SALES MANAGEMENT

Create a Customer-Centric Vocabulary
Lain Ehmann
Can a shift in language get your team more traction with customers? When Emmanuelle Skala joined Sophos two years ago, its 500-person worldwide sales team could do a great job describing products and features, but team members weren't so adept at thinking like the customer.

"By and large, we were a product sales group," recalls Skala, vice president of global sales operations at Sophos. The sales team could analyze how it stacked up against the competition in terms of bells and whistles, but when it came time to identify customer pain points and economic drivers, salespeople were clueless. "They couldn't even tell me how our customers made money," she recalls. Unless the company was a retailer or had an easily identifiable name, "they just didn't know."

The shortcomings of that product-centric approach soon were apparent. "I set out to teach the organization how to think about the customer," says Skala. "It became more and more important as the economy got worse…and our competition got better."

With the driving goal in place, Skala started brainstorming tools to help the sales team refocus on the customer. "We wanted to implement for the first time a global sales methodology, a very clear, consistent framework of how you have a conversation with your customer," she says.

As part of the sales methodology discussion, the question arose as to whether the organization needed an opportunity plan. But with the ultimate goal of getting inside the customer's head, Skala knew the typical opportunity-plan approach would fall short, focusing on the sales cycle rather than the buying cycle. She realized that she didn't really care where sales reps thought they were in the process; she wanted to know where customers thought they were.

The result was a customer-facing "joint success" plan, rather than the standard opportunity plan. The salesperson would develop this document after the initial discovery meeting with the customer, and it would address customer challenges, solutions for those challenges, standards of measurement, and the decision-making process, including timeline and involved parties.

To drive home the significance of the customer's voice, product-centric language has been replaced by customer-centric language. Instead of close dates, her sales team now talks about decision dates (see below for more examples). "All the vocabulary is completely inverted," says Skala. In addition, the success plan is created with either no logo or with the customer's logo, and it is then forwarded as a confirmation of the material covered during the initial visit. If the customer edits it with comments or a corrected timeline and sends it back, the Sophos team takes this as evidence of engagement.

Product-centric term:   Customer-centric vocabulary:
Discovery phase Developing business requirements
Validation Evaluating options
Close date Decision date
Opportunity name Project name
Opportunity stage Project status
Champion Product sponsor

The success plan has also sometimes been adopted by the internal project lead, who can use it to sell Sophos internally. Even a lack of response is valuable information, allowing the Sophos sales team to red flag or downgrade a potential project. Skala says that Sophos has also gotten feedback that's helped to determine when an opportunity is not appropriate to continue to pursue, thereby freeing up resources to direct elsewhere.

The results: Reps love that they're getting responses that they can use to structure useful conversations and build relationships. And customers love the proof that reps are listening, trying to understand their business, and talking in a way that puts their needs first.


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