Rebuilding relationships and business

cartoon of geek at desk

How can a company repair the relationship and business with an important business customer that it has let down due to problems such as product availability or falling product sales through lack of support? I suppose that some organisations may take the view that these things just happen and the customer will have to accept it but more enlightened, customer-focused managers seek to turn these situations around by understanding how they can repair the damage that has been caused to both the business and the relationship with these customers.

I am very lucky to have a number of clients who trust me to ‘help out’ in these types of situations and there is a simple approach that has proven very effective when the customer is open to at least look at the options. The first step is to understand in a meeting with the supplier’s management the overall key account strategy, current marketing initiatives and the ideal outcome. I then work with the key account manager responsible for the customer to get their ‘on the ground’ perspective of the key account, its business and people and then we decide as a small project team what type of intervention could best work to increase sales for the customer and supplier. The next step is for me to contact the customer, typically by phone to understand their views on the business and their needs and ideas for business development and we then plan an event which could be a combination of a workshop with a tailored supplier/retailer promotion or a practical action such as a review of the retailer’s merchandising etc. The event is then delivered by myself (and usually attended by the key account manager) where my role is the objective outsider who is facilitating and practically helping both parties to gain from the project.

After this initial step the key account manager can usually take back the reins and start to work on implementing the tangible plans and actions that have emerged from the event whilst I as part of the project team may be able to help spread the learnings from this work within the retailer’s business or around the supplier’s organisation.

Research has shown that if you can solve a customer’s problem for them they are often more satisfied than if the problem had never occured. It’s definitely worth looking therefore at business building initiatives that can both solve problems and renew damaged relationships.

Let’s focus on Growth

Sigmoid curve

I don’t know about you but I find all this talk of austerity quite depressing, especially during the Christmas season and when looking forward to next year. I’m not advocating getting into debt by ‘spending your way’ out of any stagnation in sales, what I am suggesting is that if things are not working as they should be we need to look for other ways of growing the business. This is where the Sigmoid curve diagram as shown above can help us to see change as a positive choice that can lead to a better future with renewed growth in sales. The simple premise is that if we continue to do the same things that were successful in the past but we are now entering a maturity phase, due to internal or external factors, then it’s time to think again before we hit the downward curve to decline.

A recent article in The Economist entitled ‘Gold hunting in a frugal age’ highlighted 4 potential options for businesses to prosper when their customers are feeling the pinch: firstly to look at emerging markets, secondly to adjust corporate policies to the situation of stagnant wages and growing inequality by targeting frugal products to low income markets, thirdly to provide poor people with innovative services, and lastly to harness the power of new technology. However, these 4 options may not to be the easiest route to find growth as there are likely to be unmet needs within your current customer base which could be a more profitable opportunity to consider before investing in a totally new strategy.

Whatever path you choose to help grow your sales and business our experience is that it’s best to maintain an attitude of looking for growth rather than opting for austerity and hoping that things will change. All the best for 2013!

It’s not the ‘close’ but the follow-up that counts

In most sales training courses the close or closing question that ‘asks for the order’ is viewed as the most critical component. It can’t be denied that actually asking a question or suggesting an action to buy a product or service can help a customer who is not sure what to do next. I believe that this ‘question or suggestion’ is an important step if it is done at the appropriate time (after finding out whether the customer actually needs the product or service!). However, traditional sales training often elevates the close to such an extent that the salesperson can become tense or even aggressive at this ‘make or break moment’ with the customer in order to gain the sale. We all know how it feels to be pushed too hard and we will often push back with a No! or reluctantly give in but vow never to return to the seller again.

