If you believe the customer is always right, then sales can be pretty easy. Simply ask them what they want and match your offering to that as closely as possible. It’s easy because the customer does all the work.
But just imagine if parents worked that way. “Hey Dad, Spike and the boys want me to hang out with them Saturday night. Can I have the keys to the liquor cabinet and borrow your Harley?”
Or doctors: “Hey Doc, I’ve had this pain in my chest for the past couple of days, and I feel short of breath. It must be my work stress, so could you prescribe me a few anxiety pills?”
Any doctor that would not probe further and try to get to the root cause of the pain, or did not overrule her patient, would be guilty of malpractice, yet that’s the approach that so many salespeople are taught.
The essence of professionalism is the application of specialized knowledge in the interests of the client. There are times when the customer does not have the same level of knowledge you have, and that’s when you have to step up your game and get to the real needs, even if you have to drag the customer in kicking and screaming.
Some of the reasons they may not have the most complete or accurate view of the situation are:
One of the best ways to dig deeper and get to the real issue to be addressed is to ask diagnostic questions. For all the power of SPIN questioning, it does not emphasize enough the use of diagnostic questions, used to better understand the real problem before moving on to its implications.
What do you do if the customer wants something that is not right, but you can give it to them? Should you go for the easy sale?
It’s not an easy decision sometimes. When you’re behind on quota and there’s two weeks left in the quarter, and you can pick up a purchase order for something your customer wants but is wrong for them, what do you do? That’s the dilemma I’m sure we have all faced more than once in our careers. How you answer that question says a lot about you as a person and as a professional.
On the one hand, refusing too often to sell what the customer wants might be doing a disservice to your employer, who has a reasonable expectation that you will do the job you were hired to do—sell their product or service. Remember that sometimes the best is the enemy of the good, and no solution is absolutely perfect in all respects, so you don’t have to stick to an impossibly high standard of perfection.
On the other hand, selling something that you know is not in the best interests of the customer can damage your personal reputation and your company’s reputation in the long run.
There is no simple formula to answer that question, but I think some version of the golden rule can help. Would you recommend your solution to your best friend, or to your mother? A few months ago my mother was facing a tough decision about a possible surgical procedure. I asked the doctor if it were his mother, would he recommend the surgery? He first tried to avoid answering (and I can’t say that I blame him, given our litigious culture) by saying: “She’s not my mother. What is best for one person is not best for everyone.” I said, “Quit being so literal and answer the spirit of my question. What would you recommend if your own mother had to choose?” He recommended the surgery, we agreed, and everything worked out fine. Unfortunately, as the customers in that case, we had to pose the question. Save your own customers the trouble of asking the question and pose it to yourself.
It is definitely harder work to understand needs as well as wants, but that’s what makes for a real professional.