When It Comes To Sales, It's Not How You Play The Game But How You Play To The Crowd

This article originally appeared on Forbes.com

Imagine a typical sporting event: fans cheering in the stands, pyrotechnics on the Jumbotron, and two teams ready to trounce each other. Teams dedicate their lives to beating the competition. It’s how they train, how they’re measured, how they’re paid.

But imagine if they were playing with the sole objective of pleasing the fans. It would completely redefine the game.

In business, the fans are clearly our customers. Imagine if we stopped worrying so much about the competition across the field and started focusing on what really matters: pleasing our clients.

Most organizations give lip service to customers. Take a look at the company brochure or browse their website, and sure enough, they’ve got all the right words. But that’s not how they’re operating.

Ask yourself, “If I were a fly on the wall at our executive meeting, how much of that meeting would be about our customers and what they’re achieving? How much time is spent sharing customer success stories?” I would take a plunge and say that for many organizations, the answer is “rarely.”

In most organizations, you will hear a lot about making quota, closing the gap, pricing and positioning. That’s how you know you’re focused on competing, rather than helping clients. The problem with that mindset is that you’ll stay right where you are, in a dog-eat-dog world, struggling to hit your numbers, with defecting customers, low renewal rates, low margins—and frantically competing on price.

We’re Wired for Competition

No organization would admit that they define selling as beating the competition, but it’s how most businesses run. I’ll make an anthropological leap and say we’ve been hardwired for competition since the Stone Age. We no longer have to compete for the last mastodon bone, but our competitive instinct remains, especially for the high-achieving, results-driven kind of people drawn to sales. And often, we don’t even realize that’s what we’re doing.

Competition isn’t inherently a bad thing—not at all. It’s where you aim that competitive instinct that counts. Instead of measuring yourself on how you compare to competitors, you should measure how you perform in your customer relationships. Now there’s a competition worth winning.

Put the Client at the Center of Your Universe

What does a customer-centric culture look like? In meetings, you would hear things like, “How are we helping clients hit their numbers? How have we helped them surpass their goals? How have they been successful this quarter?”

This requires a very different culture and mindset: not the mind of a competitor, but the heart of a servant. It’s a daunting shift, but an essential one. Here’s how to get started:

  • Change what you celebrate. What gets measured, rewarded, praised and incentivized in your organization? What gets your sales team to the Presidents Circle? Start there. Consider rewards based on customer success.
  • Make it easy to do business with you. Assess your systems. They’re often built to serve internal stakeholders. If your customers say you’re difficult to buy from, that’s a major red flag. Amazon is famously good at this (they call it customer obsessed)—two clicks, and you’re done. Can your clients do the same?
  • Get on a plane. Leaders must spend time with customers, but I would be shocked to find many companies doing it enough. If your leaders—the CEO, entire executive staff, vice presidents, frontline managers—aren’t with customers regularly, get to it. Dramatically increase the amount of face time the company leadership spends with customers.
  • Shelve the Powerpoint. Too often when leaders do visit clients, they don’t go to understand—they go to tell them something: sharing a new strategy or unveiling a new product. Honestly, the client doesn’t care. Instead, when leaders make calls, they should ask two kinds of questions: “How well are we serving you relative to your needs? What’s most important to you? How do those things show up in your business? Why are they important?” You need to understand how your company meets those needs and where there are gaps and areas for growth. Secondly, ask the client, “Where are you heading in terms of evolving needs?”

Businesses that get this right can survive all kinds of turmoil. Those that focus on themselves and their competitors will find their careers short-lived.

Shifting to a true customer-centric mindset brings sustainable growth through increased renewal rates, better margins and improved relationships with customers. And frankly, it’s more fun, challenging and rewarding to work in that environment—for both the players and the fans.


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About the Author

Randy Illig

Randy Illig is the Global Practice Leader of FranklinCovey’s Sales Performance Practice and the co-author of Let’s Get Real Or Let’s Not Play. With more than 25 years of experience ranging from direct sales and general manager to successful entrepreneur, CEO and board member, Randy leads the global sales performance practice team as we help our clients build high performance sales and sales leadership teams. Randy is a former recipient of the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year award, the Ernst & Young “CEO Under 40” award, and the Arthur Andersen Strategic Leadership Award.

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