It's difficult or impossible to sell quickly and effectively if you don't understand your customers. Unfortunately, many entrepreneurs and companies don't bother to do the research or even know what they should be researching.
In the recently published book Beyond the Sales Process, authors Steve Andersen and Dave Stein define the general areas where research is required. This column expands upon the concept based upon my experience. (BTW, the book is excellent.)
Note: in this column I use the word "customer" to refer to the company to whom YOU are selling. When I use the word "client" I'm referring to the companies or individuals to whom your CUSTOMER sells.
1. How does your customer make money (or intend to)?
The customer's current business model usually determines the priority of purchasing goods and services. Example: a computer company sells hardware at cost in order to sell software development services. They'll be interested in decreasing hardware cost and increasing the percentage of hardware clients who buy their software.
2. How does your customer create value for its clients?
Within the context of your customer's business model, how specifically does your customer improve the lives or businesses of its clients? Note: your customer may not completely understand why its clients buy from it. If so, you'll either need to cater to their misconceptions or help them understand their value proposition more clearly.
3. Who are your customers' most significant clients?
Significant clients fall into two overlapping categories: 1) big and 2) strategic. A big client buys a lot, so loss of that client will creates a financial problem for your customer. A strategic client provides credibility, so loss of that client creates a marketing problem for your customer. Your customer is naturally anxious to keep these clients happy, which creates an opportunity for you to help them to do so.
4. How does your customer see itself in the wider world?
Many customers also see themselves as changing the world for the positive. This "self-image" can also drive buying behavior. Example: a company has zero-carbon emission facilities. They'll be interested in extending their "green" footprint and publicizing their eco-friendly stance. Help them do that.
5. What internal events might trigger a need to buy from you?
Your customer may need your help if it's just executed or is about to execute a layoff, a merger or acquisition, expand hiring, restructure, outsource, launch a new product, retire an old product, expand or close a facility, or cope with the departure of a key player.
6. What external events might trigger a need to buy from you?
Your customer may need your help if it's lost or gained a significant client, if there have been or might be regulatory changes in the customer's industry, or if its business has been or is about to be affected by climate change, epidemic (e.g. Zika) or war. Anything that's a "game changer" is an opportunity to sell.
7. How does your customer see itself within its industry?
Every company has a consensus opinion of where they stand vis-à-vis the other companies in the same industry. Knowing this allows you to better position your offering. Example: DEC in the 1990s saw itself as challenging IBM. As a result, B2B vendors could get DEC to buy virtually anything by "waving the big blue flag." (DEC's real competition was the PC but few at DEC took PCs seriously.)
8. How is your customer seen by others within its industry?
The way the rest of your customer's industry views your customer can offer an opportunity to sell an offering, providing you can raise the customer's self-awareness. Example: a customer that thinks it's an industry leader actually has an industry-wide reputation for low quality products. If you can get the customer to admit there's problem (warning: risk!), you might be able to use that reputation to drive the customer to buy an offering that improves product quality.
9. What defines your customer's corporate culture?
A corporate culture consists of the behavior-driving beliefs held (sometimes unconsciously) by a company's decision-makers. For example, a company that believes "business is warfare" will focus on winning against competitors while a company that believes "business is an ecosystem" will focus on building up partnerships. Understanding these basic beliefs allows you to position your offering so that it feels "right" to the customer.
10. What market pressures compel your customer to take action?
Most companies suffer from a certain amount of inertia and thus tend to do what they've done previously. However, changes in the market (like the ability for clients to order online) may force a company to rethink things. This creates an opportunity for you to help them make the transition.
11. Who are your customer's partners?
Many companies work with other companies to develop or exploit opportunities. Understanding these relationships help you position your offering so that it makes these partnerships more valuable to your customer. Example: if your company partners with Microsoft, a service that helps them better cope with Microsoft's Byzantine culture would be a relatively easy sell.
12. Who are your customer's competitors?
Who does your customer regularly discover selling comparable offerings to their clients? Since every company is looking for a competitive advantage, anything you have to sell that will make your customer more competitive (or give them the inside track) will be greatly appreciated.
13. How is your customer structured?
Your customer's organization (or lack of same) reflects how it's trying to execute its business model. Organizational structures help you identify decision-makers that you'll need to bring on board in order to make a sale. Note, however, that a fancy job title on the org chart doesn't necessarily mean the individual has power. You'll need to probe a bit to find the real levers.
14. Who are your customer's key people?
In addition to the decision-makers in the org chart, there are always stakeholders and influencers who can block a sale from taking place. Understanding where this power lies allows you to either bring these people on board or neutralize them. Example: cloud-based software vendors must often placate a CIO who would prefer to direct funding to his in-house IT empire.
15. What is your history with the customer?
If you or your firm has successfully sold to the customer in the past and the transaction made the customer happy, you can use that history to grease the wheels for the next sale. If they've had problems with you (or your firm), you'll need to do damage control before even thinking of selling to them.
16. What is your competitors' history with the customer?
If your customer is satisfied by your competitor's offering, you'll need to create discontent. ("In an ideal world, what would your current vendor be doing for you?") If your customer is dissatisfied by your competitor's product, you'll want to subtly increase that discontent. ("They're known as a solid company with a workmanlike product. Our product is for companies that want to be innovators.")
17. How does your customer make purchasing decisions?
If you don't understand how your customer decides to buy and how that purchase wends its way through the organization, you'll never know whether a deal is real until you actually get paid. More important, if you don't know these basics, you won't know what to do if the opportunity languishes.