We Can’t Understand Customers

I often hear sales, marketing, and change management folks talking about ‘understanding the customer.’ But what, exactly, does that mean?

On the face of it, it’s a no-brainer. Of course  it’s vital to ‘understand the customer.’ But it’s not so simple as just ‘understanding’ as there are so many facets to this. I must admit that when I hear folks using the term “understanding the customer’, it sounds to me as if they are seeking to ‘understand’ so they can sell or influence – using the act of understanding as part of a sales cycle.

Let’s take a closer look at the facets of ‘understanding the customer.’

First,  there are so many things you can’t/will never understand, and yet there are several things you must understand if you are going to truly serve them.

There is actually a timing on this. There are certain things a seller must understand to ensure that the right solution is being offered and will fit. But that happens only when it’s time to place your solution, or ensure that your solution and the buyer’s needs fit.


There are so many more things that buyers know and sellers can never understand… and don’t need to. For example:

  1. Who is on the buying decision team. Even if we know exactly who is on the BDT, what will you do about it? Try to contact them… and… and then what? Even if you knew all of the members, that wouldn’t influence their decision. Not to mention that buyers don’t know the full complement of decision team members until they are just about at the end of their decision cycle.
  2. What the real problem is. Buyers may start off with one set of problems, but by the time they co-opt the right people, and gather the full complement of data, they may end up with a different set of needs. There is no way to know all of the data at the beginning of the decision cycle, hence when sellers try to ‘understand’ too early they end up with a faulty fact pattern.
  3. What the buying criteria are. The full range of buying criteria are not available until all of the members of the Buying Decision Team are on board – much later in the decision process than when we enter.
  4. The steps that the Buying Decision Team go through in order to choose a solution. They don’t even know this — how could we? And even if we know, what can we do with that information?

We absolutely need to understand how a need fits with our solution. We absolutely need to understand all of the details the buyer needs us to know. But we’re spending too much time, too early, gathering specious or unnecessary data – not to mention that farther along the buying decision process the data will change.


Until now, you haven’t had the tools to help buyers do what they need to do first, before they get to the point when it would be necessary for you to understand them. First, they must figure out how to gather the appropriate Buying Decision Team members. They need to know how to determine if their existing vendors can help them (Sorry, but they must do this!). They need to determine how to choose a new solution, or how to ensure that a new solution would fix comfortably with whatever else they are doing and have in place.

But here is what we need to understand when it’s time – after the buyer has managed their internal, private, off-line decisions (usually political, or relationship based):

  1. How your solution will fit with their existing range of solutions.
  2. How your solution will be accepted by the users and what you need to do to help make that happen.
  3. What buyers need to end up with after your solution is adopted and if it will handle the criteria of the full Buying Decision Team.
  4. All of the specifics for fit, configurations, people who will use it and how they want to use it.

Sales is only manage a small portion of the issues buyers need to address in order to make a buying decision. We’ve never thought about their behind-the-scenes decision process before and we’ve inappropriately used the only skills we’ve had to sell with – understanding the customer.

But we can’t understand them – at least not until they understand themselves. Use Buying Facilitation™ to help them understand themselves first. And THEN you can sell.


Listen to Sharon-Drew

  • April 6, 2010 – Business for Breakfast – Listen from 10:20 – 10:30 AM ET
  • April 6, 2010 – How to Get Buy-In for Strategic Product Decisions – 1:30 PM ET –  More Info on LinkedIn

2 thoughts on “We Can’t Understand Customers”

  1. Pingback: Selling for the banking industry | Sharon-Drew Morgen

  2. Pingback: Buyers don’t sit and wait for sellers | Sharon-Drew Morgen

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