How to Sell Customer Experience being a Trusted Advisor?
There is a digital buzz everywhere, something has fundamentally changed in the market place. People or companies are no more buying and selling stuff in the way that used to do ever since money was introduced to mankind. All along the price point of goods and services were set on values it could deliver both tangible and perceived. But with the advent of the digital era the discourse is changing fast in front of our eyes. The degree of abstraction in transaction has increased many folds.
To illustrate the point, today when we buy a car we our decisions are not wholly based on performance, how economical, how safe the vehicle can take us from point A to point B. It is not about the brand value also or the after-sale service either. Now we increased number of buyers focusing their car buying decisions which are not traditionally associated with need of transportation or driving comfort. They are talking about technology that the car equipped with. McKinsey in one of the reports have predicted that there is a $100 billion opportunity in recurring revenue by 2030 for the automotive industry in technology and data connectivity services including apps, navigation, entertainment, remote services and software upgrades. Although the automotive industry will shrink by 2% from the vehicle unit sale due macroeconomic factor, but the industry overall will grow 4.4% per annum primarily coming from sales of value-added technology-based services.
One has to stop and ask – Why? What are the benefits that buyers are willing to pay for, what is becoming valuable to the customers? The answer is ‘experience’. People are and more in the coming days will be willing to pay for superior experience, which is not the summation of better product, esteem brand value, and luxury. But it is all these pluses something more. I prefer to call it ‘lifestyle’. People tend to pay premium for perceived better lifestyle and thus an appeal to that interest will yield better results. Each organization has a character, an entity, and thus will behave in a similar way when we can enhance the experience of being associated with our product, service and people. The point I am trying to make is our spending behavior has a direct correlation with our lifestyle (both for individuals and companies) which in turn is linked to the overall experience I have from the people and things that we surround ourselves with.
We want to have choice of where we should put our attention. We are trying to most optimally split our attention between our priorities, although it’s not something new, we have been doing it for long. However, what is new the abundance of choice and the information about them at our disposal. Continuing with the example of cars, our lifestyle needs have changed, until now we wanted to be in control of our situation, now we are at every point trying to have full control over our attention. A transaction will only happen when customer’s attention will meet good experience. Today we have a one car for which we use to commute to office, take our children to school, do groceries, go for golf, same car for summer, winter, and spring. Also, the idea of sharing economy is taking shape. So, in the coming days car manufacturing companies may start their own subscription model of business where one can request a driverless car over the mobile phone app specifying the purpose and you will get a car at the door. Say if I am subscribed to Mercedes on a premium package I can get an S-class for a dinner party, an M-class for picking up my child from school, and Smart hybrid car for daily high traffic commute to work, and a convertible during spring, a weather control package for the winter and so on. Great experience all the year round with no time spent for service and maintenance, car wash so greater control over our attention. We can also earn if we are willing to share ride on the way using our app which will tell us interested passengers going to the same destination.
So now step back and think about the celebrated car salesman – what will he be selling in the above scenario, and importantly why will people buy from one seller and not from the other. What will be the attributes of a successful sales executive will be when products are becoming increasingly commoditized and the value proposition are no more unique.
In order to sell in this new age where there is high level of abstraction and where your offering be it product or service has to grab the client’s attention one has to use the TIE (acronym for Trusted Advisor, Customer Insight, Customer Experience,) model of selling. TIE model will help sales executive to effectively sell digital products and services. TIE is a selling technique for long term association and repeat business. As the market gets more and more saturated with options for the customers, there is no other way but to go deep rather than spread out thin on a large territory. Also, another aspect with data at customer’s disposal, the 95% of the times suppliers are selected even before the RFP is out. So, breaking into new territories is increasingly becoming a challenge for sales executives. The only option is to change sides and try to find a seat on the side of the customer and do business.
In Information Technology services sales things are even more difficult with erosion of differentiation third and fourth generation outsourcing. The same offering – 24 x 7 support, global delivery, technical expertise of consultants, process, tools and methodology all similar with minor inconsequential differentiations and are available to buyers at almost same price point. So as an IT sales executive you wonder ‘how to create an impact’?
