The best way to land new customers? Serve Before You Sell

Andy's Profile Picture

One of the most common questions we get from salespeople and sales leaders is, “What can we do differently to improve our prospecting efforts?” The answer lies not in increased call activity levels, not in search engine optimization, and certainly not in buying those e-mail lists you get offered in spam messages. Surprisingly, the answer comes down to age-old human wisdom: serve other people before expecting them to do something for you.

Serving is not about bringing doughnuts, key chains, thumb drives, or pens to your customer. It’s not about sponsoring a pizza lunch for the customer’s office. It’s not about offering gifts or presents. It’s about giving the prospect something of value before she buys anything. By providing value, you will shift the way she perceives you and encourage reciprocal behavior.

When you serve someone, it always involves doing something specific and customized for that individual – fulfilling a specific need or priority you’ve identified in your conversations with that person. That is, it’s not something you do for a group of similar people. It’s not about adding people to mass e-mail lists or newsletters in hope that they might find something useful there. It has to be for an individual, and it has to be in direct response to a need or priority that individual has.

Identifying the need or priority is part of the magic. In a conversation with a prospect, you might hear any number of things with which you can help, even without the prospect buying anything. Here are examples of customer cues that trigger ways to serve the customer:

  • The customer confesses a major challenge that she doesn’t know how to address. You might serve her by providing an article or blog post of which she was unaware that addresses exactly that issue.
  • You discover that the customer is struggling with a particular element of his operations, where your company has great expertise. You offer to connect him with your own internal experts.
  • Your customer has a large multisite organization where communication with headquarters is weak. Use your local account managers to help drive communication in both directions.
  • Your customer is preparing for a critical meeting with her executives, and you offer to help prepare a slide for a presentation.
  • The customer might disclose that he is looking to hire someone with a specific background, and you provide the name of a LinkedIn group that would be a great place to post a job listing.
  • The customer may mention that she is spending her vacation fly-fishing in Montana, and you know an expert on fly-fishing in Montana. Or a great place to eat . . . or to fish.

You can serve your customers’ personal or professional needs or priorities. It doesn’t matter. What does matter is that it’s about the customers and what they are looking for, not about you.

Social science research has shown that gifts are most likely to result in reciprocal behavior when the favors are unexpected and personalized. That’s why figuring out what your customers’ needs and priorities are is the first step. And the second step is giving them something they wouldn’t have expected from a salesperson or don’t get from other salespeople who call on them.

Why does it work to serve your customers first before selling? And does it really lead to a sale?

First, one of the hardest parts of prospecting is getting new customers to engage in a value exchange with you. They might meet with you and even listen to you, but will they take the next step into a business transaction? When you offer value first, instead of requiring them to agree to a purchase first, you make it easier for the customer to move to the next step.

Second, people are naturally wired to be reciprocal. All human societies require reciprocal behavior. We are brought up to repay people for their kindness. This social web of indebtedness, where people share food and skills, is deeply rooted in evolution. In Go Wild, Harvard Medical School professor John Ratey, MD, and journalist Richard Manning explore the evolutionary basis of many of our behaviors, including this reciprocity obligation. They describe the biochemistry of community and the role that the hormone oxytocin plays in our desire to be altruistic, which enables our society to function. For a moment their research turns to the business world:

Research has also shown that oxytocin plays a key role in business transactions, especially in establishing trust…People engaged in business transactions produce a spurt of oxytocin. If one person gives another person ten dollars, the recipient’s oxytocin levels spike a bit. But here’s the kicker: if a computer gives that same person ten dollars, his levels of oxytocin do not increase.

Remember, though, that for reciprocity obligations to be triggered, the act of serving has to be noble and unconditional. You do not serve customers because you are expecting them to buy something from you as a direct result. You serve them because you can and because it is the right thing to do. If you become manipulative with how you serve people, people will see through it, and it will not work.

We live in a world today where almost every moment is filled with e-mails, tweets, news feed updates, mobile phone alerts, and text messages. We’re bombarded with updates, but most have limited value to us. We’re surprised and gratified, then, when something personalized and useful comes our way.

Perhaps the most important element of serving customers is that it shows you have listened. You have listened to what is uniquely relevant to them. That act overcomes a tremendous hurdle with prospects and customers who report that salespeople typically do not listen. By establishing that you are a listener, you change the game and become a welcome partner to that prospect or customer.


Lou Schachter and Rick Cheatham lead the sales practice at BTS, a global professional services firm supporting world leading businesses. They are the co-authors of SELLING VISION: The X→XY→Y Formula for Driving Results by Selling Change (McGraw-Hill; March 2016).

blog comments powered by Disqus