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Customer Meetings

By: Bob Cermak & Tim Smith, PhD
December 2003 Selling

Everyone in business loves customer meetings. Run a customer meeting well, and the sales process is driven closer to closure. But, run the customer meeting poorly, and the prospect will count the minutes until they can show you out the door. Given the value that hangs in the balance of individual customer meetings, salespeople and managers alike have a strong interest in holding good customer meetings.

Before strong salespeople jump into customer meetings, they prepare. Consistently creating good customer meetings requires identifying the objectives of the meeting, planning for the accomplishment of these objectives, practicing the agenda, and executing with strength. As a postlude, salespeople document progress made in the meeting to recall specifics and unresolved issues to for future conversations.

Also, every sales guru has his/her own take on how to run a good customer meeting. In this article, we will provide the 50,000 foot synopsis of 6 common methods for holding the sales meeting. These are the Close, Tell Them, SPIN, Personality Typing, Solution Selling, and Miller Heiman method.

Close

In the Close method, often appearing in sales handbooks, the salesperson outlines the benefits of the product or service, obviates objections, and drives towards the close. This method often uses psychological tricks such as (1) getting the customer accustomed to saying yes then asking if they want to buy or (2) stating that the salesperson does not care if the customer purchases because the offer is so good that they must turn away other customers all the time. In the Close method, every customer meeting is treated as a closing opportunity.

In selling products wherein long term customer relationships are unimportant, the Close method produces results. But for nearly all business products and services, this is not the case. Repeat purchases and positive customer relationships are required to create sustainable businesses. While Closing may be the purpose of the meeting, it is rarely the sole discussion topic. Rather, most sales in business markets require an understanding of the customer’s needs and an explanation of how the product or service delivers to these needs.

Tell Them

In the Tell Them approach, often appearing in presentation guides, the customer meeting is constructed as a forum for staking the claim that they have the right solution and ensuring that the customer understands the key selling points before leaving the meeting. The presentation begins by the salesperson making a claim and supporting this claim with three key selling points. Salespeople then separately identify each key selling point and support its validity through anecdotes, industry trends, technical data and examples, or customer quotes. After clarifying each point, they repeat the three selling points and clarify how they support the initial claim that they have the right solution for that customer.

The Tell Them method is useful in communicating ideas in support of closing a sale. It follows the formula of “Tell them what your going to tell them. Tell them. Tell them what you told them.” However, it performs poorly in creating relationships and uncovering customer requirements or attitudes. Salespeople who effectively use this method supplement it by allowing time for other things to occur within the meeting as well.

SPIN

In the SPIN method, outlined by Neil Rakham in SPIN Selling, customer meetings are an opportunity for the creation of a two-way dialogue in support of a mutually positive business outcome. SPIN begins by asking Situation questions to establish the context for a business challenge. It then investigates the business challenge with Problem questions to clarify the business challenge and reveal implied needs. These implied needs are further investigated with Implication questions to uncover larger and more urgent business challenges that are created by the first identified business challenge. Finally, these implied needs are qualified with Needs-Payoff questions that focus on the business value of solving the business challenge.

SPIN Selling, unlike the prior two approaches, is focused on creating a customer dialogue. This dialogue enables the creation of a solution that both addresses the specific prospect’s needs and provides a compelling value proposition.

Personality Typing

Personality Typing, supported by Rogen (www.rogen.com) and StarCloser (www.starcloser.com), focuses on understanding the personality of the prospect and on communication according to that particular prospect’s communication style. In this method, people are typed as one of four personality types: Analytical, Expressive, Amiable, or Driver. When communicating with an Analytical prospect, sales people are advised to provide details. For Expressive prospects, vision statements are useful. Amiable prospects desire hearing about their peer choices. And Driver prospects require factual statements that are short and to the point.

The strength of personality typing is its ability to forge strong relationships with prospects.

Solution Selling

The Solution Selling methodology, supported by many sales training organizations, focuses on customer pain and the value of relieving the pain. It begins by asking questions to determine possible pain points. If the customer has a specific pain point, the approach suggests that the pain be clarified followed by asking implication questions to find out who else in the organization is affected by these challenges. It then uses questions to have customer quantify the value of overcoming the pain and delivering the value. It closes by asking the prospect what it would take to demonstrate that the company represented by the salesperson could deliver their solution. The knowledge uncovered in this customer meeting is then typed into a letter that reviews what was discussed and moves the sale to the next level. If other individuals were affected by the pain point, the salesperson follows up with these individuals with the same set of questions until the potential list of contacts is exhausted.

Solution Selling, like SPIN selling, if focused on a customer dialogue towards delivering the right solution to the customer challenges.

Miller Heiman

In The New Strategic Selling by Heimen and Sanchez, the focus of the customer meeting is to uncover customer requirements, cover the bases with the customer decision making committee, and communicate the value. In the customer meeting, salespeople should convince end users that the solution is the bomb, the technical buyer that the solution will work within their business structure, and the economic buyer that the customer will get more value than the cost of the solution.

The Miller Heiman method is highly appropriate for large ticket sales, but the data collection and management overhead required to implement the details of this method is too cumbersome for most business sales processes.

The Approach for You

Each of the approaches to customer meetings has validity. Strong salespeople fully understand all of the above approaches plus a few more. They are also prepared to implement any of these approaches on an “as-needed” basis.

One of the follies of new salespeople is the assumption that a single approach works for all sales. Silver bullets rarely exist. Not only does the appropriate sales approach depend upon the size of the transaction, but it also depends upon the frequency of purchase and the familiarity of the customer with the value offering. Other factors too such as the customer’s personality or the corporate culture and buying routines of the customer will affect the appropriate selection of meeting approach. Strong sales people are able to incorporate each of these factors into their planning and preparation.

Despite many efforts to engineer a perfectly repeatable customer meeting, the reality of varying customer specifics is against perfect repeatability. Strong salespeople will have an agenda but will remain flexible and prepared to switch tactics and strategies in midstream. By reading the body language communicated by the decision maker, salespeople will make decisions as to which strategy or messages will help drive forward the process. They understand that they can’t control the meeting, much less the customer, but only attempt to influence the direction of the discussion and bring some form of closure. Being comfortable with each approach enables the salesperson to migrate from one to another, making the transition smoothly without loosing site of business objectives.

The salesperson’s strategy must leave room for interactive exchange and strategy flexibility, in spite of his/her agenda. A productive sales meeting isn’t a lecture controlled environment, it is a gathering of professionals in which the seller and the buyer has both needs and offerings. The effectiveness of the meeting is in getting the bilateral needs and offerings of the seller and the buyer to come together, create closure, and overcome challenges



About the author

Bob Cermak is a Principal of Wiglaf LLC and Associate Editor of the Wiglaf Journal. Tim Smith, PhD is Editor of the Wiglaf Journal and Adjunct Professor at DePaul's Kellstadt Graduate School of Business.

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