Steven's Blog

The Seller is God

When a salesperson tells me, “The way to make a customer happy is to treat them as God!” usually he or she means acquiescing to and fulfilling every demand and whim.

Nothing could be further from the truth. No, the customer is not God, nor does the customer ever really want to be. Rather, it is the salesperson that can be a god to the customer if he or she does things right.

There is always a difference between what someone wants and what someone needs, which is why always getting whatever someone wants rarely makes him or her happy. Rather, it is the fulfillment of needs that satisfies, not wants, and the same goes for customers no matter who they are or what country they are from, Japan included.

A customer will usually tell you what he or she wants, but it is up to a seller to tell a customer what he or she needs. Click To Tweet

The CEO of a materials company in Japan that makes a filter using some distinct proprietary technology has a sales force with a bit of a “customer-god” complex. He told me he wants his sales force to ask questions when speaking with a customer to understand his or her business needs “deeply” rather than just responding to customer demands and product requirements.

Without getting into the specifics of the science and technology, he described a real scenario in which the customer asked for a proposal on a product with five technical requirements, only four of which his company could satisfy. I asked how he would like a salesperson to respond to that.

“Well right now, our salespeople would probably just say we can’t meet the requirements. I, however, expect a salesperson to ask questions to understand the need,” he explained.

“OK,” I said. “What would you have the salesperson ask?”

“‘What is your priority among these requirements?’” he said. “If we can understand the priority, maybe we can negotiate a compromise on the fifth requirement. It might not be so important relative to the others. I asked that question with a real customer when I was in sales, and was successful. I wish my salespeople would do the same.”

“That’s not bad,” I said, “but that is not the first question I would ask.”

“What would you ask?” He asked me, surprised.

“What is the purpose of requirement number five and why is it important?” I said.

He considered my question, smiled, and nodded in agreement. “That question is better,” he said.

He’s right, and here’s why. You see, asking about priorities is really just asking about wants by degree, not needs. How do you know that your customers’ priorities are correct? How do you know that requirement number five is even valid at all without understanding the purpose? If salespeople are truly experts in their domain, they ought to be able to tell a customer what their priorities should be.

That is a provocative concept for a salesperson with a “customer-god” complex, because it means talking back “to God” to say, “You’re wrong.” And no one wants to displease God.

Yet, simply complying with a request is unlikely to make a customer happy, particularly if the customer is, in fact, mistaken, or has missed an insight that an expert might have noticed. When the customer realizes that what was sold is inadequate for his or her needs, or even sub-optimal, it is unlikely he or she will simply decide it was his or her own fault for asking for the wrong thing. He or she will likely hold you accountable for not having advised properly. Even if the customer does not consider it your fault, your esteem in his or her eyes will be diminished.

“Oh yeah, that company will supply you whatever you want, but don’t expect a whole lot of thought on their part. They don’t really understand our business or our needs, but they are very good at taking our orders and delivering on them,” the customer might say to a friend – hardly a ringing endorsement of your business and its customer service.

Being a god is not all it is cracked up to be, if the gods of Ancient Greece are any measure to go by. Even off Mount Olympus here on earth among mere mortals, I have never known anyone who has been made happy by the obsequious, and those who insist upon obsequiousness from others tend to be miserable people in general no matter what you say or do.

The key to making a customer happy to is to assert your expertise, even when your advice goes against what a customer wants. Tell the customer what he or she really needs, and that requires asking questions about the business outcomes they want to achieve. Customers often don’t know what they don’t know. You see what they do not see, and can help improve their lives in ways they had not considered. If that does not have a touch of divinity, I don’t know what does.

You may tell God what you want, but you would never dare to tell God how to give you what you need. You can reverse the customer-is-God dynamic.

It is the seller who is God, or at least should be. So stop treating customers like deities.

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