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Customer Success

How to Build a Customer-Centric Sales Culture

Congratulations, revenue professionals! Did you know that, according to Hubspot Research, an astounding 3% of our customers find us trustworthy? That puts us squarely ahead of lobbyists, car salespeople, politicians, and stockbrokers. Don’t worry too much, though: baristas only got 5%. 

Our numbers are likely low because the bad actors tend to be louder than the good ones. Still, we have to be honest: our industry is rife with self-centeredness. As a new leader years ago, I asked potential hires why they wanted to work in sales. Still an idealist, I sought answers that uncovered creativity and passion for the business and our customers. My mentor chastised me: “If they don’t say money first, you don’t want them.”

My mentor wasn’t wrong. The most successful salespeople I know are insatiably coin-operated. As leaders, we likely know that our salespeople know that, and — as the 3% number attests — so do our customers. 

For many of us, selling is a paradox. We know that we need to put the customer first, but we also know that our reason for being is to drive revenue for our company and, in turn, for ourselves.

The good news is that sellers can reap the benefits of consultative selling in a way that increases sales velocity by embracing the concept of genuine customer curiosity. Building a customer-centric sales culture means knowing your customer more intimately, responding to their needs more predictably, and adding mutual customer value with each interaction.

In this article we’ll present five key principles to help you build just such a culture. 


Adopt an Outside-In Focus

Have you ever tried to carry on a conversation with someone who manages to make every topic about themselves? “How was your weekend,” they might ask, only to jump at the first chance to mention their spontaneous trip to a five-star beach resort. 

While most of us likely avoid such self-centeredness in our personal interactions,our sales content and approaches are often riddled with it. As an example, most sales presentations I review for my customers look something like this: 

  • An “introductions” slide where the seller introduces the company’s meeting participants.
  • An “agenda” slide. 
  • A single slide often titled “what we heard from you”.
  • Finally, a series of slides includes a combination of the company’s perspective on their industry, history, notable customers, and solution pitch.

In a typical one-hour presentation, most sellers devote the first 20-25 minutes of content almost exclusively to their companies’ credentials and sales pitch. Similarly’s analysis of more than 25,000 sales calls suggests that the average salesperson consumes 60-75% of the total talk time in meetings. The problem is that, in our efforts to differentiate and establish credibility, we leave little room to understand our customers’ business, ambitions, or challenges.

Improving customer-centricity means adopting an outside-in approach. In contrast to an inside-out approach — one that emphasizes your company’s internal strengths and differentiators — the outside-in approach focuses on the customer. It means taking the time to understand how your customer creates value for their own customers as well as their own business.

Adopting an outside-in focus means taking a consultative approach with your customers. An outside-in focus means creating a dialogue where the customer spends 60% of the time talking about their goals, strategies and challenges. In turn, the remaining 40% is spent confirming and clarifying your customer’s perspectives, making suggestions, and exploring opportunities for mutual value creation.


Be Customer-Obsessed

As a first-time sales and marketing manager, my leadership team and I attended an offsite meeting facilitated by Patrick Lencioni, author of The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. Near the end of the meeting, Mr. Lencioni encouraged us to consider our mission, vision, and value statements. As we began brainstorming, one of our VPs exclaimed, “Employee development should be our first value!”

Here’s the problem: our company was a terrible place to work! The pay wasn’t great, the work wasn’t particularly exciting, and the company’s vision was stale. I had been hired as part of an effort to revitalize their brand and business, so I offered a rebuttal: “What have we done to put employees first?”  If you’re curious about my method, Google “career limiting move.”

Just as every company wants to believe that they put their employees first, every revenue team wants to believe that they are customer-obsessed. And while our ambitions toward customer obsession may be genuine, our customers often fail to taste the fruit of our efforts. Our efforts to demonstrate customer obsession can be summarized in a single phrase: “genuine customer curiosity.” 

In my experience, most sales processes iterate on two primary customer-facing events: discovery and presentations. Each of these events presents an opportunity to demonstrate genuine customer curiosity. For illustration, let’s assume they’re distinct events. 

In our discovery, we should break their questions into Value Selling, Issue Selling, and Tactical Selling components. Value Selling seeks to understand the executive-level goals, strategies, and obstacles that the company faces. With Issue Selling, we understand how the LOB plans to achieve those goals, and Tactical Selling enables us to scope the fit for our solution. 

As you proceed:

  • Ask open-ended questions that inspire dialogue, rather than solely relying on more specific, diagnostic types of questions.
  • Probe the answers to each of those questions. We encourage clients to look at the financial, customer experience, operational, and organizational aspects of those answers. 
  • And finally, confirm your understanding of their answers.

Armed with a more in-depth understanding of our customers, practicing genuine customer curiosity allows us to change the way we present to our customers. Instead of delivering your company or product pitch, genuine customer curiosity means presenting your hypothesis about how the company can best achieve its goals from the Value, Issue, and Tactical perspectives. This means that your presentation becomes an opportunity for the customer to challenge your hypothesis so that you can get closer to delivering mutual customer value.


Personalize Every Experience

Several years ago, I was on the sales team pitching a business transformation opportunity for Office Depot. We meticulously researched their company, finely honed our messaging, and developed a compelling “art of the possible” video that helped our customers to visualize how our solution would enable the experience they wanted to create for their customers.

Near the end of the presentation, my salesperson went off script. He wanted to assure our audience — primarily mid-level brand marketing and e-commerce leaders — that our solution would be easy to implement. “Our goal is to give you the Easy Button,” the salesperson proceeded to riff, “Remember the Easy Button? From those ads?” 

