“As a customer grows, so does the number and types of people with whom we need good relationships”

Just the other day one of our sales people found out that a customer requested a quote from one of our competitors for a similar product that we already provide to them.  The person that made the request was one that we did not have a key relationship with, but they did have more power than those we believed to be our key contacts.   The quote they received was lower than ours, but did not reflect the same level of products and services.   This created a bad comparison and sparked our key contacts to call us.  We realized that this new more powerful person was not educated on what they had or needed, and instead of working with us, he went directly to someone else.  This screamed of a trust issue and the situation frustrated our sales person to no end because he had tried to build a relationship with this person for years.  Why didn’t they give him a chance?  There is no way to be certain of their reason, but it was likely because the person did not like/trust those that we had a relationship with, or because we had not focused on the relationship with them as much as we had with our other contacts in the account.  

In our continuous quest for growth we focus on building relationships.  One of the biggest mistakes we can make is to stop growing our existing relationships.  This happens often and by the time it is realized it may be too late.  It happens when we feel comfortable with our existing relationships and feel that they do not need as much attention as do our efforts to build new ones.   To prevent this, we should be reflecting on our existing customers often and asking questions like… How are things going with them?  What has changed about how they are using our product/services?  Who/what has changed within their organization? Is there the potential for us to serve them in more/other ways?  Do we have relationships with the right people?  This last question is one of the most important because things change and if we are not in tune with what is going on, we may find that a new and powerful person does not believe we are paying them any attention (or they may not even know about us).   When this happens, they seek goods/services elsewhere and it creates a steep hill for us if they feel like we have shown them no attention, or that we are only focused on one area of their business.  It can even create a situation where they are determined to work with someone else.

In the example of our sales person discovering a current client was looking to replace us – his response is what inspired this message.   It was obvious that he did not have a good relationship with the person and that all his efforts thus far to build one had failed.   He knew that a key member of our project management team had a good relationship with a person that worked for the key decision maker.   He decided to team up with them and have them secure a meeting with their main contact and the key decision maker, and that he would just attend the meeting as part of the team.  This strategy worked.  They were able to successfully educate the person on their options, and they listened because it was apparent that the trust door had opened.  It also showed them how important we believe they are because the meeting was called with them, rather than them just being asked to attend a meeting we scheduled with our other key contacts in the account.  We will now be able to continue building and strengthening our relationships within, while helping them make the most of the products and services we offer, for a very long time.  

At critical growth points, cultivation of our existing relationships is even more important than building new ones.   We must be proactive in managing our customer relationships – even when we think we have solid relationships with our customers, we should routinely ask the questions that will help us determine when we need to further cultivate our relationships.

“When the competition is creating noise, focus on relationships”

There are times when it seems others are out to hurt us. It is typically the competition, and the type of competition varies from organization to organization. For example, a for-profit business has direct and fierce competition, while a charitable organization will have competition as well – such as competing with other charitable organizations for donor funding. Most important and somewhat depressing is that competition is here to stay. The better we do, the more competition we will attract. Some competitors will be totally unethical in their approach, while others will truly have creative and enticing solutions. So what is our best defense? Strong relationships.

It is never right to speak in vain of someone that has done the same to you (unethical competitors). It is also irresponsible to react to every other competitive attempt to penetrate our customer base. We must continue innovating so that we can maintain a steep competitive moat around the organization, but if we try to do too much too fast (in response to competitive pressure), we simply will not do it well and it will likely take us further away from growing and maintaining our customer relationships. When our focus is on the customer; we know and understand what they want; they trust us so much that they often forward us what the competition is pitching rather than respond themselves; and we provide innovative and quality solutions at the appropriate time rather than shooting from the hip.

So here is one simple relationship check up: If a customer receives a call from a competitor who is claiming to give them a superior service, better price, etc., what is the first thing the customer is going to do? If the answer is call us because we are who they trust, then our relationship is very healthy. Alternatively, if we have not been doing our job maintaining customer relationships and meeting new people within each current customer location, they may not know who to call in our organization, or worse – they do not even know who their current provider is. This is relationship failure and good organizations witness it regularly from clients who transition because they were unhappy with a previous provider. Everything can be tracked back to relationships. Even if an organization made a large mistake that negatively impacted a customer, the customer could be retained if the right relationship is in place. Without it, not a chance, and we all know that no organization is perfect. There will be mistakes and relationships will be needed in both the good and the bad times.

