Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Strategic Account Planning Part 3

What do you know about your account?

Everybody claims to be a Solution Seller these days. It’s the place where the cool kids are supposed to be hanging out in world of selling. To illustrate, a quick “Google” of the term Solution Seller turns up something like 179 Million entries. As a group, we are talking the talk, but deep dives into the topic make me wonder.

Many of the top salespeople in our industry confuse product expertise with providing a customer-centric solution. Is there value in helping your customer select just the right product for their application? Absolutely. Does your troubleshooting assistance provide something important to your customer? No doubt about it. But, I believe solution selling extends well beyond this type of product domain customer support. If the only solution you provide comes in being able to answer customer questions about products, I suspect you are vulnerable to future competitive threats. Here is why.

We are moving into the next generation of internet and mobile driven apps. For instance, I recently became aware of some apps which are pretty comprehensive in their ability to direct a novice customer through the selection of very technical questions. Reports of manufacturers and mega-catalog distributors creatively applying cell phone pictures to the problem of identifying obscure parts are increasing exponentially. Companies with internet based monitoring of “programmable devices” are upping the ante on product based troubleshooting. Frankly, I see some of these as being game changing in the world of product driven expertise for sale.

In days of old, the knowledge-based distributor’s “stock in trade” was product expertise. Complex products with lots of nuances demanded and received high margins than simple products. Vary early on, the salesperson acted as a “human search engine” turning the customer’s request for information on some type of product into an assortment of product data sheets. Later, the salesperson translated customer start up or troubleshooting questions into pages from the user’s manual. Things have changed. Today the value for this type of service is declining. Where is the real value to be provided?

Here’s where we get to the whole solution selling thing comes into play. We are talking about recognizing and proposing solutions to the customer, often before the customer even realizes there is a problem. While your products play a role in creating the solution, the real meat of the sale revolves around what you know about the customer. And, often salespeople lack a deep rooted understanding of even the simplest information about the customer’s world.

This brings us back to precisely what do we know about the customer.

In order to have a real strategic plan for our accounts we need to take inventory of what we know now and what we should learn in the future. Our plan must revolve around positioning ourselves to really be solution providers. Or, in some instances, understanding that providing solutions to the customer is a poor use of our resources.

Here are a few items I believe are central to real customer knowledge:

• How does the customer really make money?
• What are the customer’s competitive threats?
• Is your customer part of a larger organization? How are they viewed by the parent company?
• How does your customer’s sales process work and can you somehow improve it?
• How might the customer improve their process to decrease expenses, improve output or sell more product?
• Does the customer have seasons where only a portion of their resources are used?
• Does your customer have issues finding the right people or getting those people trained?
• What is the burdened cost of labor at your customer?
• Are there labor issues related to unions, skilled trade groups or others?
• What are the raw materials used by the customer? Are any of them in short supply?
• Does it cost a lot of money to store the materials? Is shrinkage an issue?
• Are there governmental or other regulations that impact the customer’s business?

Understand, this is not an all-encompassing list. Your list will vary based on the type of customer, your own industry and other variables.  For instance, if you are an Electrical Distributor, this may be a good fit.  Regardless of your industry, you do need to look at each of these as strategic to your own customer’s future. Aligning your strategic plan to customer strategy is important to building a plan.

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