In any relationship between a customer and supplier – whether the relationship is started by the customer or by the supplier – the customer will want or need certain things which they cannot provide for themselves; they therefore need a supplier to provide something for them. In the project management profession the details of what a customer wants from a supplier are called their “requirements”. Establishing a customer’s requirements is considered a fine art and an essential discipline to be able to deliver a successful project, especially if there is a lot of money or a big contract riding on the project. If the customer’s requirements are poorly understood, effort may be wasted on developing a “solution” to the customers needs which turn out to be unsuitable for the intended purpose; the customer will be unhappy and may pull out or, the project may have to spend additional time and resource reworking their product. Similarly, in a sales environment, if the customer’s requirements are poorly understood by the supplier, the supplier may recommend products and services to the customer which don’t meet the customer’s needs. The customer might then reject the recommendation – often without either the supplier or the customer really knowing why. Or the customer might accept the recommendation, but subsequently have regrets about the purchase, and the supplier will potentially lose their repeat business.
Here are the important lessons about customer requirements from the world of project management that a salesperson can benefit from:
I've provided examples and context below.
1. Don't talk specifications, talk scenarios.
Let’s take a simple example of a sales situation. A potential customer (let’s call her Lisa) walks into a computer retailer and says she needs a new laptop. A bad salesperson might not make any attempt to understand Lisa’s requirements at all, apart from asking a few perfunctory questions like “Are you looking for a top of the range machine or something cheap and cheerful” and “Are you a PC or Mac kind of person?” before recommending the most expensive model they think they can get away with selling her. This is unhelpful to Lisa. “Top of the range” doesn’t really tell her anything about a machine’s capabilities, and it’s therefore going to be hard for her to judge whether such a machine can meet her needs. She may realise she is out of her depth and back away from the purchase because she needs to go away and think about her requirements. The salesperson has missed an opportunity to provide good customer service and lost the sale. Even if the sale is completed with Lisa, if her requirements haven’t been explored she may have been sold a machine that doesn’t meet her needs and she will subsequently return or complain about the purchase. This then creates a cost to the brand. An average salesperson may try to understand Lisa’s requirements by asking her questions about specification. How fast a processor do you need? How many GB of RAM? How much hard drive space?
A good salesperson will take a different approach. They’ll gauge from Lisa’s opening statement “I need a new laptop” that this customer will need help understanding their own requirements. They will then ask Lisa questions, not about specifications, but about what she wants to use the laptop for – scenarios she will use it in.
These questions may help clarify Lisa’s requirements but they assume a certain amount of technical knowledge on her part. The fact that she has come into the store and made a statement as broad as “I need a new laptop” implies she does not have the technical knowledge to be able to judge whether the specifications on offer actually meet her requirements. Again, she may back off from the sale when she realises the purchase may be more complicated than she originally anticipated.
2. Don't talk specifications, talk scenarios.
Some customers will only have a vague idea of what their requirements are and rely on the supplier to help them work out their own requirements. For example, a small traditional family-run business may decide it should have “be on Twitter and Facebook” but not really understand the implications other than having vague knowledge of how social media can be used for advertising purposes, and hey, everyone’s doing it….right! Other customers may have enough expertise in the subject matter (or think they have enough expertise!) to know exactly what their requirements are. For example a dedicated online computer game enthusiast may know exactly what processor speed, video card, RAM and screen size will give them the best experience when playing the latest MMORPG. No matter what kind of requirements a customer comes to the supplier with, a really good salesperson will want to make sure there are no “hidden assumptions” in the customer’s requirements. A “hidden assumption” is something that both the customer and supplier take for granted as being true, when it may not actually be true. It may be that some of the requirements themselves which the customer believes are correct, are in fact incorrect. Or it may be that the entire premise of the set of requirements is itself false! Checking that the requirements themselves contain no hidden assumptions can be done by looking at the scenarios the customer wants to use the product in. Returning to Lisa’s laptop purchase as an example, if Lisa says she wants at least 4GB of RAM, the salesperson can ask what kind of software she’ll be using on the laptop: if it’s the latest versions of the Microsoft Office suite, 4GB or more is probably a good idea. If she’s only going to be browsing facebook and the web, 4GB may be over-specced and not give Lisa the best value for money. However, there may be bigger hidden assumptions underlying the requirements themselves. Can you spot the hidden assumption in the requirements list below?
