New ways of selling: Understanding the changing landscape of customers

While there is no doubt that improving customer service quite rightly lies at the top of the page of every business mandate, stopping the problem in the first place – prevention rather than cure – surely must have a place on the list; and investment in that option must be considered as a nearer term strategy?

Understanding the changing landscape of our customers and being able to adapt to their needs requires a different approach to more traditional sales interactions – and means creating places where these new kinds of interactions can flourish.

If you can show your business customers what’s coming, what will impact them, and what plans you have in place to help them tackle those challenges, surely the longer term view gives them a heads up on what they should be expecting and, ultimately, a better customer experience which they can pass on to their customers as well?

As the dialogue with our customers in B2B world becomes more complex, so are the activities we look to have with them to enable them to evolve.

A few years ago, I wrote about the transition from transactional to consultative selling. Now things have moved on again, and I’m writing about the shift towards collaborative, co-creational conversations and, with this shift, the change in how customer experience centres are used and designed.

With the rise of ‘digital everything’, the majority of enterprise customers have been desperately trying to pin down their digital strategy – some with more success than others. Yet it highlights an all-too-familiar question: what’s next?

Customers are looking for answers to some fairly complex questions, and for some, this means working in collaboration with partners to help define, build, and test solutions. We are starting to see a new addition to the customer experience centre in the form of the test lab, where customers and strategic partners are testing everything from minimum viable product (MVP) applications to customer journeys.

A case in point: Vodafone Spain has invested in V Lab, a state of the art centre for customer workshops, together with a startup facility that brings new tech talents and customers together to create custom digital solutions to business challenges. Or what about Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE), who has developed a whole app and developer ecosystem on the back of its Aruba wireless LAN solution that helps customers find the solutions to their challenges among the ‘shelves’ of apps developed?

As time goes on, we should expect to see more companies investing in customer innovation labs to augment their offering in tech, financial services, healthcare, telecom, automotive – in fact, in any market sector.

The big question however, is ‘what can you expect to get out of them?’ Innovation can be a tricky thing. Ask a salesperson and they will expect something to market within a year. Ask a CIO, and it is likely product isn’t even on their radar.

Some are starting to understand how to combine product and insight and get more from their centres. Vodafone Spain is a good example. What they do well is link insight to product in a very clear way, opening the door to more expansive conversations around innovation.

A clear strategic vision is important. What do you want to get from your conversation? How do you want them to feel afterwards? If you are going to have a conversation about innovation, disruption and the future, here is some guidance on where you should start.

  • Sales teams can't sell product in an innovation workshop - so think carefully about how you get from brainstorm to product sell
  • Be prepared with very good insights that have meaning to the customer and smoothly transition to a discovery conversation
  • Think carefully, before you approach any type of conversation, that you understand where you are on the customer journey in your customer experience centre
  • Are you demo-ing product, telling customers how great you are and how many awards you have won? Or are you asking them about their 'pain points' and encouraging them to 'open up' and tell them what's not working in their business?
  • Are you illustrating disruptive innovations and sharing your view of the future and how that might impact your customers' businesses? Or are you looking to set the scene for your customer's business to be the innovator, the disruptor?

If you’re working on disruptive innovations, many agree that it is important to distance yourself – or at least have a distinct line of separation – from the companies’ core activities and have an operational budget that allows you to nurture and grow the centre. These things need tending. If you’re working on incremental or adjacent innovations, it’s okay to be more involved, and to make sure you’ve got business unit buy-in and support to help maintain and grow.

Visa’s innovation centre in San Francisco is a good example of a lab that has demos about the future of payment – yet it also brings in customers to collaborate and co-create and map out that future together.

There is no doubt that organisations who will succeed today and far beyond are those that are looking at customer demands and desires today and far beyond. Having the ability to create spaces that allow conversations, collaboration and creativity, with partners to help build ideas that ultimately can lead to innovative product and services, will be the way to future-proof your organisation.

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