How Customers Think

Unless the purchase is very important, most corporate customers don't have the time to evaluate every alternative. They simply side for the market leader. They are also swayed by recommendations. The word of colleagues, friends, and trusted journalists carries a good deal of weight. Top-price products, however, carry much influence and little selling momentum. Price may make corporate decision-makers prick up their ears, but it rarely opens their wallets.

And it is easy to understand why. A top accountancy product may cost as much as $25,000 as opposed to the $250 that most firms spend. While the top end product may have 100 times more features, the popular ones almost certainly meet all the main requirements.

Salespeople who appreciate their buyer's situation are often deft at knocking their competitors' products. The best ones tend to speak with gentle authority. But all this is generalization. There is no such thing as a typical customer. The world is not made up of hoards of purchasing clones. So when you are picturing your customer, you are looking for character and purchasing types rather than a single exact fit.

The market research you do before you embark on the product reveals the types most likely to buy. Be prepared to fine-tune these if the product or market changes during development. When you are selling, it is a lot more realistic to have a flexible view of your customers than a single-minded one.

Unless you are a masochist, the best way to treat a customer is as you would like to be treated yourself: courteously, supportively, and fairly. Show them that you listen. Check back with them periodically to reiterate what you understand they've said. It doesn't matter if you don't agree with them. What matters is that they know you listen and acknowledge their reservations. Then when they stop, they feel they owe attention to you. What you have to contribute then falls on more receptive ears. Once it is apparent that you understand your customer's situation, they are much more likely to close the sale than postpone a decision until they can summon reinforcements. If you treat them fairly and they like your product, a few may even recommend you to friends.

One aphorism that should be crushed is "The customer is always right." It sounds good and it makes all purchasing mankind seem like demi-gods. Indeed the phrase has become so entrenched that anyone new to business begins by following this maxim to the letter. The truth is that customers are right a lot of the time, but they are pushing their luck when they try and return software that they have been patently still using, or pressure manufacturers to add a new feature, or demand major upgrades for free. They are just trying to extract a free lunch. The approach is disingenuous because they'll try it on a small developer but they'd never dream of asking big players such as Microsoft, Symantec, or Oracle for similar favors.

It is important that you treat customers well—this will pay dividends and build up customer loyalty—but question every request and if it's a ploy, politely, persuasively, and fairly explain the company policy. They may grumble initially but this technique has turned this situation around and won some of my companies their strongest product evangelists.

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