Getting The Edge In Professional Selling

SOME YEARS AGO, I had a job liaising with a well-established firm of consultants. Our organization was buying into a multi-million dollar communications system and we had gone through a tendering process to select the right supplier for both system and hardware. I was tasked with providing support so deliverables and timetables were met. All started well, however as time went by, relations between us (the client) and them (the vendor) became more and more strained.

It would have been unreasonable to expect everything to go exactly to plan. Nonetheless, each time problems occurred or equipment failed to perform to specifications, the vendor made excuses, cast blame elsewhere or refused to communicate with us. As time went by, it became increasingly difficult to deal with the consultants. Perhaps they felt that the only reason that we wanted to talk to them was to complain about mistakes, delays, or poor service. They avoided responding to telephone calls and written requests. Rarely would senior personnel attend project meetings and the junior staff who they did send could not answer questions or respond to the myriad of pressing issues raised at these meetings.

With the project falling behind schedule, we were forced to demand a meeting with the consultants to try and remedy the situation. Only by threatening legal action or curtailing the project did we finally get the project managers to sit down at the conference table. The meeting was acrimonious. Both parties cast blame on the other side and it became apparent that the working relationship was suffering badly. At least the meeting got the project back on track. However, what had started out as a good working relationship had gradually deteriorated to the point where neither party was going to be happy.

Three months after completion of the project (and after all the teething troubles had been resolved), we reviewed the performance of the consultants and the mistakes that had been made by both sides. In retrospect, it was clear that the vendor had done a professional job designing and commissioning an efficient, effective communications network. However, lack of communication between both vendor and client left a degree of mistrust and essentially blacklisted the company from further contract work. As a result, the next phase of the project was awarded to another company.

The project manager and engineers were far more “customer focused.” Of course there were unforeseen problems, but both parties understood that addressing issues quickly allowed us to arrive at appropriate solutions before they had any real impact on the project. One incident stands out clearly. After initially agreeing to allocation of suitable frequencies, the authorizing agency realized that these bands could not be allocated and had to offer alternatives which resulted in a significant amount of redesign. The first consultants continued with the project as though nothing had happened, assuming that the requested frequencies would eventually be released. When this did not happen, they apportioned blame for project delays between us and the issuing agency.

When a similar situation occurred on the second project, the consultants immediately called to set a meeting to discuss the implications. Within the next couple of days (before the meeting), they produced some initial contingency plans that would negate delays to the project and set out some strategies for minimizing the impact of the frequency changes.

We felt pleased that the 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 does not feel he is getting what he paid for. The project suffers from cost overruns or delays and the vendor reputation suffers.

Yet, here is the paradox. When the vendor or supplier fails to live up to promises made at the time of the sale, yet takes the time to liaise closely with the client bringing problems to their attention (almost before they occur), the client will usually be left with 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 (and sometimes 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.

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.