Entries Tagged 'Account Maintenance' ↓

Delivering really bad news

bad-sales-newsI think we all know that when there is bad news brewing, like say a shipment will slip by a week, you should let your customer know ASAP.  That’s a no-brainer and not worth talking about.

But in today’s economy it is worth talking about how and when to deliver REALLY bad news.  For example, I’m dealing with a company that just filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and we had to come up with a plan to inform the customers so they didn’t read about it in the paper.

The people at the level I was dealing with didn’t know for sure exactly what day we were filing, we just knew it was coming – and you can’t say anything to customers before the filing, who knows, it might not actually happen, so we knew we had to at least wait until the filing actually happened.

The VP of sales for this organization (~$400M) wanted a form letter to go out to all customers, period.  I argued that the top 20% customers deserve at least a phone call, and the top 5% should get a face-to-face delivery.

We ended up doing a mixture, I got my 20% phone calls and we visited the top 2% and things went pretty well.  Literally every customer took our calls and thanked us for explaining what this filing meant to our company and to our ability to service them short and long-term.  We set up a Web site to post updates on so that everyone knew our status and things seem to running fairly smooth right now – we’ll see.

Bottom line is that communication is the key, if your customer hears about your dirty laundry from anyone other than you – you lost.

Easy on the email

huge-email-loadI love email – it’s one of the few tools that you can use at 2:00 in the morning to communicate to your customers.

I’ve noticed over the past few years, however, that the size of emails is rapidly growing.  It wasn’t all too long ago that it was foolish to try to send an email over 1MB in size – now it’s common to get 10MB files launched my way.

Just because your customer is capable of receiving your bloated sales propaganda doesn’t mean that you should tax their system, or their patience.  Learn how to convert images to smaller sizes and transform large documents into smaller PDF files – your prospects will thank you for it.

Superb customer service leads to sales

Dremel ToolWhile on a recent outing to Home Depot, I happened across the line of Dremel products and a big sign caught my eye.  It was a 1-800 customer service number that you could call right there in the store!

So if you were looking and had any questions at all, you just dial them up and they advise you on what Dremel accessories you might need.

Now I don’t have to tell you what that would mean to the salesperson going to pitch larger shelf space for Dremel’s products.  A typical question that purchasing agents at big box retailers ask is “How will you support our sales efforts” (they are looking for what type of marketing you’re willing to do and then make you pitch in to pay for their ads – but that’s a different subject).  How awesome would it be to answer, “How about if we give your customers live 24/7 access to our customer service department so that all their questions are answered right here in your store?”

Most of us are not fortunate enough to have such a customer service department as this, but what can you do to get closer to this goal?  Well, I suggest talking to your customer service department if you have one and relate this story.  Tell them that you realize they are stretched so very thin already, but this display was so motivating that you were hoping to work with them to install some systems that might get you closer to this.

If going up and asking these questions makes you uncomfortable, you must not have followed our previous recommendations to integrate with the CS department – so start now.

I pinged Dremel’s customer service department for a quote on their basic customer service philosphy several months ago and never got a reply, puts a bit of a stain on my theory of their busines model.

Never close again

Always be closingWe all know the ABC’s of sales right (Always Be Closing)? I think that sales philosophy is BS (Bull $#!%). A car dealer closes a sale when you take a car off his lot – a professional salesperson simply lets their sales cycle lead to a natural end, whether it’s a sale or not. I’m very passionate about this subject.

As we’ve talked before, your prospects should be well aware of the sales process steps that you’re going to walk them through right from the onset of the courtship. So if you reach the end of these steps, an order will be the natural outcome, you don’t have to pressure them into “What will it take for me to get you in this car today?”

Before you say anything, of course I realize that this is an oversimplification and you often have to nudge clients into moving, but the theory is sound.

Another thing I hate about ABC is the word close itself. When you get your order, it should be an opening to more business with them, not a closing of some type.

A key to treating customers in this manner is that your sales funnel is full enough so that you’re not panicking at the end of your quarter and instinctively try to push your prospect faster than you should.

So do yourself a favor and take the notion of closing out of your mind. Walk your clients through your sales process and show them all the points along the path where they have an opportunity to detour. If they are still on the ride at the end, an order follows and you start the dance all over again.

