How To Keep Your Accounts Safe From the Competition
Up to this point we have focused on finding new customers. But . . .
The most important people in your business are the customers you already have.
One of the most common errors salespeople make is to pursue new business at the expense of the business they already have. Remember that the people you are now working with are paying your rent and salary. For that reason, I believe it is critical for you to solidify your current customer base before you go out looking for new customers.
An analogy will help orient your approach to this task. If I gave my twenty- three year old son advice to save him money, he would nod and, if I was lucky, think about it for a minute or two before deciding to ignore it. But if my neighbor told him the exact same thing, the odds are a whole lot better that the advice might be adopted. Here is one more example. I haven’t seen my college fraternity brother, Jim Kleiber, in over fifteen years. If he walked into my house right now I would treat him exactly like I remembered him fifteen years ago. I would reminisce with him about war stories and pranks we committed.
Here is the point: Is my fraternity brother the same person he was fifteen years ago? No. Some of your customers have been your customers for a long time. There’s a good chance that you are treating them like you remember them when you first started doing business together. There is a good chance that you are treating your children like you remember them, as dependents. But your next door neighbor treats your child like he sees him today, like a young adult.
Your competition is treating your customers the way they want to be treated today. But you may be treating them like you have always treated them even though their business and needs have changed.
So here is the plan. Begin at base zero and reintroduce yourself to everyone in your life. You want to size them up brand new in today’s terms. Start with those closest to you. Look at them with a fresh pair of eyes. Then, turn to your customers . . . all of your customers. Schedule an appointment to get to know them, their business and their needs all over again. Find out what they like . . . today. Find out what they don’t like . . . today. Make a new pact with them and follow through accordingly.
Here is how you might approach this with a customer.
Salesperson: “Jim, I’ve recently been reviewing our customer base and I’m dumbfounded, but I think it’s true. You and I haven’t met in over a year. So, I’d like to come in, ask you a few questions, just to make sure we’re delivering the service that you expect from us.”
When you do sit down and reintroduce yourselves, find out if your client is looking for other services (services that you may now offer that he is not aware exist). By doing this you re-establish your relationship and keep it on a firm foundation. At the end of the meeting, also request a referral.
Putting Your Commercial Accounts “In The Vault”
Over the years I have developed a list of things you can do to protect your commercial accounts from the competition — to put your accounts “in the vault.” I call these :
Let’s look at each suggestion individually.
#1: Boost Customer Awareness Among Employees
First, you need to understand the difference between a company run with a “marketing philosophy” and a company run with a “production philosophy.” I’ve found that many small companies which do not know better have adopted a production philosophy. This philosophy says, “This is what we do. Are you interested or not?” Kind of a take it or leave it attitude
In contrast, a company run on the marketing philosophy determines what the customer is interested in, what he needs and what he expects, and then delivers on the promise to satisfy these criteria.
A classic example of the production philosophy would be Ford’s attitude during its early years. Ford said that customers could have any color Model T they would like . . . as long as it was black. General Motors was one of the first major companies which understood the economic sense of the marketing philosophy — of giving the customer a choice. GM built Buicks, Cadillacs and Chevrolets — each one in different colors with a myriad of options. (Interestingly, once they dominated the industry, GM apparently lost its marketing focus and created products based on what it felt consumers should have. GM did not listen to what the public wanted. The result: the rise of companies that did listen — Honda, Toyota, Volkswagen, etc.)
Success in business today requires total customer focus — provide choices and services that customers truly want. First, you need to embrace this philosophy. Then, you need to get it through to your people, especially to your outside salespeople. How do you pin-point your customer’s specific wants and needs? You talk to them, listen and create mechanisms in your organization for the customer feedback to reach the decision-makers and product/service designers.
Believe it or not, I’ve been in companies at ten minutes of eight in the morning when I hear the phone ringing and nobody makes a move to answer it. If I ask, “How come you don’t answer the telephone?”, they say, “We don’t open until eight o’clock.” After spending thousands of dollars and countless hours doing everything under the sun to get customers to call, they decide that the phone is ringing four minutes too soon! The personnel are clearly operating with the attitude that if they answer the phone every time it rings they won’t have time to “do their work.” Teach them “their work” is servicing customers (and prospective customers).
