What are we actually selling here?

The great business writer Seth Godin, who I haven’t mentioned for a long time, recently asked the question “What’s it (all) for?” in respect of what actually drives us in business. He suggested that in most business-to-business situations, the answer is always the same, “to please my boss.”

Just about everybody has a boss. Godin says: “Sure, we’re good at making up backstories to explain our actions, to craft the ‘why’ that’s ostensibly behind the reason we do things. But c’mon. The answer to, “what’s it for” is all about what drives the person who makes the non-obvious decisions. If you’re always having to recalibrate your actions to match someone else’s decisions, that’s the real ‘for’.”

But don’t immediately start analysing your own situation, and wondering if you’re making decisions to please your boss rather than to do what’s best for the business or even yourself. Think about how this applies to your customers and prospects. Most of them are making decisions to please their boss, and your sales and marketing will benefit hugely if you bear this in mind. Thirty or forty years ago, “nobody ever got fired for buying IBM”, as the saying went. Instead of describing people aiming to please their boss, that’s just describing people aiming to avoid displeasing their boss. It’s the same thing really.

So, if your customers are making decisions based on aims like that, what does it mean for marketers? It means that you need to make your customers look good. That’s them, as people. It might be supplying a better product, at a better price, but there’s no guarantee that will have the desired effect. Switching to a product which is faster or cheaper makes the supplier look good, not necessarily the buyer. The main contribution of the buyer might appear to be just having found the supplier in the first place, and that’s where you come in. As a supplier, you need to give your customers as much help as possible to please the boss. Your customers want to be able to show that your product is good, but more importantly, need to show that this wouldn’t have been possible without their input. If you can help them do that, everyone wins.

We’ve all come across situations where we know our product is the sensible choice for our customer, but they still won’t buy. The potential disinterest from the customer’s boss is often the reason, and our task is also to sell to somebody we won’t ever meet.

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