The following article was written for Entellium, Inc. in November, 2007. It was published in their quarterly online newsletter, SMB Blogging -- A Resource for Small and Medium-sized Businesses.
Entellium is a Seattle-based company specializing in Customer Relationship Management software for small to medium-sized businesses.
What Do You Need?
How listening to the customer can help you to boost sales, improve products and services, and find new customers
By Robert Lindsay
Jerry Seinfeld has an old joke: "You can always tell when a salesperson is working on commission. They try to sell you the exact opposite of what you really want. 'Well, sir, I'm afraid we don't have any jogging shoes in your size. But I'm sure you'll love this pair of red-leather hip boots with the stiletto heels.'"
Seinfeld has a point. How many times have you encountered a salesperson who tried to sell you the opposite of what you were looking for? Usually, this is because the sales person is focused on their needs and what they need to sell. They may not even be listening when you try to explain what you need from them.
Too many salespeople make the mistake of not listening to their customers. They get so caught up in selling the benefits of their products or services that they forget they are in business to serve the customer's needs, not their own. If the customer perceives that the salesperson is not really listening to them, or is offering a solution that doesn't really fit the customer's needs, they may choose a different product or service. Or they may jump to a better product or service when one becomes available.
A successful long-term sales strategy requires a customer-centered approach. To keep a customer, salespeople must demonstrate that they understand and can provide effective solutions for the customer's individual needs and problems. And that requires having the patience to listen to the customer from the very beginning.
In your initial sales call, your focus should not be, "Let me tell you about this great product/service I have." Instead, it should be, "Tell me about your needs and problems. What do you need this type of product, service or solution to do for your company?"
Once you have listened to the customer describe the company's needs and problems, your focus should not be, "Let me tell you how our products/services/solutions can help you." Instead, it should be, "Let me tell you how our products/services/solutions helped a company with needs and problems similar to yours."
The purpose of this indirect approach is simple. You want the customer to understand that your business is centered on the customer's needs, not your own. This approach lets the prospect know that you want to help not just the prospect, but customers in general. The fact that you have the patience to listen to and understand their needs, and your experience in helping other companies with similar problems, will impress them more than any boring list of "great features" you can offer with your product, service or solution.
Ask the right questions
Sometimes, in order to learn what the customer's needs are, it is necessary to ask a few questions. The right questions can help your customer to open up to you, and give you some insight into how you can assist them. Some good questions to ask include:
Put yourself in your customer's shoes
Often, understanding your customer's needs begins with understanding who they are and how they think. You must "put yourself in the customer's shoes," and examine their needs from the point of view of the people who buy your products or services. The best way to do this is to talk directly to your customers.
For example, at Entellium, the Product Management design team routinely conducts interviews with Entellium customers, potential customers, and users in the field. Over time, these interviews have helped Entellium's design team to create a specific set of "customer personas."
A customer persona is a profile of a "typical customer" for a certain Entellium solution. The customer personas that the design team has developed include the "Inside Sales User," the "Outside Sales User," the "Mobile Application User," the "Sales Administrator," the "Technical Administrator," and the "CFO."
"You get great perspectives and feedback when you go out and talk to users in their own environments," says Erik Krause, Director of Product Management at Entellium. "We follow the concept of 'N.I.H.I.T.O -- Nothing important happens in the office.'"
Erik describes a persona for the "Mobile Application User," a typical user of Entellium's mobile applications: "We picture a slick salesperson, always smiling, wearing an Armani suit, driving a Mercedes, someone who wants to be out on the golf course. They do most of their sales management work on the go, so they carry a mobile device."
"To develop these personas, we interview 10 to 15 people in these positions," Erik explains. "The first 8 to 10 interviews help you to develop the persona. The last five are more validation of your ideas and concepts."
These personas provide an excellent way for members of Entellium's Product Management, Development, and Testing/Q&A teams to "step into the customer's shoes." Understanding who the customers are on a personal level allows Entellium to make better, more informed decisions on how to develop, test, and sell CRM solutions according to the customers' needs.
Getting feedback from your customers will provide you with a wealth of information about how to improve your products or services. There are numerous easy ways to obtain customer feedback, including putting online survey forms on your web site, sending out email requests for feedback, hosting Web chats with your customers, and sending out postcards and mailer surveys. It's important, however, to make sure that all feedback from your customers gets to the right people, whoever they may be, in your organization. (At Entellium, all "Enhancement Suggestions" from customers and end users are sent directly to the Product Management team.)
But "Request-for-Feedback" campaigns can provide only so much information. The best way to find out what your customers need from you is to talk to them in person. In-person interviews will give you more detailed information about how they use your products and services, and what improvements they need from you.
It's important to remember that some of your best customer feedback may come from users within your company. Seek out your internal users and get feedback from them. At Entellium, members of the internal sales team (referred to as the "Sales Lab") are an excellent source of ideas and feedback for improving CRM solutions.
In today's business world, offering an exceptional product or service is only the first step to success. Customers are on the lookout for companies that will go the extra mile to meet their individual needs. When customers encounter a company that takes the time to listen to them, and to understand their problems and concerns, they are sure to recommend that company to their peers.
If your company develops a reputation for listening to customers and providing solutions to meet their needs, you stand to benefit from the most powerful marketing tool of all -- "word of mouth." New customers will line up at your door, hoping that you can "lend an ear" and provide solutions for their needs as well.
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