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One Tried and True Way to Increase Sales in the New Year: Pay Attention to Your Customers’ Customers

In any non-B2C sale where your potential customers have customers of their own, think about what you can do that will bring more sales for them in turn.  I’m forever amazed at the alchemy of value generation.  When sellers and buyers get together there is economic growth.  But when sellers also provide the means for buyers to sell more, there is exponential economic growth.  Economic indicators go up and so does your topline.  It’s good for everyone, except your competitors.

There are many approaches to find out how and to whom your prospective customers sell their wares.  You can research their companies, organizations, and business cultures  You can examine their products and solutions.  You can survey the business landscapes they are competing in.  And you can take a look at their major competitors to see how they operate.  These are all good for gathering useful data but to really help your customers sell you need to pay attention to their customers.

I learned this at an early age, although I didn’t realize it at the time.  My Dad, George, was a paint salesman.  His territory was mostly North Texas – from our home in Fort Worth up to the Red River and the Oklahoma border.  It was a time before big box stores, when paint, hardware, and floor covering were sold in small stores in small strip malls.  Think of the film “The Last Picture Show.”

On school holidays and Saturdays, Dad would often take me along on sales calls.  This served many purposes.  He traveled a lot and it meant he could spend some quality time with me.  And while I was with him I wasn’t breaking stuff in the house.  

During those trips, I witnessed a great salesman and his techniques.  Dad would enter a prospect’s store, introduce himself to the manager or owner and make some pleasant small talk.  When the conversation died down, Dad would ask if it would be okay if he just watched things for a while and looked over the inventory.  They always said yes.  He’d go over to the paint cans on the shelves and run his finger over their tops to see which lines were empty and which had dust.  He’d look at the brush rack to see which brushes were moving and which were not. 

But most of all, Dad would listen to customer conversations.  What did the customers think they wanted?  How did the sellers respond?  What did the customers buy?  What did they want that the sellers didn’t have?  

After a few hours, Dad had a good idea of the sellers’ customers unmet needs and he zeroed in on those.  He and the manager or owner would go next door to the Dairy Queen (there was always a Dairy Queen nearby) to talk it over.  It wasn’t a hard pitch to make because they knew that Dad was totally focused on increasing sales for their stores.

I didn’t fully appreciate Dad’s sales artistry until I retired from my military career and got a business development (sales, really) job.  In his last years, Dad became my sales coach and I began to understand what I had witnessed so many years before.  It wasn’t paint he was selling.  It was relationships where the customer’s success came before his own.

Two Facets of Customer Satisfaction: Technical and Emotional

It’s a given that customer satisfaction is essential to sustained business growth.  You can’t stay in business long if customers don’t like you.  Many business leaders, unfortunately, only focus on lagging satisfaction indicators identified through customer surveys.  Yes, that gives companies opportunities to fix important customer issues.  But the damage is already done.  Wouldn’t it be better to take a look at what happens throughout the entire customer experience?

I believe there are two facets of customer satisfaction that need to be baked into business processes to allow companies to be more successful in attracting and maintaining a loyal customer base – technical quality and emotional attachment:

1. Technical Quality

Technical solutions should be designed for customers, not just their needs.  Duh.  Why don’t some companies get that?  All I wanted to do was buy a simple light for my bike so I could ride safer.  It’s basically a little red light you attach to the back of your bike to help prevent texting drivers from turning you into roadkill.  I avoided the $90 version because that’s a ridiculous amount of money and bought a less expensive one.  Then I found it had no adapter, a too-short recharging cord, and a battery that didn’t last through one ride.  I couldn’t get my money back.  Ugh.  Tricked again.

But you’re in a great company that produces great technical solutions.  Your products and services are well thought out and beautifully designed.  They’re durable and user-friendly.  Your products and services are like utilities – there when the customer turns them on.  But they’re so good that people take them for granted.  Your sales are flat.  And when things go wrong with your technical solutions, which doesn’t happen very often, you’re not prepared to respond well.  Your reputation can suffer because pent-up customer rage at having to spend good money on a crappy bike light is directed at you.  What’s happening here?  It’s raw emotions getting the upper hand over great technology.  And with that, customer satisfaction plummets.

