Digital transformation’s emerging effect on customer expectations

Woman stocking warehouse

Times have changed. Our online experiences have reshaped our expectations of real life. For instance, consider your last online shopping experience. Ecommerce provides consumers the opportunity to leverage detailed reviews and recommendations and also enables a level of pricing transparency, all of which helps make wise purchasing decisions. Long lines don’t exist online and products are readily available. And now, we expect our in-store experiences to match the convenience and seamlessness of shopping online.

Shifting consumer expectations have posed an existential threat to brick-and-mortar retail operations. The effects of these changing expectations on the part of the consumer have extended beyond business-to-consumer transactions and have begun to transform client-facing activities within business-to-business sales organizations. Volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity describe not only the business world, but also life itself.

To cope, clients tend to educate themselves using the vast amount of information now available online. If clients can google your products and receive recommendations, reviews, pricing, and more, what value does a sales representative add? In addition, educated consumers expect a curated solution — customized to meet their needs based on unique industry insights. Sales professionals must know the market, have a deep understanding of their customers, and use this knowledge to deliver tailored solutions.

From product to experience differentiation

As products become more commoditized, it becomes more important to offer differentiated client experiences. Experiences that create curated solutions via unique business insights by means of a strategic narrative that is articulated using the customer’s vernacular are best. As a trusted advisor, one must tell a customer-centric story that clearly describes the consumer’s needs as well as your company’s value proposition.

The challenge is that customers may not tell you what they need; rather, they will describe what they think you offer and rationalize your solution’s worth relative to the market and their business challenges. This is where design-thinking strategies pay dividends.

Using design thinking to reach trusted advisor status

Reaching “trusted advisor” status is the equivalent of finding the Holy Grail when dealing with large, key accounts. Acting as a trusted advisor creates bi-directional value streams that enable strategic growth, measured both in terms of monetary and relational equity. During design-thinking ideation exercises with customers, the pains they feel day-to-day go beyond the specific pain relief a product offers. Design thinking allows sales representatives to distill pains into insights and to produce actionable statements that convey value from a customer’s perspective. These insights not only allow reps to advise customers beyond making a sale of a particular product, but also allow a sales team to identify fruitful partnerships across a customer’s value chain. As a result, we increase client intimacy, which allows us to build trust. With trust, we advise, consult, and lead with a customer-centric value proposition.

After hearing enough stories, salespeople can leverage “how-might-we” statements to help reframe the pains our customers are experiencing and incorporate a different ideation perspective. “How-might-we” affirmations, also referred to as HMWs, allow us to assume there is a solution and diverge to find different methods that could be used to provide a user-centric opportunity for design. After crafting HMWs, we transition into the “solve phase” of the sales process, creating “sacrificial concepts” or prototypes that allow us to explore pain-relieving prescriptions. Sacrificial concepts enable solutions that are easily tested and help us confirm we’ve understood customers’ pain points. After we’ve verified our hypothesis and assumptions, we revert back to HMWs as we continue to diverge, converge, refine, and reframe potential solutions that ensure our insights are aligned to the customer’s current state-of-mind.

These frameworks and experiences give businesses an edge. No matter what you are selling, there is a human at the center of every purchasing decision. We must elevate our goals beyond simply fostering “relationships” to securing sales revenue. Ideally, we should leverage user-centric design principles to co-develop and deliver meaningful results.

Design thinking has been used to develop innovative products and services. Why not leverage design-thinking strategies to develop unique customer insights and deliver differentiated customer experiences?

Questions to ask as you navigate change:

  1. How have client expectations changed and does your current sales process match your customer’s buying journey? Assess and address any points of friction.
  2. Is your sales force composed of trusted advisors or order takers? Do your customers recognize and value product differentiation or are they more interested in you delivering differentiated customer experiences?
  3. What tools have you given your sales team to unlock value? Use design-thinking frameworks to help create repeatable, scalable, problem-solving toolkits.

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