How close should we get with our clients?
A recent conversation with the Sales Manager of a telecom company brought me alive to the need for moderation in relationship building. He and I shared the same surname, but it is a common one here in Kerala; & both were born in the same city in North India – that’s unusual. I became aware of this tit-bit of information while researching the person, preparatory to the call. And as an ice-breaker I mentioned these commonalities. The intent was not to gain any advantage, but such things usually help to get the conversation started. He did not seem inclined to broach the subject and I quickly changed tack.
Maybe he wished to keep the discussion very formal in the early stages and that was illustrated quite sharply when he rebuffed my inside man’s attempt to dwell on some personal details a bit later. Since I was an outsider, and a visitor, he did not try to snub me, but the junior officer who set up the meeting for me was quickly put in his place: “Let us stick to the subject, please!”
Usually people enjoy meeting those who are:
- from their alma mater
- former colleagues
- from the town they lived in
- from their hometown / family
But that should not be taken for granted; people change with time and may not be inclined to discuss such things with you. A junior official might enjoy indulging in small talk, but a senior official or a CXO level individual may not. It’s possible that they all are interested, but many don’t wish to drop their guard for fear of losing the strategic advantage – or would do so only with peers.
It is also possible that the officials who act cold and formal during the negotiations turn warm and friendly after the business is done; the mask often gets dropped after a few meetings. They are probably gauging you for substance and on the deliverables; when they are sure that you are a professional and know where to draw the line they turn friendly.
It is best to permit the customer to take the lead in such matters – if they wish to be chatty and informal you can play along; otherwise you would do well to remain pleasant and keep the discussion formal.
The caveat is not to lose sight of your priorities and keep your business priorities uppermost. Customers can play all sorts of games and lull you into an indiscretion – the friendliness may be a ploy to disarm you and reap a benefit from the deal. When you are in an extremely happy mood remember not to divulge any critical information, nor should you promise anything beyond your empowerment.
While meeting a person of the opposite sex it’s best to maintain professionalism in all dealings – nothing in your words and actions should be even misconstrued as unacceptable or uncivil. When there are meetings away from the office, such as a luncheon appointment, keep the conversation focused on work and casual talk should be impersonal and general. You shouldn’t pry or be indiscreet. It can jeopardize relationships between the organisations and impact business negatively.
It’s best not to get personal with someone you are doing business with – such involvements can distract both sides and lead to loss of focus, due to mixed priorities.
If the relationship gets personal the best option would be to hand-over the business dealings to someone else in your organisation or deal with some other official on the client-side.
Customer Intimacy isn’t what you think it is. Don’t get too cosy with your customer … it would turn into a hotbed for disaster!
Business is best done with friends, but the level of friendship needs to be defined – it should not clash with your organisation’s interests.
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The 150th post at this blog!!
It is said that we can’t choose our parents or our Boss; we have to make do with the ones we’ve got. This article is about a 3rd category that I wish to add to the list … Our customer!
Most times we don’t have the privilege of choosing the customers we wish to deal with; the only option is to quietly accept the ones who are willing to transact business with us. Is that true?
Well, in recent times a lot of people have been beating a fiery path away from the door to rid themselves of intolerable bosses; and having done it myself, I know for sure all customers need not be accepted either.
But there are yardsticks and ground rules for this – you don’t just walk away!
Imagine meeting someone like Steve Jobs – extremely demanding, strongly opinionated, overbearing and difficult to convince (these are not my usages or deductions – I picked these descriptive terms from the articles on his persona available on the Internet). People often found it difficult to get a word in edgeways with him and one had to be prepared to answer extremely sticky questions. It was a high stress situation. But people who were able to convince the man probably walked away with deals worth millions of dollars.
On the other end of the spectrum would be someone like A K Antony, India’s Defence Minister, a man of few words and extremely slow in making decisions. He would mull over details, form sub-committees to double check every line of the contract. For him it is safety first. He does not wish to be a part of any scam or controversy. Recently when the entire country was making a huge fuss over the Army Chief’s age issue Minister Antony did not speak with the Press even once through the entire episode. You probably might sit through an hour long meeting with him and hear him speak just a few sentences. But he too has the power to give you deals worth millions.
