First Person

Want to know what customers want? Try asking them.
Magazine Contributor
4 min read

This story appears in the March 2000 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Would you like to know how to be a successful salesperson? Simply ask a customer--but not just any customer. Ask a customer who is accustomed to dealing with the cream of the sales crop. Over the years, I've conducted thousands of hours of interviews with my customers' customers, specifically those who have been sold to by the best sales reps in their industry. In other words, each of these customers has exceedingly high standards.

Here are the five things customers expect from successful salespeople:

1. Listen and learn. Customers want salespeople whose main goal is to understand them and their businesses. They want reps who spend time in precall planning and have the basic information in hand before they start talking, reps who understand the potential customers' total environment, overall industry and primary competitors. They want to know the rep is interested in their goals and objectives. (A good sales rep might even help the customer define those goals.)

2. Have an extensive range of knowledge. That means knowledge of the customer's goals and environment, and knowledge of his or her products and policies. Customers want to feel certain that the rep will be able to provide solutions, eliminate headaches, and help them grow their businesses. David Duley, category manager for Hannaford Bros. Co., a bakery in Scarborough, Maine, deals with some of the finest sales reps in the country. "If I were a rep," explains Duley, "I would learn what my customer and his or her company are trying to do. Then I'd go back to my company and say, `What products do we have that can [benefit] this customer?' "Most times, a sales rep shows up with five products, and I know he's brought them in because his manager said, `I want you to push those products.' Don't think you're going to plop those products in front of me and I'm going to say yes on the spot. It's tempting to go for the quick sale, but you're better off making sure you understand my strategies and goals and the big picture of what I'm trying to do."

3. Sell what the customer sells. One of my favorite stories is about a rep who tried for years to sell a copier to the owner of an ice-cream store. The owner always said no . . . until the rep came back to him with colorful, creative menus he'd put together using the copier. Once the rep began to sell from the "ice cream" point of view, the deal was made. The great sales reps always think of ways to meet the customer's goals. When that happens, they don't just make a sale, they create a loyal customer.

4. Build strong relationships. Every customer I've ever interviewed talks about the strong relationships they have with their favorite sales reps. They were confident that these reps were not just concerned with making commissions, but were genuinely interested in the customers' overall needs. The saying that customers buy from people they like, trust and respect may be old, but it couldn't be truer. It's the bond that cements customers to you for life.

5. Follow through. Customers want salespeople to keep their promises. The best reps establish a schedule for follow-up calls and customer visits. They make sure everything following the sale, such as delivery and installation goes smoothly. Customers want a sales rep to be a `point person,' someone who will cover any problems they might have with customer service, maintenance or billing.

Customers are the true sales experts. If you listen to them, they'll tell you how to strengthen your relationships, how to sell more and how to increase your bottom line. What they ask in return is that you treat them with respect as human beings and that you value their business as much as they do.

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