In the classic Bill Murray movie Caddyshack, he tries in vain to catch a gopher ruining the golf course. Eventually, it occurs to him that “in order to catch a gopher, you have to think like one…”. It was a good movie, with good advice from Murray. And it is good advice for salespeople who want to “catch” customers: they need to think like their customers.
What this means is salespeople have to go about learning and understanding how customers buy. Salespeople know, at all times, where their prospects are in their sales cycle. The problem is they aren’t as clued up on where their prospects are in their own buying cycle. Most sales managers would say knowing where buyers are in the purchase process is ‘Selling 101’. But as true as this is, why then do so many managers fail to put the knowledge to practical use?
“We have found that this situation is endemic in most sales forces today, many of which are obsessed about their sales process,” says Jens Hartmann, head of learning and development for Barrett Consulting.
Hartmann says too many organisations invest millions of dollars in customer relationship mangement, contact management technology and training their salespeople on the sales process – much of which ignores the buyer at the other end who is far more important than any sales process.
Take, for instance, the step in most sales processes where the salesperson must identify the buyer’s need. Chances are when they do, they check off the box and move on to the next step in the sales process. But it’s not about the salesperson finding a need – it’s more about the buyer recognising a need exists and satisfying it is important enough to motivate some action.
How important is that need in the scheme of issues facing the buyer? Does the prospective buyer have the emotional desire to take action? Is the probable solution available the best alternative? What are the consequences if the need is left unresolved? Is this unresolved issue more serious than getting it resolved?
All these points need to be weighed up and considered but they usually aren’t – after all, the sales process dictates when a need has been uncovered the salesperson should progress to the next stage of the cycle.
The challenge of using technology to drive sales has undoubtedly reduced the cost of sale in absolute terms. But it has also cost many organisations lost opportunities because of the haste to progress through the cycle.
So, how does one close the gap between sales by organisational process and selling to the customer’s buying cycle, without going back to square one? Firstly, salespeople need to understand the buying process. Barrett has identified that every buyer goes through four steps – always in the same order and almost never skipping a step.
Step one: awareness
The buyer becomes consciously aware they have a challenge or problem to address. They begin to define the objectives and determine if they have the resources to achieve their goals and if not, become aware that they have a need. The process of considering options commences.
Step two: interest
Here’s where buyers look into their options more deeply. They understand there are options available but they will also factor in the risk of changing. What will happen to them if they change? Salespeople talking to a customer in this phase need to acknowledge buyers have options and are assessing risks. They must address these in their business discussions. The buyer will wrap up this phase by making an emotional decision to buy or reject the proposition. Salespeople who fail to understand the buyer’s priorities, risk profile and options can’t get past this stage, even if they have the most perfect solution.
Step three: desire
Desire is the rational side of decision-making. The customer has made the emotional decision to buy in during the interest phase, but now they are going to look at the numbers. Can they afford it? Does it fit into the budget? Is there an adequate return on the investment? What are the political ramifications within the company? This is where return on investment comes in.
Step four: action
The customer is emotionally and rationally ready to buy. If the salesperson has done a good job aligning the selling process to the customer’s buying process, they are likely to get a yes the moment they enter the action phase.
Once organisations understand these four steps they are ready to align their sales process to the buying process. This is simply a matter of taking each step in the sales process, plugging it into the corresponding step in the buying process, then shuffling the order so it tracks logically with the buying process. Rather than transitioning from step to step in the selling process, salespeople will be tracking sales progress by moving from step to step in the customer’s buying process. This means they won’t exit the ‘identify needs’ step until it is clear the customer recognises the need, decides to give it priority over other issues and makes an emotional decision to pursue it further.
By making these adjustments organisations will significantly reduce their number of lost deals and shorten the sales cycle, because salespeople will focus more of their time on prospects in the later, higher-value stages of the buying cycle. This means that, unlike Bill Murray’s character, they’ll get their target in the end.
Remember everybody lives by selling something.