I used to think that great deals started with a great product and closed with a Jedi salesperson that could mystically anticipate every customer objection and demonstrate product superiority in terms of benefits, features, and price. I realized that if I maintained this outlook, the customer starts to feel like the enemy. As I watched sales cycle after sales cycle, my perspective changed.

Successfully closing a great deal comes down to winning WITH the customer. Each deal really comes down to a customer making a choice between you and a competitor or between you and the status quo. To win with a customer, we must focus on that choice. I split the customer choice into two parts:

  1. How they buy (the process that the customer follows to arrive at her choice)
  2. What they value (the evaluation a customer makes between competing alternatives)

Customers use benefits, features, and price to make comparisons between alternatives. But, as important as winning the head-to-head feature or price comparison is anticipating how a customer would ideally like to make the choice. This is especially true in manufacturing sales where the markets and the competitors are mature and the products begin to feel like commodities. A customer likely has several high-quality choices to meet her needs.

What differentiates one supplier from another can be the skill in meeting customers where they are—both in terms of how they buy and what they value. In other words, not every customer desires the same relationship or wants to be treated in the same way by a supplier. This seems obvious, but it can be lost in our enthusiasm for our own company’s products and services. Why wouldn’t our customers love our products and value our relationship in the same way we do?

Comparing business relationships to personal relationships helps me keep things in perspective. We have different relationships with different friends. The differences do not mean that some relationships are meaningful and some are not. In fact, finding the right relationship with a particular person is usually the key to keeping the relationship mutually beneficial. I may be a late bloomer, but for me this message took hold when I moved away to college.

The relationship they are seeking determines how customers buy

Early in my freshman year of college, I arrived back at my dorm room to find a group of my dorm mates pouring over a photo directory of a neighboring women’s dorm (these were the pre-Facebook days of the late 1990s). There was intense interest in these women. Due to the way campus life was set up at our school, we would have ample opportunity to interact with them socially over the course of the year. My buddies and I labored and debated over a top 5 list and a top 10 list. In other words, we spent a lot of time identifying the women that were attractive to us.

Despite this, we spent no time thinking about how the women thought about us or what we could do to be more attractive to them. I don’t think it even crossed our minds that the women’s dorm received the complimentary directory, i.e., photos of us.

But here’s the thing. Even if we focused on how we looked or what might be attractive, we still would have missed the most important aspects of building relationships with these women: the types of relationships they were seeking and how they prefer to be treated. For example, what are the desired social activities that the young women are seeking to get to know prospective partners, dates or hangouts? And, what sort of a relationship status is she actually looking for, a friend or a partner? Even if we were good at understanding what was attractive to a particular woman (which we weren’t), we had no chance unless we could interact with her in the way she preferred.

 

The analogy applies to our customers. We can beat our chests, pound the table, and expound our company’s virtues, but it will be a long slog if we don’t recognize how our customers prefer to buy.

As couples follow different paths to a relationship, customers in the same market can have very different paths to purchase. An effective manufacturing salesperson adapts the sales journey accordingly. But, why do some customers prefer to buy in one way and others have opposite buying preferences? Or why does the same customer buy in different ways at different moments?

To answer this question, it’s best to start at the beginning of the sales journey. A customer’s journey does not start with your first sales call or with an inquiry to your inside sales team. It starts deep within your customer’s business. If you know how your customer began their journey, it can help you understand how to sell to them and what path you can be on together.

Perhaps the company you are selling to is expanding capacity and is looking to create a long-term solution that can grow as they grow. This can tell you that the sales process will likely involve demonstrating how you can be a long-term strategic partner and will need to highlight that you can help them think about the future. This won’t be a two-week sales cycle. Knowing this and planning for this from the start, can ensure that you are on the path to become their strategic partner, not acting as if you need to close a deal just as fast as possible.

Ultimately, your customer will choose your product because she believes it will enable the success of her own business. Of course, part of the value she is looking for is an offer that meets her organization’s needs. Yet, being attractive in these ways is only part of what gets a customer’s attention. The other part is matching the way you treat a customer to the way they want to be treated.

And again, as in the dating example, where some women are looking for a friend relationship and others a partner relationship, different customers expect a different relationship with their vendors. Understanding these different perspectives changes the way we work with our customers during the sales process.

What customers value

Let’s say we identify how our customer prefers to buy. Now we need to understand what she values when it comes time to make a choice.

No amount of dorm room discussions was going to get my freshman dorm-mates anywhere closer to understanding what was valued by our neighbors. The best way to learn what someone values is to ask questions about her and really listen. We won’t learn anything about our customers by talking about our company or our products.

As I listen to customers, I observe that customers given identical competing alternatives make different choices. When customers make different choices, it means they have different priorities for what is important, or they have different perceptions about the expected performance of the alternatives. An effective salesperson highlights the benefits of his offer that are most important to the customer in a way that gives confidence to the customer that the offer will help her business succeed better than the alternatives.

GETTING THE DATE (OR THE DEAL)

The good news is that you already have much of this information in your head. Bring it out of your head and onto paper so that you can make better plans and share what you learn with others. Where you have gaps in your knowledge, change the conversation with your customers, and see how quickly you learn something new. Understanding how your customer prefers to buy and what they value then why they would choose you over a competitor are the keys to differentiating yourself from other suppliers and improving your deal close rate, shortening your manufacturing sales cycle, and improving your margins.