From time to time, sharpen your employees sensitivity to customer service by having internal office contests. You might call it “Operation Customer.” For example, every phone in the office must be answered within two rings or everyone must deposit a dollar into a kitty. The first employee who receives a glowing customer service letter gets the pot. Or, designate a certain major customer as the “Company of the Week.” Or you can have a sales contest with a “We Care” theme.
Let your customers know about these internal programs and contests. It’s a good way to show the customer that your people are focused on customer satisfaction. You emphasize that every customer contact is important. You preach that no customer problem is irrelevant or too small.
Draw up a rating system and rate yourself. Post the results on the wall. Challenge this month’s results and try to do better the following month. Make a game out of servicing your customers.
Believe this. The most common reason why you lose a customer is because you stop paying attention to that customer and take the customer for granted. Perform with this mindset: You have an opportunity to service your customer for just thirty days. After thirty days you will lose that customer. But if you manage to bend over backwards for the customer, you will get another thirty days. Your company will find energies and perform magic like you never thought possible. Your response time will instantly improve
One final idea: Beginning immediately, put all your major customers on a thirty-day customer service performance review. You will be very glad you took this advice.
#2: Fuel Customer Service From The Top
As a president goes so does the company. Show me a squared away president and I’ll show you a company which has its act together. As a president laughs, the people laugh. As a president gets nervous, staff gets nervous. If a president answers the phone quickly within three rings, the people will answer the phone within three rings. Employees usually adopt the personality of the company’s management.
Therefore, the marketing philosophy which is so necessary today must be exhibited daily from the top. If that means you . . . enough said. But if you are not the Top Gun, the message still applies. All the people who report to you take their cues from you.
#3: Ask Employees To Complete The Customer Satisfaction Questionnaire
Too many companies today contradict their mission statement. Companies are quick to send out questionnaires to find out if clients are pleased, but often fail to respond to criticism.
By all means, ask your customers regularly to evaluate the products or services you provide. But also use this different approach: Send a customer questionnaire to your own employees and ask how they think things are working . . . what is right and what is wrong with the current system. When your employees work in a system they feel is flawed, who do you think suffers? The customer takes the hit just before your wallet does. Customer service audit questionnaires take a little guts but are a good idea. They provide useful results and put your employees into the mind of a customer — a sure way to boost awareness.
#4: Enroll In The C.I.A.
That stands for “Competitor Intelligence Acquisition.” Everyone in your entire organization should be trained to keep their ears and eyes open to learn as much as they can about your competition. This market sleuthing involves your sales personnel, your customers, your suppliers, trade literature and advertising. Here is a hit list.
Present Customers — Your salespeople should talk to present customers to find out who’s soliciting their business. Salespeople should think of themselves as information sources and detectives finding out where their competition is trying to strike. Your better customers are an excellent source of information, and once the relationship is formed you can ask them, “Who’s knocking on your door? And what are they offering to do for you? Anything we are not?” You can be as straightforward as that. (I’ve asked customers if they’d let me look at competitor’s proposals. Sometimes they do. Sometimes they don’t. There is no harm in asking, and customers never hold it against me. In fact, they feel that I am pretty aggressive . . . in a good way.)
Suppliers — You can get information from any supplier’s rep who comes into your office to sell you something. Remember, if they are calling on you, they are probably calling on your competition. Ask questions, and you’ll be surprised how many times you get answers. Just be honest and up front with your questions.
Trade Literature — Trade literature is another good source of information on competitors. Take a good look through your industry’s trade magazines. Read the articles and the ads. See what your competition is up to. Funny thing about “trade secrets” and ideas, many people tell the press everything they are doing because they get a kick reading about themselves. Read the literature and you can often go the bank on other people’s ideas.
Read your local papers, not for entertainment but for leads and ideas. Find out what the competition is advertising as “new” or “improved.” Look in the Want Ads to find out if your competition is hiring people and what positions they are filling. Evaluate your competitions’ ads to see how they are spending their money.
#5: Put Your Best Customers On The Team
Getting your customer into the act is another good way to hold on to customers. Make them a part of the “team.” Ask them to be on your customer “board of advisors” or a focus group. More and more companies are building their corporate brochures around identified major customers — complete with quotes and pictures of the customer’s CEO.
