Part Four of a Five Part Series.
Customer acumen the third essential pillar of perspective selling. Consider this situation: you know your prospect’s business in-depth and how your solution perfectly connects to their situation. Still, you can’t seem to make progress on the deal. Why? It’s all because you can’t figure out how they are going to make a buying decision for your proposal. While also you need the other two, you can’t sell with perspective unless this third pillar, customer acumen, is strong.
To recap, perspective is knowledge or insight that expands a customer’s understanding of one or more business issues. When a seller provides perspective, they apply customer-valued (not just any) insights and expertise about unanticipated outcomes.
This series discusses three foundational “pillars” of expertise (or three legs of a stool) a seller should master:
- Business Acumen…The focus of part two. Basically, this expertise helps evaluate a prospective customer’s (or any company’s) operational efficiency and effectiveness, then identify value gaps.
- Solution Acumen. Feature/benefit selling is dead. From part three, perspective selling means translating your product or service into results/outcomes for a prospective buyer.
- Customer Acumen…The third pillar
Customer Acumen: Expertise in Customer Decision-Making
In contrast to business acumen, which helps you understand a prospect from a business/operational standpoint, customer acumen seeks to understand your customer from a social/human standpoint.
I recall a former colleague saying that “every [B2B] customer makes every decision differently…every time”. By this, he meant that every group buying decision dynamic changes over time, sometimes subtly, but always importantly. Even if your current opportunity pursuit seems like a straight clone of the last pursuit at the same customer, you shouldn’t simply clone your opportunity pursuit. Mindlessly repeating the past is one of the easiest – and most serious – mistakes you can make. To avoid this mistake, customer acumen gives sellers the ability to master each buying decision on a case-by-case basis..
The best sales people approach each new opportunity trying to learn the group decision dynamic currently in play…including in repeat buyers. Perspective sellers approach each new sale on the lookout for key changes. Sales methodologies (OK, shameless plug for my favorite, Miller Heiman Group’s Strategic Selling® (…now,) with Perspective®) help sellers tailor each pursuit to the needs of each opportunity.
Customer Acumen: Good, Better, Best
Upon examination, customer acumen isn’t a binary “you either have it or you don’t” property. Instead, it grows by degree. Look at the good/better/best descriptions below. While reading, try to determine where you and your sales organization land:
Basic Customer Acumen:
For clarification, “Basic” is not the same as “zero”; basic customer acumen represents progress for some organizations. Here are some characteristics to help you identify that you’ve progressed to this level:
- Sellers no longer pursue “single-threaded” opportunities with a single persona, counting on that person to facilitate a decision within their own organization..
- At least for the main value proposition communicated by marketing and sales leadership, sellers regularly learn all the relevant players, what is each trying to solve for, and their motivations.
- Even at this level, sellers can provide value-adding perspective, facilitating a buying decision among a group of buying personas making an unfamiliar decision. Thus, it’s useful, but far less than possible
As an aside, the HBR article Dismantling Sales Machine, derived from The Challenger Saleby the same authors, make valid criticism of “sales process” by falsely characterizing that all “process” exists at this level. While selling activity-based process often tops out at this level, methodology is just kicking in (click here) to learn the differences in more detail).
Basic customer acumen is better than none at all, but it those aren’t the only two options.
Elevated Customer Acumen:
As they elevate customer acumen, selling organizations emphasize mastery of the customer’s buying dynamic. Where basic customer acumen focuses on understanding individuals separately, elevated customer acumen seeks to understanding a group dynamic…then successfully navigating that dynamic with the customer.
Sophisticated consensus selling methodologies emphasize this level of customer acumen. Characteristics of this level look like this:
- Sellers have — and use — tools to discover the group decision dynamic and solve for it.
- They uncover if there is a ‘bully” in the group herding them along, or its softer cousin, the “first among equals” player.
- Sellers learn to uncover any rivalries shaping the dynamic, using personal credibility and coaches.
- They learn how the budgetary authority makes their decisions, who they consult most closely, who their key lieutenants are, what criteria they emphasize etc.
- A key indicator of elevated customer acumen is that sellers focus on of customer buying processes, and follow metrics to make sure that their selling efforts are aligned with the customer’s buying process.
- Additionally, sellers articulate a common theme, or customer objective — for everyone, focusing stragglers back on task, and reducing mission creep.
- Sellers can effectively introduce new decision criteria to the group, but generally as simple extensions of the main/core value proposition contained in feature/benefit marketing materials. At this level, though they seldom if ever introduce unconventional value or new personas relating to it (and their accompanying criteria) to the group.
At this level of customer acumen, adding perspective happens in two ways. First, sellers can add value to the decision by helping the group make a case for change. Second, sellers can introduce new value/unanticipated outcomes to the customer…generally restricted to the core value proposition.
World class customer acumen:
Often, a solution delivers value outside the conventional value proposition(s) communicated in basic and mid-level solution acumen. For example, piece of hospital equipment (typically sold to lab personnel, doctors, finance, and purchasing) could reduce error rates, the third leading cause of hospital deaths. Unsurprisingly, risk managers — well outside of the core value proposition, and outside of the typical collection of personas — cares deeply about. While good sellers can communicate value to the familiar buying personas, elite sellers articulate these next-level outcomes to personas outside of the typical buying group.
World class customer acumen has a few defining characteristics:
- Sellers understand their offer’s value picture outside of the conventional selling box.
- Whenever it yields a value advantage, sellers recruit new personas into the decision dynamic, They can discuss value in a persona’s language, describing persona-specific outcomes. As the prior two parts of this series indicate, solution and business acumen are key foundations.
- As a result, world class sellers regularly “pack the court” in the decision group by adding players supportive of their solution.
- They can discuss any and all value drivers at C-suite level, translating it into C-suite language and outcomes.
- Truly elite sellers can sell so effectively at the executive level that they get “introduced down”
Elite sellers introduce unanticipated value. They are skilled at adding new personas to a decision team in order to leverage that value. Certainly, most selling methodologies teach sellers how to contact new personas and have meaningful conversations. Unfortunately, I see too few teaching why or when, much less how to have conversations in a new persona’s language. Without business and solution acumen, your selling organization will struggle to bridge this gap. This is why the three acumens form a three legged stool that topples if any leg is missing.
So…where did you land? Do you know how to elevate yourself and your team to the next level? Want to talk about it?
Excellent sales people are strong at all of the levels described above. High-performing sales organizations develop all of these capabilities in their people.
How do you build customer expertise into your sales force? If you’re interested in learning more about how World Class organizations generate their exceptional results, share your questions or comments below. Feel free to contact me directly for more information.
To Your Success!,