Blog post

Understanding Your Customer’s Perspective – Think “Whole Context”

By Hank Barnes | August 02, 2016 | 7 Comments


It is important to remember that each of our world views is skewed by our own perspective.   In marketing and sales, this can lead to a distorted sense of the reality of our customers.

snail on a railway rail

That distorted reality leads  to all sorts of issues:

  • Misaligned expectations:  We forecast a deal when the customer is not even close to being ready to buy
  • Over-aggressiveness:  The download of a paper, plus some good fit scores, results in a flurry of e-mails and calls to a prospect who is just exploring options
  • Assumed Knowledge: Taking for granted that a customer or prospect understands industry terms, slang, processes, and even key core messages–and not realizing until much later that if we had just spoken more plainly and completely, the deal would have been much smoother
  • And the list could go on and on.

It’s easy to understand why these issues emerge.  When we work at a company, that company, and it’s products and services, becomes the center of our world (at least work wise).  Everything revolves around it.  When I worked for content management providers, we all felt that our technology was something no one could live without.  It was the most important.  Then I worked for business process management firms, and we felt the same thing about our products.  Then it was customer interaction; same thoughts.

But that skewed view rarely reflects the customer’s reality.  It’s like we are the snail in this picture.  It looks pretty big to us; but to the customer, it’s just a small part of their overall world.

For them, this is usually  just one of  a vast number of products and projects they are balancing.  In some cases, its projects that have already kicked off; in others, it is projects competing for a fixed budget; and finally, in some cases it is projects that are interdependent–if they don’t do one; they won’t do the other.   Couple this with being inundated with messages, e-mails, calls, etc from vendors, both for these efforts and for products/services that are not even under consideration.  It’s a complicated mess of information (that is often difficult to differentiate), priorities (that seem to constantly change), and pressures (everyone’s gotta get the day job done).   It is no wonder that buying is really hard and often takes a long, long time.

We’ve been talking frequently about how marketing and sales must adapt to the customer’s situation.   But we may have been missing a key ingredient of that situational analysis–or at least not emphasizing it enough.  We must think of our product in the context of everything else going on at the customer.  This may be bigger than the whole product idea from Crossing the Chasm.  This is about the “whole context.”  How does my product/service with everything else going on at the company?   Is it aligned to the top priorities?   Are there other projects that this will impact, or vice versa?  Are there other projects that may divert focus and resources from this one?

When we talk about “walking in our customer’s shoes”, make sure you are not just walking in them while keeping your world view.  Shift to their world.  Not only may it uncover issues that could slow things down or reveal why you can’t get their attention; it might also reveal opportunities to connect with other needs and accelerate your opportunity while helping your customer in a bigger way.

Whole context.  A hard thing to uncover.  But an aspirational goal for true situational understanding.

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  • Bob Apollo says:

    This is a really important topic – and simply understanding our prospect’s priorities isn’t enough. We need to understand how our champion’s priorities align with those of the organisation as a whole. If we fail to understand this, we may win their recommendation, but they may be incapable of getting their organisation to approve it.

  • Dave Brock says:

    So many rich dimensions in this “whole context” perspective.

    1. We have to help the customer understand how the solution we are proposing/problem they are solving aligns with the top corporate priorities. If we and they can’t demonstrate how the initiative contributes, even in a small way, then it’s not likely to get upper management support.
    2. Too often, we focus on just our part of the problem. It’s rare that our part of the problem encompasses everything the customer has to address to be successful. There are always other components–perhaps complementary solutions from other suppliers, implementation, change management, etc that are part of the whole problem the customer is addressing. We never achieve success until the customer is able to successfully address their whole problem. If we want to get what we want, then we need to have a broader perspective.

    Great post Hank!

    • Hank Barnes says:

      Thanks Dave,

      We have some interesting research coming that will show how important this idea of “whole context” is–both at the level of the organization and the individual members of the buying team. Stay tuned….

  • Gordon Hogg says:

    Your “whole context” perspective is especially important when dealing with the self-educated buyer whose situation doesn’t align with a typical S&M process.

    When confronted with a self-educated buyer, sales people try to “win the beauty contest” with little to no consideration for the whole context either organizationally or within the boundaries of the current sale.

    Whole context. The key to understanding the buyer’s decision making process and aligning the sales “day job” with buyers “day job”.

    Nice post!

    • Hank Barnes says:

      Thanks Gordon,
      Agree totally, because the whole context around that self-educated buyer may be that they have no real ability to drive a purchase decision–so sales may be investing time and resource in a “looking cycle” that will go nowhere.

  • So much truth in this, we are all guilty of looking at life through our eyes without considering the bigger picture.
    Successful selling is all about placing yourself in the shoes of not just the buyer, but also those who have influence over the outcome. Someone explained it simply as ‘walk a mile in my shoes’ which has always stood me in good stead and what we try to emphasise when working with customers

    • Hank Barnes says:

      Thanks John, agree with the sentiments. The tricky thing is walking in the shoes of all the members of the buying team–each with their own perspectives and “other” priorities