#6: Demonstrate A Long-Term Commitment
Going the extra mile with service is the fastest and the easiest way to demonstrate a long-term commitment. Let me give you a personal example. I was at a business meeting in Jamaica, and my client realized late Friday afternoon that he needed some 35 mm slides Monday morning which were currently hung up in customs. The problem: The Customs Office was closed over the weekend. I saw this “impossible” predicament as an opportunity to cement my relationship with the client. I first tried phone calls and the hotel’s leverage — both to no avail. So, I drove down to the Custom’s Office, spent some time befriending the people on duty, got one to make a phone call to the home of the big cheese who finally came down to the customs area (cup of coffee in hand) and handed me the slides. To this day, that client thinks I walk on water.
Making an investment in your business which directly benefits the customer is also another way to show your long-term commitment. You can invest in a service clients may be looking for or train their internal personnel on a software program (like PowerPoint or Excel.) Use your imagination to find ways to show your sincere interest in helping your clients succeed.
Becoming an important business contact for your customer is another way to solidify a commitment. I use the term “bring something to the party.” When you are invited to someone’s house for dinner, you usually bring a bottle of wine or desert, or something. Do the same thing when you visit your customer. Bring information . . . or an invitation to a business event . . . or a book, audio or video that pertains to their industry. Every time you make a sales call do a little homework on the industry so you can say to your customer, “Did you know . . . ?” or “I thought you might be interested in learning that . . . ?” If your customer learns something useful each time you meet he will welcome your sales call.
Developing a personal relationship is always a good idea if you believe you have a natural affinity with the client. After you’ve done some business with a client whose personality you enjoy, ask him to join you for dinner, a show or a sports event. (It’s a good idea to invite the client’s spouse or significant other along.)
This may sound like hard work, and it is. This effort is suitable only if you want to get ahead and maintain sound business relationships with your good customers.
Top management involvement with customers also solidifies long-term commitment . Presidents and higher management should get out of the office and visit customers. You’d be surprised how many company owners have never met their best customers. Owners should occasionally call customers and get personally involved with complaints even when such involvement may not be necessary. When the top guy shows interest, this is proof positive to the customer that they care.
#7: Attack Sales-Killing Complaints
The number one reason why service providers lose customers is by showing indifference. The perception that you are taking a customer for granted opens the door to your competition. And the mother load of indifference is failing to respond to complaints quickly and vigorously. That’s the overwhelming reason why people go elsewhere with their business. Think of it this way:
The customer’s temperature is already up . . . he is smoldering . . . and the unresponsive salesperson is dipping him in gasoline.
You can prevent most of your customer service problems if you want to. There’s no reason why you have to lose an account. Create a mechanism to handle complaints with these characteristics:
1. All complaints get recorded and are passed up the line for review (not retribution);
- Empower the appropriate people to satisfy complaints on the spot;
- Collect frequent complaints and “fix the problem” permanently;
- Regularly test the system — call in with a complaint and see what happens.
#8: Become A Partner In Your Customer’s Success
Every chance you get, try to help your customers earn more money with cost, time and productivity improvements. Help your customers financially manage their accounts. Offer constructive ways of having them pay for services. Bring some information that will help customers run their companies.
Offer time-saving ideas to your customers. Sit down with your staff and the customer and see whether you can help save time on a project basis or an entire program basis.
Define what the “Ultimate Service” means to your customer. This doesn’t mean that the ultimate service has to be free. People usually pay for services they value. If your customer wants something you can provide, put a price on it and let the customer decide whether to buy it or not.
#9: Use Your Small Company Edge
Think big. Act small. This is what I call the “Small Company Edge.” I don’t care if your company is big . . . and I don’t care if your company is small. You want to achieve the Small Company Edge.
Many prospects are concerned that they may lose personal attention with a big company. The big company emphatically says, “No, no, no . . . you won’t get lost in the bigness of our company. We will dedicate three, four, or five people to work with you. We’ll maintain that personal approach.” Guess what? Your small company already has that personal approach.
Small companies have several advantages. One, obviously, is personalized service. The customer won’t get lost in the shuffle. When customers call, you know their names, and customers like that.
Response time is also generally an advantage for the small company. The customer does not have to navigate red tape. You can respond to your customer’s needs and problems (sometimes working “out of the box”) without signatures from several different people. (This makes life more enjoyable in and of itself.) Small companies can be more efficiently managed. You can make decisions and break rules on the spot. Smaller companies have spontaneity on their side.
