Written by Kevin Jones, Principal – Ignite Selling

You call on a large account and you know what you need to know to be effective, right? You know your products, the customers, the industry, the competitors. But there is one key question that sometimes remains a mystery.

What are the guidelines by which your customer evaluates what is important to them?

These are called selection criteria. Let’s assume, for example, that you could only choose to enroll in ONE frequent flyer program. How would you choose the program? What attributes would you consider important? Would you look for a program with more pre-boarding perks, such as an airport lounge or early boarding for members? Or would a program that made it easier to use rewards points be more important to you? Would you like a program with exceptional e-communication capabilities, such as electronic boarding passes or delayed flight alerts? Or would you rather have a program that had a broad partner base allowing you to use miles for things other than flights? Your customers go through a similar process to determine what’s important to them and what is incidental. Our first task is to uncover our customers’ selection criteria.

After compiling a comprehensive list of selection criteria, it makes sense to consider whether there are others you have omitted. There may be criteria that the customer has not even considered, but should consider. By creating a more robust list of all the possible selection criteria, we enable our customers to make better choices, and we give ourselves the building blocks for a well-thought out competitive analysis.

Ranking the criteria
After compiling a comprehensive list of criteria, the next task is to rank order them, from most important to least. Returning to our frequent flyer example, we might start the process by asking, “What’s most important to you in a frequent flyer program?” What are the “must haves” and what are the “nice to haves” on the list? While the questions could be posed in a number of different ways, the desired outcome is insight into how your customer will evaluate the various alternatives from which they could choose.

Inevitably, these lists create conflict between competing “desires.” To use our frequent flyer example, superior partner programs might be as highly desirable as a network of hospitality lounges. If both are considered highly important, how do you break the tie? So the next question to ask is “How do you rank criteria relative to each other?” They must have a relative ranking. Even if a customer considers several “crucial” criteria, ultimately they have to choose between them.

For many customers (and for people in general), this is a difficult task. Many of us really do want it have our cake and eat it, too. And certainly, there may be circumstances where those competing criteria happily co-exist in one solution. The question here is, “What are you willing to sacrifice?” You can’t have the best quality for the cheapest price – at least not usually.

Case study: Ranking – Why it matters?
Diane is a sales representative for one of the top cruise lines in the world. Diane’s primary customers are travel agents who book cruises on her ships, as well as the ships of her competitors. Because Diane’s customers are routinely visited by sales representatives from other cruise lines, her greatest challenge is capturing and retaining what might be called “mind share” – that is, trying to keep herself near the forefront of her customers’ minds.

When we first began working with Diane and her company, she was in the midst of competing for an opportunity to book a large corporate sales meeting on one of her ships. A travel agent in her territory had been approached by the company looking to host its annual sales meeting aboard a cruise ship, and the travel agent was trying to determine which cruise line to award the business. The company had asked the travel agent to contact all the major cruise lines to find the best fit for their needs and budget.

Like all top performers we have worked with, Diane had a thorough familiarity with her strengths and weaknesses relative to her competitors. So going in, she knew she would not be the low-cost option. To win, she would have to take the customer’s attention off price and emphasize her strengths.

Fortunately, Diane had done her homework. She had learned what the end user’s selection criteria looked like. In order of importance, the selection criteria were:
1. Capacity, serve the catering needs of the entire group in a single location on the ship
2. Quality, accommodations
3. Price, per passenger
4. Activities, both on-board and in port
5. Partners, special arrangements for air transportation
6. Ship, age and quality

Diane had an excellent first step in developing a competitive analysis, which would ultimately provide insights into what needed to happen next. She has not only the major decision criteria, but the ranked sequence of importance.

This is not the end of the decision making analysis, but it is an important step that is often overlooked. The value of sales is often not in the answers we give, but the questions we ask. There will be times when the sales rep questions stimulate thought and discussion on the decision making criteria. These are important questions to ask.