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Rule 3: Develop Customer Expertise in Your Selected Market


Become a resource, someone your customers know they can count on. Being a resource means being helpful and supportive. How can you become a resource for your customers? Here are five ideas to consider:

Walk in the Customer's Shoes

"Walking in the customer's shoes" means understanding your customer's business and the issues that are critical to their success. Simply put, you ask yourself questions like, What might this person be experiencing? What are the factors critical to their success? Many people understand this concept, but not everyone sees its importance or practices it regularly. Yet it is absolutely key to truly serving the customer well.

I know of one salesperson who put this concept in action. He was attempting to get his foot in the door with a large fast-food franchiser. Because he didn't have a contact in the prospective company, he decided to find out firsthand the business issues this company was facing by taking a part-time weekend job for a short time at one of its outlets. Then he followed up with a letter that discussed the issues he observed based on his firsthand experience. The customer was impressed with his thoroughness.

How can you walk in the customer's shoes? Asking good questions and listening are the first steps, of course. Here are other ideas you can use, with the customer's permission:

Item 2 on this list, spending time observing their work operation, can provide critical data. It will allow you to understand how your customer really uses your product or service (or their current supplier) or how they have adapted it to suit their needs. You may see how they overcome little inconveniences or work around less than perfect solutions. You may get to talk with some of their operational people and hear their opinions. Observing firsthand the customer's operation will provide unique insights that you can't get elsewhere. This will give you a competitive advantage that will be more than worth the time you invest.

Here is an example I experienced. I have done hundreds of presentations at meeting facilities in the U.S. and Canada. In all that time, never have any facility staff approached me to say, "I would like to understand what you have to do to get ready." Sometimes (and it doesn't happen as often as it should) someone will stop by just to ensure that everything is set up according to what was ordered and is satisfactory. But until they observe firsthand what I do, they cannot really understand the importance of the many details that have to be attended to in preparation for the meeting I'm conducting (such as making sure that there is sufficient room between the chairs, that the air-conditioning or heating is working properly, that electrical wires have been taped down, or that there is no noise coming into the room from an adjoining room). They wouldn't have to do what I do - they could just stay for part of the presentation and observe, or even just ask. They understand what they need to do from their point of view (get the coffee in, get the chairs set up, and so on), and they usually do it well. But having an understanding from my point of view would result in even greater customer satisfaction.

All of us have been told at some point that we could improve certain areas of performance. Even though we may have recognized the advice as accurate and well intended, we may have been reluctant to go to the trouble to address the weakness. The advice interfered with our plans, created a problem, required us to do some things differently - to change. Being aware of the human tendency to resist suggestions for improvement can help us heed good advice so we can change what we're doing before our weaknesses result in negative consequences.

What have you done, what do you do, or what could you do as a professional to walk in your customer's shoes?

Educate Your Customers

If customers don't understand a product, they won't buy it. Customers become educated through experience. Make it your goal to educate your customers so they can better understand the products or services you offer. Of course, when they are more educated they become more sophisticated and are more likely to know better what they want or don't want, what it will take to get it, and how much it should cost. They are also more likely to negotiate when they are educated, but this can become a selling advantage if you can uniquely meet their needs. Of course, many customers educate themselves.

It is often advantageous for companies to establish partnerships with other companies that have complementary services and that don't compete. By working together, they produce solutions that are easier and less costly for customers. But in order to get the backing of the partner, salespeople have to educate the partner about the product or services just as they would educate an end user: What is it? What does it do? Why would it be advantageous for them? Demonstrations, training, or onsite visits are effective ways of doing this.

The goal is typically to provide an integrated solution to the end user. Salespeople may have to sell people in the partner organization on the idea and show them the sales potential. They may have to work to get approval. Then they may need to take it out to their customers. By working this way, companies produce "turnkey" solutions that the customer can use without having to find the expertise to bring together the components. This isn't uncommon, for example, in situations that require sophisticated hardware and software to work together or in which a variety of older systems must work together when a new component is installed.

When Starbucks was just beginning to develop into a national presence, one of the challenges the company faced was helping consumers understand the difference between the premium coffees it served and the coffees that most Americans were used to drinking. After all, why would Americans want to pay extra for something if they didn't think it was worth it? Starbucks demonstrated the advantages of its coffee by helping people to understand that there are different types of coffee and letting the taste of the product speak for itself. The book by Starbucks chairman and CEO Howard Schultz, Pour Your Heart Into It, among other things, provided an opportunity to educate an ever-expanding market about coffee.

Can a car insurance company educate its customers about how to lower their insurance costs? Mine does by providing a table that lists the injury, collision, and theft records for all cars. It helps me to understand the insurance costs for cars I am considering purchasing.

Can you educate customers too well? Possibly. But the more likely situation is that your efforts to educate the customer will generate business and loyalty.

