twenties who is going to make a sales call on a senior executive in her mid-fifties—let’s have her be the Vice President of Sales of a Fortune 1000 company. The seller’s mission is to convince the buyer to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a customer relationship management (CRM) system, which is an application she does not fully understand. How can we help this young seller relate to this buyer? How can we help him have a conversation, rather than make a presentation?

One of the features of the CRM application is control over access to specific data—that is, who can see what—in a company’s database. Most likely, an expert buyer can understand this feature and relate it easily to his or her own use. Most senior executives, however, are not adept at understanding how software can help them achieve their business goals. What can the seller do?

Well, most senior sales executives understand high employee turnover. Suppose the seller asked a question like, “What if you heard through a reliable source that one of your top salespeople was going to leave to go to work for your competition?” If the executive expressed interest, the salesperson could then pose another question: “Would it be useful to you to be able to go into your CRM system and suspend that person’s access to your prospect and buyer data—from any location, even if you were traveling?”

This is an example of converting a feature into a usage scenario. It works because it is so specific. It shows the prospective buyer how the data security feature could be used by the executive to protect company assets in the event of employee turnover. Usage scenarios help buyers visualize how they could use the seller’s offering to solve a problem, achieve a goal, make money, or save money.

The above example involves a complex enterprise software sale. What about simple retail sales? Would converting from product presentations to usage scenarios also be preferable?

We gave a presentation at a Silicon Valley marketing executive symposium at the Stanford Business School. At the end of our talk, a senior vice president of a retail bank approached us with the idea of trying out our ideas in a banking context. Specifically, their issue was cross selling. At that time, the average number of bank products (savings account, checking account, ATM card, CD, and so on) for a retail bank buyer was 2.2. His bank was below average—at 1.9—and he was under heavy pressure to increase cross selling.

First, we needed to learn how they were currently selling before we could suggest any changes. We were observing one morning when a couple from out of state came into a branch near one of the campuses of the state university system. They had their daughter in tow. After a brief wait, they were steered toward the desk of a 23-year-old retail banker, whom we’ll call “Sarah.”

“Our daughter will be going to school here,” the father told Sarah. “We want to open up a checking account for her.”

Sarah immediately brought out her sales kit, which included details about the four checking account plans. She detailed each, and asked the buyers if they were prepared to select one. Then she remembered the new corporate priority—cross selling—and asked politely, “Would you also like a savings account?”

No, thanks, said the father, they did their banking back home in Iowa. They simply needed a local checking account for their daughter while she was in college.

We told the bank that this was one approach to cross selling, but that we thought there was room for improvement. The bank’s marketing head decided to let us try out our ideas on a pilot basis. After we studied how consumers actually used each of the bank’s products, we developed usage scenarios, and (in a predetermined pilot region) trained their retail people in the use of these scenarios.

Here is an example of adopting a customer-focused approach to cross selling: A couple from Nebraska visited a branch office to open a checking account for their daughter, who would be attending school near the bank. This time, before working through the specifics of the checking account, the retail banker asked a number of usage-scenario questions. For example:

  • When you are back in Nebraska, would it be useful for you to be able to check on your daughter’s balance by using the Internet?

  • When you are back home, would you like to be able to transfer money from your bank account there to your daughter’s account here simply by using the Internet?

  • If your daughter has a roadside emergency, would you like her to be able to get emergency funds anytime she wants—but still not have her hand in your wallet?

Good questions, right? Questions that you would like to be asked by a representative of a bank that you’re doing business with, and that demonstrates customer-focused expertise in dealing with circumstances like your own. Well, guess what happened: Through the use of these kinds of usage-scenario questions, cross selling in the pilot region went up 400 percent. In truth, the bank had no product differentiation whatsoever from its competition. The difference lay in patience, process, and content—in architecting the buyer’s experience with the seller. It lay in shifting from feature selling to customer-usage selling.

Another, slightly more complicated, example of converting from feature to customer-usage selling involved the call center of a telecommunications company in a large metropolitan area. When new residents moved into the area, they typically called to set up their phone service—service initiation. We’re willing to bet that almost everyone reading this resource understands what call waiting is, and what it enables you to do. But imagine it’s the early 1990s, you don’t understand call waiting, and someone is trying to sell it to you. Chances are that you’ll have to ask some follow-up questions before you get it—and maybe even buy it. Even then, the phone company would hope mightily that you would keep that service for at least 6 months, so that they could break even.

Let’s assume that a call center representative of a phone company today were speaking with a retired couple in their late seventies or early eighties. During the service-initiation process, the call center representative asks a series of “do you want . . .” questions regarding the company’s various products: call forwarding, voice mail, call waiting, paging, and so on. If a free trial were offered, might people say yes to these features?

The problem for the phone company arose when many of these services were discontinued 3 to 6 months after initiation. The phone company needed these additional services to stay installed for at least 6 months to break even on them; after that, the arithmetic was good. So how do you keep new services installed? Customers must realize the value of the services and understand how to use them.

In the case of our client, our analysis revealed that many buyers didn’t know why they needed the additional services they were saying yes to, or how they would use them. Some elderly purchasers of call waiting were calling customer service complaining that their phones “keep on beeping.” Others objected strenuously when their phone bills went up in the fourth month—perhaps forgetting that the premium services that they had subscribed to (and that they had never used) were offered free of charge for the first 3 months.

In designing an approach to this customer issue, we first developed a simple spreadsheet of available features (the y axis) and their related buyer issues (the x axis). We then worked through a series of diagnostic questions and usage scenarios for their customer service representatives to use while taking orders during service initiation.

It’s not rocket science, right? But it works. By taking the time to ask a few simple questions about need and customer usage—and, not unimportantly, to educate the consumer about the usage and value of partic

It's not rocket science, right? But it works. BY taking the time to ask a few simple questions about need and customer usage-and, not unimportantly, to educate the consumer about the usage and the value of particular services—the company was able to cut discontinuances dramatically. And, we should stress, the company was able to deliver services to people who understood and appreciated them, and were willing to pay for them. A win-win outcome, all around.

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