While working with a client, I had been directed to one of their top salespeople as a model for the way they would like their other salespeople to sell. Bob had been instrumental at maintaining an account worth millions of dollars. The customer had been considering shutting down the project this company was running, disappointed in its progress. When I asked Bob what he did to keep the project from being canceled, he replied that he had earned their trust. When he worked with this customer, a multidepartmental account, he devoted a great deal of time to communicating with people. He had multiple points of contact with the account in different departments. When he was with a person in one department discussing a situation and he realized that the person wasn't aware of what was going on in another department, he would say, "I just met with so-and-so yesterday. He said they have come up with another approach on that. Here's what it involves."
He played a role within the organization, that of the eyes and ears that people inside the organization sometimes didn't have the opportunity to play. So when it was time to fight for keeping his company's project on track, people were willing to listen to him. When he acted as this communication link, he wasn't doing it with a specific sale in mind. He was doing it to build the relationship by doing something that was of value to the people in the customer's organization. That was one of the things that made him one of the sales leaders in his organization.
In one of my presentation skills workshops, a banquet manager from the hotel did a short presentation about how long a minute seems to a guest waiting for food to be delivered by room service. He asked the people in the audience to close their eyes and open them when they thought a minute had passed. As you might guess, most people opened their eyes long before the minute was up. We all know how long a minute seems when you are anxiously waiting for something that you expect shortly.
Customers are no different. When they leave a voice message, a page, or an E-mail, they expect a timely reply, even if it is only to say that you got their message and are working on a response. Depending on the urgency of their call, they may get increasingly frustrated with each moment or hour that goes by. They might go over your head to get an answer and then vent their frustration at your company's lack of responsiveness.
Can you think of a time when someone didn't respond to your phone call? How much did you tolerate before you decided that you wouldn't give that company any more of your business? What was your business worth?
Have a backup when you are out of the office, in meetings, or unavailable. Check your messages frequently. Leave an assistant's number. In an account with a strong relationship, they will have multiple contacts at your company. Encourage them to call certain specific people if you aren't available and then ask those other people to let you know when they get a call from a customer. Give your home number to your best customers. But be responsive in their time frame, getting back to them as quickly as they would like, given whatever constraints you have. Apologize when you can't respond as quickly as they might have liked.
Customers like to be associated with a winner. If it looks like you and your company are on the rise, they will have a more positive feeling about dealing with you. So it is in your best interests, when you communicate with customers or potential customers, that you create a positive and honest perception about the course of your success. Keep your customers informed about events affecting you or your company.
Don't leave communication to chance. Create a plan to enhance your image. Writing articles is a good way to do this. Announcing a big or unusual sale, helping a customer with a difficult situation (with their permission), or participating in community or charitable events are other possible ways to communicate progress.
If you or your company encounter downturns, it is better to communicate and explain the issues to customers (if possible) than to have them read about the problems in the paper. I'm not suggesting you simply put a spin on the event. Instead, help customers understand how this news may affect them.
During one of my marketing assignments at AT&T, we asked a telecommunications manager from one of our major customers to speak to our group. He told us how decisions we had made in the past had made it difficult to manage the budget. As a result, his predecessor had been asked to leave. Because of his admonishment, we set up a communications program with our major customers that worked through account managers. People familiar with our services went to customers to tell them about the general direction of our services so customers could better plan their budgets. Customers liked the information and, I believe, the attention they received. These presentations allowed customers to make more informed decisions. Effective communication helps remove uncertainty and create confidence.