American Express offers to educate the employees of companies on a range of financial topics - from financial planning to diversification and retirement planning to education funding and estate planning - with a program free of specific product promotions. According to information provided on their website, American Express Financial Education and Planning Services sought the opinions of executives, human resource managers and employees from 80 different companies before designing their educational and planning programs. The key, they say, is that retirement has changed, that individuals need to be more self-reliant and better prepared. With that as a backdrop, they suggest that employees want more financial education at work and promise to deliver bottom-line results when employees have better financial information and make more informed decisions about their benefits, for example. Since it's clear that retirement has indeed changed, the promise of free comprehensive financial education would be attractive to companies and their employees. One would imagine that such an entrée would be very helpful to American Express salespeople, provided the program provides value and delivers on its promise of an objective, product-free educational program.

Sell Solutions at the Highest Level

Table 1 illustrates another way of looking at how to solve customer problems. Sales take place at different levels. Some sales require what I call the clerk approach. If I'm buying a toothbrush and the store clerk started asking about how often and how long I brush, I'd run. I just need a toothbrush. Some sales require the salesperson approach. If I'm buying a computer, I need to buy one that will help me with the kind of work I do. Knowing the number of gigahertz and gigabytes doesn't help me much, except to assure me that it's big and fast. If I am making strategic decisions about my business, I want someone who understands it in their area of expertise better than I do - someone who takes a consultant approach. Unfortunately, too many salespeople take the clerk approach when they should be taking the salesperson approach. Just think about your own experience in buying cars, computers, or other moderately priced equipment. When business issues are involved and you want to establish a longer-term relationship with the customer, a consultant approach will help you accomplish that.

Table 1: Three Ways to Sell




Sells features

Sells needs/benefits

Sells system solutions

Takes the order

Asks for the order

Creates the order

Wants to make the sale

Wants the next sale

Wants the relationship

Contact is purchasing department

Contact is department head

Contact is executive

Customer concern is price

Customer concern is performance

Customer concern is profit

A Wall Street Journal report on a survey of people shopping for consumer electronics showed that shoppers don't rely heavily on store employees for information. Of those who were asked where they got information about shopping for consumer electronics, many more said they got information from friends or relatives or ads than from the store staff.

Generally, the higher the level of sales contact, the less concern there is with price. The higher up the sale is made, the greater is the authority in making the decision. A purchasing agent who has limited authority may see a $200,000 purchase as a big risk that requires research and the involvement of others and will be less concerned about how long it takes to make a decision. An executive who has broad budget authority and who can move money from one budget item to another or change the budget, if necessary, may not see a $200,000 investment as a big deal when viewed against the payoff from that investment and will want to move as quickly as possible once convinced about the return on investment.

Keep this in mind: each level has its own point of concern. Depending on which level you are selling to, you are going to see that concern reflected by the person you are dealing with.

Your best course of action is to be prepared to sell at all three levels: show how your solution will produce profits at the level of performance the users require at a competitive price.

At what level in your customer's organization are you selling now? At what level do you want to be selling, and why? What will help you sell to that level?

Be Easy to Do Business With

One of the greatest challenges in working with people is having consistent behavior with customers. A customer can encounter one employee one day and a different person the next. Their styles can be very different. Even encounters with the same person don't always produce the same interaction. Our moods depend on many things, some of which relate to personal factors. Because business involves humans, behaving in a consistent way in terms of professionalism, attitude, knowledge, and skills can be challenging. The key is customer expectations. If they come to expect a certain response to their needs, and less is provided, they may be disappointed, surprised, or angry. The relationship will be diminished. Almost more than the level of response, customers value consistency. If I go to a restaurant that consistently offers a moderate level of service, I know what I can expect. I can rely on it. But to have them attempt to deliver a higher level of service, only to succeed sometimes and fail others, is worse than not attempting to do it at all.

If you can deliver consistent service, you can capitalize on it as a selling advantage. If you can exceed the minimum expectations and do things that are unexpected but welcomed by customers, so much the better. But too many providers ruin their opportunities for ongoing customer relationships by being unreliable and inconsistent.

In his book Leadership Is an Art, Max DePree describes how he put the principle "the customer is always right" into practice in his company. If the customer wanted something, his employees' reaction would be "What can we do to get them what they want?" not "Our policy [or our computer, or my authority, and so on] won't permit me to do that." If the customer wanted billing on a certain date and in a certain format, even if the company's computer was not normally set up to do it, they found a way to make it happen. If the customer asked for what seemed like the impossible, they worked creatively to make it possible. DePree defined the real meaning of "the customer is always right" and made it easy to do business with his company. "The customer is always right" doesn't mean that customers may not be misinformed or do things that are wrong. It simply means that if you listen to the customer's request, you may find a way to satisfy it. It is a matter of perspective: looking for ways to satisfy the customer's request rather than finding reasons why you can't.