Small companies are used to a lean and mean approach to doing business. They don’t have all kinds of money, so they have to hit projects, run and dodge, and get the job done any way they can. This is known as gorilla warfare, and small companies are the odds-on winners at this game.
Small companies must also practice niche marketing. (Pronounced “nitch” in my home state of New Jersey. If you pronounce it “neesh” I should have charged you $129 for this book, just so you’d feel sufficiently abused.) Niche marketing is an exercise in focus and self discipline. It runs contrary to the belief that you are good enough to be all things to all people. Niche marketing involves identifying your strengths and your weaknesses, and attacking the segment of the marketplace that makes the most sense to you. In niche marketing you don’t try to sign your competitor’s biggest customer . . . you find out who or what need that you can uniquely service is not being serviced properly in the market. Then you approach that opportunity with a vengeance.
#10: Humanize The Business Relationship
If people aren’t buying your act there’s nothing you can do about it. Be natural. Be yourself. You can’t be anything else, so why try? Believe in yourself. Believe in your product. Believe in your company.
With that mindset, follow these simple “humanizing” suggestions to help make prospect and customer contacts turn into lasting relationships.
- Break a rule. — Be a human being. Just get the job done. If that means you bend or break a non-essential rule to deliver what your customer needs . . . do it. (But let the higher ups know that you did so to “invest” in the relationship.)
- Make a friend. — When you go to make a presentation, go with the objective of making a friend. Be a nice, friendly, polite, up-front person who is receptive to meeting another business professional.
- Customize your service. — Don’t exhibit tunnel vision. Find out what your customers are looking for, then do everything you can to satisfy those needs within the scope of your capabilities and resources.
- Laugh at yourself. — If you make a mistake, have a good laugh . . . when the mistake is non-critical. Hopefully, this kind of thing doesn’t happen every day. But learn to accept and enjoy the side of you that is human. I assure you that most mistakes that put you in a blue funk are not as big a deal as you think. You can have a lot of laughs once you learn to take yourself a little less seriously.
#11: Say Thank You
One of the easiest and most effective ways to convince customers you care is by saying “thank you” more than once every fifteen years. Let’s face it, we get so busy day to day that we often fail to say thank you to the people who matter most.
You can say thank you the simple way and you can say thank you with a little more flare. I use both. Just last week I sent two American Express Gift Checks to a speaker’s bureau that books me — a reminder that I know what side of the bread the butter is on. The bonus from a “thank you” campaign is that handing people small, unexpected gifts is pure joy. Try it, but don’t be surprised if it becomes addictive.
#12: Measure And Improve Customer Satisfaction
You should initiate a two-way dialogue with your customers to stay on top of customer satisfaction and head off problems that can cost you accounts. On-going customer research is imperative. Here are two practical ways to do it.
- Dial for the “Un-smile” — Call your best customers on a scheduled rotation and simply ask, “Is everything Okay? How are we doing?” Usually the answer is “Fine.” You are off the phone inside a minute, but you remain inside your client’s memory for a very long time.
- Mail for the Fail — Send your customers the old “How am I doing?” questionnaire from time to time. You might trigger some uneasiness and unrest early in the relationship, but that’s exactly what you want to do. You want to flush out all problems and head the major complaints off at the pass
If you tell your clients they are part of a “full client survey,” few will fill out the questionnaire. So select a few individuals from time to time and tell them they are a “select” group you are asking for feedback.
Make the questionnaire simple to fill out. Let the customer circle an answer rather than comment in long hand. Expect a bunch of favorable returns — the “butterflies.” These will give you the fuzzies, but they are not the ones that have much value. You are looking for the “bees” — the ones that sting you. These are providing the “wake-up call” that you want and need. Respond conscientiously to these stings, and your business will flow like honey.
As you can see, there really is no secret agenda when it comes to protecting your customers from the competition. You’ve worked hard to land an account. You’ve determined that the account is very important to your future. Simply focus your energies toward keeping your account satisfied. Treat people properly. Identify what they want and need and show them you are serious about supplying it. At every opportunity that presents itself, thank them for the opportunity of calling them customers.
Make up your mind to service accounts the way that you said you would when your current customers were prospects. Customers are not easy to come by, so they are worth every effort to keep.