Selling to the Unpredictable Customer
October 6, 2014

Selling to the Unpredictable Customer

by Brian de Haaff

Customers are an oxymoron today. They are more knowable than ever before but harder to actually understand. Constantly on the go and hard to pin down, it is more difficult than ever to engage them in a conversation. So, why do we keep using techniques from a decade ago to grab their attention?

To understand the unpredictable customer today, you need to go back to a time when he was predictable.

In the past, we could get close with customers without really being like them. I am talking about business buyers here and they had certain characteristics that helped us connect as marketers and salespeople — even if they did not know us and did not even care to hear what we had to say.

We had important communication advantages because they worked in the following ways. They were predictable. That is because they:

  • Worked in an office

  • Received mail (the stuff that is sent via the post office)

  • Had a desk phone and answered it

  • Read trade magazines

  • Went to tradeshows

And most importantly, customers generally trusted what we told them. The world was a less skeptical place.

But here’s what happened. Two major global shocks changed enterprise buyer behavior and the world. The first shockwave was 9/11 and the second, which forever changed buyers and sellers, was the Great Recession.

The Great Recession changed everything. It extended for over 18 months and the world experienced an annual decline in per-capita purchasing power. The recession was further defined by:

  • All industries being impacted

  • Massive layoffs

  • Long-term unemployment

  • Destruction of traditional media

As businesses struggled to survive, they started to adopt lean approaches for everything. There were fewer people and fewer dollars to invest, so incrementalism took over in all functions. Contractors were hired, offices shrunk, product development groups looked for small wins, and more tools were bought to solve problems than systems put in place to redefine workflows. Risk avoidance was priority number one.

As individuals struggled to prosper and grow their careers, they too changed. Fortunately, at the same time, social business networks, peer-to-peer question-and-answer sites, and community-generated content forums were taking off.

The new customer is unpredictable, but he is also better connected, more versatile, and well- informed.

He is all over the place, but nowhere at the same time. And he definitely does not have time for lengthy lunches or golf. So, I strongly suggest a new approach is needed to grow a company. At Aha!, we call this overall approach to business The Responsive Method and it also can be applied to help you reach and sell to the unpredictable customer.

The fundamental philosophy of The Responsive Method is that interactions with urgency are what propel people and organizations forward. The equation is simple. If you compress your response time, you will accelerate value and satisfaction for everyone. You can achieve this by increasing your marketing and sales velocity plus mastering the following four skills.

Predict the future You need to be where your customer is going. And I guarantee that it is probably not a trade show. If she is looking to buy, she is going to be researching her options online and looking to trusted peers and influencers for guidance. This means that you need to be where she will likely end up before she gets there. Clearly, content is king and you need to craft it wisely. It all starts with your own site and what Google thinks of it, but don’t forget to be present on Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook too.

Tell the story Most marketing and sales people I know push features. Sometimes the “technobabble” is used to show that their product “A” has more chops than competitor product “B.” But in competitive markets, winning on a technicality is unlikely. You need to tell a story to win. And the story had better be short, unique to you, and focused on one key reason customers should remember and buy your product. Fill in the blank and you will be on your way. Customers buy our product because ______________________.

Welcome interrupts Most people are taught to try to tune out distractions rather than being open to them, but when a customer asks a question, he needs something from you right now. This is true even if he is not asking you directly. And he definitely does not care if the answer comes from self-serve marketing information or from a salesperson. Too many companies set up walls between marketing and sales and processes to “hand off” a customer.

Because each time a customer interacts with your company he is forming an opinion, it is time to break down the barriers in favor of eliminating delays. You can do this by mapping the entire customer buying process and looking for painful inefficiencies.

Know yourself The sheer volume of online mediums to market and sell to the unpredictable customer make it harder than ever to measure your programs and the pipeline. But you must. You can only improve what you measure. So, it is time to get serious about setting goals, starting with marketing campaigns and through the sales cycle. You can only know the customer if you start by knowing yourself.

We have entered a new era where customers are more unpredictable than ever. And it can be unnerving if you are trying to market and sell to them.

Those who predict where customers are headed, provide valuable information, and respond to their needs with urgency will win. We call this The Responsive Method. If you put rapid-fire, positive customer interactions at the center of your work, you will be rewarded by the market and personally satisfied. Customers will turn to you to develop long-term, mutually beneficial relationships.

What are you doing to sell to the unpredictable customer?

Brian de Haaff

Brian de Haaff

Brian seeks business and wilderness adventure. He is the co-founder and CEO of Aha! — the world’s #1 product development software — and the author of the bestseller Lovability and The Startup Adventure newsletter. Brian writes and speaks about product and company growth and the journey of pursuing a meaningful life.

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