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The Hidden Differentiator In Sales

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What CEO would not give their eyeteeth for an advantage that can help their company win 25 to 53 percent of the customer decision criteria? Three recommendations.

The sales organization is always naturally more distant from the C-suite than many other functions. But the sales function is also closest to the customer. They speak to customers every day, on every call. If you accept the natural distance between sales and leadership, you also admit a huge—and costly—distance between leadership and customers.

Being a Growth Leader means being a CEO who relentlessly dares to challenge the natural state of the organization by creating strategic connections at every level. That means closer ties to your leaders of sales and to the company’s actual customers. The sales experience can directly link your corporate strategy with your ideal customer to provide solutions for their specific needs. By overcoming that natural distance, you uncover a powerful hidden differentiator.

The Customer Experience is the Sales Experience

For obvious reasons, frontline sales and customer-contact professionals are literally in a position to directly impact revenue dramatically. They not only influence how much customers buy from the company but whether they buy anything at all. A McKinsey & Company analysis of buying behavior among 1,200 B2B purchasers revealed that, on average, 25 percent of the purchasing decision is determined by the “overall sales experience.” This is surely much too big to be dismissed as a statistical artifact. A 25 percent edge is a differentiator in any marketplace, right?

Even more remarkably, a survey of B2B customers by Gartner revealed that, among existing customers, the buyer’s experience during the sales process accounted for 53 percent of the purchasing decision. That’s more than the brand, delivery and the product itself combined.

What executive would not give their eyeteeth for an advantage that can help their company win 25 to 53 percent of the customer decision criteria? This is a huge competitive advantage. Yet, for most companies, it lies fallow at worst and is underleveraged at best. The headline here is also the bottom line: The sales experience is a powerfully differentiating decision criterion that is routinely overlooked or dismissed outright.

The customer experience is so central that it has spawned dozens of conferences, associations, and the like. I have never encountered a C-suite leader who denies the importance of CX, but the problem is that most of the CX efforts are all about what happens after the customer has made a purchase. This is too late. The sales experience is the first mile of the CX highway. If it’s a bad experience, customers get off at exit 1, and there is no CX, no revenues at all.

But the sales experience is rarely talked about as a critical driver of the CX even though they are essentially the same thing, at least in the early stages of a customer relationship. Your salesperson is your customer’s connection to your company. They’re the first point of contact. And they may be the only one if the customer does not perceive value in the relationship. Done right, the sales experience is a powerful differentiator.

Sales Calls Your Customers Would Pay For

Sales does not need to be told to sell or sell more. But often, it is the only primary direction they are given by leadership. What they need is clear direction about their role in creating value and how they can execute in a way that differentiates your business. They need clarity about what kind of business to pursue within your target markets and, equally as important, what to stay away from because it’s not a good match even if they could get a deal. Communicating this vision is key to ensuring that the sales team is effectively executing your strategy in the market, and it requires that you have a voice with the sales organization.

My former boss and sales guru Neil Rackham asks: “Would your customer write you a check for the sales call?” Instead of telling sellers what they already know—sell stuff and lots of it—the CEO should ask them Rackham’s question.

If the candid answer is no, then leadership and sales have to understand that the sales function isn’t providing much—if any—additional value and doesn’t justify the cost of being there. If there’s not much value in its sales calls, why would a company invest significantly in the go-to-market approach? And if customers don’t find enough value in the sales experience, they’ll look for ways to avoid it, to minimize it, or to eliminate it altogether by buying online or from a competitor.

To create truly valuable sales calls, your sales team must move away from transactional interactions and toward consultative relationships. Here are a few ways to do that:

1. Help your customers with problems they don’t see.

The best sales organizations I’ve worked with do an extraordinary job of focusing on finding problems the customer didn’t know they had and then helping the customer solve them. They have a sales process that is based on a mutual diagnosis. The sellers lead discussions about the client’s business, looking for problems in need of solutions their company offers. You can see how your sales team must be knowledgeable about the full scope of your strategic offerings—not just the latest product—to be able to diagnose these issues.

2. Help your customers find solutions they haven’t considered.

When your best sellers discuss your company’s offerings, they present them not as a series of features and benefits but as solutions that address the expressed needs of the client. The key to creating value is to do so in a way that the client has not considered. Few customers will know everything your product or service can do, so finding a way to uniquely address their expressed need is both possible and powerful.

3. Help your customers connect with additional resources.

Your company—and your sales team—can’t solve every problem. Not every customer will be a good match with what you offer right now. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t help them. Your team can create additional value by connecting the customer with others in your organization or even referring them to outside experts who can help them through their specific issue. Your team will have helped the customer, and that will help you build loyalty and customer trust, which usually leads to more business.

Selling is not about pushing a product or service or calling whatever you sell a solution. It is about improving your customer’s situation—preferably but not necessarily with your products and services. Companies who help buyers find real value through the selling process sell more and command a premium for their offerings.


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