As a sales leader, how many times have you experienced a customer call with one of your sales team members that didn’t go as well as expected? It isn’t usually a lack of preparation that undermines these customer meetings (what sales professional doesn’t prepare for a sales call with his or her boss?); rather, the dynamic is symptomatic of a more chronic condition in which the sales professional doesn’t have the position or strength of relationship with the customer that we thought they had. How can we, as sales leaders, better diagnose our team members’ level and quality of “connectedness” with their customers without being at every sales call?
Connectedness is defined a multitude of ways. Unfortunately, it often refers to an electronic connection via email, LinkedIn or other social media platforms. For the purposes of cultivating productive, long-term customer relationships, connectedness is defined as the sales professional’s level of understanding, engagement, alignment and partnership with the customer. Here are five key questions to ask sales team members to gauge their connectedness at any given client organization.
1. What is the breadth and depth of your relationships inside the client organization?
Access equals influence. With whom does the sales professional engage on a regular basis? Beyond their primary contact, in what functional areas or departments are they known, and on what level? What is the nature of their conversations? Every sales professional should be recognized at least two levels up from their main contact within the organization and should be able to walk out of their main contact’s department and see friendly, familiar faces. The simplest litmus test is to ask, “Who in the customer organization knows your name, company and product?”
Consider the example of a plane manufacturer about to sell a fleet of passenger jets to an airline. There are multiple stakeholders, each with his or her own specific objectives/priorities: The CFO’s chief concern will be cost, financing options and the life of the plane. Pilots will be focused on their user experience, with safety as the top priority. The head of maintenance will focus on the maintenance record of this jet model, as well as availability of parts and repair process. Customer service and marketing will be focused on the passenger experience (i.e., comfort and dependability). The manufacturer must be connected to and have key insight from multiple levels within this organization.
2. What are this customer’s key initiatives?
And, depending on your tenure with the customer, what has changed on this front in the past six months? It is hard to imagine how your organization is delivering true value to the customer if your sales professional can’t articulate their key initiatives and objectives. A lack of insight here is a sure sign that more communication, specifically exploratory conversation, is needed.
3. What are the customer’s biggest challenges?
As with key initiatives, we can’t expect to have to have a key role in helping our customers solve problems if we don’t fully understand their current challenges. It is incumbent upon the sales professional to make the exploratory call an ongoing feature of the sales process, just as it is incumbent upon the sales leader to continually make this exploratory process part of your sales coaching routine.
4. How can we improve the customer experience?
Every day, sales professionals need to consider their customer’s experience of doing business with your company and with them personally. How can we make it more convenient, exceptional and beneficial? Do we know, or have we even bothered to ask, how customers want to do business with us? What differentiating feature or service do we have that we can expand for greater value to the customer? Ultimately, sales professionals should be looking past their customer to their customer’s customer, for a role in improving that experience as well.
5. How do you spend your time with the customer?
It is always enlightening to ask a sales professional to describe a typical sales call at any given account. You will quickly get a sense of the quality of the time and discussion, including how much of the sales professional’s time is spent talking versus listening. A lack of exploratory time and listening skills often explains a lack of insight into the customer’s initiatives and challenges.
As sales leaders, we also need to understand the types and context of conversations our team members are having with our customers. Look for signs that your sales team members enjoy an interdependent relationship with their customers, including having customers who often reach out to them for input and advice. Just getting in front of customers (physically or digitally) doesn’t cut it. The customer should come away from every interaction feeling that it was time well spent, which usually means a session in which the customer gained insight as to how your company can make his or her future better.
One of our clients is a packaging manufacturer working with Amazon. As you might expect, this company is working to reduce shipping costs and product damage during transport. Because they are connected at multiple levels in the organization and focused on (and beyond) their customer, they are also helping Amazon improve the experience for Amazon customers when they open the package. It’s an impressive example of an interdependent relationship and a high level of connectedness.
At the end of the day, we have two jobs at every client account: to help them achieve or exceed their goals and to assist in removing barriers. The more contacts we have at the organization and the more insight we have about the customer’s goals and challenges, the better able we are to succeed on both fronts. These key questions will help you quickly diagnose the connectedness of your sales professionals and identify specific areas of opportunity for improvement.