DataPoint: Salesperson vs. Customer Perception
Do you really want to know how well you’re doing?

"Ask your customer," says Sue Morgan, senior consultant and co-founder of OnTrack Consulting. "Even though many companies will tell you their sales force understands what customers need and that they present solutions rather than products, their customers may have an entirely different perception--a perception that ultimately determines whether or not they choose your service or product."

Morgan's findings echo Miller Heiman's 2007 Sales Best Practice Study which reports that even though the majority of sales organizations believe they focus on solution-led selling rather than product-led selling, those same companies say they often do not understand their customers' issues before proposing solutions--an obvious disconnect.

Dissatisfaction is often hidden

Often, what causes customer dissatisfaction is never voiced to the sales team. Morgan helps sales organizations achieve more profitable relationships with their customers by providing business-to-business relationship assessments. She frequently finds disconnects in how well a sales force thinks it’s doing and what customers say about their satisfaction with the relationship, and formulates highly targeted action plans to help them bridge the gap.

In her research, Morgan goes directly to the source. She listens to customers. She asks them how well they think the salesperson--and the company as a whole--performs in comparison to the competition. She asks questions about what's important to customers when they make purchasing and business decisions that determine their perception of the experience.   

"There are always insights and surprises for a sales team when we report the customer's viewpoint," she says. "My experience is that teams make assumptions that prove to be incorrect once the right questions are asked of the customer."

Shifting to a buyer-centric sales approach

Customer satisfaction interviews reveal that in order to meet the client's expectations, reps must have a thorough understanding of the customer's needs to then match their selling solution to their client's goals. Research shows that sales teams need to approach customers with openness--listen and probe to draw out unspoken expectations. When sales teams skip this step, they make these common mistakes:

Once sales leaders identify the gap that exists between the salesperson and customer satisfaction perspective, they can focus on creating an action plan to close it.  Morgan says: "The action plan allows sales teams to focus on areas that are of the most value to both companies."

5 steps to close the client perception gap

  1. Sales leadership must take the time to interpret customer feedback and develop an action plan based specifically on that information. When customer information is used as the basis for the action plan, customers feel their needs are heard and addressed, and they see true value in the relationship.
  2. The sales team should go back to the customer and present the initiative to improve the customer experience with the plan for furthering their business relationship. 
  3. The action plan needs to be well-defined for it to be achievable. There should be assignments and time frames in place—and sales leaders can increase accountability by taking the plan back to the customer to show commitment and keep momentum going.
  4. Validate your plans with customers regularly to gain their agreement that you're concentrating on the right areas. 
  5. Ask key customers to own an action item to encourage their buy-in and lay the groundwork for the relationship to be perceived as a partnership.

Benefits of seller-client alignment

Understanding what a customer needs goes beyond identifying the immediate pain point. Sales leaders should encourage salespeople to dig deeper to really understand what drives the customer's business. They must go beyond purchasing decisions to understand their business direction and where they add value.

Through customer interviews and research, it is irrefutable that when a salesperson's approach focuses on an understanding of the client's complete business needs, it increases their ability to win business.

Dialogue is key

Sales leaders should encourage reps to shift the way they think—from a sales call to a dialogue with the customer. "The call should focus on further understanding the client's needs and building the relationship," Morgan says. 

Providing incentive that links with furthering relationships can be effective. For example, reward salespeople based on customer loyalty, the level of customer satisfaction and perception of the sales team as a trusted advisor or partner. This way, salespeople will know leadership is serious about taking a customer-centric approach to sales.

Expectations continue to rise

Keep in mind that customers' expectations continue to rise as a relationship develops. Often, this happens more quickly than the sales team anticipates. Stronger relationships between sales teams and customers prevent future gaps. Customers continually set the satisfaction bar higher, and so do sales organizations that continue to win more business. 

"We tend to think of solutions as bundled products and services," Morgan says. "But, we find that customers look for cohesive solutions that really fit a specific business driver, such as helping them break into a new market or increasing the end user's efficiency." 

Morgan's customer satisfaction research shows that customers continue to respond to salespeople who understand their business and listen carefully to what they're trying to accomplish in order to provide a level of expert advice before, during and after the purchase. 

The research also shows that customer satisfaction leads directly to increased sales and profitable long-term relationships. Therefore, it's essential that sales leaders coach reps toward moving the needle from vendor status to becoming a value-add partner to the customer's business--well-tuned to hear and meet his needs with a solution that fits.

Find out how you’re really doing from the customer’s point of view. Share this article with your team.

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By Judith Hepburn, editor of The Sales Performance Journal. -Miller Heiman

Sue Morgan has been a leader in the business development and relationship arena for over 20 years. Sue provided customized relationship audits and unique insights to strategic HP sales management and Fortune 500 CxO/VPs, in over 85 accounts across all industries, as an internal HP consultant. As an independent consultant, Sue provides small to enterprise-sized businesses with unique deliverables to expand their businesses by expanding their strategic customer relationships. She is committed to enabling transformation of programs and people to meet evolving customer needs. And is uniquely qualified to develop insights into customer data and provide highly customized consulting to diverse organizations.