Requirements for new laptop for Lisa
Did you spot it? The hidden assumption is, of course, that Lisa actually needs a laptop at all. In fact, a touchscreen tablet may be much better suited to her needs. It may have been easy to spot the hidden assumption in this example, but when the customer is looking for something a bit bigger than a new laptop – if they are looking to secure a long-lasting set of services from a supplier – the danger is that the supplier may get “tunnel vision” and concentrate too much without looking at the big picture. The way round this is to adopt, dare I say it, a holistic approach. Before going into the customer’s detailed requirements, take a step back and ask them: What is your business? What is you strategy? What benefit do you want to get from the product or service you want me to supply? By forming a picture of what the customer wants to achieve, the supplier can flush out any hidden assumptions underlying the requirements. In the example of the small business wanting a “social media presence”, looking at the bigger picture may reveal that: the business is small, traditional and family run; they are short-staffed and lacking in the time or inclination to maintain a website, Facebook page or Twitter feed; and that the benefit they want to achieve from a social media presence is to increase business-to-business sales. All of which calls in question the rationale for having a Facebook or Twitter presence at all and provides the salesperson with the opportunity to recommend alternative methods for them to get more business.
3. Beware of over-selling
Understanding a customer’s requirements properly improves the salesperson’s ability to recommend the right solution to a customer’s needs, increasing the chance of a sale. If the requirements are poorly understood, the salesperson may recommend something that doesn’t meet the customer’s needs. There’s a high risk of a returned product or complaint about a service that doesn’t meet contractual obligations. However, there is also a risk if the salesperson sells the customer a product or service that exceeds their needs. If a product or service is over-specced, the customer probably spent money on it that they didn’t need to: they’ll feel they got a bad service and bad value for money. This risk is greatest when the customer has brought a service rather than a single product. A customer who buys a computer with more RAM than they need is unlikely to complain about the machine overperforming, though they might have a lingering feeling that they’ve been ripped off and sold something they don’t need if the price was too high. On the other hand, a customer who buys a car with a bigger engine than they really need, who only ever drives at 50mph to the nearest supermarket, may find the fuel efficiency is poor and complain about or return the car. Of course customers pay over the odds for a brand but that brand relationship needs to be built through proof and trust of the credibility of the brand, so for smaller companies a brand favourability hasn’t come considered in this yet. Looking at a different example, if a saleperson manages to convince someone who doesn’t really watch many films or programmes to sign up for a year-long TV and broadband contract, the customer may see the first month’s charges and resent paying for a selection of channels they never watch; they might want to cancel the arrangement, and will certainly complain about the deal they were given. Even if the salesperson is successful in over-selling and managed to persuade the customer to buy something with a higher specification than what they actually need, the benefit to the supplier is only short term. The customer will realise they got poor value for money and come to distrust the seller. This decreases the chance of future business. That is why the best approach for a salesperson, no matter what they are selling or to whom, is to make the effort to really understand the customer’s requirements: and if you’re dealing with complex projects and contracts make sure you invest the time and get the personal contact right at the start of the project, to work out what the customer really needs and what their true requirements are. This will help you salvage failed consumer-brand relationships which reflect in lost loyal customers.
The juggling act between strategy (digital and offline comms) and campaign implementation can be very complicated if you’re not experienced.…but not in the eye of the connected consumer.
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Kathryn is a Digital Marketing and Communications Specialist with 14+ years in the industry working with SME's and individuals, to corporate and public sector organisations. She is also a mum and one of the pioneers of holistic marketing - digital, consumer convergence. and practical management.