2. Emotional Attachment

Your marketing department likely spends a lot of time positioning your products and services to appeal to the emotions of your ideal customer group.  That’s the front end of the sale.  What about the follow-up?  Don’t customer emotions come into play there as well?  They sure do and can reap additional revenues.  Over the past few years, I’ve gone to one particular company for all my digital communications needs.  I like them.  

I used to buy from another company which had equivalent products and services.  One day I bought their new model computer.  It had high ratings and was beautifully designed.  I loved it until setup.  It came without the requisite installed software needed to set up the computer online.  I spent hours with technicians on the phone who implied I must be doing something wrong.  It was a lengthy, frustrating, painful, and wasteful experience.  I bolted from them.  Contrast that to a similar experience with my favorite company.  When I had a problem they fixed it immediately, apologized, and sent me another gadget free of charge.  I trust this company and am loyal to them, even though they screwed up just like the other one.

The lesson is obvious.  Great technology is only one facet of great customer satisfaction.  You also need to build great emotional attachment throughout the entire customer experience.

Three “Be’s” to Better Customer Relations

Business leaders obsess over quarterly results. Gotta make those numbers. So emphasis is placed on getting new orders and booking sales.  Makes sense.  But sometimes the teams get so fixated on getting new customers they spend less time and attention on current customers.

In one of those counter-intuitive situations, the path to greatest business growth could be through improving relations with current customers.  It’s more cost-effective and better for your reputation to keep them happy than always chasing after someone new.  Like the words of Texas football coaches and Country Western songs, “Dance with who brung ya.”

I believe there are three things business people should “Be” to keep customers happy:

1. Be there when they need you

In business and life, things happen.  Parts break.  Schedules get messed up.  Payments are late.  People get ill.  Teams don’t follow instructions.  These should be your problems, not your customer’s.  Customers really don’t care how tough it is to service their contracts.  And when things go wrong they want to talk with someone about it.  Immediately.  If you’re a customer responsible for a contract, whether it involves the company printers or a satellite launch, it’s comforting to know there’s always a responsible provider counterpart available 24/7 to get things fixed.  That kind of customer attention builds trust and loyalty and gets you referrals and more business.

2. Be reliable in keeping your promises

What happens in the mind of a customer when you promised them something and forgot to follow up?  They put you in the same category as all the other people in their lives who’ve let them down.  And once you’re in that box, it takes a lot of time and effort to crawl out.  Let’s say the customer mentioned something to you about a service problem.  You said you’d check it out and get back to them.  It meant looking up some technical details and talking with a couple of other people in your organization.  Then life got in the way.  Ruptured travel plans.  New directions from the boss.  The floorboard of your vintage 1973 Chevrolet Vega finally rusted through.  And you were surprised when your customer announced they were not renewing the contract.

3. Be easy to do business with

It’s pretty simple.  If your company provides unique products and services, customers will come to you.  If they have other options, you need to go to them.  Remember there are two components of customer satisfaction: technical and emotional.  The customer buys your technical solution, yes.  But the customer first and foremost buys you.  And customers like doing business with people who are easy to do business with.  If you can establish easy customer relationships where there’s no drama (or tragicomedy) involved, you can move those customers up from being just satisfied with your work to not being able to imagine a world without you and your company in it.  Being easy to do business with is not as difficult as you might think.  It’s all in your head and heart, not your offering.

Four Ways to Recover From Missed Sales Goals

Things were humming along. Coming into the quarter you had momentum from solid closings and high potential to build new business.  Then everything went into slo-mo like a B grade action film with you in the leading role.  Optimism turned to concern turned to panic.  You woke up screaming in the middle of the night realizing there was no way to avoid posting the loss.  Now what?  Which of the following actions should you take?

a. Give up and put your resume everywhere online.

b. Get a note from a client promising a big contract next quarter.

c. Buy new golf clubs for your boss.

d. Call in sick and enter any available rehab program.

