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Becoming a Truly Customer-Centric Organization Is Harder (and More Necessary) Than You Think Your audience doesn't want to be 'sold' anything. So how can you make them want to buy what you're offering?

By John Holland Edited by Dan Bova

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

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It's a common misconception that becoming customer-centric (or buyer-centric) is something a company's sales department does with support from marketing. But merely making someone responsible for "sales enablement" pays lip service to an outcome that's difficult to achieve.

The first major hurdle? Overcoming an intense focus on products. This company-wide affliction stifles real attempts to put customers or buyers first. It makes good sense: Product sales are more about offerings and less about buyers. It's no wonder they're more likely to result in lower margins.

Companies must understand that migrating to a relationship-based, buyer-outcome selling model won't happen overnight. It's like trying to change the direction of a battleship moving full steam ahead.

A recent newswire from Pegasystems summarized survey results from 250 global financial-services companies. Some of the most notable results:

  • 79 percent agree financial institutions will move from product-based selling to focus more on personal relationships in the next five years.
  • 31 percent deploy relationship-based sales models to any degree, and only 1 percent fully leverage them.
  • 29 percent are mired in product-based selling.

Rethinking the sales cycle.

While researching "Rethinking the Sales Cycle," our CustomerCentric Systems team was unable to find a business-to-business vendor that could serve as a customer-centric model. Instead, we had to settle for Apple -- a business-to-customer company. The corporation's long-term trajectory remains unseen, but Steve Jobs' brilliance has had tremendous impact. He had the remarkable ability to understand what the market wanted and then create offerings that people wanted to buy.

Unlike virtually all its competitors, Apple doesn't "sell" consumers purely on its product line. Other computer companies push processing power, disk capacity and technical features that lead people to make commodity-based decisions. Jobs, however, was near-maniacal about dictating design and functionality that would resonate. I've been an Apple customer since 1990, and I've continually bought iMacs and MacBooks without considering alternatives that likely cost 50 percent less. Apple offers reliability and support. Through iPhones, iPads and iPods, the brand has become an integral part of my life.

Related: Are Your Customers Loyal? Answer These 5 Questions to Find Out.

Shifting to a 'pull' strategy.

Absent a genius such as Jobs, companies must learn their customers' requirements. But most corporations remain product-focused, creating offerings their leaders think buyers will want -- and then asking sales and marketing divisions to use "push" strategies to sell within the market.

I hope you see how flawed this approach is.

Vendors who listen to their customers and articulate those needs to the company's product-development team will enjoy the advantage of creating offerings that people are more likely to want to buy. As a result, their organizations can enjoy higher revenue due to "pull" of market demand.

Buying behavior has changed over the past 15 years. Vendors should realize the importance of one key takeaway: Buyers want to exert more control in making their purchasing decisions. They don't want to be "sold" or manipulated by salespeople. They want to be understood and empowered to choose offerings that enable them to achieve desired business outcomes.

Related: 3 Ways to Use Emotional Storytelling in Your Next Sales Presentation

Tearing down obsolete selling practices.

Organizations that want to be customer-centric can't get away with a new coat of paint. Shifting from inside-out market views to outside-in perspectives will require complete teardowns of existing structures. Customer needs must be the fuel that propels product development. This requires significant organizational change, but there's also substantial benefit to be gained. Visionaries who are successful can enjoy a sustainable competitive advantage over brands that continue to use obsolete selling approaches.

Despite all the do-it-yourself purported "buying activity" accessible via the internet and social networking, we've yet to see anything close to the runaway revenue growth of the 1990s. It's time companies realize the difference between product evaluations done by mid- to low-level staff and corporate initiatives with the potential to greatly improve business results. Only the latter can offer the kind of payback required for companies to consider such a large undertaking.

Related: My Company's Business Model Was Holding Us Back From Bigger Opportunities, So We Evolved. Here's What We Learned.

Vendors must position themselves to proactively use top-down strategies to qualify opportunities. In the process, they'll need to show sellers the results that have been (or at least realistically can be) achieved through these nontraditional methods. Executives don't want to learn about all a vendor's potential offerings. Vendors who start by calling high in the organization's management structure should be prepared to discuss serious business outcomes and leave the product pitches behind.

John Holland

President and Chief Operating Officer of CustomerCentric Systems

Frank Visgatis is president and chief operating officer of CustomerCentric Systems in Sutton, Mass. His company provides sales process consulting and training.

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