It’s 2006: Do You Know Where Your Customers’ Buying Strategies Are?

Many sales forces seem to be stuck in a time warp. Selling with a transaction focus to customers who require a consultative or even enterprise approach is driving the cost of supporting these misaligned sales forces to the point of being unaffordable. Conversely, there are companies out there that have tried a consultative selling strategy when all that was needed was transaction support.

Either way, the misalignment of sales strategies with customer expectations is costing many companies too much. Where the sales force goes, technology follows, and while this is a very basic point, it’s one that increasingly is driving the adoption of Software-as-a-Service applications, for example, in CRM.

Looking Beyond the Sale

What makes the alignment of sales forces with how customers want to buy so difficult to track is that CRM systems excel at scoping situations as they unfold to a minute level — yet can’t recognize the strategic shifts in how customers want to buy. That takes intuition and insight from sales management.

With analytics becoming the new dial tone, there is a big push to get more and more metrics to see if the moving target of what customers want to buy can somehow be grasped using the mountains of data showing what they bought. That is literally the needle in the data mining haystack that everyone is after: How does the customer want to buy today?

Sales forces passionate about finding this out are surviving, and those that aren’t — either through complacency or arrogance — are missing the bulk of the opportunities out there. When sales forces ask why they aren’t getting more deals, it’s partly because their approach to selling isn’t aligned with how customers want to buy. But that’s not the only reason; others include the following:

  • Understand that customers want to buy transactionally, consultatively or from an enterprise standpoint. It’s extremely important to use CRM systems to capture the specifics that point to how customers want to buy. It’s more important than what, when or how much they want to purchase.
  • Transactional selling doesn’t necessarily require face time. For prospects that want to buy transactionally, consultative selling looks like a waste of time and is perceived as an attempt to justify higher prices. Consultative selling kills transaction deals. In industries were transactions are gaining ground due to commodity products, there is immense pressure on sales forces to show their value; many of them have cost structures that don’t align with the way customers want to buy.
  • Look for — don’t assume — consultative buying cycles. There’s been a ton written about being consultative in sales cycles today. Yet not many of the writers on this topic — and there is a plethora of books — touch on trying to pinpoint whether consultative selling is what the buyer really wants. Partner relationship management systems were implemented in many manufacturing concerns based on a universal, though unfounded, belief in this notion — a case in point.
  • Enterprise selling. Has this ever become a loaded term in enterprise software circles. Many of the world’s largest companies will send in dozens of sales reps, pre-sales technical support staff, and sales managers when they see an opportunity deemed as “enterprise.”

    What this should really mean is that the strategies of your company and your buyer are so intertwined that it’s impossible to see who is the buyer and who is the seller. It’s more than just selling a solution; it’s the fulfillment of a vision together. It’s not about headcount on sales calls — it’s about aligning your company’s vision with your prospect’s — and showing that you can create value in the form of their objectives being accomplished. Some companies destroy the value they could create for prospects by putting too many resources into sales cycles.

  • Everybody sells. This is an outgrowth of the dynamic that Bob Parker, vice president of manufacturing insights at International Data Corporation refers to when he says, “the network is the channel.”

    The fact that many companies’ core functions, including engineering, manufacturing and product development, are more customer-focused than ever has made the task of educating prospects and customers alike more efficient. In the past, the sales team was called upon to educate — in enterprise sales cycles especially — but now, what is needed is a diverse, cross-functional, company-wide unit. In the best companies, everyone is selling today, in that they are building and reinforcing relationships with customers.

The best use of a CRM system is to piece together clues as to how existing customers want to be sold to — today and in the future. It’s the best use of the mountains of customer data you’ve been collecting. Shifting customer buying strategies need to guide marketing, public relations, and even product strategies in industries with short product lifecycles.


Louis Columbus, a CRM Buyer columnist, is a former senior analyst with AMR Research. He is the author of several books on making the most of analyst relationships, including Best Practices in Analyst Relations, which can be downloaded for free.


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