A recent article featuring PI President and CEO Nancy Martini, published by 1to1 Media, disucsses the necessary alignment of a customer-focused approach and sales goals for sustained success, and four ways that organizations can establish the right balance between the two.
By Cynthia Clark
Published 05/28/2012 in 1to1 Magazine
Forward-thinking organizations have long understood that a customer-first approach is necessary for ongoing success. However, this principle doesn’t always trickle down to salespeople, whose focus may be on closing deals at all costs.
Nonetheless, sales success and customer centricity are not mutually exclusive. In fact, experts argue that the two go hand-in-hand. Sales teams will only achieve long-term success by being customer-centric. Conversely, not focusing on customers’ best interests will cost the business—and salespeople—money.
According to Kia Puhm, Eloqua’s vice president of customer experience, because customers buy products and services to meet their needs, those needs must be at the center of every sale. “You have to understand [customers’] pain points, business objectives, and what they’re trying to achieve, and then match what you’re offering with their needs,” says Puhm. Clarabridge cofounder and CEO Sid Banerjee agrees, adding that giving customers what they want and better meeting their needs will increase customer spend and brand loyalty.
One mistake that salespeople make in their zeal to close a sale is the failure to build a proper relationship with their customers and prospects. “You need to understand the client to be able to sell them what’s valuable to them,” says Louis Hayner, chief sales officer at Alteva. This attitude can win organizations lifelong customers, which can translate to less spent on acquisition and increases in customer lifetime value. “Being customer centric is much better than any trick you can think of to get more sales,” stresses Erik Peterson, senior vice president of consulting at Corporate Visions.
Here are four ways in which organizations can achieve sales goals while retaining a customer-first approach.
1. Understand customers’ needs
According to Paul Alves, AG Salesworks’s cofounder and CEO, customers and prospects are only concerned with how a product or service can help them solve a problem or improve their business. Customer-centric organizations consider it their responsibility to know their customers’ needs and continuously validate them to make sure they’re offering the right products. “You need to [walk a mile] in customers’ shoes to be able to tie their needs with the knowledge of your product,” stresses Eloqua’s Puhm. Additionally, since needs change over time, salespeople have to maintain an ongoing dialogue with their customers and prospects, ensuring that they’re offering what’s relevant today.
Further, salespeople should know how to read between the lines when dealing with customers. Puhm argues that sometimes customers don’t know how to verbalize their needs, so it’s the job of a salesperson to help determine them.
2. Communicate the benefits to the sales team
Corporate Visions’ Peterson recommends that leaders clearly explain to their sales staff the contrast between what they’re doing now and what they should be doing. “Sell the problem to them,” he says. “Salespeople are doing what they think they should be doing to close more sales. They need to see that there are opportunities to close more sales by being customer centric.” Leaders should explain how a customer-first approach will impact acquisition and retention, for example.
Training salespeople to be customer-centric is of essence. Nancy Martini, PI’s president and CEO, says this includes good investigation skills, which will help them better understand their customers’ needs. “With less training and support, [salespeople will follow their] gut and focus on sales rather than on the customer,” Martini says. She uses the example of a New York–based PR agency that saw an 18 percent increase in sales in one year after teaching its salespeople to listen to their customers, understand their situation, and offer the most relevant products.
3. Compensate customer-first behavior
Compensation plays a significant role in motivating salespeople to close deals. As long as companies link variable pay to closed deals, salespeople will be tempted to focus on making the sale, regardless of how it affects their customers or impacts the likelihood of a lasting relationship. Alteva’s Hayner argues that some organizations that want their sales teams to take a customer-first approach are failing to link their compensation to this metric. “Include a component of customer-centricity and retention in compensation,” he notes.
A radical solution, and perhaps the simplest, would be not paying salespeople a commission, Yesware Founder and CEO Matthew Bellows suggests. This approach should encourage salespeople to focus more on the customer rather than on worrying about reaching their financial targets. Optimal Solutions, for example, aligned its compensation package with customer satisfaction. Sam Sliman, the company’s president, says this put the onus on salespeople to not just sell, but also to sell the right product. “When their compensation was affected, [salespeople] began to think more about mitigating risk rather than simply getting a signature.”
Aspect Software took a slightly different approach, and bolstered its sales team with client success managers whose role is to provide long-term value to customers. Mike Sheridan, Aspect’s executive vice president of worldwide sales, says this team’s compensation is linked to customer feedback.
4. Take the role of a trusted advisor
Customers want to speak with someone who demonstrates that they have their best interests at heart. Peterson argues that customers seek organizations that are willing to partner with them to find the best solution for their problems, sometimes even before the customer himself is aware of the issue. He suggests that salespeople take on a role of advisor, helping customers identify their problems and then finding ways to solve them. Sometimes companies won’t have the solution that the customer needs and a mature salesperson will explain this and steer the customer in the right direction, even if it means suggesting a competitor.
Additionally, salespeople can provide their expertise to help customers make an informed decision. Eloqua’s Puhm notes that once customers see a salesperson as a trusted advisor, they’re more likely to do business with him. “Once you have that relationship, it’s easier to sell more to them,” she says.
Additionally, business leaders need to make sure that their sales teams aren’t making promises that the company won’t be able to deliver. Not only will this upset customers, but it will also lead to a lack of trust in the organization.
In the current competitive environment taking a customer-first approach is not a choice; it’s a must. Puhm notes that today’s knowledgeable customers will immediately recognize that a salesperson doesn’t understand their needs or is just trying to make a sale. “You can’t afford not to take a customer-centric approach,” she says.