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How To Tell If Your Best Customer Still Loves You

by Alf Nucifora

The pressing fear of every marketer or salesperson, particularly consultants and those who operate in a relationship-driven, B2B environment, is losing that big customer on whom much of the company's revenue and operating success depends. The fear of that unexpected call that will terminate the relationship is a 24/7 nightmare that haunts all of us. But there is an insurance policy. It involves being acutely aware of the tell-tale warning signs. Like a faithful dog that is responsive to the subtlety and nuance of its master's every move, a similar dynamic applies to those who seek to hold their customers for a lifetime.

What are some of the warning signs?

It starts with a reduction in the frequency of communication. Gradually, you begin to notice that that special client or customer isn't calling or emailing as often as in the past. It's not that noticeable at first, but over a period of time, the drop-off is unquestionable. There is also a growing delay in responding to your communications. Where you once received the response within the hour or the day, now it can be days, even weeks before a reply is heard.

Then there's the issue of money. It may begin with a slow-pay on your invoices or, worse still, a querying of small and insignificant charges. There may no longer be an interest in sharing personal information or discussing anything that's not strictly related to business. This is an obvious change in the nature of the relationship given the conversation and moments shared by you and the client in earlier, happier times.

Back on the business-front, you find that you're no longer included in meetings or copied on important correspondence. This is coupled with a noticeable shift of attitude from the client's support staff. They have become more distant, reserved and guarded in their interaction and communication with you. There is also the growing inability to get the client to commit to long-term decisions that involve you and your relationship with the company.

Finally, there is a change in reporting personnel. Your contact or "friend" has been moved to a different department or, even worse, has left the company. And, you've been neglectful in creating other tentacles and connecting points within.

Applying the Antidote

While it may be technically impossible to prevent the loss of a client or account, (companies get acquired, clients get fired), the best sales performers and relationship managers will always advise that client termination is generally the result of a failure to take the customer pulse and apply basic principles of client and customer service. What are they?

Do Great Work - The first line of defense (or offense) is to always do great work, and be overly responsive to the customer's needs. The operating philosophy at play is that the customer is always right. There should never be any doubt in the customer's mind about the quality of your work, the value of your product and your commitment to the relationship.

Communicate Often - Be willing to force communication with the customer, without seeming to be a pest or a supplicant. The continuing communication is a constant reminder of your presence and value as a provider. The communication can be issue-specific, ("I'm responding to your inquiry about last month's shipment…") or of a general nature, ("I'm attaching an article that I thought you'd find of interest.")

Be Pro-Active - Most marketers and salespeople are reactive; they respond to the order. The successful relationship-builders act proactively. They suggest new ideas and are continually looking beyond the expected with respect to their relationship with the customer. They're always asking the question, "What if?" on the customer's behalf. And they provide something of added-value, always delivering a little more (and unexpected) than the buyer was expecting from the transaction.

How am I doing? - Behave like a savvy politician. Don't be scared to inquire about the health of the relationship. Be willing to ask questions such as, "Are we addressing your needs?" "Are you happy with our performance?" The objective here is to unearth the annoying burrs under the saddle…those minor annoyances that, over a period of time, can accumulate into a straw that breaks the camel's back.

Showcase your victories - There's nothing wrong with proclaiming your victories and reminding the customer of your value and work. But, do it with grace and subtlety, and only when the occasion warrants it. Incidentally, the best victories to herald are those that save money or make money for the customer.

A Friend at Court - Always develop an honest relationship with someone within the client organization who can alert you when trouble is brewing. Within the maelstrom that constitutes most commercial relationships today, one can never have too many allies and spies reporting back from the mother ship.

Ultimately, we should accept the fact that every buyer/seller relationship is in jeopardy at some point or another. A change in economic environment, a shift in personnel, a crucial mistake at an inopportune moment are all unavoidable contributors to the loss of an important client. For that reason, one should always carry a healthy sense of paranoia about the relationship. This means never taking the business for granted and assuming that it has to be nurtured and maintained on a day-by-day, transaction-by-transaction basis, just like any good habit.

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