Is Your Company Master of its Domain?
Friday, October 06, 2006
Author: Promise Phelon
To this day, I still do a double take when I hear phrases like, “Your customers are your best sales team”; or “Happy customers are like advertisements.” I bristle because that mentality minimizes the work and effort required to create reference customers and positive word of mouth—especially in large and complex business-to-business relationships. I also bristle because factual witnesses make the best, most credible references—not smiling, bubbly customers spewing “ad speak.”
Look—companies with high net promoter scores and vocal customer advocates are not lucky. They’re exercising a unique domain expertise to transform transactions into meaningful, vested relationships. The more we talk about customer advocates as “the sales team” or as “ads,” the more it belittles the power of their contribution to the influencing and selling process…and the more it makes referencable relationships feel like customer = tool.
Several other ingrained thought patterns also lead to a huge disconnect between company and customer as advocate
1. Follow-the-Herd Mentality. When our VP of client services Paula Stout joined the Phelon Group team, we spent many late nights talking about how companies were trained to listen to the market and identify opportunities in a way that didn’t give them an accurate sense of what market they should pursue and how. You probably know that what often happens is industry analysts calculate huge addressable markets, and without reality-checking and honestly vetting—“does this fit our core competence, does our stuff solve their problem, can our sales team really convince someone to buy this, can we deliver to customer expectations”—companies take what the analysts say as law and go after it, head on. That, in turn, often results in the wrong customer or target market… let the games begin.
2. Sales-at-any-Cost Mentality. When a customer is viewed as just another transaction, it’s difficult to do all those “little things” that transform customers into vocal promoters. Customers who become vocal promoters buy from sales people and relationship managers who not only consider “relationship” and “value selling” important, but who also know that part of their job is to make the product, delivery and services folks successful by remembering the little things—like effectively scoping, managing expectations and identifying the central value BEFORE the sale.
3. Customer-as-Actor Mentality. You don’t believe TV commercials and print ads for the same reason many prospects don’t believe references—you know those glowing praises were scripted. Convincing and credible references result from a partnership between marketing and sales where two essential actions occur—a) the customer realizes the call is not an opportunity to read a script and sing praises, but to act as a knowledge expert, consultant, colleague and thought leader in their field, as well as to learn from another company facing similar challenges; and b) when the prospect knows your customer is not just ‘recommending’ you, asks questions, and is honest about their experience.
For the entire end-to-end, step-by-step marketing, reference and sales process to work, a company needs to master its domain of the customer. It is the holiest grail to have customers who PROACTIVELY say great things—it’s not luck, it’s not something you can buy. To say “your customers are your salesforce” shows your company is NOT master of its domain. And it really does minimize how much conditioning, process management and careful attention has gone into creating and spawing a culture of accountability.
There is so much I can say about this…but let me wrap it into a story. A few months ago, I attended a Churchill Club event facilitated by Dave Thomson, a colleague and friend of mine who wrote Blueprint to a Billion—an enormous best seller (and really smart book). Dave was highlighting Blueprint companies, or firms that achieved breakthrough and expontential growth by getting to a billion dollars in sales in less than six years.
Dan Warmenhoven, CEO of Network Appliance, a Phelon Group client, was among the very smart panel speaking with Dave about cultivating and leveraging Marquee Customers, one of the seven principles from his book. While I can’t quote him exactly, Dan said something like this: you can’t pay customers to say great things about you. You have to deliver a remarkable experience that’s worth saying something about.
Remember, the customer you want is the customer who, without de-positioning your company, solution, etc., can speak honestly about and show evidence for why someone should consider your wares over others. The customer speaks better when they speak from a credible place—no positioning…no advertising… just the story. Creating those customers takes domain expertise, and to create more than one customer like that is the job of leadership. Leadership teaches the organization to make certain choices and investments. Leadership sets the tone for how relationships inside-out and outside-in will be managed. And leadership ultimately determines which mentality—customer as advocate, as tool?—will thrive in their organizations.