Do you remember the Easy Button? From Staples? Office Depot’s biggest competitor at the time?

At a glance, our presentation was personalized to the extreme. We used their branding in our deck. We built an e-commerce demo site that looked and acted exactly like they said they wanted it to. We understood their upselling and cross-selling strategy and demonstrated it flawlessly.

Despite all that, we made two mistakes: we spent valuable customer airtime talking about implementation and extolled their most contentious competitor to make our point. Competitive faux pas aside, our in-meeting adjustment failed to resonate with our audience.

As sellers, we often think of “personalization” along somewhat corporate and surface-level lines. Almost every sales methodology encourages us to know our audience and their place in an influence map. Most would go on to suggest tailoring our presentation content to our audience. Far fewer sellers, however, go so far as to develop a strategy for tailoring their message so that it resonates with their audience members’ individual roles, interests, and even personality types.

As you plan your presentation, consider what you want your audience members to do or believe differently, how you plan to address them, and how each of your selling team members fits into that objective. Some teams even go so far as to develop executive profiles of their most important audience members, assigning internal team members to those profiles and dividing their presentation into chapters that will resonate with each profile to support their overall value message.

From a discovery perspective, sellers can develop a deeper understanding of their customer’s motivations by asking about the audience member’s personal goals and ambitions alongside their corporate goals. Then, as you proceed, what else are you learning about the audience member’s personality?  Are they a visionary? Are they risk-averse? Are they new to an executive role and need to make a name for themselves? Using discovery to better understand your audience members’ psyche and motivations will help you ensure a more personalized and successful outcome in your next presentation.


Blur the Lines

We’ve outlined the importance of turning your discovery and presentation efforts into a customer-centric and highly personalized dialogue that aligns with your customer’s goals, strategies, and challenges. Part of that paradigm shift means blurring the lines between discovery and presentations. If we view both processes as opportunities to collect and respond to customer feedback, sellers are more likely to be perceived as consultants bent on solving the customer’s problems. This results in more engaged customers and greater trust and access. 

I recommended approaching your presentations with a clear plan for how you wanted the customer to think or behave differently. When we blur the lines, this means doing the same thing with every meeting: always staying aware of our objective. Just as we should always seek to learn more about our customers during presentations, we should also see the discovery as an opportunity to advance our solution.

Have you ever asked your customer for a follow-up discovery call, only to be met with resistance and frustration? Often that frustration means that the customer didn’t find mutual value in the prior session. As a result, our customers often see our discovery calls as one-sided interrogations.

How would it impact your business if you framed each discovery session around a point of view? What if, instead of an interrogation, your next discovery call was a mutual dialogue where you shared your perspective and even suggestions as you explored your customer’s objectives, strategies, and challenges? 

For discovery sessions and presentation chapters alike, consider the following:

  • What does the customer need from our business?
  • How are we uniquely positioned to meet that need?
  • What more must we learn to better align our solution to their ambitions and challenges?

Adopting this approach takes a tremendous amount of pressure off the shoulders of the selling team. While sellers should always work toward the ultimate goal of closed business, this approach views each meeting as an opportunity to draw closer to realizing customer value. Instead of living and dying by your sales pitch, your engagements are simply opportunities to mutually test a hypothesized solution with your customer.


Be Proactive

As a salesperson, which is better? A customer who just called you with a clearly defined list of requirements and a request for a product demonstration, or a customer who took your cold call but is an otherwise blank slate? The answer likely depends on your product, your pipeline, your quota attainment, and how long you’ve been selling. Simply put, sellers with greater time pressure prefer the more defined customer. 

Years ago, as a sales engineer, I was once near the proverbial finish line with a customer. We checked all of our customer’s boxes on her list of requirements (literally: there were actual checkboxes). Our champion, clearly in our camp, would often interject during the demo with sales messaging of our own. We were sure this deal was ours to win until she asked me to show a feature that was an element of my competitor’s product. Despite the positive regard she held for my salesperson and me, my customer saw no differentiation in our product.

Simply put, competing on known needs is a “race to the bottom.” Our only differentiator becomes the lowest price, and our likelihood of winning drops along with it.

As a result, our customer-centric sales culture should include more than just knowing our customers, personalizing their experience, and delivering a top-notch sales message. Operating within genuine customer curiosity also requires developing and testing a hypothesis around the customer’s unconsidered needs.

To understand the customer’s unconsidered needs, I advise sellers to consider their customer’s goals and strategies across four perspectives: 

  • Financial
  • Customer experience
  • Operational
  • Organizational (people and technology). 

Suppose a seller can make connections between the customer’s initiatives, goals, and strategies. In that case, they can arrive at an informed hypothesis for how their solution will help the customer to transform their business. 

The most common objection I hear is that most sellers don’t have the time or the skills to engage in deep strategic analysis. The good news is that a seller doesn’t need deep expertise in strategic analysis to shift their approach to a proactive and strategic one. Instead, many sellers find that simply probing the customer’s responses in discovery around the four perspectives above is enough to form a hypothesis. 

While this strategy is likely the most challenging to implement, it is also the apex of the five strategies:

  • Adopting and demonstrating an outside-in focus based on genuine customer curiosity opens the door to customer centricity.
  • Personalizing every engagement and turning each into a mutually beneficial dialogue helps you to put your customer-centricity into practice
  • Ultimately, when you know your customer well enough to anticipate and respond to the needs they didn’t even expressly articulate, you will likely find that your customers respond with greater trust, loyalty, and lifetime value.