Keeping in touch with current customers

Customer touch pointsSeveral years ago I invented a gardening system that let homeowners create their own little garden space right over their existing lawn. Literally all they had to do was water the thing. People loved it, and it was starting to morph into more of a teaching tool for young children than anything else.

We had decent sales through the Internet and boutique shops and catalogs and had preliminary interest from some of the big box stores – although we were shying away from them. To make a long, long story a little shorter, I sold the business to pursue other opportunities that my heart was more into, and thus the point of this post.

The new owners (I still had 25% ownership, but no say whatsoever), never followed up with any of the current customers. I hope that seems as ridiculous to you as it does to me. I would have people calling me saying that they wanted to re-order. When I would pass this information along, my response was always the same: “you’re focusing too much on the small customers, we need to think bigger.” It got so bad that I stepped out of the picture all together.

It ended sadly with them closing the business down because sales dried up. I called some of the customers after the fact and they all said the same thing. They had way too many products to worry about and if someone doesn’t come to them to get their order, they’re not going to chase you down to order it.

So my point should be pretty clear. Keep in touch. If you don’t get another order, why not? What did you do wrong – what did your competition do right? Can you call back after you’ve addressed their concerns? You get the point.

Take care of the bottom end of your sales funnel – it is one of the easiest places to increase sales.

Sales Choreography

Sales choreographyIt is absolutely critical that you know all the touch points that your company and product has on your prospects and customers. The vast majority of salespeople out there worry only about their direct touch points, such as calls, visits, emails and the such – but you don’t want to act like that masses, you want to stand out.

We need to think about our sales position as if it were our own business and act accordingly. I’m talking about treating anyone and everyone in your organization as if they are part of your sales team. Don’t like the way the receptionist answers the phone; then write them a new script.

Sit down and go through your company’s entire system to see where your customer gets touched from initial inquiry through sales fulfillment. The list is long and is different for most companies, but here are some examples:

  • receptionist
  • accounts payable
  • accounts receivable
  • customer service
  • MSDS documentation
  • Web site
  • building (if it’s a local business)
  • shipping documents

Let me just take the last bullet as a quick example. Let’s say that you sell widgets and each one that gets shipped contains a packing list. What does it look like? Most of them look like something thrown together by an intern the day before they left to go back to school. Why not put in the two hours some evening and design a nice clean one to give to your shipping department? Many of your customers will be given a copy of all shipping documents when they receive their package from their shipping department – and for many of us, our customer is also the shipping department.

A messy packing list reflects that you might not really care about anything after closing the sale.

My point is twofold:

  1. understand that the sales process involves your entire organization and lasts the entire life of your customer, and
  2. take the time to choreograph your sales process and your sales funnel will thank you for it.

Managing your customer’s business

Customer sales managementDon’t ever forget that your customers are juggling many business issues that you aren’t privy to. It can be tempting to scream at them because they aren’t doing the logical thing – from your point of view anyway.

For this example imagine that you sell raw material, say plastic pellets, to a company that makes plastic injection molding machines. They buy relatively small quantities, because they don’t manufacture parts in production. Their business plan is to sell machines to industry and allow them to make the parts. So your target here is their customer base, but they are difficult to account for and reach.

On the surface, this might not sound like a set up for a recycling sales example. What you need to realize here, however, is that getting recycled sales with your machine maker friend is orders of magnitude easier than tracking down all their customers and selling to and servicing them on a continuous basis.

So how would you handle this situation?

The Idea

Your idea is to sell large quantities of plastic pellets to the machine maker and have them turn around and directly supply the material to all their customers. Both you and your customer get a cut and you’ve helped your customer create a predictable and repeatable revenue stream. They no longer have to wait for a huge cash windfall from selling a million dollar machine a few times per quarter. They can now count on all their customers ordering raw materials direct with a steady cash flow.

You would not know that your customer has issues with holding out for a big sale and then stocking that money away in case the next machine has a delivery problem, if you weren’t so engrained in their organization. They trust you and value your input to solve their most pressing problems. And that’s what you’re going to do.

