Collaborative Customer Relationships Matter

What distinguishes a championship team from just any team made up of individual athletes may come down to one trait: collaboration. World-class athletes who collaborate—who communicate, work together, both listen and talk, and coordinate their individual strengths—help lead their teams to victory.

It's the same in sales, where collaboration with customers helps drive winning results for the organizations that sell and better outcomes for their customers. In fact, a customer is an important part of the overall team, working toward the same goal as the sales organization. The key to any team's performance is practice, and the practice "field" includes every type of environment that's part of the selling process. This practice requires a lot of collaboration and clear communication with customers to support their buying decisions.

Effective collaboration begins with understanding the customer's context, which is absolutely critical before starting to craft a solution. It also begins with the recognition that each customer is unique. Collaboration allows both sides to listen and communicate with each other, addressing any challenges and reaching an outcome that satisfies both parties. It is based on a two-way relationship that provides opportunities for the customer and the sales leader to share information and be successful.

What is the difference between collaboration and communication? Communication is a tool to achieve collaboration, while collaboration is the process, the relationship, the connection, the integration—all leading to a common goal.

Collaboration requires a framework with effective customer-management strategies that define how you connect and engage with customers. (Hint: It's not through sales pitches.) The following are key components of that framework:

Leadership. Strong leadership skills—the ability to negotiate, coach, inspire, guide, and build relationships—will help facilitate collaboration by example.

Two-way communications. Social media tools can give both sides opportunities for online discussions, helping managers and sales teams identify any misunderstandings and solutions for collaborative conversations when it's not possible to meet or talk on the phone.

Listening. Stop talking long enough to listen to your customers and truly hear and understand their concept and context—what they want to fix, avoid, or accomplish. Examine, understand, and analyze what a customer will gain from doing business with you—then craft a solution that fits and fuels success.

Customer focus. Strive to be the right fit from your customers' perspective. By bringing the relationship to a level where it's viewed as solving customers' organizational issues and helping them improve their business, you'll be seen as more than just a vendor delivering products and services—you'll be a partner.

Customer experience. Define a meaningful experience for every customer. With a level of collaboration, he or she could have a positive experience that adds value and continues to build the customer-sales relationship.

Tools and resources. Sales professionals need to be able to access information, intelligence, and resources to answer questions and satisfy customer requirements. Enter sales force automation and customer relationship management systems, as well as social collaboration platforms, which allow for the exchange of relevant content, insights, and best practices. Integrating these strategies and knowledge-management capabilities adds perspective and value to the customer journey and allows the sales team to better focus on the customer.

Every customer operates in a different environment, with a different set of internal variables that describes and defines them. Sales professionals must learn as much about the customer's context as possible—so getting close to customers matters.

World-class sales performance is driven by those organizations that differentiate themselves from their competitors through their abilities to quickly connect with their customers—and collaboration is the cornerstone to driving these results.

Byron Matthews is chief sales officer of MHI Global, a dedicated sales-performance company. 

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