Listening, A Sales Lost Art

Are You Hearing Your Customer?

It still amazes me today as companies, salesmen, manufacturers all continue to produce products that they want to sell - without asking or talking with their customers to see if this is what they want or need. "Build a better mouse-trap and they will beat a path to your door" requires that the person needs mouse traps (to buy the second one...). Listening and hearing are two, completely different things.

I have sold in a broad range of industries from advertising to chicken feed to neurosurgery. In every case, the assumption is made that the product is what the end user needs. In some cases it is pretty simple. A chicken needs chicken feed - but I sold my corn, soybeans and vitamin pack for a premium over everyone else because I could differentiate my capabilities. I had to know what a customer's goals were - all large eggs for example. Changing up a hen's diet changes the size of the eggs laid. All white yolks. I could and did do that too - ever had a McDonald's fish sandwich? Did you notice how white the tartar sauce is? If you feed a hen an a diet with no yellow pigment (from corn or marigold or alfalfa for example) you can get platinum white yolks...and white beaks and feet on the hens!

These changes to what was a commodity product were only available for sales at a premium because I listened to my customer. They knew how to feed a chicken and get an egg. What they didn't know and required research was everything else. Listening for that edge that can differentiate your offering from any other salesman calling on your customer is key.

Selling is not providing product at the lowest possible price so the customer just buys from you. Oh, sure, that happens every day. And the customer that buys that from you - will switch with the next lower price. Selling is far beyond that. It is a profession that is lost on many people.

I love the new LaQuinta commercials showing salesmen getting a good night's sleep at LaQuinta and then having a great sales day the next day. Having sold corn to corn farmers, advertising to advertising executives, etc, I really can appreciate some of these ads. But in real life, it goes much deeper. We aren't talking about the consummate "used car salesman" either. Now I don't want to bash this group of folks, but it makes a point. What I don't want is someone who pushes through a sale based on falsehood and deception. Knowingly promoting a product or service beyond its capability for a quick sale is not what I am about. I detest that.

Selling requires work. Knowledge of your products like no one else has. Knowing where it comes from, what it does, what are its capabilities, what can it not do, how much is it, how much are the competitive products that do the same thing, what does my product do that the competition can't or doesn't do are all important questions. You want to know these things for a number of reasons.

You want the information above because it improves your confidence in your product. If you find that your product is inferior to the competition, how inferior is it? Back to the feed world for a point here. Menhaden Fish Meal is one of the highest quality fish meal proteins available in the world. High in protein, very good, high quality fat too. Not quite as good is catfish meal and catfish oil. You can't make butter that humans would eat from catfish oil. You can make feed from catfish oil and catfish meal like you can from Menhaden meal. Catfish meal trails Menhaden fish meal about $20 a ton in the market - always. That is the value difference. They know it. But at that level, it sells quite well and clears the market. You have to find what the value difference between your product and your superior competition is and see if you can operate financially at that level and accept the lack of premium, or realize that selling your product at all is getting a premium.

I call on physicians today, surgeons from podiatrists to neurosurgeons. Obviously there are products a foot doc doesn't need that a brain surgeon does and visa-versa. But listening to what all these doctors needs are may provide an answer to a question un-asked. Sometimes a product that is utilized daily in another field can be used by someone else in their field that don't even know it exists. In medicine it happens every day. Being in multiple disciplines and getting the chance to hear what the need is leads to these conversations. Don't ever be afraid of asking questions as to how something might work. This is where the customer becomes the expert and everyone likes to be an expert about something.

Getting into the position with your customer or prospect to get them to tell you what they need is sales. Not all customers or prospects will let you do this. If you are selling a fuel card for trucking companies, do the research and find out if the fleet owner has other affiliations or if they are the actual beneficiary of any discount you might bring them. I know a situation where someone tried to sell the fuel card to a large carpet manufacturer because they had so many trucks on the road. The carpet manufacturer said no to the card. They didn't want another credit card to have to manage. Digging a little deeper we found out that it wouldn't have benefited the carpet manufacturer directly anyway. The carpet manufacturer had a contract with a leasing company for all the trucks - and fuel. We went to the leasing company, they bought the card right away, lowered the cost of fuel to the carpet manufacturer making the leasing company's offering more competitive than other companies in the area. Win, win, win.

With my confined space safety company it wasn't unusual to have someone who utilized a nitrogen blanket to protect some kind of product. Or in another application, CO2 might be used to chill products. The problem with both nitrogen and CO2 is that there is no odor present so you can't smell the level of gas - and their may not be any oxygen present - or at a level to sustain life. Both gases can push out oxygen from the room, if you will. So customers would call and ask for a Nitrogen monitor so they could tell how much nitrogen was in the room - or CO2. That wasn't the problem. Of course there was N2 in the room. Of course there is CO2 in that room. That wasn't the question. Listening I found it was O2 that was really the question. So I sold them O2 monitors. Now they know if there is enough O2 in the room, it doesn't matter how much N2 or CO2 is there as long as there is enough O2. Win, win.

Working with hospitals is a special opportunity. They are faced with a number of issues today. In many cases it isn't a matter of what something costs. In some cases it is a matter of what something costs. Sometimes it doesn't matter what is on the label if the doctor determines he thinks it would be the best treatment according to his own research. Sometimes a doctor can ask for one product because it will do something special for him and purchasing buys a competitive product for some contractual reason. So how do you ever break into a market like this?

Listen. What is it that makes the decision for that person that makes the final buying decision? One step prior to that - who is that person who makes that final buying decision? You may very well be surprised. I had one situation where an orthopedic surgeon had told a surgery center that he would not buy from anyone but company X because his rep from there had been his supplier for over 20 years. This surgeon had a financial interest in the surgery center. When the surgery center manager explained that another company had come in with better pricing on comparable products - plus they were the same company that provided the hardware for surgeries meaning the person at the doctor's office only had to make one phone call to get all the products for a surgery from one company - well the old friend no longer has the doctors business. The surgery center manager knew how much it complicated the job of the girl who called in the request for hardware and allograft and didn't want to make it even more complicated. So even if someone was trying to sell into that deal with price or quality, it would have to be significant to make the trade.

Dishonesty doesn't always have to be on the side of the seller. There are buyers on the take. There are situations you are not going to break. My advice here is to avoid these situations like the plague. Don't get drawn into the garbage. Report any illegal acts to the authorities if you have significant proof. Don't gossip about it. There is plenty of business out there that you don't need this stuff to fill your sock. I once worked with a company that had contracted with major companies across the region. The contracts in place allowed for a significant level of profits - very good profits. Upon leaving that company, I offered my services to negotiate the customer's next contract to the customers only to find out the top people in these publicly owned companies were getting kick-backs from my old employer in very significant dollars. No they didn't hire me, win win, haha.

Listening to you customer for what they really need and knowing what you have and how it actually fills the needs of the customer is critical. Stay with them to be sure if the product they are currently using is filling the need - or is that really the need and does your product really do what they want to better. You never will know without asking those questions.

Good luck.

The Inventurist.

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