What customers really want from their suppliers

Most salespeople will be quick to tell you that their customers say what they care most about is product and price. It goes further. When salespeople lose out on a deal the first thing they tell management is that the product quality wasn’t up to scratch or the price was too high.

Yet the studies we have conducted and most of the feedback we get from our clients’ customers is that the most important thing is having a great sales experience.

By the way, that’s not something new. A year or two ago McKinsey published a report that said basically the same thing – customers want good products and fair prices, but most importantly, a good sales experience.

The brutal facts…

A company needs to have a good product or chances are it won’t survive. But now that just about every product that competes – feature for feature, benefit for benefit – is basically the same, the product quality isn’t really a competitive advantage any more. And the same applies to pricing. Sure, some products in a category are more expensive than others, but the price differential is usually within a range. If a company tried to sell something that was essentially the same as its rivals’ at an inflated price, chances are that company too would go out of business.

So, in essence, product and pricing are usually within bands of parity and seldom differentiate one product or company from another.

When it comes to building valuable relationships with customers, salespeople themselves are the critical players. Buyers are looking to professional salespeople to enhance the buying experience. They recognise that the products are generally the same, the pricing is more or less aligned; so if they really want to identify a preferred supplier they are going to go beyond the evidence and look at the experience they have with the sales executive who manages their business.

It’s a tight balancing act. Customers want to be contacted just enough, without being bombarded. They expect salespeople to know their products or services intimately and how their offering compares with those of their rivals, but they don’t want to be overwhelmed by information.

Customers need information on exactly how a product or service will make a difference to their businesses and they expect the sales executive to understand their business, their challenges, and their pressures. And while they say price is one of their biggest concerns, a satisfying sales experience is ultimately more important.

That’s a good insight and part of the challenge facing salespeople today. One of the complexities of selling today is the reality that salespeople are dealing with buyers who are much smarter. Very often they start the purchase journey long before they meet the salesperson. Without hesitation, people we speak to tell us that one of the key contributors to a good sales experience is when the salesperson knows where in the journey the customer is, and is sufficiently flexible to adapt the sales cycle to meet the buyer at a point in the journey that is comfortable to him or her.

Some customers are fairly sophisticated; others less so. It is up to the sales executive to determine where on that continuum the buyer is. For a customer without previous experience, the sales executive may have to adapt the sales style to one of educating the customer. For those with vast experience in the category, the sales interaction may simply be one of facilitation.

We have found a big difference between what salespeople say their customers believe is important and what these same customers tell us when we ask them the questions.

Salespeople insist its price and product aspects are the dominant factors that influenced customers’ opinions of a supplier’s performance.

Yet time after time in customer satisfaction surveys what customers rate as important in determining a vendor’s overall performance was the overall sales experience followed by the supplier organisation’s integrity and then price and product quality – in that order.

The upside of getting the sales experience right is significant. Improving product quality – if it can be done – is usually a long-term and high cost exercise, with little guarantee of improved sales. Equally, lowering price – again if it can be done – simply puts undue pressure on margins.

Improving the sales experience is a relatively quick, low-cost exercise that guarantees at least some reciprocal response from customers. In truth, customers who have a trust-based relationship with their suppliers and who enjoy their buying experience tend to be less price-conscious and easier to negotiate with – why? Simply because they want to do business with the supplier.

Remember, everybody lives by selling something.

Sue Barrett is a sales expert, business speaker, adviser, sales facilitator and entrepreneur and founded Barrett Consulting to provide expert sales consulting, sales training, sales coaching and assessments. Her business Barrett P/L partners with its clients to improve their sales operations. Visit www.barrett.com.au


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