And then you meet really sweet guys who invite you in, speak with you for hours, even take you to the Executive Canteen for a sumptuous lunch or a snack; he would include you on Facebook and LinkedIn and send forwards and photos, but at the end of the year you would remain emptiness handed. That’s when you realize that this bonhomous guy was leading you up the garden path!
Customers come in all shapes, sizes and wrappings. It’s for you to decide which one to keep and which to let go. Here are some suggestions on choosing your customer:
- The fit
Do you have a solution that meets their requirement; if not an exact fit can it be made suitable with a little bit of rework. Will you be able to provide the volumes and the service levels that they expect? Do your standards match theirs? Unless you have a good product the chances of making inroads into the account are remote.
- The opportunity
How much business can they offer you? Can they take all your produce or at least a significant amount? Are they willing to accept the price levels you set for the product? Even if you have to offer discounts are they within acceptable range? Is the business going to be commensurate with the time spent?
- The relationship edge
How badly do you want them as your customer? Would having them on your client list bring you other accounts? Can their patronage add value to your brand? You might even have to accept a deeper price-cut to get them on board but that can be made up through the extra business you win from other customers thanks to the big account’s patronage.
- The outlook
Can they offer you recurring business? Are they in a growth business? Are they seen as a leader in their industry? If they win you stand to gain too. So choose an account that is doing well and has a good future – your future is made if you continue to serve them well.
- Dealings and practices
Are their business practices good? Do they have a good standing in the market? Do they make high quality products, or at least reasonably good ones, and do all their customers get a fair deal? Are their dealings with you fair? Do they give you reasonable amount of time to fulfil the orders and they pay you on time?
- How they treat you?
Do they see you as a partner or a vendor? Do they respect your credentials and counsel? Do they keep you waiting? Do they play hard to get? Do they browbeat you into accepting their terms? Are the dealing with top Executives or a junior functionary? Do they call you for advice?
- X Factor
Is there anything you have seen, heard or felt that tells you that this is a client worth holding onto – maybe they are not big now, maybe they have not been giving you huge business in recent times but you know for sure that being on their radar will help directly or indirectly. Their industry that is on the wane presently but is expected to rebound in the near future, they are recruiting in the near future and they have a breakthrough product that is going to rule the market. These are not easy to enumerate and address logically, it’s an intuitive thing – but then huge success stories are the result of gut feelings.
We don’t have to live with the ones we have got – we can help them change and we can change too. But relationships are built on trust, values and respect; relationships last only when both sides win and all dealings are on level terms.
Barring exceptions or dire circumstances it pays to choose your customer. You are worth it!
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How does it feel when a dear friend leaves town for good and you get to know only when another person tells you why he’s suddenly gone missing? Or a colleague expects you to pinch hit for her when she is on vacation and has not left any information to help you do it well?
I am sure the first is bound to make you feel terrible – you wonder why the other person had been uncaring about your feelings and you may question the value of relationships. And in the second instance you feel annoyed because the co-worker had taken you for granted and created room for errors – there is even the chance of getting (unjustly) blamed for “messing things up”.
Both these are cases of relationship lapses.
Key Account Management is essentially good Relationship Management – your first and possibly even the second sale to an account may be awarded due to good product or service values – it’s the benefit accruing from the purchase that tilts the deal in your favour. But long-term business associations are based on strong relationships. Let me repeat, at the risk of being called a parrot, that people enjoy doing business with friends. So you need to develop a strong emotional connect with your clients in order to maintain a strong repeat business inventory.
When you leave one employer and move to the next make sure that you speak with each of your top accounts and tell them what’s been planned to continue the relationship – how their life can go on without hassles even in your absence. You will do well to introduce your replacement to all the key personnel in the top accounts.
Isn’t there a win for you in this? People change jobs more often these days; there is a good chance that you may meet one or more of your present business associates elsewhere – and they would love to continue doing business with you if the relationship had been good in the past. The other benefit being that they may put in a good word to the next employer or to another business associate if you had been effective, professional and reliable.
In the second case I mentioned earlier it’s best for you to be proactive and get the necessary information from your co-worker even at the expense of disturbing a person who is on a holiday. Make the person aware of the possible pitfalls and the potential business loss due to poor relationship management. Let the person know that taking the trouble to provide the inputs will give her greater peace of mind while she is on holiday and later, when she returns to work.
