“It’s not the customer’s job to know what they want”
— Steve Jobs

Here are three principles l like to keep in mind when I’m selling:

  1. This customer believes he knows what he wants
  2. This customer really doesn’t know what he wants
  3. This customer will be surprised — and interested — when I help him discover what he really wants

The “Wow, I Hadn’t Thought About That” Moment

Let’s consider what happens when you (or one of your salespeople) help a customer discover what they really want.

This is the moment where the customer questions their bid process and develops preference for you.  This is the moment the customer first thinks about approaching his boss to say, “Forget the RFP, I know who I want to work with.”

Once you help a customer question their preconceived notions and develop a new perspective about “what could be,” you have elevated yourself beyond the status of ‘vendor’ and have become a partner in creating a better situation for this customer.

You have shifted the customer’s frame of reference from your products to your brains, and brains are always more differentiating than products. And… profit margins on brains are always higher than profit margins on stuff.

How to Help a Customer Discover What They Want

During a sales conversation, we certainly want to ask customers questions. But this doesn’t mean that we interview a customer, take notes, and offer a solution that fits what they have described.

Explore and Heighten is one of the most important practices in a customer conversation. To “explore” is to identify what a customer really cares about, and to “heighten” is to focus the dialogue on what you have identified.  When you do this, the customer is more likely to speak freely, and to share their thoughts, fears, needs and interests.

As you Explore and Heighten a conversation, don’t just focus on the specific things your product does, or the specific solutions your product provides. Elevate the conversation to find the higher-level business or personal reasons that matter to your customer.  Remember, your customer doesn’t just want your product or service. They want a better state for their business or for themselves. When you and the customer co-discover what this better state could be, it will be much easier for you to craft a dialogue that helps the customer see how you can help them reach that better state.

When you enter a customer conversation the customer has certain expectations about what will happen. Surprise them. Explore and Heighten in a way that sets new, higher expectations. Aim for, “Wow, I hadn’t thought about that.”

Eluding the Procurement Department

You think you despise your customer’s procurement departments. Imagine how much your customer detests it.

Procurement processes try to take the emotion and nuance out of corporate purchases and define every option in terms of row 38 on an Excel spreadsheet, i.e., who has the lowest price. They attempt to take discretion away from the people in their companies who are most affected by the purchase, substituting issues like price for more important issues of performance.

This is not only bad for you, it’s bad for your customer, who deserves to be able to base their purchase decision on the many issues other than price that matter to their goals.  In most cases, customers have options to “massage” a bid process, depending on how strict their company’s procurement procedures are. If they have formed a preference for you, this can work to your advantage.  They may be able to:

  • Give you a first look
  • Invite you to design the bid process with them
  • Give you a last look
  • Argue the case for you within their company and steer the business to you for reasons other than price.

From Preconceived Notions to Unforeseen Possibilities

Your goal is to create reasons to buy from you that transcend price and product. When you bring a customer out of the realm of their preconceived notions and into a new area of unforeseen possibilities, you have distinguished yourself, meaningfully, in the mind of this customer.

Remember, it’s not the customer’s job to know what they want. It’s your job to work with them to co-discover what they want. If you do this, they will think about you in new, different ways. They will prefer you, rely on you, and be willing to partner with you. That’s good for you, and it’s good for your customer. But it’s not so good for your competitors

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