Why do you need to know your customer?
You need to know your customer because customers buy outcomes.
They aren’t in the market for products or services. They aren’t buying just to buy. They’re on a mission to solve a problem, fill a gap, or capitalize on an opportunity.
The product or service you’re selling is the method or tool they will use to get there.
Before you strategize how you’re going to sell, therefore, you have to understand the organization you’re selling to.
You need insights—into the business, its priorities, and its people—so you know:
- What problem you’re going to solve
- What impact the solution will have for your customer
To better understand where insights come from and how teams can make them a pivotal part of their account planning strategy, we spoke with two veteran sales enablement leaders at Medidata: Billy Martin, Senior Director of Leadership Development and Strategic Enablement Programs, and Pat Reilly, Senior Director of Sales Field Enablement.
Below we break down how you can collaborate with both your team and your customers to get to the heart of the outcomes your customers want to achieve and how you can position yourself to deliver them.
Four essential insights to better know your customer
Picture seeing what looks like a great opportunity. You want to inspire the prospect to act by showing them what your solution will be able to do for them. But before you jump head-first into the sales process, there are four fundamental things you must know:
1. What are their goals?
Goals are the big, bright North Stars that your customer is working toward. They are the end results that a company or a group within it needs to achieve. Serious goals will be both measurable and set against a particular time- frame. Often, they’ll even be tied to executives’ bonus payouts. All to say, they’re a pretty big deal.
A goal might be to…
- Grow revenue by 10% over the next six quarters
- Increase net new customers to 3,000 in 24 months
- Expand market share from 30% to 50% in the next five years
- Notice that each one of these examples includes both a measurable result and a time in which that result needs to be achieved
2. What pressures are forcing the customer to act?
A pressure is anything that has a direct impact on your customer’s ability to reach their goals.
It could be rooted either internally or externally. It might be operational, financial, or technical, or have to do with markets, competitors, partners, suppliers, or even their own customers.
3. What’s putting the squeeze on your customer’s key decision-makers? Why do they need to act? Who will benefit if they do?
“One of the most important things in our go-to-market strategy is understanding pressures. We call them the ‘tipping point’—the thing that is pushing somebody to change the status quo,” says Billy.
A pressure might be…
- Losing market share to a competitor
- Supplier costs rising
- Insufficient revenue.
- Identifying pressures is often a process of narrowing broad, industry-based assumptions down to the particular challenges facing your customer.
“For my team, the pressures facing companies in the life sciences are fairly similar for everybody. So we work to illuminate those for our sellers so they have a jumping-off point,” explains Billy. “It’s their job to take those and do some digging to find out what pressures are manifesting uniquely for a particular account. A pressure driving one company might not impact another.”
It’s also worth getting a handle on the context surrounding the pressure your customer faces. How long has it been there? Why hasn’t it been fixed before? Was it because no one knew how to solve it? Lack of resources? Perhaps no one even realized it was there?
What initiatives are they undertaking to relieve those pressures? An initiative is a project your customer is undertaking (or planning to undertake) in order to overcome their pressures and meet their goals.
An initiative could be to…
- Streamline a core business process
- Improve the product release cycle
- Recruit better talent.
As you think about initiatives, it’s important that you place yourself firmly in your customer’s shoes. What language do they use to talk about the project? What time constraints are they working within?
Most importantly, you’ll need to assess how import- ant this initiative is for the organization. Companies have an endless list of things they want to achieve and projects they want to tackle, but most never come to fruition. Your customer can’t fund every project. Make sure the one you’re ready to help with is a member of the chosen few.
4. What obstacles stand in their way?
An obstacle is an internal problem.
The enemy might be an operational issue rooted in organization, process, culture, skill, or tech. It could also be that something is broken, suboptimal, or even non-existent.
Obstacles might include…
- Outdated technology
- Weak planning methods
- Excessive time to get resources.
Whatever it is, be sure that the obstacle you identify is something tangible. That way, you can point to a specific way that your solution will help your customer overcome it. Remember: risk appears when you don’t know exactly what you’re trying to achieve.
How can you gather these insights to know your customer?
Knowing what your customer’s goals, pressures, initiatives, and obstacles are matters, but this level of deep understanding doesn’t come easy. The importance of qualifying your deals is on full display here, because sellers can only invest their precious time and resources in so many places.
Once you know where to focus, it’s all about leaning into the natural curiosity that makes sellers good at what they do.
Do your research: Research is the name of the game. At this phase, places such as company websites and LinkedIn feeds are your friends, as well as data captured in your CRM.
When gathering business insights, ask:
- What are this organization’s major markets? Who do they sell to? Why are they successful?