Strategies like ‘Hunting’ or ‘Farming’ into accounts have served it date. But now in 2018, and going forward, we need to become the ‘Herdsman’. As with human society a parallel and perhaps prior stage of development when man became the leader of the herd and shepherd. For IT sales too we may need to move away from hunting and farming mindset to a more herdsman type of nurturing outlook.
As the herdsman enjoys a special relation of trust, security and co-dependence and co-creation for survival, sales executives too have to earn the confidence of our clients for mutual benefit. That is to develop long term ‘tie’ with clients and become their partners, who gets the first chance of refusal in any engagement.
There are three stages to the TIE model. First, building a trusted relationship with clients but that depends how well they gather insights about clients and leverage them in their relationships. It’s kind of a chicken and egg scenario, since we need insights to strike the right chord while at the same time one will not be able to get to those insights unless you enjoy client’s trust. Information out in the open is of no use, the sales executives have to be vigilant and be active listener and pick up visual and non-visual cues. Becoming a trusted advisor is easier said than done, but in these changing times if we are not able to build and nurture long term relationships, we will be depending on chance sale, relying on luck is not a strategy to say the least.
One alternative is to start your relationship with mid-to-low level managers in the client organization and move up by referrals, and then consolidate relationship by demonstrating that you are trustworthy in the next level. It’s time taking and tedious, if you are the kind of sales executive who shows up at the client site at the end of the month or at the quarter end to meet your quota, then you will never be perceived as a ‘trusted advisor’.
Timing is of essence; you need to be sufficiently close to the client environment and equipped with proper information when the client needs you. As a strategy ‘shift down’ the client organization pyramid and create a solid foundation, if you succeed you will also have a chance to connect with the business decision makers where the funding comes from. Create more advocates and supporters of you around the final decision maker. And lastly, remember that- special offers, limited time deals etc. it creates a negative impact on trust, client often feels they are being used and there are more opportunities to squeeze from the supplier. Part of winning trust is to be credible and accountable.
The next stage is gathering important client insights, without our own assumptions or biases. Needless to say, that the more you can know about the client personal, their environment, their challenges, you have a better opportunity to create a customized solution for the client. Use ‘man-marking’ techniques as used in the game of soccer to gather insights. Walking into first meeting with a 20-slides presentation about the offering, capability and so on unless specifically asked for, it hinders trust as you will be a preacher who has no miracles to back your claims. Most often we present slides because we don’t know enough about the client and their priorities. Instead you should use your first few meetings to interview the client without making it apparent. The best way is to engage in a productive dialogue with client, - a ‘thinking it together session’. It’s little different for brainstorming where we are trying to find a solution to the problem. A dialogue is finding meaning through exchange of ideas without striving at reaching a conclusion or consensus. Ask questions that are open ended showing genuine interest in knowing the answer. Don’t ask questions that are unimportant, or answers to which are obvious, or you should have come prepared with or any trick questions. Give your 100% attention and engage in active listening and reaffirm that the client is heard. Avoid taking notes in conversation, unless it’s an action that the client asks you to do. Most people become defensive and tries to be politically correct when they see the other person is documenting what he or she is saying.
The third and most importantly, create an experience for the client that is ‘remarkable’. By remarkable I mean, that which can be remarked or commented about or worth noticing. If it’s not remarkable then it is invisible and will have no impact on customer experience. It’s a fact that its lot less expensive to keep an old customer, than to find a new one. Make every effort to meet client’s expectations even at times when they are not right. You don’t have to fulfil it every time but make sincere effort to do so and be open about it and educate the client. Experience is abstract and person dependent, try to leave them satisfied if not happy every time. Make them feel that they are ‘insiders’ to your business, make them feel important. Forrester Research is of the view that ‘a company's ability to deliver an experience that sets it apart in the eyes of its customers will increase the amount of consumer spending with the company and inspire loyalty to its brand.’
TIE model with associated customer maps, templates and guidelines enables sales executives to cut through the noise in a strategic manner with a focus on investing in long term relationship of co-creation and co-existence for mutual benefit of all stakeholders involved. The essence is to create ties with client organization as a whole and not one or two key decision makers. Also, with TIE there is a need to redefine the whole CRM process of opportunity management. The metrics have to be aligned, just measuring on quotas and pipelines will not serve the purpose. A whole new paradigm has opened up with digital, shared-economy, and hyper-connected economy where the rules of sales and growth are going to be disruptive on its own rights.