If the person is not reachable you can do either of two things:
- Inform your manager that you are doing it blindly because there is no support information available. You intend to do the best possible but should not be blamed later for messing up something you were not aware of. But don’t use this as an opportunity to mess things up.
- Talk to client proactively and ask them to provide you all the support information. Without blaming your co-worker tell them that you are not aware of some details and would need their support to help take the process forward.
When you leave an organisation or go on vacation don’t ever get into a eye-for-an-eye mode and walk-away without leaving information – it can backfire on you when least expected.
Cheap thrills are short-term; relationships are for the long-term…. Make your choice!
Here is a chance to score 100%!
Imagine you are attending a Quiz and these are the 10 questions you have to answer:
- Who are your Top 25 accounts in terms of revenue?
- Which 5 accounts give you the most repeat business?
- Which 5 accounts have had the most complaints about your service?
- Who complaint the least (Name 5)?
- Who are the key players in each of your top 20 accounts (name 3 officials in each) ?
- Do you know value of the most recent order you received from the Top 5 accounts?
- What accolades were won by your customers in the last 6 months?
- What are the current growth plans of your top 10 accounts?
- Is the Head of each of your top 10 accounts a member of any leading club?
- What are the CSR activities your customers are involved in?
How much would you score if a point were to be awarded for each bit of information?
Why is it important? I will tell you in a minute. But first let me ask you another question:
- Have you heard about the Mackay–66?
Harvey Mackay is the author of many business bestsellers – the two really popular books of his are titled “Swim with Sharks (without being eaten alive)” and “Beware of the Naked man who offers you his shirt”. He was also the founder and owner of Mackay Envelope Corporation which in 2000 had a turnover of USD 85 million from just selling envelopes!
Mackay believed that in order to build successful relationships with his customers he needed to know them well – so he kept track of those 66 crucial bits of information about each of his major clients and diligently used them to get close to his customers, which in turn gave him big returns by way of business. Mackay was not manoeuvring or blackmailing them with the information, but it provided him with the insights and the edge that his competitors lacked.
He sent them greetings, appreciation letters, participated in the programs where he could be seen with them / by them and made them constantly aware of his presence. The relationship was carefully nurtured in a non – abrasive way till each of them became his friend.
Don’t you think the same is possible for each one of you?
- Greet your customer on his/her birthday.
- Congratulate him on every achievement.
- Be present when he is making a speech at a industry forum.
- Appreciate the organisation for their CSR activity.
- Recognise their business achievements with a nice written letter.
This can be achieved in a number of ways:
- You can mention some when you are on a business call.
- A senior manager can write them a note
- Award them a certificate in a public function for certain achievements
- Your Head Honcho can mention it during a visit to a Senior Official’s office.
Each such action scores you a point – it makes them constantly aware of your presence.; when it’s done in style and without resorting to flattery the impact on the customer will be huge.
But this is not a one-off activity – such programs should become a part of your agenda or even the business plan.
Be nice to your customer – the pay back makes it worthwhile!
It was a fight for Prestige. The volume of business was decent, not large, and the recurring revenues would be above average rather than fantastic.
Over a decade ago my team was in pitched battle with our only competitor, to strike a major deal with the State Government. At stake was the honor to provide mobile phone connections to the Chief Minister, his team of Ministers and the top Government Secretaries – it was just 25 connections in total. But with the contract would come crowing rights – the winner could proudly announce that they are the “Official Mobile Service Provider of the State!”
No quarter given, it was a dour struggle.
Mid–way through the campaign we were feeling pretty smug – both parties had submitted the initial proposals, then been called for negotiations, and it was learnt, based on information gathered after the two rounds of discussions and review by the Purchase Committee, that our offer was not just lower on price, but it also matched almost all the parameters listed in the RFP.
It was just a matter of time before the order was signed, sealed and delivered to us … or so we thought!
A few days before the formal letter was to be collected we heard from a source that the Review Committee had done an about turn and was now favoring our rival. Based on some new information received, the Committee decided to have another sitting because the users were high-profile and needed uninterrupted service – they weren’t taking any chances.
