Any parent will confirm that, despite often vigorous protests to the contrary, children actually want to be held accountable. Clear rules and boundaries governing how to operate in a complicated world are welcomed by those without the experience to navigate on their own.
There’s an important insight in this often familiar role that you can also apply to how you manage your prospect and customer relationships.
I don’t mean this to sound patronizing or to conflate relationships that have wholly different power and trust dynamics — but there’s a surprising amount in common in these radically disparate roles. And understanding that, on some level, customers often want to be held accountable can be a powerful, mobilizing realization for anyone in a revenue-generating or customer-facing role.
The Death of Sales Is Greatly Exaggerated
If you were to believe the pundits, you’d probably question whether salespeople are necessary at all. As the story goes, product-led growth and self-directed buying journeys promise to disintermediate sellers entirely.
Don’t believe it.
In some categories and circumstances, this may be the case, but that’s the rare exception. Atlassian, for example, built a $1 billion revenue run rate with materially no salespeople. But “Be like Atlassian” is about as helpful in practical application as “Be like Apple/Amazon/Facebook/Google.” The reality is that software can be highly complex, and particularly where significant change is required, buyers want your help.
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The Paradox of Control
Many of us have been trained to believe that the customer is always right and that the customer always expects to be in control. They aren’t and they don’t. The famous misattributed Henry Ford quote says it all: "If I asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said faster horses." Customers generally aren’t visionaries, nor are they experts in what you do for a living. Knowing that you’re showing up to show them the way forward is often exactly what they want.
Of course, buyers now come to the party with a lot more knowledge and sophistication than ever before, owing to an abundance of information at their disposal. And that means that your role needs to shift from selling and telling to empathizing and advising. What stands in the way of you closing a deal is likely not their understanding of your next best feature but your understanding of their problems and pains — and your ability to convince them that you understand.
Related Article: Diagnose Your Customer Experience Pain Points
Earning the Right to Be a Trusted Advisor
Because when you do understand your customers, you earn the right to be a trusted advisor. It’s easy enough to imagine customer relationships as adversarial because the ones that go sideways surely are. But that should be seen as the mutation, not the standard behavior. Sometimes buyers enter the relationship with raised hackles, almost as if they’re expecting a fight. It’s your job to not be bowed, instead taking this as your cue to prove them wrong. High-functioning customer relationships are based on trust, which comes from a confirmed understanding of the outcomes the customer hopes to achieve and demonstrated proof that you can help them get there.
Once you’ve achieved this, your interests are aligned, and you’ve earned the right to assert your will in driving a deal, an implementation or a success plan forward. If the customer is truly onboard with achieving these outcomes, they’ll want to partner with you as their trusted advisor. Trust and transparency translate into longer, more profitable customer relationships.
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Creating a Mutual Success Plan
The foundation of this partnership is a mutual success plan that documents the outcomes your customers want to achieve and the responsibilities of stakeholders on both sides of the relationship necessary to make it happen. Clearly documenting roles, responsibilities and milestones associated with these promised outcomes gives you a basis upon which to assert control and hold your customers accountable. Writing things down and aligning mutual expectations from the start for sales, success and delivery teams around outcomes and the milestones you're expecting to achieve is how you create conditions for success in a customer relationship.
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You’re Expert in What You Do
Imposter syndrome is otherwise known as being human, which is why we often doubt ourselves when we really shouldn’t. The reality is that you’re probably fairly expert in what you do — and your customer likely isn’t. Bring that confidence to your sales and customer success games, and your customers won’t only follow your lead — they’ll happily cheer you on.
Remember that your customers have skin in the game. They’re working with you because they have some problem or pain they need to solve. It’s your job to figure out what it is and then convince them that you’re worth partnering with to help them achieve these business outcomes.
When you partner with customers on achieving outcomes, they will follow your lead — and you’re in a position to win together.