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What Customers Really Want

Listen. Show that you care. Make my needs matter. Geez, this is starting to sound like a relationship

I've spent a lot of time in recent years teaching vendors how to talk to IT professionals. I find it fascinating that very few firms hire from IT shops. I mean, the best way to understand a customer is to work with one or to have been one. This results in what I've termed the "death by slides" approach to technology sales. You sit the customers down and bombard them with PowerPoint slides until they will buy almost anything so the pain will stop.

Not only have I worked in and around IT, but I've also been fortunate enough to have very large research budgets. In addition, I used to represent IT buyers in sales situations, and through all of this, got a sense for what seems to work and what doesn't. Strangely enough, I've learned what seems to work best on IT buyers is probably what would work best in any interaction between two people: approaching the buyer as an individual, building trust, and then offering something that truly meets the buyer's now understood needs.

So how do you sell IT? Here are three simple rules that seem incredibly obvious, yet it's surprising how few follow them.

Listen and Hear
Trust goes to the core of any relationship between a vendor and a customer. I think we could argue that with security, trust has greater prominence, since the security vendor's job is to protect customers from harm. You might be able to get by not trusting Maytag, but not trusting Symantec would be a much more serious problem if you were its customer.

Listening goes to the core of trust. If all you ever do is promise to fix generic problems that may or may not have anything to do with my unique business needs, I'm going to develop the impression that you really don't care about my needs. Or worse, you're simply focused on milking me for money at every opportunity.

I go to a lot of vendor meetings. And after a short while, the slides all start to look the same. It makes me wonder if there isn't some diabolical slide generator that has been unleashed in a plot to turn my brain into jelly. I handle reviews after many such presentations, and one of the most common bits of feedback I get is the vendor doesn't seem to understand the audience's needs or wants.

For some customers, this relentless focus on next generation products and new offerings just creates a lasting bad impression. I've had CIOs compare this practice to extortion, and for security firms in particular, this comparison will probably not lead to continued business.

Every time you meet with a customer, it's important to focus most of the time trying to understand what the customer's current and anticipated needs are. By then taking those messages back to your own company, you're speaking with the "voice of the customer." Smartly culled, this information can be invaluable when making decisions on future products and offerings, as well as ensuring customer retention.

More importantly, the effort builds trust because it shows you care more about what the customer thinks than almost anything else, and what the customer thinks is more important than what you think every time.

Follow Up
Being attentive is good, but how often have we had great sales reps or met with executives from firms who promise to address our needs and then, for whatever reason, don't. What helps build trust and customer loyalty better (and if you look at the cost of customer acquisition there is no money better spent) than being able to showcase that you took feedback and acted on it in a timely way?

There are some old industry jokes about how large companies constantly promise that, in the future, things will get better. The punch line, which doesn't seem so funny right now, is that the future never comes.

Security executives live in the present; when a security problem arises, they can't promise management to fix it at some future date. The CEO literally wants security problems fixed yesterday and before they ever reach her desk.

You must show your customer's problems are your top priority, and that you will put more effort into addressing his or her problems than in trying to sell a new product or upgrade. Those two things will do a lot to further trust and cement a long term relationship.

Keep 'Em Satisfied
One of the big industry problems is when someone buys a product, that person is no longer very important to sales. After you've bought, you are old news. The next time you hear from the vendor, it'll be selling you your next purchase to solve the issues of that last suboptimal (i.e., crap) purchasing decision.

All people want to be satisfied customers. No one encourages a sense of buyer’s remorse, yet it often seems that companies go out of their way, in an effort to get recurring revenue for packaged products, to convince buyers that what they have purchased is simply inadequate.

Sometimes this is unavoidable, like with subscription-based virus checkers. But often, these services get "enhanced" so prices can be raised. As part of the enhancement, the old subscriptions are disparaged in favor of the new offering and additional revenue stream. This takes us right back to the semblance of extortion and bodes poorly well for long-term customer retention.

When you have a sales opportunity think about forming communities of customers who can help each other become more successful with what they have purchased. More to the point, focus more on making people happy with what they have purchased and less on what you hope they will purchase in the future.

If you focus the opportunity more on making existing customers happy, potential customers will find they are more likely to want to be part of your family. When you want to up-sell or refresh a customer, make that effort a personal one. Design the sales event so existing customers can be your primary tool to closing new business, and focus it on making those existing customers as happy as possible.

I often wonder why tech sales people who generally hate long slide shows themselves seem to prefer that approach to sell products. While it may be fun to spread the pain, it probably won't lead to meeting sales quotas.

Wouldn't it be better to use this same opportunity to build a relationship with these folks? You know, spend time understanding what is important to them so you can build better, more competitive offerings? What better way to ensure that your customer base today will remain your customer base tomorrow?

When pitching a customer or putting on a sales event, spend some time thinking about what you would want to see and hear, were one of your vendors to come meet with you. I'll bet you'll conclude it isn't lots of generic foils talking about what they will do for you in the future.

This doesn't mean you can't talk about the future. People want to be comfortable with where you are going, but it should be in the context of listening to where they want to go first. Telling folks about your wonderful plans to take them to Mexico when they really want to go to Canada would be a bad thing. And it can be avoided if you simply ask them where they'd like to go, rather than announce where you are taking them.

One thing to remember: IT executives are much more likely to accept advice from peers than they are from vendors, or even analysts. You only have to look at Apple to see that if you build strong advocates in your customers, it will do wonders for sales and customer retention, even if you aren't always on the right path.

— Rob Enderle is President and Founder of Enderle Group . Special to Dark Reading