- Who are their competitors and how do they stack up against them?
- What has their profit and revenue looked like in recent years?
- Have they acquired any other companies recently? Merged? Sold off a piece of the business?
- Have there been any recent changes in executive leadership?
- Which business units are succeeding and growing?
- What goals and pressures are impacting your target
- What’s standing in their way?
This kind of information might seem table stakes, but having a firm grasp on these key facts will set you apart.
“Most salespeople are strong on knowing what their product and solution can do,” says Billy “But they’re weak when it comes to really understanding the business drivers in the industries they sell into.”
Allison Greenwood, Regional VP and General Manager at Lumen, says she agrees wholeheartedly.
“Building a relationship with a customer based on a deep understanding of their business becomes, in and of itself, a differentiator,” she told me. “Even if your product isn’t the perfect product, you can still win if you’re aligned with their business. They’re going to see you differently, and you’ll have an inroad to so many more opportunities if you aren’t like everyone else who is showing up only with their feature and flavor of the day. It’s a 10x factor approach.”
Work as a team
As with every aspect of account planning, sellers will be most successful if they approach insight-gathering as a team.
“When you collaborate, you’re getting the big picture,” says Billy. “What’s driving that business to make decisions? Remember: we’re trying to get them to change the way they do things—sometimes radically. And that needs to be in the context of the true pressures that exist in their industry. So it’s critical to figure that stuff out as a team.“
By gathering people both within the sales team and beyond it, you can tap into a wide variety of viewpoints, each with a unique perspective on the industry and the customer.
For Pat, this collective knowledge is foundational to success.
“From the beginning, I tell my sales teams that they need to know everything they can about their customer, and they need to leverage everyone on their team to do that,” she says.
“But I also make sure they know that they don’t have to know everything at once. As people bring their different insights back to a shared collaboration point, you’ll start to reveal the customer’s true situation.”
“It’s almost like a puzzle: A picture is going to reveal itself, and you don’t know what it’s exactly going to be, but it’s going to be valuable and it’s going to keep you aligned with your customer,” says Pat. “Once you look at all the insights collectively, you have a much bigger story than you would have had individually. All of these little pieces of information add up to something big.”
In centralizing the output of everyone’s communications, Billy says, you’ll get where you want to go more quickly. “There’s a speed-to-market advantage in getting more people engaged in the process,” he says. “You can break down barriers faster simply by having knowledge.”
But collaboration runs deeper than that—and offers much more potential.
“The most valuable thing you can offer your customers is your wide breadth of solutions,” explains Billy. “People in your organization are responsible for different verticals and solutions, and by getting everyone involved in the conversation, you can crack open the doors and construct a more holistic approach—one that will speak to the executive level of the company. Instead of getting stuck working with a single department, you can move higher.”
Getting all hands-on deck can improve both the breadth and the quality of your relationships.
“We all know that, in sales, the higher we can get in an organization, the more likely we are to build a trusted advisor relationship,” says Billy. “The ability to get higher only happens when different stakeholders come together.”
Build an insight map to better know your customer
Having a firm understanding of your customer’s goals, pressures, initiatives, and obstacles is good. Gathering these insights in one place is far, far better.
When you put everything together, you get what we call an insight map.
“An insight map is the major collaboration point where everybody comes together to share what they know,” says Pat. “When everybody brings their individual insights to one central location, you can start to see how they all fit together.”
An insight map allows you to consolidate your customer’s strategic priorities in one place. And, most importantly of all, requires that you start assessing how you can help.
Connect your solutions with the customer’s business problem
“Your sellers should be helping your customers solve problems and achieve their goals,” Pat says. “The insight map is where you’re going to do it.”
Building an insight map is a valuable exercise for sellers because it…
- Forces you to think from the customer’s perspective; it’s impossible to create or discuss an insight map without focusing on the customer
- Shows you what is important and what is driving key players
- Earns you the privilege of having strategic conversations at higher levels of the organization
After you create an insight map, you’re left with a concise and insightful document that you can take to the star of the show: your customer.
Validate what you know
Solo research and internal collaboration are essential first steps, but no set of insights is complete until you’ve spoken with the actual people whose goals, pressures, initiatives, and obstacles you’re trying to understand.
“Ultimately, your insight map is the basis for customer conversations,” says Pat. “Sales is all about conversations. We want to have as many conversations as we possibly can across the entire organization. Showing up with insights earns us the right to do that.”
“The problems we solve are complex,” adds Billy. “So it was a key revelation for us that getting our sellers to collaborate, not only with the internal team but also with the client, was an absolute necessity.”
