Back October 4, 2014

Identifying your customers' needs in selling

Identifying your customers' needs in selling

To know what your customers want is vital. A study shows how sales managers should prepare their sales staff for this task – and how not to.

Jan Wieseke and his coauthors analyzed more than a thousand sales talks in to find out the success factors in customer need identification. The result speaks volumes: in only about one third of the cases were sales representatives able to correctly identify a customer’s most important need (such as quality, service, or price). “That’s a lot of wasted potential,” assesses Wieseke, and he explains: “Our study shows: identifying and addressing the most important customer need is enough to successfully satisfy your customer.”

But what can sales managers do to help their representatives identify customer needs more accurately? The study isolates four key recommendations:

1. Recruit empathetic staff. Frontline employees with a high degree of empathy do better when it comes to identifying customer needs. Unfortunately, as empathy is not easy to learn. Managers should remember to evaluate an applicant’s ability to put themselves in the customers’ shoes while screening them for a job on the sales team.

2. Train your staff in negotiation. Aside from recruiting, what can you do to help the existing staff excel at identifying customer needs? The study shows that employees can be successfully trained in identifying needs. However, the training method is crucial. Wieseke explains: “Interestingly, one thing that works very well are negotiation trainings. Here, a lot of emphasis is placed on reading your counterpart’s interests.” In contrast, role-playing games – a method often used by sales trainers – do not improve employees’ effectiveness in need identification.

3. Build long-term relationships. The longer the relationship between a customer and a frontline employee, the better the understanding of customer needs. So managers should focus on building and maintaining long-term relationships between their employees and customers. If a change is necessary, is crucial to facilitate a profound knowledge transfer from the prior to the new sales rep.

4. Match the right employee to the right customers. Sales representatives excel at identifying needs if they share certain similarities with customers, such as age and interests. “Such similarities facilitate communication between sales representatives and customers,” explains Wieseke. Hence, employees should be encouraged to pass on “wrong” customers to their more congenial colleagues.


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