The reason for the review: It was “found” that we were suspect on After-Sales Service!
We were shattered – everyone, from the State Business Head down to me, scrambled to get in touch with our contacts in the Procurement Department and the Purchase Committee. We zeroed in on the “trouble-maker”. A member of the Technical committee, who even in the negotiations stage had made a strong bid to favour our competitor (he was using their service already), had been fed information that a major client had cancelled the connections taken from us and had moved over to their side. Our detractor used the news to queer the pitch for us.
We had built our case carefully at every level, but had not done anything to neutralise the threat posed by this person and that lapse had returned to haunt us. We thought he wouldn’t be able to sway the committee away from us.
While we did have a case of a Service lapse which cost us a valuable customer there were numerous instances of major organisations coming over to us from competition – but we had not used it against them during the bid and negotiations process. Our rival obviously did not believe in such niceties.
After working hard to stall the finalization of the order we submitted proof to substantiate the strength of our after-sales service – this time we did not hold anything back and a detailed presentation was made on how we were superior on every count. Service Quality Assurance was also given.
The Government Purchase committee saw merit in our pitch and finalized the entire order in our favor – to this day I treasure the photograph of me handing over the mobile phone to the Chief Minister and showing him how to use it.
We almost lost the order due to complacence. The message is that at no time during the campaign should you lower your guard and take things for granted.
Only when you have covered the bases you are ready to make the play!
“To hell with patience, I am going to kill something!” said a scrawny Vulture to the other; both perched on a petrified tree in an arid landscape.
That was just a cartoon trying to poke fun at one of nature’s toughest characters.
Isn’t it said that people often give up just short of success – a few more steps and they would be drinking sweet water from a spring; instead they give up and perish.
In Sales it pays off to be patient, and persistent!
A few days back I had mentioned that we should not waste too much time to win one big sale at the expense of the many small ones available in easy reach.
Today, I am asking you not to ignore the big ones – I only said you should not devout all your time there. They are tough to crack, but when their doors open eventually you can expect abundance. Play your cards right and you can win big!
During my various stints in the Major Account Sales I have had to work really hard to get business from extremely large organizations, some with branch offices all over the country. They were patrons of my competitors and these guys hung on for dear life because the revenues under consideration were huge – often just one account giving them 30–35% of the annual quota.
There are times when I wanted to give up. Absolutely nothing to show in spite of what seemed like a million attempts. It was frustrating.
But there was support from my team; I was advised by seniors to keep persisting – they knew. So, in spite of ZERO returns I kept plugging away.
- I would make periodic visits to make presentations
- Every year I would remind them to include my products in their purchase plan, knowing well that the business would go to my rival.
- When a senior official of my company made a visit to my branch I would take him to visit the top managers in these accounts.
- They were sent festival greetings and congratulatory messages when their organisation got any recognition.
- They were called to our Customer Meets and Special Industry Presentations.
In short, they were constantly reminded of our presence – we kept telling them how they would benefit by bringing their custom to us.
And then one day the magic happened – our competitor slipped. A large bank that was opening 5 new branches had relied on just one supplier and delay in supplies caused postponement in the inauguration of 3 branches. That meant a revenue loss for the bank and they did not take it lightly.
We were in! I had already got the news from one of my sources about the goof-up and was expecting a call. When the Purchase Manager called we kept our cool and heard him out. We knew that he had to save face and by helping him we would be in for good – he needed all the products for the 3 new branches in a short time - ranging from furniture, to storage equipment and security equipment. I’d hit the jackpot!
This opportunity could not be missed – we begged and pleaded with our manufacturing team, even got some items meant for other locations diverted to us and supplied all the items before the committed date.
It was a huge victory – the Purchase Manager thanked us for saving him from disgrace. I don’t have to say what happened afterwards.
If a Vulture can be patient, so can you …. And when the time is right you can make a killing!
Ever wondered why you have not been able to show any results in spite of hammering away at some Accounts? You felt like banging your head on the nearest wall because in spite of your best efforts nothing gives. Before you cause your head any harm let me say that it’s only because you have been barking up the wrong tree.