Clearly, the best answer is none of the above.  There’s a better choice.  You can reset.  It’s business.  It happens.

Business pros should mimic sports pros when they lose a game.  Go back and retune the fundamentals.  Here are four ways to recover your business plan:

1. Refocus on Lead Generation

It’s always best to have more leads than you can handle.  If your pipeline is slowing down you shouldn’t assume it’s just the business cycle.  Autopsy your leads.  Are you getting enough of them?  Are they the right kind?  How are you getting them?  Is it through just one or two streams?  How are your competitors getting their leads?  Who could you partner with to get more volume?  What about referrals?  Great business developers tap all potential revenue sources.  Broaden your aperture outside of the usual suspects. 

2. Revamp the Sales Process

What’s happening between lead generation and contract closings?  Is there a clog in the pipeline?  Did those cost-cutting initiatives canceling equipment upgrades and delaying sales training have adverse effects?  Sometimes bottom line improvers kill the topline.  Great companies don’t go short on morale-boosters, skills training, quality customer contacts, and delighting customers at every opportunity.  It’s easier and less expensive than grinding out new prospects.

3. Rediscover Core Opportunities

It’s typical sales behavior to settle back and take orders when business is good, even though you might be settling for average returns over great returns.  Take a look at your core business.  Are there clients you haven’t reached out to in a while?  At your customer satisfaction interviews with key accounts (you do this, right?) do you ask what new opportunities you could help them with?  Are your separate business sectors actively cross-selling or are they staying inside their “silos of excellence?”  

4. Redefine the Goals

It’s possible your goals need tweaking.  Are they based on measurable data or optimistic feelings?  Are they achievable or stretch goals?  You don’t want to set the bar too low, but overly ambitious goals can wreak havoc throughout your sales ecosystem.  One way to achieve challenging financial goals is to drill down deeper into each goal and define actions necessary for success.  What can be done at any given point to move the chains toward that touchdown?  Who’s going to do them?  And when?

Get back in the game.  Make a recovery plan.  You’ll crush those numbers the next time around.

Five Ancient Ways to Improve Today’s Sales Conversations

In business, we always hear about how important it is to listen to the customer.  That point is made over and over again by sales book authors, sales bloggers, and sales trainers.  It’s a hard lesson to learn, but we get it.  From what I hear, the real problem comes when it’s our turn to talk.  Salespeople tend to come to business encounters armed with elevator pitches, value propositions, key points, objection scripts, and closing approaches.  Few come prepared to converse.

I’m pretty sure that conversation was invented before selling: “Geez this cave is cold!  Show me how you did that fire thing with the sticks.”  Great civilizations have honored those who could conduct great conversations, such as Plato, Denis Diderot, Samuel Johnson, and Jon Stewart.  In demonstrating that there truly is nothing new under the sun (Ecclesiastes), let’s take a look at five principles of great conversations in Cicero’s 44 B.C. essay “On Duties” and apply them to today’s sales conversations:

1. Speak clearly and easily

Even though there’s a lot you want to say, don’t rush things.  Slow it down and let your thoughts flow naturally.  Let the other person have a chance to speak.  They might tell you something you want to know.

2. Be civil and courteous

Civility in conversation is in short supply these days.  Differentiate yourself by being pleasant.  You’ll be like an oasis to a thirsty traveler.  Customers will enjoy being with you and talking with you.

3. Match the tone of the subject

If you’ve come to help a customer remove the pain of a problem, be sure to smoothly shift from the pleasant tone for opening small talk to a concerned tone for an important conversation exploring details and potential solutions.

4. Spend less time talking about yourself

Many salespeople talk a lot about their own experiences.  Great salespeople talk a lot about the customer’s experiences.

5. Don’t lose your temper

There’s a lot of pressure on salespeople.  You have to hit your numbers.  And here you are at the end of the month talking with a difficult customer who’s reluctant to say yes.  Do your best and if it doesn’t close, don’t burn that bridge.  You may need to cross that river again.

The next time you’re in a sales conversation, put on a virtual toga and channel Cicero.  It’ll be classic.