Chris Halliwell, Technology Marketing Center Executive Director signing in to the Leaders' blog.
Next time you find yourself assuming, or being confronted with the assumption, that "we know what customer's need because our salespeople and senior management talk to them all the time," here's some food for thought because you might be mistaken.
Voice of the Customer Defined
Most everyone will readily agree that industrial and B2B technology companies can't innovate or sell value if they don't understand customer strategy, motives, and operational success metrics. How do we gain this understanding? CEO musings? Secondary research? Trip reports? Sure, if stratospheric observations about obvious truths, followed by a cacophony of feature requests makes sense to you. Now, you would think that after decades of expensive training on solution selling that the Sales department would be the high likely place to understand customers' problems. It's just not. What sales does is a great job of is shouting a relay of customer tactical concerns that stand in the way of closing a sale (features, price, support). This is not VoC insight, it's good to know, but it is without context or insight as to value.
What Ever Happened to "Questioning for Need"?
My sales call/process training came from IBM eons ago, but I still remember the drill: establish rapport, question for need (aka qualify), initial benefit statement, feature/advantage/benefit presentation, address objections, close. Some version of this was taught at most major U.S. companies, at the time Xerox was famous for this, then Miller's Strategic Selling and Eades' Solution Selling, across segments to healthcare with AID,Inc.'s model you see here. Are most,or any, of the sales people you work alongside actually listening for need and value? Do they turn off the PC, make eye contact, and get curious? Doubtful, and just to hammer the point home, go look at your CRM system where the default automated process does not require questioning/listening, in fact may cost you more for a custom module, and where Description (qualitative) capture fields are not mandatory to move leads down the funnel.
You Have Hundreds of Customers: Lead Qualification Fell on the Floor
In fairness to CRM's lack of insight capture capability, "interviewing" and "questioning for need" is often lumped into the overall task of lead qualification, and most CRMs assume you are tracking already qualified leads. This makes a lot of sense in that you don't want your most expensive, high touch, sales people wasting time on unqualified/poor fit opportunities. In highly automated Saas businesses, qualification has been built into Inside Sales tools such as Marketo, and emerging social media listening and Lean Canvas tools. In more traditional industrial and hardware businesses, target selection, characterization and qualification seems to fall into some fuzzy netherworld between sales and marketing. Marketing professionals: step up! Get out there, listen to the voice of the customer, define value, understand fit, make strong recommendations on sales targets, and stay involved to learn/course correct over time. Call me if you need help.
You Have Tens of Customers: Listening is Account Development
If you have a relatively concentrated set of customers that generate the bulk of your sales, you probably have close, and more insightful, customer relationships. Here, the problem is not so much listening (I hope for your sake) as it is capturing, synthesizing, and sharing implications of customer insight. There are probably many ad hoc ways in which you share customer information among sales, operations, marketing and management folks, but I would advocate the use of a more formalized process to make sure the right questions are always asked, and that you are squeezing the most you can from customer listening to add to/capture value from customers. Sales professionals: step up! There is a fantastic book that outlines a so called Value Account Plan that documents increasing insights into your customer's business over time. It's called What The Customer Wants You to Know. If you need help, call Ram Charan.