How to build a customer-focused sales culture

22nd Nov 2016

In today's ultra-competitive business environment, a company that puts anything before its customers isn't likely to survive for long.  Just saying that you want to put customers first is a great first step. Yet, we all know that it's your employees, and particularly your sales force, who will make the biggest difference in delivering on this promise.

Unfortunately, not many companies are able to make the shift from declaration to delivery.  The good news is that those who can create a customer-focused sale culture usually rise to the top of their class.  Here is why your company may wish to dedicate resources to this endeavor, some proven steps to creating a customer-focused sales culture, and even what to look for when interviewing new hires.

Why a long-term customer base matters

Bringing new customers or clients through the pipeline consistently is essential for an organization's continued growth.  Yet, did you know that retaining customers long-term is just as much, if not more, crucial to a company's long-term survival than having a high volume of one-and-done clients with high churn? 

One recent study by Gartner shows that a company that can retain 20% of its existing customers is able to secure 80% of future revenues through cross-selling and up-sells.  What influences customer retention?  It's the experience, of course.  Those customers who feel as if they've received a superior experience, even if the product is similar, will continue to come back to be "wowed" again and again.  In nearly every organization, this starts and ends with the sales team.

Steps to building a customer-focused sales culture

Want your sales culture to be customer-focused?  This is the goal of many organizations, yet one that isn't often fulfilled because it requires a concerted effort.  Salesforce recently outlined seven steps to creating a "customer-obsessed" sale culture.

  1. Research. Before you can satisfy your customers, you must first understand what they want and how your products or services can help fulfill their goals.  Look at the customer's need first, and then determine if there are any outside-the-box avenues to fulfill those needs. Sometimes, just providing helpful information is enough to build long-term loyalty.
  2. Insight. That research should have identified both some deeper insight into customer needs as well as future opportunities. The company can also look at what types of communication and sales processes their customers most prefer.
  3. Commitment. A culture of responding to customer needs in real time should be fostered and encouraged at all levels.  When customers are unhappy, they take to the airwaves and a company that responds instantly can turn things around, turning that dissatisfied customer into a long-term retention.
  4. Language. Both internal and external business conversations need a language shift that communicates unity.  For example, words such as "me" and "I" can be changed to "us" and "we."  When speaking about an organization in "we" terms, the customer feels that the entire company is speaking to them and has their best interests at heart.
  5. Rewards. Humans are reward-centered beings. If we're continually rewarded for a behavior, we're apt to keep doing it until it becomes a habit.  A company that wants to reinforce a customer-obsessed culture can put rewards in place to recognize individuals who exemplify this business ideal.
  6. Leadership.  Customer obsession in the sales force is an excellent goal, but it isn't likely to start from the bottom or middle of the organization.  A Gallup study found that 80% of a sales rep's perception of their company leaders came from their experience with their direct supervisor.  So, even while the CEO can and should speak the language, the changes must permeate through the entire leadership of the organization to be the most effective.
  7. Education. Being an effective salesperson today requires being highly skilled.  Organizations need to invest in technology as well as sales training refreshers for their staff to ensure that they remain the best in the industry.

Proceed with caution when interviewing new sales talent

Building a winning sales team takes time and patience.  A talented salesperson would be expected to perform exceptionally well during the interview phase.  Behavioral interviewing is one way that companies are now asking potential hires to demonstrate their skills through experience.  However, hiring managers must be on the lookout for invented stories used to manufacture an ideal candidate persona.

Prepared candidates may show up at your sales interview with a canned answer to questions such as: "Describe a time where you demonstrated leadership on the job."  To thwart these attempts and find the best customer-focused sales reps, interviewers must dig a bit deeper with questions like, "Who was managing the team at that time?" "Tell me two things that you learned from this particular experience," or "Describe the customer interaction in that situation."

Creating a customer-focused sales culture is more than just inspiring employees to be nice.  Attitudes and policies must pervade every level of the organization.  Culture must change, but underlying systems also need to be in place to support salespeople in achieving goals.  With the right hires in place and a consistent message across all departments, customer retention will go up, and the effects will be evident on the company's bottom line.

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