Customers buy what they KNOW, from people they TRUST.

I’ve been observing customer purchasing decision factors for some time, and I’ve always been curious about two things in particular:  What makes customers buy?  And, what makes them choose A over B?

As the old career-networking advice goes, “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know”.  When it comes to demand and fulfillment, it may actually be both. It’s my observation that people tend to buy what they know, from people (or brands) they trust. The customer obviously wants to know and understand what it is that they are buying, and also have a good level of trust in the person, or brand, from whom they are making the purchase. It follows therefore, that education and relationships are the keys to addressing these decision factors. This gives us marketeers guidance on where we need to focus our energy and investments: educating the customer, and building positive relationships with them.

Trust, as in any relationship, is built up over time. It’s that warm fuzzy feeling you get from familiarity and consistent experiences. In business, it’s usually the result of vendors following through on commitments, whether it’s answering questions, researching a lost or returned order, sorting out billing issues, etc. A consistent series of positive experiences can build trust that is significant enough even to overcome competitive price disadvantages!

The first step in relationship building is spending time to understand the customer. Most customers are busy at their jobs, or with their private lives, so getting time with them in the first place is not as easy as it sounds. Who hasn’t experienced difficulty securing appointments?  But, that’s often where the sales process begins. Successful sales reps spend time to map out the lay of the land, getting to know their customers. They learn not only who they are and what they do in the organization, but who they are personally. What is their birthday? What is their favorite food? Are they married? Kids? Do they like to travel? Where do they go? What’s their favorite sports team? The more a customer feels that you care about them personally, the better the chances to develop trust in you, and your brand. So, if you want your customer to trust you, you have to learn about them. You have to invest in building your customer relationships.

Now, you may notice that some sales reps are more successful than others. Some may have more experience, better training, are more charismatic, or are just plain lucky. Or, they may simply be benefiting from the other part of the equation:  education. The customer may already trust the brand, because they understand the product / service so well. They have already been educated on how your company meets their demand requirements.

At first glance, education seems like the easier of the two. Not that education is easy, but compared to building trustful relationships over time, it seems like a short-term no-brainer.  One simply compiles the relevant training materials, schedules a call or webcast, and voila, “Orange Cone Selling” right?  [Orange Cone Selling is when you line up traffic markers so a line of customers can form a queue wrapping around the street, while you just sit there taking the purchase orders.] But, not so fast. Education goes beyond the obvious need to explain things to your target market, and not all education is formally delivered class-room style.

Customers educate themselves about your company, your products/services through each and every interaction. Through every single piece of information your company publishes, you are educating your customers about how you do business, the kind of people you hire, the values it holds, the level of support they can expect, and so on. Before publishing anything, think about what it teaches the market. Each time you answer the phone, the way you show up on time (or late) for meetings, how you dress, the language you use, what’s going on in your Twitter feed, etc. you are educating your customers about your product, service, and your brand.

Education is also a two-way street. At each interaction, you should be learning more about your customer – which can provide valuable  feedback into the relationship factor! In order to optimize this two-way education process, the key is to simplify your message. The boring standard is to schedule hour-long training blocks, regurgitating lengthy and detailed information that is generally irrelevant to a majority of the audience. It’s better to spend the hours up front developing a crisp and easily consumed message. Then use the remaining time to white-board a more interactive dialogue together with your customers. Yes, some products/services are complex, and highly technical. But even in those cases, the simpler your message, the easier it is to consume, and the quicker you will begin to have that two-way dialogue.

One last thought on these decision factors. Clearly, trust and relationships are both critical to the sales decision process. Getting them right can require some serious and often times long-term investments. But, here’s the trick:  neither of these attributes need to be perfect. They just need to combine in the right mix, in order to provide the best of all other options being evaluated. Some customers don’t have the time to fully educate themselves on what they buy, so they look to a trusted brand, or perhaps to a trusted sales rep to decide for them. Others have little trust at all in their sales rep, but have done enough research to conclude company XYZ provides the best product/service. As long as the demand is real, the customer will be making a purchasing decision among the available options.

Make your company’s product / service the best of those options by investing in marketing efforts that make you the trusted advisor:  Eduction & Relationships!

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