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Managing the Customer's Expectations

The first point of focus in the Design phase is on our customers' desired outcomes. This is primarily a visioning process. We want to create a discussion that is centered on the future, at a point when the customer's problem has been solved. This portrait of the future helps us define the customer's expectations about the solution. We can sum up expectations in the answers to three questions for our customers:

  1. What do you expect this desired state to look like?

  2. How much do you expect to invest to attain the desired state?

  3. When do you expect to have the desired state in place?

What Does the Desired State Look Like?

The easiest way to begin to define the parameters of a solution is to ask customers how they expect their situation to look after the problem is solved. This portrait of an imagined future produces a list of outcomes that customers expect from the solution. It gives us the basic information that we need to begin to define the standards by which those outcomes will be measured.

As always, questions are the most effective tool at our command. We add depth to the customer's vision for solution outcomes through our questions. For instance, when a customer says that reliability is a critical outcome, it is our cue to ask questions that generate more detail about that outcome. We need to establish a specific definition of reliability and an exact figure for its measurement. In the process of establishing those answers, we are creating a clear definition of the customer's expectations and a valuable guide to the best solution to the customer's problem.

In addition to preventing miscommunication, sales professionals must also ensure that the customer's requirements of a solution are realistic and attainable. Just because we ask customers to define their expectations does not necessarily mean that we should or can accept whatever answers they offer. The outcomes they envision must be possible, and it is our job to ensure that fact by managing the formulation process.

Mismatches between customer expectations and reality are a common occurrence in sales, and too often salespeople abdicate responsibility for resolving them. Instead of bringing the customer back to earth as soon as unreasonable expectations surface, salespeople, who are often reluctant to say anything that might disappoint the customer, pass that unpleasant task downstream to the service and support functions. As a result, the customer's expectations become fixed, and when reality finally strikes, the level of dissatisfaction is higher. There is little point in providing a solution to a customer if we have fostered exaggerated expectations about performance of the product or service (or delivery date or final cost, for that matter). The only results we can expect from such a sale are complaints, conflict, and, in many cases, permanent loss of the customer.

Defining realistic expectations, on the other hand, sets the stage for customer satisfaction and repeat business. By defining expectations in quantitative as well as qualitative terms, we protect our customers and ourselves from disappointments and conflicts that result from poorly defined and unrealistic expectations.

How Much Do You Expect to Invest to Make It Happen?

The next set of expectations we need to define is the set that centers around the size of the investment our customers are willing to make to solve their problems.

In the Diagnose phase, we assigned a cost to the customer's problem. In the Design phase, we use that cost to calculate the value of the solution. This does not mean that it is time to talk about the price of our offerings or to begin negotiating price with the customer. Instead, we are going to quantify the financial impact of the desired outcome, that is, what the customer can expect in terms of increased revenues and/or decreased expenses. We want to determine what it is worth to the customer to solve the problem. The value of a solution and appropriate investment to obtain it can be expressed with two simple equations:

Return on solution (ROS) - Cost of problem (COP) = Value

Value Customers expected return on investment (ROI) = Investment

When we help our customers calculate the worth of a solution, we set the financial parameters for a high-quality decision. Those parameters, which consider cost of the problem and return on investment the customer must earn on corporate resources, tell us how much is worth spending to resolve the problem.

Once those value parameters are set, it becomes very easy for the customer to evaluate the cost of solution alternatives. The actual cost of the solutions being offered becomes less important than how each solution's costs compares to the value the customer stands to gain. The ability to determine this information is a significant improvement over the typical way that customers approach price—a side-by-side comparison of solutions that tells the customer nothing about how much it is actually worth spending to solve the problem.

Defining investment expectations also serves the salesperson. First, because we already know the cost of our own offerings, it allows us to establish whether our solutions are financially feasible for the customer. If they are, the engagement continues. If not, the customer is returned to the salesperson's opportunity management system, and it is time to move on to a more qualified customer. Second, setting investment expectations largely eliminates price negotiations and objections about the price of our offerings. We know ahead of time that the investment required to purchase our solutions is a match with the customer's expectations.

Three common pitfalls that salespeople need to recognize and avoid in defining solution expectations are discussed in the following sections.

Premature Presentation

First, when customers begin talking about expectations, there is always a temptation, often an irresistible one, for the salesperson to slip into presentation. Customers say they expect high reliability as a solution outcome, and suddenly the salesperson is off and running with a speech about the consistent and reliable performance of the offering. We need to be aware of this and avoid the urge to present in the Design phase.

Unpaid Consulting

The second trap that often undermines salespeople during the Design phase is the trap of unpaid consulting. Unpaid consulting starts when we cross the line between defining parameters of a solution and creation of the design of the solution itself. When we start designing solutions, we start acting as consultants. In past decades, this was not a monumental issue. Generally, there was limited competition in transformative sales. If you figured out the problem and designed a unique and competent solution for a customer, the sale was almost guaranteed and the salesperson was rewarded for his or her consulting effort. Ironically, many sales organizations continue that strategy and, for some reason, choose to ignore the fact that the environmental conditions that made that strategy successful in the past, for the most part, no longer exist. Today, there is an ever-increasing proliferation of competitors in the transformative sale, and once a solution is designed, the customer can easily shop it to the competition. When that happens, we become unpaid consultants and our own worst enemies. We've enabled our competitor, who did not have the design investment, to provide the solution at a lower price. We can avoid that trap by staying focused on the customer's expectations for solution outcomes and not straying into the design of solutions. If you are providing true consulting that is transportable to competitors for fulfillment, you must extend your business model to include fees for professional services, and you must decide at what stage of the decision process the line between required diagnosis and design and paid consulting exists.

Creeping Elegance

The final trap is sprung when customers become so enthusiastic about the potential value of solutions to their problems that they expand the scope of the outcomes. When customers drop into this "as long as we're going to do this, we might as well also do that" mode of thinking, they tend to lose their sense of fiscal responsibility and conventional salespeople start to count the extra commissions.

The problem with this response lies in the very nature of the transformative sale. There is no single decision maker in this sale, so when a salesperson allows one member of the cast of characters to unnecessarily expand the scope of a solution, you can be sure that the entire project will be shot down by the other members of the cast.

Quintessential professionals ensure that their sales do not expand beyond reasonable financial parameters. The rule they follow is: Never allow an expectation that is not backed up by a specific problem and a cost that supports the additional investment.

Timing: When Do You Expect to Have the Desired State in Place?

The final set of customer expectations is based on the timing of the expected outcomes. These are relatively simple to establish and don't require much explanation, but they are important. After all, in today's fast-changing world, a solution that arrives late can cause as much damage as one that does not arrive at all.

The customer's expectations as to solution timing tell us when the solution must be in place and the timetable on which it must be producing results. Further, timing expectations have the added benefit of signaling the customer's intentions for purchasing the solution, thus offering valuable information to the salesperson and another opportunity to influence the final decision.

As with expectations about solution outcome, it is our job to ensure that timing expectations are clearly defined and mutually understood and that they are reasonable and attainable.

The topics covered herein concern solution sales, consultative sales, and consultative selling.

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