Getting the edge in professional selling
Terence A. Hockenhull

THINGS OFTEN go wrong on major projects. The best will in the world is not going to prevent delays, mistakes, or unforeseen events interfering with what was originally promised to the client. The salesman who refuses to take calls from the client to explain what has gone wrong (and what is being done to address the problem) is creating more problems for himself and the client.

A number of years ago, I was working for the Hong Kong Government liaising with consultants who were providing a radio system for the police. After the award of contract (when many promises were made), I worked with the consultants for more than a year. During this time, relations between us (as the client) and them (as the vendor) became more and more strained. I would be the first to agree that it would be unreasonable to expect everything to go exactly to plan. Nonetheless, every time problems occurred or equipment failed to perform to specifications, we received excuses (late and lame) from the consultants with the blame for project delays often laid at our feet. As time went by, it became increasingly difficult to deal with them. Perhaps they felt the only reason that we wanted to talk to them was to complain. We felt that they were avoiding contact with us because they could not live up to the promises they had made during the original tender submission.

Eventually, with project implementation falling seriously behind schedule, we were forced to demand a meeting with the consultants to try and remedy the situation. The meeting was acrimonious with accusations being cast by both parties. We struggled on to the end of the project believing that few of the deliverables would be adequately met. A couple of months after completion, we reviewed the performance of the consultants and the mistakes that had been made by both sides. In retrospect, we felt that the vendor had done a reasonably proficient job. The system worked effectively and in some areas, equipment performance exceeded expectations. Nonetheless, the lack of communication between the two parties left a degree of mistrust and the consultants were blacklisted for future projects of this magnitude. 

The next project was awarded to another consultancy who worked extremely well with us (even though they encountered just as many problems). The main difference was that as problems arose, they would call us and ask for a meeting. Advising us that there might be delays or problems, they were always well prepared with contingency plans. One incident stands out clearly. To get radio frequencies allocated, an application needed to be made to the Post Office which was the authorizing body. On both projects, specific frequencies were requested. The Post Office promised to allocate within these bands. However, they later had to withdraw the frequencies and offer different bands for our system use. 

When the first consultants were informed of the situation, they continued with the project as though nothing had happened, assuming that the Post Office would change their mind and release the requested frequencies. When this proved to be impossible, they apportioned blame between us and the Post Office. Neither action helped the project. In fact, significant delays occurred as a result.

Our second consultants called us as soon as they realized that there may be problems. They set a meeting during which the implications of the problem were discussed. They had, in the intervening period, come up with a couple of contingency plans that, providing we could approve immediately, could be implemented with no delay to the project.

We felt pleased that the second vendor had recognized the problems early and taken the initiative to come up with alternative plans. Similarly, we appreciated being invited into the decision making process at an early time. What had, in the first scenario, caused a further breach of the relationship between vendor and client had, in the second, actually strengthened our working relationship.

When sales proceed perfectly and there are no problems, delays or untoward incidents, clients are normally satisfied. When problems do occur and they are badly handled by the vendor, working relationships quickly break down. The client suffers because he doesn’t feel he is getting what he paid for, the project suffers from cost overruns or delays and the vendor’s reputation suffers.

Yet here is the paradox. When a vendor or supplier fails to live up to the promises made at the time of the sale, yet takes time to liaise closely with the client bringing problems to their attention (almost before they occur), the client will be usually be left with a favorable impression. In some cases, the poor performer who stays in touch with the client will leave a better impression than the company who installs the perfect system but does not keep the client apprised of what is going on.

As every professional knows, large scale projects are rarely completed without some minor (or often major) problems. Keeping in touch with the client and telling them what might go wrong (before it does) will go a long way to gaining the client’s support and confidence. Repeat business occurs because clients are happy with what you have done for them in the past. Support and communicate with your clients throughout the implementation phase of the project and you are far more likely to get additional business at a later date.

Terence A. Hockenhull is a long-term resident of the Philippines. He is an accomplished sales consultant who currently holds an executive sales position with an Italian geotechnical company.