I hail from Kerala, a tiny little state at the Southern tip of India. Now, look a bit to the West. There you will find us, under a green carpet of Coconut Trees, which also give the state its name – Land of the “Kera” Palms, Keralam. The Tree provides an interesting lesson to Sales Professionals.
Every part of the Kera Tree is useful, one way or the other – the trunk is used to create bridges over small streams and to form trusses and pillars of the shacks people live in, the coconut fruit has a number of uses and even the coconut fronds are used to create many useful products.
But take a look at the tree and you see that most of the useful stuff is far up and out of reach. To harvest the fruit and the fronds you need skill and effort. Even after bunches of fruit are chopped and dropped to the ground special skills are needed to cut away the outer husk and the hard nut to extract the sweet juice and the kernel.
Consider a typical Account – you usually get in by either meeting someone you know or by setting up a meeting with a lower level functionary in the Department of interest – someone selling Computers will meet an officer in the Purchase Department or in the IT Department.
You then navigate your way through the Account to get to the business end, which is usually at the Apex – the Department Head or the Purchase Manager or the H.R. Manager or even the Chairman and Managing Director depending on the products being sold and the size of the order.
Unless you have a personal relationship, or you know someone who is in regular close contact with Top Management, it is rare for Sales Personnel to be able to get there in the first few calls.
Organisations have a way of keeping outsiders away from the Top like the drones and workers keep the Queen Bee safe in the hive – shielded from external attacks.
You meet junior officials who project larger than life images of themselves. You are told that they can take decisions but receive only excuses when you ask for one. People at the front-end rarely are decision makers but can run you in circles with interesting stories about their greatness. Don’t be fooled. Be nice to them but find a way to get past to the next level. It is always useful to quickly find another entry point if the first is turning into a dead end.
Even if you are able to get in touch with the man who signs on the Purchase Order and the Cheque you may fall short because the presentation you made did nothing to convince him/her about what you can do to solve their needs. Remember that decision makers need to see value – profits, reduction of waste, reduction of cost, increase in productivity, saving time, reduction in complexity.
You never get more than one chance to make a strong impression and time provided is minimal because he or she has a thousand other priorities on the agenda – so never rush into a meeting with the Decision Maker unless you know what’s on their mind.
Like the Coconut Tree your Account has a long trunk which takes your effort, but yields nothing – at best it can provide rigid support for you to get to the top. Learn the skill to use it appropriately.
And when you reach the top you need the right skill to extract the tasty and nutritious content of the fruit. In your case that is achieved by having complete understanding of the organisation’s needs and being able to show them how you can fulfill those needs. On your way to the top you should be able to develop the right understanding in order to deliver the right results.
Use the Nut on your shoulders well! (Pardon the pun)
Ann, who worked for a Telecom Service Provider, was making a pitch for a big sale at one of her top accounts, Surefire Associates. In the recent past she had won business from them without much opposition from her rivals – Surefire had become a major revenue earner for her company with careful nurturing.
But off late she had reduced her focus on Surefire in order to develop other accounts. Her thinking was that the new accounts need more of her time and effort and that this one would continue producing business without much work.
Result? She lost the big sale to her rival company although her offer was the best.
The post sale investigation revealed that a very senior officer of Surefire had lost data connectivity while on tour outside the country – his smart-phone was configured to access the office Intranet and the loss of link had caused him to miss out on a number of important messages / decisions.
His office had left word at her desk when Ann hadn’t answered their desperate calls. She had failed to see the messages in the rush of activities and her office had not given the issue the importance it merited. This incident had made Surefire lose trust in her company and they decided to try another operator.
The message for all Key Accounts Managers is that nothing should make them lose sight of the Top Accounts – those are the bread-winners. They get you the bonuses; you remain a productive employee for your organisation thanks to their patronage.
- There has to be regular activity in all your Top Accounts. Stay in touch though planned visits to all key personnel in the accounts.
- In addition to the decision – makers visit all the other sources of information.
- If for any reason you are not able to make the visit make a phone call – protect each account like a hen would protect its brood. Stay connected!
- New accounts have to be developed to increase market share / revenue and to provide breadth to your portfolio; but never at the expense of your Top Accounts.
Ann should have known that many new accounts are needed to match the revenue from Surefire.
Keep your eyes glued to the ball or be prepared to take a hard knock!