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Death of the salesman: part one

31st May 2007
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By Jennifer Kirkby, consulting editor

I’ve always been dubious of elevator pitches, those ‘selling yourself’ summaries beloved of gurus. If you were caught in a lift with the CEO of ‘Big Name Company’, wouldn’t your time be better spent listening – finding out about them and their issues? After all, you could then follow up with some wonderfully creative idea for addressing their problem. If you do the talking you’ve relinquished the ‘high ground’- and every well trained salesperson knows the dangers of that!

Too many of us harangue customers about what we do, launching expensively crafted campaigns into the ether, with decreasing accuracy and reducing returns. Shouldn’t we spend just as much effort listening to customers? Inviting them into 'organisational cafes' for a chat? rather than just seeking out elusive customer data like Victorian butterfly collectors!

In the good old days of corner shops it was easy; conversing with customers was what we did. But then, with bigger companies, gems of small talk were replaced with brash advertising and anonymous customer research. As data became available, we mined for customer understanding; but then had to introduce operational ‘voice of the customer’ techniques to give us the genuine article, even if it is hard to use.

Today we also need to be part of the ‘buzz’ - taking part in the welter of conversations going on; listening to what is being said about us and putting right the mistruths spread by the 'trolls and trojans' of the internet world. We need as well to create more opportunity for customers and potential customers to talk and listen to one another. This month our features are going to focus on the customer’s voice and our listening techniques.

Customer champions listen

First of all, I went in search of companies considered good at listening to customers - one of the pre-requisites for being a customer champion. How did they do it?

When I ask people in workshops which companies listen to them, they most usually reply 'my butcher, baker or candlestick maker.' So I turned to online community LinkedIn, to see who the professionals advocated as customer champions.

Now this was exploratory research, not a statistically relevant, quantifiable survey but out of the responses came some interesting little nuggets. If you have a LinkedIn account you can see some of the public responses here. (If you don’t have an account signing up is free

One of the most noticeable trends was that far more people in the US are eager to nominate customer champions than in Europe. In Europe there is a sense amongst CRM professionals that things have gone backwards, and even John Lewis, long standing customer champion to many, has started to under-promise and penalise loyalty.

Another observation was something my father taught me: ‘one man’s meat is another man’s poison’. Dell is a classic example. The learning, of course, is to know your target market, your advocates and terrorists, and listen to the buzz of the bloggers – if you live in dangerous waters you have to keep an eye on the depth gauge (see How do your customers value you?). It is possible to live with a ‘brand’ halo, long after the actual halo has slipped.

Part two, categories of customer listening, click here.

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