Why customers and suppliers collide

7 minute read


You’d be forgiven for thinking that being a customer is easier than being a sales person. All the customer’s got to do is pick a supplier, right? But when the customer makes that buying decision, the risk shifts from the supplier to the customer, and the impact on the customer of a poor buying decision is usually greater that the impact on the salesperson of a lost sale. That’s important enough to say again:

The impact on the customer of a poor buying decision is usually greater that the impact on the salesperson of a lost sale.

For a customer to be comfortable, she must be really sure that the supplier has a deep comprehension of her (sometimes unstated) needs. Uncovering or understanding even ones own wants or desires can be an unyielding search. When that quest is filtered through the lens of another, vision is often blurred, and the picture that emerges is uncertain. In a corporate context personal and company motives sometimes collide, or at least bring with them varying nuances of aspiration, and a panoply of potential wants and needs explodes. Customers and suppliers, sometimes unknowingly, share the consequent anxiety when they meet in the un-choreographed buy-sell dance.

Many psychometric studies show that each of us has different approaches to social interaction, leadership, teamwork, and relative strengths or weaknesses when it comes to strategic or tactical bias, detail or big picture orientation, and introspection or engagement. Consider then that over the course of your business life you’re likely to encounter the full spectrum of customers or buyers who will exhibit varying proclivities for action, engagement, or precision.

Each customer will be different. Some will want to lead the buy-sell interaction; others are prepared to follow the direction of a trusted supplier. More are at their most comfortable when working in collaboration with their supplier, and it’s this latter category that is most common, and certainly most productive for both buyer and seller alike.

So, what’s the best model for customer interaction? Unfortunately there is no one answer that works in all cases, but there is a proven method that we would recommend that you follow. A collaborative approach to fully describing the problem being addressed is always instructive, even when customers exhibit tendencies of leader or follower.

The Customer’s Challenge

Let’s spend a little time thinking about a customer who is seeking to work with an external supplier to help her solve her business problem. The challenges that are manifest here are quite commonplace.

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Carol is a Senior Vice President with a mid-size technology company that we will refer to as TechCo. Carol has a global role at TechCo, and having been with the company for many years, her portfolio of functional responsibilities has grown inline with her impressive capabilities. At heart though she considers herself a sales person, having started with TechCo as a regional sales representative 17 years earlier, and she enjoys her role as head of sales the most.

The way Carol tells it, she thought her request was fairly straightforward.

“I just wanted more leads. We were struggling with our numbers. The team wasn’t getting up to bat often enough. Marketing just wasn’t delivering. So, I just went to the market looking for a partner who could get me more leads.”

As Carol’s marketing team was upset that it wasn’t given the job of solving the problem, she ended up with an inbox full of potential suppliers. She got responses from the list brokers. Proposals came in from companies who set appointments for sales people. Email marketing companies, SEO consultants, and social media evangelists came out of the woodwork.

While Carol was sitting at her desk early one morning, her phone rang. Normally Carol’s assistant Kathy would have answered the phone and screened the call. This time however, Kathy hadn’t yet arrived in the office, and Carol was expecting a call from her head of UK sales, so she answered the phone, and was surprised to find herself engaged in a challenging business conversation about her need for more sales leads.

On the other end of the phone, Mark, the CEO of a boutique marketing consulting company, suggested to Carol that perhaps she should consider that more leads might not be the answer to her problem. He asked her to consider that the problem she really wanted to address started with the fact that the team was struggling to achieve its revenue goals, and that in fact “getting up to bat more often’ might not be the answer. As the conversation unfolded, Carol realized that if she was to get the best from an external supplier she first had some considerable work to do. There were four obstacles to overcome.

Carol brought together some of her top performing sales people and the marketing people to get a better understanding of the internal issues they were really trying to resolve. She needed to understand the difference between the symptom of the problem, its underlying cause, and the consequence of not solving the problem. In short, her first task was to map out the internal issues, and she needed a way to achieve that.

As the team began to work together, it became clear to Carol that only a TechCo insider would understand the language they were using. It was specific to the company, and assumed a level of contextual knowledge that she could reasonable expect her team to have, but it was unreasonable to expect an external supplier to speak the same language. She needed a mechanism to explain the business challenges to a supplier.

But even if TechCo succeeded in mapping out the internal issues and found a mechanism to explain to an external party, Carol struggled with how she might overcome the uncertainty about whether the supplier understands the specific problem she was trying to solve – now that she accepted that it wasn’t really just about “getting up to bat more often”.

After much effort and guidance from Mark, Carol began to better understand the importance of clear communication between TechCo and any potential supplier. She still struggled with how the value of her efforts might be sustained and wondered how anyone could fully gain alignment between customer and supplier to avoid any current or future misunderstanding.

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Carol’s experience wasn’t unusual. While sales people worry about what they need to do to win a sale, they often forget that the customer may well be struggling with how to best interact with a supplier. When a customer is buying any non-commodity item, it’s always worth considering the tasks that conscientious buyer needs to undertake to maximize the value of the interaction. We can learn from Carol’s story.

The challenge often faced by a customer when looking to leverage the expertise of an external supplier can be summarized as:

  1. No easy or established way for the customer to map out the internal customer issues
  2. No mechanism to explain the business challenges to a supplier
  3. Uncertainly about whether the supplier understands the specific problem
  4. Need to gain alignment between customer and supplier to avoid any current or future misunderstanding

Sometimes the customer has not had the opportunity, or mechanisms, to fully consider all of the subtleties of their stated needs. Instead of being frustrated by the apparent lack of progress, it’s worth considering whether part of the problem is the customer’s inability to overcome these obstacles. Remember these are obstacles, not objections.



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