To Make More Sales, Know Your Customer

The following is adapted from Demand-Side Sales 101.

Salespeople are competitive. Very competitive. They’re vying for awards, recognition, and sales commissions, and are always looking for a way to up their game. But you don’t need to learn six rules or seven habits to become a successful salesperson.

All you need to do is know your customer.

That’s it. You need to listen to your customer and truly understand their needs. As a salesperson, you need to identify a customer’s struggles and then present the products or services to them from their perspective. Too often we focus on the product or service and its features. That’s the wrong way.

What happens when we get to know our customers? We start listening instead of talking and help consumers make progress in their lives. The product is simply a way to help them through a situation or address a problem they’re having. By taking the approach of listening and helping, the business still makes a sale and eventually turns a profit. It’s a win-win situation.

How to Get Enrollment to Skyrocket

Let’s look at an example to see why knowing your customer is vital to sales. Paul LeBlanc, President of Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU), turned the college into a billion-dollar public educational institution simply by finding out who his prospective students were.

How did he do it? The story begins back in 2010 when SNHU’s message to prospective online students was something like, “We’ve got online classes, and you can take them at any time.” They were focusing only on their product. But LeBlanc thought the students taking online classes were different than a typical university student, and therefore had a different set of reasons why they might enroll.

I began working with Paul to help him tackle his problem. We interviewed some current online students to understand their reasons for taking classes and find out how they felt. Questions we asked included:

  • Why did they choose an online school?
  • Why now?
  • What barriers stood in their way to enrolling and taking classes?

Knowing the customer always starts with understanding the people who have already bought your product and made progress in their lives with it, and then seeing the patterns and changing your sales approach based on what you learn from those patterns.

What did we find in the case of SNHU? We discovered that the typical online student was over 30, working a day job, and often supporting a family. This is in contrast to the typical college freshman, who’s fresh out of high school, has a sense of freedom, and is usually financially supported by their parents.

The online students were willing to sacrifice nights, weekends, and even sleep to learn online because they wanted a better career and a better life for their families. They chose to pursue online classes because of emotional reasons, not because of the university’s features and benefits.

An Ad That Yields Results

LeBlanc launched an ad campaign targeting these potential students. It took an emotional approach, using the message, “It’s possible.” The ad featured a single parent working an hourly job and struggling to meet their family’s needs but wanting more out of life. It showed the parent, now a student, studying hard to secure a better future for them and their family. And finally, it showed their accomplishment and the pride they had in achieving their goal.

The ad was not about the university’s courses of study or how the university ranked nationally, but about the journey the online student would go through while attending online classes. It was a total reversal of what you usually see in advertising. The ad in essence said, “We can help you get to where you want to go.”

The results? The ad ran for only one month, but SNHU received thousands of applications — at least ten times more than they usually received. This created a glut of applications, and staff members were taking months to process them. By the time they got back to the prospective student, the emotional tug they felt was gone. So we set up a small admissions team to handle the growing number of applications and get to them more quickly to act on those emotional feelings.

They also found that people were dropping out because they simply found that balancing life and academics was too hard. This time LeBlanc turned his academic advisors into life coaches, who monitored the students, encouraged them, and made sure they had what they needed to succeed. It cut the dropout rate by almost ninety percent.

Because of all these changes, enrollment skyrocketed from five hundred to one hundred thirty thousand students in only ten years. That’s huge. And it all boiled down to a different way of thinking — focusing on the potential student instead of touting the university’s features.

Know Your Customer to Succeed

You can do the same thing for your business. Turn the lens around and focus on the customer’s emotional needs, wants, and desires instead of your product’s cool features. You’ll make more sales and increase your commissions. Plus, that plaque for salesperson of the year will look great on your wall.

For more advice on learning about customers, you can find Demand-Side Sales 101 on Amazon.

Bob Moesta is a teacher, builder, entrepreneur, and co-founder at The Re-Wired Group, a design firm in Detroit, Michigan. Bob has developed & launched over 3,500 products and sold everything from design services, software, and houses to consumer electronics, and investment services. He’s an adjunct lecturer at Kellogg School at Northwestern University, lectures on innovation at Harvard and MIT, and enjoys mentoring at incubators. Greg Engle is a co-founder at the Re-Wired Group. Since the beginning of his career, helping people make progress has been part of Greg’s DNA. He’s worked in everything from food services and retailing, to construction, software, and now consulting services. Greg’s a native Detroiter and enjoys volunteering in the community, especially in local ice hockey leagues.

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Bob Moesta

BOB MOESTA is a teacher, builder, entrepreneur, and co-founder at The Re-Wired Group, a design firm in Detroit, Michigan.