Getting the edge in professional selling
Terence A. Hockenhull

No business will be successful without customers.  Through investment and hard work, established companies build a solid base of clients who they can sell to time and time again. However, this should never limit efforts to find new customers. Attrition, poaching, companies going out of business, change of product lines and requirements may all mean the most loyal of customers suddenly stops buying. Further, the company that takes an existent loyal customer base for granted may just find the rate of attrition will exceed their ability to court and secure new customers.

Any regular reader of this column will know of my frequent rants about our telecommunication providers. Secure in the knowledge that their few competitors are all offering the same shoddy levels of customers service probably allows for a certain degree of complacency. I’m just staggered that one company has not seen fit to clean up in the cellular market by outshining competitors, acknowledging customer loyalty and rendering excellent customer service.

The basics first; it is essential that customers are looked after and supported. One of the leading causes for customers changing to other suppliers is that they firmly believe that they have been taken for granted. When they have had problems, questions and queries, these have been inadequately addressed. They feel both service and sales departments let them down. No surprise then that they look for new suppliers.

A good example of this is a photocopying bureau that leased my company two photocopiers. At our initial sales meeting, they promised the world. When they first secured the contract, they were quick to respond when we encountered problems. It seemed as if they could not do enough for us. Engineers were placed on standby when we had large print orders to complete just in case anything when wrong. The machines leased to us were reconditioned units. We were more than aware of this at the time we signed the contract. We were far more interested in the machine output (clear copies) rather than the cosmetic and aesthetic appearance of the machines.

After a few months, service levels began to decline. It became evident that our constant calls for technical support were viewed as a nuisance. Instead of service technicians being dispatched within a couple of hours, it would often take one or two days before we got maintenance and repairs. On more than one occasion, we were forced to outsource our copying requirements to a service bureau to make a sure a critical job was finished on time. Needless to say, at the end of the service contract period, we did not renew and moved to another vendor.

Regular liaison with clients (whether this be through a visit to the client’s office or a telephone call) is essential if you want provide quality customer service and support. However, there is a bit of a paradox here. The company that excels in customer service to begin with and then over time begins to neglect the client will often fares worse than the company that fails to provide the right level of service from the outset.

Acquiring new customers is costly and time consuming. So retention of existing clients is critical to company success. Whether the client base is handed over to a customer service team or retained by the sales team, regular contact, a high degree of responsiveness, and reward for loyalty are three key components of customer retention.

There must always be a relationship between the size and importance of a customer and the effort which is expended to keep that customer happy. Another paradox is that larger customers often make fewer demands on their suppliers. This may be because they have the skills in-house to deal with issues. It may be that they are able to weather losses without recourse to the supplier. Whereas the smaller client is often far more demanding and can, if care is not taken, call for support which is way beyond that deserved based solely on the value of their purchase.

An example here might serve to explain. Some year back, I bought a pick-up from a car dealership. My very wealthy friend bought a large SUV. My model was not the top of the range; his was. I paid less than a million pesos; he paid in excess of P2.5 million! Complaining to him one day about the appalling levels of service (as I saw it) garnered very little sympathy. I explained that I was less than happy about being without a car for three days while they sourced spare parts. I bitched about waiting in the service department for up to an hour before anyone attended to me. His comment was priceless. “It really doesn’t matter to me. I send the car in with the driver and if he has to wait all day, so be it. We have plenty of spare cars here so if my car is off the road for a week, it has no real impact!”

Just remember, however, that today’s small client may be tomorrow’s large client. A small investment today may pay dividends down the line.

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.