Your Value Proposition

Understanding the Alternatives

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Learn to listen

Empathy is the ability to relate to the emotions of others.  I am constantly reminded that empathy is a skill, when looking at the way in which my wife listens, understands and responds to our children.  Empathy requires a level of sacrifice, it requires you to set aside your own stuff (the need to close the deal now) to understand the emotional state of the person you are talking to.
I have to admit that there are many times when I have fallen into the trap of driving my own agenda, rather than listening to the needs of the customer.  I have one particularly painful memory of a sales engagement early on in my career. We were meeting with the board members of a company and I was feeling nervous.  I had recently started our company and had been mulling over the needs of the customer for a long time and I had made some assumptions about certain requirements that the customer wanted.  So I launched straight in with my pitch. After 10 minutes the CEO stopped me and said: “How about you introduce yourself and your colleagues first.”  Shamefacedly, I asked my colleagues to please introduce themselves, while inside I secretly wished for the boardroom table to swallow me and end my embarrassment.
This experience has taught me how to listen to the customer, listen to the atmosphere in the room, and listen to my own response to this.  I still get flustered and I still catch myself directing my own agenda during a sales conversation, but at least I am now aware of it.  If I go too fast, I pace myself. If I don’t understand something, I explore it. Now when I walk out of a sales conversation, the most important success criteria is whether I have understood and responded to the human on the other side of the table.  Every sales conversation grows my level empathy and I am realising that I cannot solve all the problems, but I can understand them and make the other person feel that they are understood.


The Alternatives

What listening has taught me is that customers have different ways to deal with the problems that they face, and more than that, in many cases the problem is slightly different from the problem experienced by the previous customer.  In today’s world with limitless access to information, customers are much more informed about their alternatives. Not knowing the alternatives to your service that are available to the customer sets you at a distinct disadvantage in the sales conversation.
CompetitorsMany entrepreneurs are scared to have a frank conversation about the alternatives available to the customer.  They believe that if they make their customers think about the competitors, the customer might be inclined to go with them.  I view this differently.  Knowing what the strengths and weaknesses of your competitors are could allow you to have a open and honest conversation about it, and provides you with an understanding of what the things are that a customer values in your product or service offering.
Customers are, however, hesitant to talk about the wrong decisions that they have made in the past.  This is normally only revealed when a stronger level of trust has been established with the customer and you are able to show that you can relate to the problem that the customer is experiencing.  In order to relate you therefore must become an expert in the area that you are trying to understand and sell.  The customer will only trust your advice when they understand that you are an expert, that you know their pain, understand the alternatives they have considered, and can relate to the problem they are experiencing.


The value of relating

Thato is an entrepreneur who started her company by selling her services to a large security company.  This large international company wanted her services to repair the walkie talkies that they owned.  In the third year of business Thato started becoming increasingly disillusioned by this client, who constantly asked her to discount her services and were not providing large enough volumes for her to run a profitable business.  Thato’s competitors in this market were larger radio repair companies who had thrived for years on servicing the larger corporate clients.
In the mean time Thato had started dealing with smaller companies who were looking for more cost effective options than purchasing and owning walkie talkies.  Thato found that these companies were interested in renting walkie talkies from her, rather than buying them.  She also realised that these smaller security companies did not have the finances to pay for the infrastructure that the larger companies had.  Considering all these things she redirected her business to focus on the needs of the smaller companies, offering them a rental option and cellular capabilities for the walkie talkies.  This meant that the barriers to entry for smaller companies were lowered, because they did not require the capital layout that the larger companies required.  Thato was also able to converse more easily with the owners of these companies, as the owner made the purchasing decision rather than the procurement department and the owner trusted Thato’s immense knowledge about cost effective long distance radios.  By knowing the needs of the company Thato was able to listen closely and redirect her sales proposition to meet their specific needs.
Thato grew up in Soweto during the apartheid years.  She dropped out of school at a young age due to teenage pregnancy and had to go to school during the day. During this time she commuted daily from Soweto, to work in a transistor factory at night to provide for her family.  Years later she would come to value the skills that she learned while working in this factory as it gave her significant insight into radios.  At a much later age these skills now enabled her to compare any walkie talkies on the market and quickly determine which is best suited to her customers’ needs.
Today Thato no longer does business with the large international corporate company.  At the time it was really hard for her to let go of this company as a client, because it came with the reputation of a large brand, but when she considered the market she realised that there was too much competition in the walkie talkie repair industry servicing large corporates and she now had much better options for her business.
By listening to the needs of the customer, Thato was able to find her unique niche in the market.

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