It will come as no surprise that customers want it their way (to paraphrase Burger King). Yet many companies don't have processes for figuring out what that means.

Take this quiz to assess your customer "IQ" (or "Insight Quotient") and determine the necessary next steps for shortening your sales cycle.

The Questions

  1. Can you describe your firm's most promising prospects?

  2. Can you identify the most important problem you solve for them?

  3. Do they recognize they have this problem?

  4. Do you know what events trigger a need for your solution?

  5. Can you rank their top three "buying criteria"?

  6. Is it easy for prospects to identify your firm as a possible vendor?

  7. Do they know you can help them?

  8. Do you know where they turn for information?

  9. Do you know how they learned about your firm?

  10. Do they remember you when it comes time to buy?

The Scoring

If you've answered eight or more with a "yes"—congratulations: you probably have a line outside your door! If you've answered four to seven with a "yes," check out the tips below to increase your customer IQ. If you've answered fewer than three in the affirmative, consider spending more time with your customers.

Customer insights drive sales. To win, you need to give customers what they want, make it easy for them to buy, and ensure that they know you exist and can meet their needs. Each of these requires deep customer knowledge, because everyone buys differently. The person who buys a Cadillac shops differently from the guy who drives a Honda Civic.

1. Examine your past successes

Which customers were easiest to attract? The most profitable? Bought the quickest? Became steady customers? Those are the successes that you want to replicate.

Look for clues that will help you and others identify these prospects. Do they have any common characteristics such as location, size, industry or products purchased? Was there a particular event that caused them to purchase when they did? Did they hear about you from a particular source?

The more specifically that you can describe your ideal prospects, the easier it will be to find and reach these individuals. Concentrating your firepower on those accounts will dramatically improve your sales effectiveness.

2. Ask, don't guess

People buy for a variety of reasons. Yet, to capture their attention, you need to communicate a simple, clear, consistent message. Only after you grasp people's attention can you provide them with all the other information that they require to make their buying decision.

The best way to identify that initial message is to focus on your most promising prospects. Ask them to describe what they were looking for, how they made their decision, why they bought from you.

Then ask: "What was the single most important reason that you selected our company?" Surprisingly, it is not uncommon for customers to produce an answer that they never mentioned when providing a laundry list of what they were looking for and how they purchased. Sometimes this is because multiple people were involved in the decision, but one person's preferences carried more weight. Other times, it is because while the whole list of things was important, only one dimension differentiated your firm from the competition. Or customers may come up with an unexpected answer because this is the first time that they've had a chance to reflect on what ultimately mattered.

The important thing is that you won't know if you don't ask.

3. Understand the key decision points

Especially for large purchases, getting the sale depends on a number of factors. Before a firm can buy from you, nine things need to happen. Customers must...

  1. Have a need for your services

  2. Recognize that that they have that need

  3. Be ready to buy

  4. Know that your firm exists

  5. Believe that your firm can address their concerns

  6. Remember your firm when it comes time to buy

  7. Decide that your offering has the features that they require

  8. Believe your solution is priced appropriately

  9. Find it easy to do business with you

If prospects fail to meet even one of these criteria, chances are the business will go to someone else.

Each stage in the sales cycle represents an opportunity to capture prospects' attention and woo them from the competition.

For example, if you are spending time wooing prospects that don't need or recognize your services, you're wasting time that could be spent with those who do. Similarly, potential prospects won't buy from you unless they know what you exist, can solve their problem and think of you when it comes time to purchase. Even those who want to buy will lose interest if they encounter obstacles, if your product or service lacks the necessary features or if the price exceeds the value.

The good news is that if you can identify the points at which you are losing traction, it is relatively easy to take action. Therefore, it behooves firms to have a system for capturing the information that they require to measure progress at each stage. Key components include processes that require obtaining direct or market feedback at each stage, tracking the length of time a particular opportunity languishes at each stage of the sales cycle and capturing the reasons for wins and losses.

Once you know which criteria buyers are failing to meet, you can put marketing programs in place to reverse the situation. If prospective customers don't recognize that they need your solutions, you can engender discomfort by sharing stories of how their peers used them to increase profitability. If they don't remember your firm when it comes time to buy, consider inexpensive ways to stay high on their radar such as regular mailings. If your solution is falling short, you need to enhance it or search for another market segment that will value it "as is."

Knowledge is power when it comes to winning new business. Seize the competitive advantage by learning what customers want and how they prefer to buy. Then, give it to them... well, THEIR way!

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Barbara Bix is managing principal of BB Marketing Plus, where she helps companies enhance their brands by capturing and enhancing the customer experience.