What Business Is Your Customer Really In?

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Do you really understand the business in which your customer is engaged?

I’m not talking about SIC or NAICS codes, I’m talking about the actual business that your customer or prospect conducts on a daily basis.

Chances are, you don’t. The fact is, most employees don’t really know what business their employers are engaged in.

You can’t possibly build a compelling argument for buying your product if you can’t demonstrate how it will really help the customer achieve success.

Sure, they can rattle off a bunch of adjectives and adverbs describing the enterprise, but it is highly likely they will miss some very critical elements that are needed to complete that description.

A Case in Point

I had a friend with a small used-car lot. He once explained that he wasn’t really in the car business, he was, in fact, really in the finance business.

He explained that he provided the most basic automobiles available. He had nothing on his lot valued over $10,000. His target clientele was primarily low-income, single-parent, single-income families—buyers who do not have the cash to put down or the credit history to support a traditional new-car purchase.

My friend’s business offered 100 percent financing, weekly payments, and the entire process could be conducted right there on his lot—no banks, no third-party loan companies and no credit checks. All customers needed was a paycheck and a verifiable address. If they made the payments, they kept the car. If they missed the payment, the car came back to the lot for “sale” to another buyer. Most of the time, the cars ended up back on his lot.

My pal was in the money-lending business, not the auto-sales business.

Look beyond the SIC and Other Company Descriptions

For prospecting sales reps, it is critical to understand this type of subtlety in the prospects you engage with. You must look beyond the SIC, the company name and even the outward-facing descriptions produced by the company. If you don’t, you will be trying to sell your solution to a ghost.

Salespeople today have access to technology that makes it easier than ever to find prospects. CRM systems provide linkages to D&B Hoover’s, LexisNexis or Bloomberg’s corporate profiles. Contact systems access LinkedIn and other systems to provide detailed profiles of employees and potential contacts at any site. Product preferences, configurations and installation histories are all minable data with the right in-house systems in place.

All of this is wonderful, but it needs to be viewed as a starting place rather than a complete company dossier or profile. A salesperson must fill in the blanks, complete the due diligence and gather the missing pieces through the old-fashioned one-on-one interview—actually, multiple interviews.

Compile and Confirm Your Data

If you have a contact within a prospect company, gather and confirm the data you’ve collected from your contact and the usual third-party sources. Once that is documented, talk to other sources from other positions within the enterprise.

At minimum, collect information from IT, Finance and Operations Management. These three views will provide differing descriptions of the company, different priorities and different pains. Together, they will provide a more fully developed picture of the enterprise for the sales rep. That information should then be documented in the CRM system and contact management system. It is valuable knowledge, and in the future, it will be useful to others.

Start Digging

So, what do you talk about? You obviously want to be prepared when you interview the assorted lines of business within the enterprise. Here are some questions designed to open the discussion with each.

Questions for IT

IT is everywhere, and they are likely to have a unique point of view on the enterprise as a whole and opinions on the priorities for the enterprise. Points to explore include:

  • Computing environment choices for the enterprise
  • Maturity level of key systems
  • Is IT a driver or follower within the organization?
  • Obstacles or threats to success

IT is critical to the sales rep since it offers almost anything of a technical nature. If they are generally aligned with the stated company direction, great! If they are not, find out why.

Questions for Finance

Aside from the obvious information regarding the prospect’s financial health, Finance also provides great insights into the company culture and capacity for risk. Explore these points with Finance:

  • Income sources and how they align with the business description
  • Revenue growth and financial health
  • R&D as a priority
  • Collections

Much of this information will not be provided as a response to specific questions but can be inferred from answers given to more general questions related to goals and aspirations. Privately held companies may be less forthcoming with this type of information.

The ultimate goal here should be to understand where and how income is generated by the enterprise.

Questions for Operations

This is where the prospect does their business. So, this is key to understanding what that business really is. There are numerous avenues for this discussion to follow.

  • How are people deployed across the operations organization?
  • What are the key factors inhibiting and driving success?
  • What do factors such as capacity, downtime and inventories look like?
  • How does revenue compare to the actual amount of product flowing through the pipeline?

Do the numbers add up? Perhaps they present themselves as an appliance manufacturer. Your digging reveals that most of their business is generated from refurbishing field-returned product for resale to down-market buyers. One has to wonder if their problems are really the problems of an appliance manufacturer.

Show Me the Money

Knowing where the money comes from and how it is generated is the only way sales reps can tell if their solution really makes sense for the prospect. You can’t possibly build a compelling argument for buying your product if you can’t demonstrate how it will really help the customer achieve success. That means you must understand what business your customer is really in.

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