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Don't focus on your product – focus on your customers' buying process

Think about the kind of account managers that work for you. Do they start talking about your products five minutes into every customer conversation or do they see themselves more as consultants?

Not everyone will admit it, but it's safe to say that many B2B organisations are still using that first strategy. A strategy in which account managers focus on the sales process which revolves around their product with all its shiny specs and features. The account manager knows his or her target, prepares a slick presentation, and hits the road with their laptop and their well-rehearsed story. On the hunt for turnover and a year-end bonus. That's what we call an inside-out approach.

From the outside in

Let's turn that around, from the outside in. You no longer shine the spotlight on your sales process, but on the customer's buying process. There are many reasons why this approach is much more suited to today's world, with digitisation being the main driver for this development. Buyers no longer need an account manager for their product information, they collect their own input. Online, of course. Today's customers know exactly what's for sale before even talking to your company. They already have all that knowledge in their head when they first meet with one of your account managers. No need to bother with an extensive introduction on your product's specs and features – the customer doesn't really care. 

Adding value

For account managers with a traditional outlook, this means having to change their way of thinking and acting. Not from the inside out, but as mentioned above, from the outside in. The key question here is: how can our company add value? Your customer is experiencing some kind of pain and wants to be helped, and it's up to your account managers to uncover the question behind the question. Why does your customer have this problem, how does it affect them, and what solution would really help them? This requires radically different conversation techniques than rattling off a meticulously prepared presentation. It's about listening, tuning in, and building confidence.

The difference between deal and no deal

The more information your customer shares, the easier it is for account managers to convert those wishes into a customised solution. Plus it's an excellent opportunity for your salespeople to gain more insight into the people behind their conversation partner. These are the people who don't have a seat at the table, but who do have a say in the decision-making process. The plant manager who'll be working with your solution and is therefore mainly interested in its practical benefits. The CFO, who mainly focuses on costs. Information about these so-called co-decision-makers is extremely valuable and may even mean the difference between a deal and no deal.

Consultative selling

 Much of what's written above comes from a specific sales technique, consultative selling. This isn't a new term, by the way – it was coined in the 1970s by American sales guru Mack Hanan in his book Consultative Selling. He describes the salesperson as a consultant who keeps asking questions to find out what their customer really needs. Only then will they advise them on the best possible product or service. According to Hanan, account managers are consultants first, not sleazy car dealers pushing their slick sales pitches. The customer's problem, that's what it's all about. Although that doesn't automatically mean that your product can't be the solution to that problem.

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Data as the source of sales conversations

In the 1970s, when Hanan published his book, very little was known about using data. A big difference with today, of course. For modern account managers who want to focus on their customers' buying process, every relationship starts with using data. It helps them get to know their lead better, even before the first conversation. The question is: is your company ready for that new, smart way of working? Do you have a system that is able to easily and quickly connect all available customer data, making it easier for your account managers to do their job? A question, I believe, every CEO or managing director should be asking their IT manager today.