How consistent are you at delivering what customers expect? How do you know? How easy is it to do business with you or your company? How do you know? There's only one way to find out: ask.

More than being a resource, you can become a partner with your customers. You are a partner when customers can't do without you. You are a partner when you are aligned with the customers' goals, making sure that you know those goals thoroughly and that whatever you do supports their ability to achieve those goals. When you are a partner with the customer, you are privy to information that isn't available to everyone.

Help the Customer Make a Decision

If you have a product or service that provides worthwhile benefits, you have an obligation to present it to customers and help them decide whether it is the right solution for them. If you don't bring the product or service to the attention of a customer who could use it, he or she will have to tolerate problems they could solve.

Have you ever been approached by a salesperson with a product you liked, and then not been asked to buy? One survey found that only one in five customers would offer to buy when they weren't asked. There are times when salespeople don't ask for the sale, hoping the customer will offer to purchase the product or service.

When you begin, ask permission to ask for the sale later. You might say something along the lines of "When we are finished, if I can meet your needs, would you be comfortable with my suggesting that we move ahead with this purchase?" What I don't suggest you do is to use one of the standard clichés that salespeople have been taught and customers have gotten tired of hearing, such as "Would Monday or Wednesday be better for a delivery?" In my opinion, those clichés work against you.

Why is it that some salespeople don't ask for a decision? They'd prefer not to hear no. But if you have a good product, one you believe in, you're almost obliged to find out whether it will help the customer and, if it will, to get the customer comfortable making a purchase decision. If you don't and the customer never gets the benefits of the product or service, then you have not been of service to you or your company. That's what sales leaders do.

A salesperson for a water purification company came to my home one day. He had a simple demonstration that was persuasive. He showed, by dropping chemicals into my tap water, that there was more chlorine in the tap water than in my swimming pool. It was convincing. But I wanted to see whether he would ask me for the sale. We talked and talked, but he never asked me to buy.

Five Nonthreatening, Easy Ways to Ask for the Sale

These questions will help you move toward the sale or discover that there isn't a match. Just as important as the questions is the way they are asked. A caring, sincere tone of voice will come across as less confrontational.

Does the Customer Really Know What He or She Wants?

In sales, we say we need to give customers what they want. But if you've been in sales for any length of time I'm sure you have encountered customers who didn't seem to know what they wanted. It may not happen often, but when it does it is disruptive and time consuming. It's best to red-flag the prospects that might be problematic early on and avoid or at least minimize a time commitment with them. Clearly, you would be much better off investing your time with the ideal customers to realize a worthwhile payoff.

Most customers know what they want. Even if they only know what they don't want, at least you can go through a process of elimination to construct options. But when customers can't articulate what they are looking for, when they change their minds, or when they seem to continually find little things that eliminate one proposal after another, you are probably going to find that coming to a resolution either takes too much of your time or is not possible. You end up feeling exasperated. You start to wonder how much more time you should sink into winning the business, but are reluctant to cut your losses because of what you've invested already. The customer keeps dangling the carrot and you keep going after it.

Not all customers are created equal. You need to be sure you understand the customer well enough to be able to make an informed decision about how much time you should invest in him or her.

What are the signs that can help you decide whether to go ahead and, if you do, how much time or money to invest in attempting to win the sale? Ask yourself questions like these:

The more desperate you are to win the business, the more likely you are to ignore telltale signs that the customer will be a time drain, and the longer it will take you to realize it. Table 2 will help put parameters around the issues that you must confront in working with different types of customers. While there are no exact rules, the table provides a framework for thinking about and recognizing the type of customer situation you have and doing it early enough to take advantage of it or to cut your losses. Some customers may have some of the qualities from different columns, so the categorization of the customer as ideal, promising, or difficult may be blurred - but you can still gain a better understanding about what to do by thinking about it this way than not thinking about it at all.

Table 2: Customer Types

Customer Type




Buying criteria

Value-based, clear, a good match with your offerings

Basic, not sophisticated, workable

Subject to change, uncertain, price focused

Business issues

Pressing and relevant


Crisis prone






Available now



Decision authority

One or two people at most


Not formalized or uncertain

Customer qualities

Knowledgeable, open to new ideas, honest, moves quickly to finalize agreement, accommodates your needs

New in job or field, just forming opinions, welcomes suggestions, relies on colleagues

Slow response, new boss, not flexible, always wants multiple vendor submissions, procrastinator, price shopper

What to do

Pursue (work toward an agreement)

Develop (keep in touch with)

Avoid (or make only one standard offer)

The Core of Rule 3: Develop Customer Expertise in Your Selected Market

Seek out ideal customers and sell solutions at the highest customer level by being an expert in your product and your customer's industry and business.

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