The Idea in Action

Assuming that you’ve built a strong level of trust with your machine maker customer, call them on the phone and ask for a visit to discuss “uncovering new growth and business opportunities.”

They will ask exactly what you have in mind and you can reply, “Well, we’ve been trying to think of ways to try to create more repeatable and predictable revenue streams for our company and one idea is to distribute our pellets through you directly to your customers. Of course, you’d get a markup on every pound sold – it would probably make a nice complimentary line to your machine sales. Your customers get the satisfaction of knowing that they have a reliable source of quality raw material at their fingertips.”

Hmm, that actually does sound like a good idea – I think we’ve talked about this before.

“That’s great to hear. Do you think we should tie in anyone else at this time? Since I’ll be flying out there and spending a few days, I think maybe we could nail an agreement down on the spot if your upper management could be involved.”

OK, let me set something up.

Do you see what just happened here? You went inside your customer’s business and saw an opportunity for a better business model and acted on that idea. You had your customer’s best interest at heart and found a way to increase their bottom line – and yours in the process.

If you do get invited, be ready to close and sign an agreement because they are obviously interested. So you’d have to do your homework and get the correct level of authority to give you a range of circumstances in which you have the freedom to sign the company up for a binding agreement. You don’t want to get into a situation where at the end of the day, they sign up and you have to say that you’ll take it back to your boss for review.

Old Accounts – New Opportunities

Ah, the bottom of the barrel, err I mean the funnel.

Have you ever heard of the expensive Italian alcoholic beverage grappa? Grappa is a potent brandy that was first described to me as “the sludge left behind after the wine is poured out of the barrel.” This may be a stretch from an analogy point of view to the bottom of our sales funnel, but the point remains valid.

After you pour out your sales, don’t leave anything behind.

Like many of our white papers, the problem here is actually an opportunity. And in this case, it’s a golden opportunity ripe for the picking. We left off in our last article discussing how to accept purchase orders and walk them through your fulfillment process. As illustrated in the following figure, once that order is processed and delivered, you can churn your customer back through the funnel and into another sale. In fact, this layer is absolutely essential to the success of your sales career and your subsequent compensation level.

Account Maintenance layer

Recycling Sales Advantages

As our world has become vastly more environmentally conservative and focused on green initiatives and developed technologies to recycle just about anything, why not recycle your customers? Why not indeed. This recycling program is beneficial to both you and your customers.

Sales Recycling Advantages For Your Customer

In the beginning of your relationship with your customer, they spent a lot of time, energy, and money thoroughly reviewing what you were offering and comparing it to your competition. Think of all the time they spent with you and in reviewing your offerings. Now multiply that by at least three to account for competition analysis.

After a few successful sales cycles, however, your customer begins to become loyal to you and short circuits the sales funnel by trimming out the top two layers and actually coming to you with new opportunities. Think how easy it would be to call on a customer that you’ve saved a million dollars for and say something like, “Tom, we have just finished a complementary product to our Widget line that should offer you similar savings potential, would you be available next week for a visit?” You’ll win that appointment every time.

I’m fond of saying that as long as your boss is ethical and responsible; your job description can be summed up in five words, “make your boss look good.” In sales, your customer is your boss. If you make them look good, they get rewarded and will be grateful to you – in fact they might become dependent on you.

Sales Recycling Advantages For You

A look at the short circuited sales funnel makes it quite clear what your advantages are in this layer. You don’t have to ever qualify this customer again. Sure you might have to qualify their opportunities to make sure they fit within your abilities, but that’s the fun part of sales.

You are able to leverage your past success into larger and more profitable endeavors because of the level of trust they now place in you. Trust is an awesome responsibility and you probably already know what I’m going to say next. Make sure that you don’t lose sight of keeping your client’s best interest at heart. While it may take years to build up this trust, one misstep and it can be lost in an instant.

Building trust is a funny thing. Let’s say that you deliver a brilliant solution for the first sales cycle and you’ve been rewarded for that by receiving a follow-on order. Now, you find out that delivery of raw materials is delayed by three weeks and you are going to fumble delivery on this second order. By placing the customer call early and explaining what happened (and taking responsibility for it), you will actually continue to build that trust and not shatter it. Will they be happy about the schedule slip, probably not, but they will trust that you are honest and that your quality is worth the extra wait.

