What Your Clients Can Teach You

The Gist:

  • In the past, salespeople had an advantage created by an information disparity: the salesperson had information unavailable to their client.
  • We spend a lot of time helping our clients by teaching them how to produce the better decisions they need, closing the information disparity gap.
  • Your clients also need to help close your information disparity gap by teaching you what you need to know, so you can help them and win their business.

Much of the modern sales approach begins with the idea that we should be leading the client, first in deciding to change and then in how best to improve their results. A large part of what we share is designed to provide our clients with an “aha” moment, a transfer of insight from us to them. We also reduce the information disparity between salesperson and client by sharing our experience with decision-makers and decision-shapers.

This is all good, but every interaction with a prospective client is an opportunity to both teach and learn. Your contacts have information you lack, much of which comes from their own knowledge and experience. They have much to teach you, provided that you’re willing to learn. The legacy approach to B2B sales shuts off that possibility, limiting you to finding a client’s “pain point,” their “dissatisfaction,” or their “hot buttons.” A modern approach to sales would have you look for information that isn’t easily available to you. The areas listed below are not exhaustive, but they’ll give you a good start in learning what you need to know to win your client’s business and help them execute your collaborative solution.

What They Value

What They Value

Start with what the organization values now. When calling on a large, publicly traded company, you can discover the broad themes by reading their annual report, starting with the Chairman’s Letter and their risk assessment. You should also ask questions to understand what the company already considers to be “strategic initiatives.”

Your contacts are also pursuing their own personal initiatives. You can learn a lot about what people value by asking what they are responsible for as it pertains to their company’s projects and initiatives. We are leaving aside the personal wins that individuals are seeking, not because they’re not important, but because we are pursuing the idea of learning something that is global.

When you know what your prospective client values, you can help them by connecting the dots between their strategic initiatives and your ability to help ensure they succeed.

Their Industry

Every industry has a number of things that differentiate it from other industries. Your client can teach you how they think about their business and their industry, providing you with the context needed to understand why they do certain things in a certain way. Imagine a company with expensive equipment. To maximize their productivity, they need to keep their machines running twenty-four hours a day. They might choose some project that keeps their machines running over a project that requires them to stop and restart production. By understanding why and how they do things, you improve your ability to improve their results.

Industries also tend to have a set of parochial concepts and vocabulary, so ask your client to teach you how to think and talk about their business. You want to sound and feel like an insider, someone who is “one of us.” Every interaction with a contact inside your prospective client’s company is an opportunity to learn something useful.

What They Believe They Need

What They Believe They Need

Your client may know exactly what they need. Then again, they may have strong beliefs and still be wrong. Before you start trying to cut against the grain, it’s best to find the starting point of the conversation. For example, one company I consulted with believed their salespeople needed training on negotiation and presentation skills. What they really needed was help prospecting. The path to changing their mind started by explaining why they were losing deals, something that had nothing to do with their assumptions.

Occasionally, and not as often as you might like, you will find people who already understand what they need, why they need it, and how they need it to work for them. When you learn from them, you not only have a built-in core of the consensus you need, but you may also have the ability to move through the deal very quickly if you are able to deliver.

How to Navigate Their Company

Since the sales conversation has gone nonlinear and requires more stakeholder input than the legacy model says should be necessary, any static, linear, non-agile approach to selling will struggle with consensus. At best, you might find advice that suggests you “identify the buying committee,” a group of people that no one in your client’s company will quite be able to find.

You can learn from your contacts how best to navigate their company, even as you teach them which titles and roles should be part of the conversation. In the past, when you worked with one part of the company, say, Information Technology, you could go up and down the IT organizational chart to find those people. Now that other parts of the company are likely to be included, it’s important to learn who you need to include and in what order, so you can best pursue the different players.

Friends, Foes, and Factions

Friends, Foes, and Factions

As you develop working relationships with these stakeholders, you can learn who is going to support your main contact’s initiative and who will oppose it. Many of the decisions you make when helping your clients find their way to better outcomes affect the sequence in which you have conversations. When you learn that some stakeholders will oppose any attempt to change, for example, your strategy might cause you to find an executive sponsor to support your contact’s initiative.

The more you know who you have, who you are missing, and who might stop or stall the change your client is considering, the more choices you will have available to you. First, you have to learn from your client who’s on which team.

What Will Work and What Won’t

Even when you pursue the same outcome for multiple clients, you may need to customize your methods for each client. Your contacts can teach you what will work for them, what won’t work for them, and what (dis)qualifies each option. Much of what you need to learn is what is possible and what is impossible for that client, so you can decide which methods to modify.

One who wishes to teach should start by learning.

Do Good Work:

  • Recognize the areas where you need to teach your clients how to improve their results.
  • Commit to learning as much as or more than you teach, allowing your client to provide you with information that can help you better serve them.
  • Always be open to learning something new, including unlearning the things you believe you know.

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