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Building Customer Relationships Is a Critical Part of Selling

I surveyed sales professionals at a national sales meeting about their experience in developing and maintaining relationships with customers. Here is a compiled and edited summary of their responses.

What are the benefits of having a productive business relationship with the customer?

  • They think of you right away when they need help or solutions. They more easily share long-term business issues, research and development initiatives, and access to future business plans. They will give you first shot at new business.

  • You get mutual problem solving and mutual growth in profitability. You get repeat business. You gain the ability to introduce new products and increase business. You know the internal structure and practices of a company so you can better meet their current needs and anticipate future ones. You can develop new opportunities with decision makers in other divisions.

  • Communication is much better. They give you a heads-up on problems and will work with you to resolve them. You are more aware of what's happening with the customer and the customer's organization. You get answers when you need them. You get access to people. You get the truth, including honest feedback on pricing.

  • It's more difficult to get displaced by price. The customer may offer information on competitive situations. You get a second chance. In a tie, you win. You're able to use the customer for a testimonial and referral to similar customers.

  • Time is used much more productively. Less time is involved in routine business transactions. Both organizations share the benefits of increased sales volume.

What do you do to help build strong relationships with your customers?

  • Be honest about what you can and cannot do. Always keep your commitments. Look for mutually beneficial solutions and outcomes. Follow through on what you say you'll do.

  • Make their jobs easier. Make them more productive. Educate, plan, and then execute together.

  • Always return calls promptly. Ask about call frequency. Always respond to their request even if the answer is negative.

  • Bring them customers and help them make more money. Support them with ideas, targets, and joint calls.

  • Provide the best possible support after the sale. Be accessible. Get them technical support when they need it.

  • Be available, be trustworthy, and show interest and understanding.

  • Understand their objectives and help them to achieve them.

  • Gain understanding of their business process and their products.

  • Keep up with industry trends.

  • Solve their problems by thinking "out of the box."

  • Communicate with all levels in the company.

  • Make their concerns your concerns. Put a high priority on addressing them.

  • Know your products and their applications.

  • Communicate about new products and offer assistance and training for them.

  • Schedule planned visits with specific purposes and outcomes in mind. Use an agenda.

  • Get to know the engineering, planning, financial, and administrative people in the account.

  • Listen, listen, listen. Learn their business and treat every issue with concern.

  • Convince the customer that you want to work to solve their problems.

  • Do what you say and follow up until you are absolutely sure everything has been handled to their satisfaction. Ask them how satisfied they are with you, your company, and its products or services. Ask them for a forthright assessment of what you can do to improve. Let them know they can count on you to go to bat for them any time.

What have you found you need to avoid in maintaining good relationships?

  • Don't get caught up in internal politics. Don't get involved in rumors, gossip, or complaints. Never play he said, she said. Avoid internal power plays. (You'll end up on the wrong side at some point.) Don't leave people out of the loop, either intentionally or unintentionally.

  • Don't knock your competition. (This includes warning the customer about a competitor's financial problems.) Also avoid comparing or discussing the customer's competition.

  • Make sure you really can fix their needs with your product applications. Be cautious of untested solutions.

  • Don't be pushy or become complacent about the customer, the relationship, or your performance.

  • Let the customers determine how personal they want the relationship to be. Never waste their time. Don't allow a personal relationship to interfere with business decisions.

  • Identify problem areas and then don't go there: religion, politics, call waiting, answering the phone during customer meetings. Avoid giving advice on personal issues. Don't offer an opinion if it wasn't asked for. Avoid things that are too personal.

  • Be careful of the humor and language you use.

  • Avoid negativity of any kind toward anyone or anything. Avoid the appearance of conflicts of interest and avoid putting customers in such a position.

  • Avoid anything illegal or illicit.

  • Avoid negative comments on business surroundings.

  • Avoid revisiting problems that have been solved.

  • Don't put down the people who work in your company or their company.

  • Take responsibility for problems.

Building strong customer relationships helps build loyalty. Building relationships allows you to partner with and be integrated into the customer's company. You're not considered just another salesperson pushing product. You and your customer can have a sense of trust about your relationship. Never take the relationship for granted—as soon as you do, you'll start to lose the trust that you worked so hard to gain.

Marriott International is a leader. Its salespeople are recognized as being among the best in the hospitality industry. How do they do it? John Marriott, executive vice president of lodging for Marriott International (which includes sales and marketing), said, "At Marriott, our salespeople are highly regarded because they are knowledgeable about their customers and spend as much time listening as they do selling. They welcome feedback and always follow up on concerns and issues."

When asked what advice he would pass along to new and experienced salespeople who wanted to truly be successful, he responded as follows:

To be successful in sales, you must spend time building relationships with your customers and learning as much about them and their business as possible. This is best accomplished by getting out of the office and meeting the customer face to face, not sitting back waiting for the phone to ring. From the junior salesperson to the CEO, it is critical that every salesperson establish solid relationships and true understanding of the wants and needs of his or her customers. Use every interaction as an opportunity to strengthen your relationship.

Effective salespeople are also highly confident. They know what they are talking about. I recommend that any salesperson going after a piece of business spend time learning about their customer's company and looking for ways to provide service and value that is relevant to their needs. Your knowledge, understanding, and interest will be highly appreciated and will play a key role in your ability to complete a sale. As you learn about your customer's business and develop relationships within the organization, you'll be viewed as an active partner and someone who is helping the company succeed.

For the more experienced salesperson, John concluded by stressing the importance of staying close to customers: "Don't take them for granted. This is just what your competition is waiting for—an opportunity to call on a customer that you have failed to visit or contact. It is also important to stay current. Their business will grow and change along with what they expect from you. By constantly staying focused on your customer's wants and needs, you will earn their trust and respect and establish a solid relationship that will be profitable for everyone."

It's clear from John Marriott's comments and from all of the other points discussed in this section that maintaining a business relationship is a critical priority. The following three recommendations can help you make it work.

  • Protect the trust you have developed in the relationship. Selling something that can't be delivered the way the customer expects is a sure way to lose trust. Walking away from the sale if there isn't a match is a sure way to develop trust. People do not like being dependent on others. When they trust someone, that's what happens. Trust is fragile. If it is lost, it is not easily won back. It is possible to win people back under those circumstances if you act quickly, but it's best never to lose your customer's trust.

  • Make the time to listen and attend to the customer's concerns and needs. At one of my programs, attendees had to come up to the second level on the escalator to get to the room. As they came off the escalator, it wasn't clear which direction they needed to go. My assistant asked someone from the conference staff to set up a sign to show people which way to go. His response was, "I don't have time for that." I know helping us was not on his agenda for that morning. But if he didn't have time for the customers, what did he have time for? What was most important? Salespeople who find their customers' concerns or questions to be a bother will find that customers will stop bothering them.

  • Recognize that it all depends on your knowledge, attitude, and resolve. Winning a sale is not something that takes place at the end of a sale. It should be a natural progression from the beginning of the interaction. You can be more successful when you combine up-to-date industry and customer knowledge with the right attitude, and then back it with resolve. Resolve means deciding ahead of time not to quit, no matter what, bouncing back from setbacks and putting your knowledge to use to be better tomorrow than today.

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