We have re-examined the sales process from the customer’s perspective and in our workshops and coaching we take some of the focus and anxiety/aggression away from the ‘close’ and provide a bigger picture view of the buying and selling experience by adding in what happens after the sale. The follow-up part of the sales process does not usually figure in sales training as it could be viewed as part of customer service but I believe that this misses the point. Having contact with the customer after they have bought a product or service will help a salesperson to understand  what the customer has gained from their purchase, what works well and what can be improved. This follow-up step which comes after the close may be less interesting to those agressive salespeople, who are often described as ‘hunters’, but if they did take the time to follow-up on their sales they would actually find that the next sale to this or another customer would be so much easier, but then maybe they just like the game of pushing hard and winning!

Assessing then Developing Performance

We have all heard the research that successful companies continue to invest in marketing and training even when there are economic difficulties because there is an opportunity to win and retain customers from competitors who are reducing their spend on marketing and training their people. The problem is that during recessions there is huge pressure to reduce ‘non-essential’ spending which may include most marketing and training activities. It can be very difficult for most businesses to identify what the return is from their investment in training unless they have identified and measured what outcome they are seeking to achieve.

In the past the key measures were ‘happy sheets’ that rated the training course and more recently feedback and short tests with webinars and e-learning but have these interventions actually improved the competencies of people and moved the business forward? We have recently started working with an online tool that assesses both individual and team capabilities against clearly defined competencies. The tool then directs individual’s to the training resources (self-development, coaching, online, workshops etc.) that are appropriate for their specific needs and it can then measure their progress after this support to identify the training that is most effective.

When the capabilities are closely linked to business-building performance both the people and the sales grow together. As you can imagine it’s proving very popular in these challenging times!

It’s not business or people but people+business

I was recently asked how a particular business could develop its sales and at the same time change the aggressive management of its commercial people who must meet their targets or be asked to leave. As you would expect this environment may be successful in the short-term but it comes at a cost from the high turnover of people and lots of wasted time and money spent on recruitment, training, stress-related sickness and redundancy etc. The opposite situation of no targets with little measurement or management may be a more relaxed organisation to work in but is likely to meander it’s way to a dead-end. Having worked as a consultant with a lot of market-leading companies the most effective in the long run are those which recognise that a clear vision combined with a customer focused culture, pursuing business development strategies with customers which are implemented by commercial teams who are motivated and supported to deliver their goals. My passion is to help companies to achieve the simple formula of developing People+Business both internally and externally.

Hard sell, soft sell or what…?

What do salespeople do when the pressure comes on to hit their numbers and they need to sell more? The natural response is often to try pushing their existing and new customers to buy more products or services and if this doesn’t work push them even harder! This ‘hard sell’ approach to gaining more business is seen as the macho response to the challenge of selling more which is in contrast to the ‘soft sell’ approach of building relationships with customers by understanding their needs and tailoring the product or service offer to deliver the desired outcome. This ‘soft sell’ approach can take longer to achieve the objective of increased sales and during times when the business needs to sell more it may be viewed as a luxury that can’t be sustained. So what’s the answer, do you take the short-term hard sell route or the longer term soft sell path? Every situation is different but my preference in selling situations, as both a customer and a seller, is to take a balanced and open approach to find out how the seller can help the customer by understandng their situation and needs and then confidently recommending and discussing what is best for the customer with clear next step actions. As with most things in life I think it’s about achieving the right balance!

Change from within

I know it’s not easy being a senior manager. You have to keep producing the results, meet the challenges from customers and competitors and make sure that you’re organisation is headed in the right direction when change is happening all around you (technology, economy etc.). One of the most impressive senior managers I have worked for as a consultant was appointed to head a global organisation and spent the first 3 months just meeting internal and external stakeholders and listening to their views. The manager wanted to make changes to the organisation structure but asked me to conduct a review where I would interview a cross-section of the commercial organisation at head office and in the countries for their detailed feedback on what was working and what wasn’t. Several weeks later I presented back to the senior manager who was pleased that his original plan was correct but even more happy that the organisation had identified lots more opportunities for improvement which the senior management team were able to implement with the full support of the organisation. It was a great example of creating change from within rather than trying to make it happen through force of will from above.