The #1 focus in an organization should be it’s customers. Customers are why organizations exist and if we want to keep our customers and grow our customer base each year, strong relationships will do it. When strong relationships exist, customers do not simply leave because someone is pitching a new widget or because someone is claiming to have a price that is slightly below ours. Instead we are their first call because the want to inform us of what is going on. They care about us, just like we care about them.

Regardless of the type of competitor and/or their approach – strong relationships are the most important factor in customer retention and in developing new customers. There is nothing more valuable.

“We know who our primary customers are and are committed to serving them. However we often forget our internal customers and the need to serve them as well”

We all think of customers as those who we provide products and services to, and as the primary reason for our existence as an organization.   We also make sure our team understands how important customers are, which leads to consistent high quality customer service, and a healthy and growing organization.  What we tend to forget is the customer relationship dynamic that must be present internally.  Without it, the ultimate goal of taking care of our primary customers becomes much more difficult to achieve.

Internal customers are everywhere.  They are the people we work with, other departments, partners, vendors, etc..  We absolutly need one another in order to service our primary customers.  The unfortunate side effect of having a large focus on our primary customers is that while individuals are doing everything they can to take care of them, they forget team dynamic / internal customer relationships.  Sometimes they even believe they are working against one another.   In the most severe cases, internal team members become unapproachable by one another, which will become deadly to the common goal of having happy customers.

Who are our internal customers?  From a leadership perspective, it is really just about everyone on the team; other leaders, their team members, our direct team members, and even our partners and vendors.  It is most common to neglect this when we are extremely busy trying to take care of the primary customer, and there are periods of time when it just happens because of workload and the needs of our primary customers.  In those cases we do have to prioritize and take care of the customer, which is the right thing to do and deserves our total focus.  However, we have to make adjustments so that we can get back to improving the organization by fostering positive and motivating internal customer relationships as well.   If other organizations are anything like the organization I am part of, there is no shortage of focus on the primary customers.   We absolutely have the fundamental of focusing on our customers nailed.  We will do just about anything to make them happy and we spend the vast majority of our days doing just that.   It is our most important common goal, but we too forget about each other and it is usually when we are overwhelmed by taking care of the primary customer.

We should take some time to think through our list of internal customers and do a checkup.   How are those relationships?  Does everyone feel they can come to you with ideas and for help or guidance?  Do you feel you can go to them for the same things?  What can be done to foster more teamwork between individuals and teams?  How are we serving them?  How can we serve them better?  What is getting in our way/what adjustments need to be made?  The reality and what we all understand is that we absolutely need each other and must provide service to one another in order for us to achieve long-term customer satisfaction, not to mention a positive and motivating work environment.



“Each customer interaction is an interview”

Customers interview us every day and having the right players on our team is crucial because the interview is based on the representatives of our organizations.  Our team must be prepared, dress appropriately, have charisma, good follow-up, and must have expertise that is applicable to the customer/solution.  Failing in any of these areas is irresponsible and not acceptable.  As organizations, we are hired just like an employee is, and in similar fashion we are rarely the only organization being interviewed.  To win, we must consistently put our best foot forward.  The most successful organizations interview well and win the job/partnership the majority of time.  

Once we win a customer’s confidence (the job), the interviewing continues.   We can’t win the job and then disappoint the customer later in the relationship.  Customers hold us accountable just as they do their employees.  They should/will replace us with someone else if we are not meeting/exceeding their expectations.  The need for great customer service, communication, processes, and great people, is organization wide – not just in the front end business development process.  We should have the types of team members that make us feel as though everyone is an excellent and helpful customer service representative, not just a select few.

And lastly, let’s not forget the importance of our team interviewing the customer.  It is extremely important to ask pointed and genuine questions to let customers know that we are just as concerned about having a good fit as they are.  We want to know their challenges, their goals, and how we can help.  Without this information it is hard for us to provide real value.  Just “checking – in” from time to time is not providing real value.  Being a consultant is being a good partner.  Giving before receiving is crucial.  Starting a meeting with a product or company information dump is the equivalent to being “just another sales person”.  How can one recommend what is in a client’s best interest if that interest/need is yet to be known?  Asking solid questions and caring about their business first, typically leads to flipping the demand factor.

Most organizations do a less than superior job interviewing initially and throughout the customer relationship life cycle.  We should embrace this as one of the easiest competitive advantages to execute on.  It is as simple as treating every customer interaction like an interview for a job that we must win, each and every time.