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Loyalty, Customer Service, and Sales

I recently completed delivering a training session at a client site that took me nearly fully across the country. Using the opportunity to visit friends I don’t get to see too often on the West Coast, I extended the trip to permit me to double up on prospecting with clients in the Pacific time zone and spend some time with my friends. As my friends picked me up at the airport, we immediately fell into the pattern of catching each other up on our businesses, personal pursuits, families, etc. It was during a conversation about the power of the relationships that exists between sales people and their prospects and customers that we both came to a common insight – loyalty is as fragile as the next interaction’s success.

Training’s Failure

The relationship between customer and sales is critical.

My friends shared that in their business, it is not unusual for sales people to just “drop in” and try to catch a meeting when and where they can in between other commitments and appointments. In those hurried and harried impromptu discussions, the following invariably happens:

1. The sales person follows some “script” that is designed to get “Yes” answers from their prospect (simplistic and obvious questions like, “is profit important to you and your business?” – that are guaranteed to get a “Yes” in response).
2. The sales person makes reference to the friend’s child or family, personal interests, or some other pursuit based on an overheard conversation, photo in the office, or eavesdropping in an attempt to “build rapport” – but without any real (or invited) prior discussion between them.
3. The sales person assumes that the friend is prepared to share their needs, wants, desires for the business in a first meeting with a virtual stranger.

The reality is that many sales people never advance past the first meeting or are only given cursory attention when they “visit” – and don’t realize that it is because they are following the sales process they have previously been told to use. Because they are so focused on the steps of their training – they are losing sales opportunities. What is happening is that my friend (and nearly every business owner) is feeling the disconnect that occurs when they are treated as a bit player in someone else’s play. The prospect is expected to read their lines as if a Director and Scriptwriter had staged the interaction with the expectation that there be no variation or deviation. Except, the prospect views it more like an improvisation and is not beholden to the confines of a script. My friend bristles at being expected to comply with an expectation she did not help create nor agree to; and often ends the meeting as soon as she sees the above occurring.

What Does Work

However, in the course of the discussion with my friends; one example did shine through in discussing a particular sales person’s efforts to differentiate from competition. The company this sales woman represented was holding a promotion for end-user customers that offered a rebate if the customer were to purchase a year’s worth of product at one time. A customer of my friends’ business complied and made a purchase only to not receive the expected rebate check within the stated timeframes. In pursuing why the rebate was not offered, it seemed the company claimed all sorts of excuses and used various stall and delay tactics that infuriated the customer.

When the rebate was finally released, the customer was dissatisfied and wanted additional compensation for their trouble in securing the original rebate. The requested compensation far exceeded the value of the original rebate and was in no way reasonable; though the customer was clearly frustrated and angry by the series of events that had transpired and was not without reason for expecting some additional customer service efforts.

It was at this point, that the sales person from that company and my friends had a discussion that illuminated the reality of the situation. Here is what the two of them came to recognize as a result of this unfortunate exchange between the end-user and the company:

My friend’s perception:

• The product being sold is interchangeable or nearly the same as many other commercially available products and does not have a unique status or compelling competitive advantage.
• The company supporting the product has no marketplace differentiation that creates a reason to do business with it (and may actually be at a disadvantage if this episode is indicative of how they treat the customers of my friends’ business!).
• There is no price, service, logistical, or other business variable that gives the nod in the company’s favor over other competitors.
• The sales person is the ONLY reason that my friends’ business continues to do business with the company.

The sales person’s perception:

• The value of the relationship between my friends’ business and her company was worth saving and working on (or even improving).
• If the relationship was damaged in any way by the way the company had handled the end-user customer’s situation, then the sales person was prepared to “make good” on it in any way that the two of them could agree.
• If, in the estimation of my friends, the request by the end-user customer was appropriate (or even if it was inappropriate, but would salvage the relationship between my friends’ business and the company), the sales person was going to authorize/find a way to approve the request in an effort to maintain harmony between their businesses.

While my friend and the sales person negotiated what they felt was “fair compensation” as an offer to the end-user customer among themselves – what they really were negotiating was their relationship and the strength of loyalty to each other. The end-user customer represented a microscopic amount of business to the sales person’s business, but the relationship with my friends’ business was deemed important enough to absorb any additional expense in an effort to make the end-user happy.

My friends further shared that should this sales person leave her current position and be replaced by another sales person, the goodwill generated by this sales person would not transfer to the replacement. Loyalty has to be re-earned with each new relationship or interaction and is constantly set back to zero when an event occurs that calls that loyalty into question.

David Zahn