Originally published in Forbes
By Randy Illig
A buyer once contacted me about responding to an RFP based on a referral from a mutual friend. She was doing a preliminary scan through vendors to figure out who to include and asked me to tell her more about what my organization did.
If I was following a traditional sales process, I might have launched into my pitch right then and there. Instead I responded: “What we do derives its context from what you’re trying to accomplish. Can you tell me more about that first?” Once I understood her goals, I shared what our organization did in relation to what was important to her.
At the end of the conversation, she said, “You’re the only vendor who’s asked me any questions like that. In fact, one of the topics we talked about, I’ve only discussed with you, because no one else brought it up.” To craft a helpful response to her RFP, I still needed more information, so I asked if we could continue the conversation in person. We ended up meeting three hours over lunch, collaborating and forming a joint proposal on the spot.
We subsequently won the deal — the largest one of our fiscal year — and I believe we won it at that lunch. During that time, the energy of our conversation shifted from a buyer and a seller talking at one another, to two people working synergistically toward something important to both of them.
Standing Out from the Crowd
Most salespeople can articulate their differentiation in the marketplace. Their innovation and competitive advantages are clear to them. But when asked, “How do your customers view your distinction from the competition?” they confess their clients usually can’t tell a difference.
There’s often a lot of complexity in what buyers are buying, and while on the surface they know the difference between various competitive choices, they don’t often value that differentiation. So they resort to buying on price because they see the vendors as being the same.
When they perceive similarity as high, minuscule differences become big. And the customer-buying experience could be the difference between winning and losing.
Move from a Selling Process to a Buying Process
This is a step beyond being client centric. It’s being sensitive to the experience a buyer has as they go through their own buying process.
Unfortunately, we often call that “the selling process,” and there’s significant ramifications to this mindset—it’s almost always written from the seller’s perspective, and it’s crafted to address the needs of the seller, not the buyer.
I believe moving from a sales process to a customer buying process is a more effective approach to selling. Here’s how to start:
- Switch to the mindset of the buyer. Work with buyers to understand their buying process (which may vary from client to client), then make sure your sales approach facilitates and aligns with it.
- Understand what buyers are after. Sometimes the clients themselves don’t know what their exact objectives are—when it’s something they haven’t done before or they haven’t thought deeply about it yet. Good, insightful salespeople can often help customers craft those objectives.
- Develop significant domain knowledge. To help buyers succeed, we need to be deeply skilled in the field of choices they’re making. We need to know the alternatives so well that we can advise them on the upsides and downsides of each one, with good intent—even if the best option for them is not in our favor.
- Advocate for what your company does in the context of the customer story. Make sure your sales force is nimble enough to tell your story in the context of the customer’s story and synergistically leads to a better story for both.
With these skills, your sales force can create a buying experience so meaningful to the customer that it differentiates you from the competition. It may be the single element that tips the scales in your favor.