No matter what type of business you are in, you can rise above the competition by doing one thing: Help  customers get smarter. Unfortunately, many businesses are run by people who believe the secret to success is out smarting customers.


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“Always be closing,” barked the hard-selling Blake, the verbally abusive but supposedly super-salesman character played by Alec Baldwin in the film Glengarry Glen Ross. But think about the companies you do business with on a recurring basis. Are they the companies that treat you like the next transaction they must process to reach a sales goal? Are they the businesses you think are always trying to sell you something they need to clear from inventory? No. Great businesses don’t think of customers as a sale to close. They make each closed sale the opening of a relationship. They know when customers become owners, they become experts in what is good, and not good, about a company’s product or service.

Before you decide this is merely a bunch of new-age, touchy-feely theory, let me stop and emphasize: To stay in business, you need to always be selling. I’m merely saying that the most effective way to sell is to position yourself and your company as the source a potential customer of your product or service should turn to first when they want to be smart. (The sales manual for Apple Store staff, via Gizmodo, provides evidence (some, a little creepy) that “helping customers get smarter” and “always selling” aren’t mutually exclusive.)

Here are a few ways a business can build long relationships with their customers by helping them become smarter, and in turn, become a smarter business.:

Take regular shifts at the customer-service desk.

This suggestion has nothing to do with improving your phone or customer-complaint skills. It’s an exercise that enables managers to stay focused on the one thing that matters most in helping customers become smarter: understanding how well (or not) the owner of a product you’ve sold is accomplishing the objective they had when purchasing it. Unlike focus groups or surveys, a phone call from a product owner who is confused or frustrated can help a manager cut through months of research and get straight to a solution that can be as simple as improving a product’s directions.

Learn from companies that have shifted from “always selling” to “always helping customers become smarter.”

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A great example is the giant company Williams-Sonoma. You may think they are a company that sells pots and pans. However, several years ago they realized that just selling pots and pans was a commodity business they would likely lose. After such realization, they completely shifted their business focus into being a company that helps customers become better cooks and entertainers. They even changed the company’s mission statement to reflect that new point of view.  Now their stores and online properties focus on teaching and sharing knowledge. And, along with companies like Apple and a growing number of independent bookstores, they are redefining the concept of what retailing is. But, still, there’s a bottom line reason behind their strategy: The smarter a customer is, the more likely they will understand why one product is more expensive than another.

Listen more, talk less.

Big companies spend huge amounts of money hiring research experts to discover through all sorts of methods what customers think of them. This is an area of business where there’s an advantage of being small: You can have focus groups all day long for free: it’s called talking with customers and listening to what they have to say.

Be the chief knowledge sharing officer.

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Because you can listen and learn from potential buyers and customers who have become owners, and then listen and learn from suppliers and other industry experts, you are in a unique position to help customers solve problems or understand trends that will help them become smarter. Likewise, you can help your vendors and suppliers become smarter, as well. Positioning yourself at that critical point of an industry’s knowledge sharing network is something market leaders do naturally. If it doesn’t come naturally, it is something you can learn to do.

Start a “learning initiative.”

Formalize some aspect of your commitment to helping customers become smarter. Experiment with some type of effort to provide your customers with a chance to learn more about the subject they associate with your business. These could range from a series of YouTube how-to videos, to in-store “lunch and learns,” to formalized certification programs. As you’ll discover, you will learn more than your customers, but they’ll thank you anyway.

Also on SmallBusiness.com

How to Improve Your Sales Success by Listening More and Talking Less

(Featured photo: alyssalaurel via Flickr)