Take your insight map to your customer. It won’t be perfect, but if you’ve managed to get most of the way there, you’ll be able to have a more productive conversation that will build trust and begin to position you in their eyes as more than “just another vendor.”
“This is your opportunity to bring these insights to your customer and say, ‘I’ve been researching your company and your industry and having lots of conversations with my col- leagues. Can we take a few minutes to discuss what we’re seeing; maybe get you to validate it?’” says Pat. “What that does is elevate you in their eyes. You’re not just a vendor, you’re some- one who is invested in their industry and their success.”
“I always ask my reps: Do you feel that it’s important to illuminate the sales process for the client?” says Billy. “Everyone will say, ‘Of course—the more you can illuminate the sales process and collaborate on a mutual win plan, the better.’ You don’t keep the client in the dark about the opportunity, so why would you keep them in the dark when it comes to your success planning or growth plan? That’s not something you do in a vacuum. The client has to be involved.”
Ideally, the conversation you have with your customer about your insight map won’t just prove that you understand their business. It should also bring them new information— or a new vantage point through which to understand it.
“You may actually know more than they do, because they’re in their silos, whereas you’ve spread out across their company,” explains Pat. “You’re bringing them a bigger picture than they might actually have, all built from those little bits and pieces that you’ve been putting together.”
Linking people and problems to know your customer
The organization might be the one facing the problem or working toward the goal, but it’s the individuals within the company who will either act or feel the pain.
It’s essential to know who’s behind the insights you’ve uncovered and how they’ll be impacted by the solution you’re offering.
You can start by getting a handle on who owns what.
- Goals are the domain of the executive; it’s these leaders who are responsible for the big-picture objectives that guide the activities of the team
- Pressures are felt by executives and in turn passed on to management; it’s then management’s job to figure out what to do about them
- Initiatives are the projects that management puts in place to respond to the pressures and reach the goals of their executive bosses
- Obstacles are the challenge of tech and operations folks who are tasked with figuring out how to overcome them in order to implement the solution successfully.
When you take your insights to a customer, it’s important that you put them in the context of the person with whom you’re meeting. Don’t waste your breath talking about goals with someone tactical, and don’t get into the weeds on the details with someone whose energy is devoted to the big picture. Always keep your sights set on who you’re speaking to and what matters to them.
Creating an insight-driven culture
Billy sees sales teams that excel at insight-building as a product of good coaching and strong leadership.
“Making insights part of your sales culture has to be a leaders-first approach,” he says. “It’s a coaching effort from the top down.”
Usually, the challenge is simply to help sellers stick with it long enough to see the value.
“Sellers can get a little loosey-goosey when it comes to the planning part of sales,” he says. “But when they devote their time to building out their insights, they reap massive benefits. Their leaders need to steer them in the right direction and help them see what’s in it for them. When we can draw a clear line that connects all the research they’re doing and the effort they’re putting to the ultimate, closed-won opportunity, people start to see why this stuff matters.”
Coaching sellers, he believes, is a lot like coaching athletes. “It’s easy to coach once you’re on the field, but it’s the behind-the-scenes planning and preparation that gets you there and puts you in a position to win.”
To help his reps get in tip-top selling shape, he requires them to consider themselves what he dubs “GM of My Business.” “The idea is that sellers must be able to articulate all the key drivers influencing the companies within their territory or for a particular client. And they must do so through an insight map.”
Billy believes that training sellers to prioritize insights is a process that can be taught. “And if you can teach it, you can coach it,” he reasons. “Most professionals have coaches. They practice every day. But salespeople don’t usually do that. We need to make sure that they practice enough that they embed those skills in their DNA.”
Six best practices to know your customer
As you guide your teams to prioritize business insights, orient their work around six fundamentals that will ensure that their knowledge is sturdy, accurate, and create mutual value for your organization and for your customer.
- Tell a logical story. Know what your customer is trying to achieve, how they’re trying to achieve it, and why.
- Ensure every goal and pressure is both specific and tied to a timeframe.
- Validate and triangulate what you know. Work with a broad team within your organization to bring together all of the information that is available. Then confirm and deepen those insights with your customer.
- Know who is responsible for or impacted by each goal, pressure, initiative, and obstacle.
- Confirm that the initiatives you’re positioned to
support are priorities for your customer. Know why your customer has chosen to pursue them over every other project that could have claimed their attention.
- Define every obstacle so you know exactly what your customer is trying to overcome and what success will look like.
Your customers’ businesses are complicated and the industries in which they work are constantly evolving. Your buyers are up against a slew of complex pressures and are working toward challenging goals. When your sellers can show up with knowledge and insight, they’ll be able to establish themselves as serious, trustworthy partners.
Insights are the base that supports the development of great relationships.