Sales Recycling Steps

It’s difficult to put together a generalized chronological series of steps for recycling customers through the sales funnel because of industry and company specific issues, but we’ll take a crack at outlining the basic components here in no real particular order.

  • Wait until the first sale comes to a successful close. This item is really paramount. How can your customer trust you if you haven’t delivered anything yet? Once one sale is successful, however, feel free to run wild in series rather than in parallel with future orders.
  • Have a written account maintenance plan for each account. It can be as simple as having a spreadsheet with the following items:
    • problems you’ve uncovered or at least have a sense of. This will be easier and easier as you become more familiar with your client and they invite you into their inner sanctum.
    • possible solutions that you have related to problems you know about. These solutions should match up with the problems or potential problems that you listed from the above bullet.
    • possible solutions that you have to problems you don’t know about. This is the old “answer searching for a question” that everyone will tell you is crazy – ignore them. Let your customers know of new technologies you’ve developed even if you don’t know of an immediate need for it. This is one of the beauties of having a trusting foundation to build upon. You could never just cold call someone and blab on and on about new technologies, but if they have a reason to trust you, they’ll at least listen and see if they might have a fit for it. This is a key item here; you might want to re-read it.
  • Get to know as many people as possible in their organization, keep asking questions about what keeps them up at night. Dig, dig, and dig. You now have an enormous advantage over your competition that is trying to cold call their way in the door.
  • Ask to spend the day at their plant using your product. You want to be treated like a floor engineer or technician, on the line in production. This will provide you with three key advantages.
    1. It is a great way for you to uncover new problems or at least make your product more user friendly.
    2. It gives you a golden opportunity to talk to the technicians on the front line who are actually using your product every day. This is invaluable information that is extremely difficult to gather any other way. How often do you see a technician in a brainstorming session? Sadly, hardly ever.
    3. It will give your customer a true sense that you are willing and able to make continuous improvement in your products and that your customer service is unparalleled.
  • Anticipate when your customer will need to reorder. If their typical order cycle is once every six months, your competition is probably calling on them every six months. You need to call in five months to secure the reorder before the competition has a chance to even bid on it. You can also offer a discount if they agree to be set up on an automatic reordering program.
  • Try to stay on the top of their minds. This can be done through numerous media, some of the most commonly used are:
    • Monthly newsletters
    • RSS feeds on blogs
    • Press releases to sources that they read
    • Sending them items of interest when you happen to come across them (I’ve been know to track my customer’s industries closer than they do so that I can send them ‘breaking news items’ before they hear about them)
    • Sending them unexpected small gifts (for example I have a client that loves Skyline Chili, when I’m out in the Cincinnati area, I pick up a case for him)
    • Conference talks
    • Trade shows
    • Journal papers
  • After you’re really engrained (and you might only have one or two clients in your sales funnel that you could do this to), set up a visit to them and their entire technical team. This visit will consist of the following two conversations:
    • You pitch new or unused technologies and let them percolate in their minds, just seeking for a problem to be solved. This goes against almost any sales writings that you will read, but I’ve seen it work time and time again – but I’ll repeat that you only should do this with your very best customers. The conversations that will start from your presentation can last for hours.
    • You sit there while they talk about their problems that need to be solved. This is a little more difficult to pull out of them because they won’t be sure what you want to hear, and no one likes to openly admit their problems and issues.
  • Reward repeat buyers. This isn’t something that I typically recommend doing unless it’s in retail or consumer services (think hotels). Your product or service doesn’t lose value just because someone ordered it a third time. I’d try to steer clear of this one. You’ll be giving up margin and setting up a dangerous precedent for future dealings.
  • Provide great service. This should go without saying. I’ll illustrate with a simple example. Say that you provide raw material. When you ship it, you put the MSDS along with the packing slip in a sealed plastic envelop on the outside of your shipping container. Mr. Customer calls and says “you didn’t send me an MSDS” even though you know it’s true, you don’t respond “it should have been with the packing slip”, rather you say “would you like it faxed or emailed to you Mr. Customer?”