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From Grit to Great: Lessons from the Sales Frontline

I don’t consider myself a coffee snob. I don’t particularly live my fantasies via coffee. I am quite happy with my plebeian Starbucks albeit with an extra shot of Kenya medium (Note: That’s not snobbish surely. Snobbish would be if I were having the Hacienda La Esmeralda Special Panama Geisha. Believe it or not, such fantasies do exist). But let me not digress.

As I sat that crisp autumn morning with my usual poison, life seemed good. The caffeine had truly kicked in, I had surmounted my number (sales quota) 45 days into the quarter (a rarity, an oddity perhaps?) and I actually had time to think:

How do organizations build great customer relationships with sheer grit and determination?”

I am not looking to write War and Peace on a topic that excites some notable thinkers of our times, so here are some of my observations from the Sales front line:

First Impressions Count, So Make Them Count

“A stunning first impression was not the same thing as love at first sight. But surely it was an invitation to consider the matter” – Lois McMaster Bujold

I know this is not a treatise in love but I firmly believe that if customer relationships were a contact sport, then every contact matters, especially the first. And it is your business to make it matter, no matter what role you play. It doesn’t matter whether you are a challenger from the outside, the weary incumbent fighting for new business, or just one of many upstarts in the upcoming RFP beauty parade.

Fragile as first impressions may be, they linger. I recollect when a very senior executive in a company I used to work for drove the key decision-maker of a very geeky, very important prospect from a breakfast meeting to our office. Unbeknownst to us (until we saw the valet drive the car into the hotel foyer), he did so in his trusty, rusty (missing 2 hub caps, sorry) car. My heart sank, I consoled myself for at least trying and convinced myself I was staring at a No Commission, No McDonald’s Happy Meal quarter for my son.

At the end of the trip, I asked the decision-maker his one key takeaway from his trip. I almost fell when he said, “You guys are different and you are genuine. I loved the drive to the office – we had an invigorating conversation and I loved that car he drives, so different than what I expected!”

Sure enough, we got the deal! There was more to it than the car for sure but do things that make your organization interesting, different, and genuine.

Genuine is the new ingenious. No red carpets, no flashy Land Rovers. Sometimes old cars do just the trick.

Don’t be Order Takers – Lead Rather Than be Led

“The first step in exceeding your customer’s expectations is to know those expectations.” — Roy H. Williams

You need to win the game you are asked to play. Not the game you think you are playing. In my technology services industry, this is a common refrain I hear from customers. I know there is no one size fits all but a vast majority of customers sign up for a supplier because they deliver something that the customer themselves cannot do well enough.

Implicit in that understanding is that the partner would be the one who helps the customer better answer what good looks like. I remember a conversation with the head of a business in a financial institution who lamented to me: “We like what your guys do. They are technically competent in doing what we ask them to do. But it’s frustrating that I never hear a differing point of view on why I should be doing something or not. I see nodding heads all around and we are none the richer!”

I know that in some cases this has a cultural context where some Eastern cultures pay more obeisance to authority (and customers) but the point he made was revealing. If you do what the customer tells you to then you are just an order taker. But she sees you as a fresh pair of eyes and expects you to challenge her and present a point of view she might never think of.

How you lead after understanding your customer’s implicit and explicit expectations tells a lot about how your organization thinks. It tells about how it applies that thought and helps shape customer perception, especially in early-stage relationships. 

One Voice Back In – When Stuff Hits the Ceiling

“Coming events cast their shadows before them.” – Chinese Proverb

When you drive to work every morning you really don’t expect to get any traffic lights along the way, do you? (Unless you take the plane. If you take planes, you definitely don’t want to stall, traffic lights or not). Jokes apart, look, stuff happens and that is just the nature of the business when two entities transact and work together. What you do when stuff happens is what really matters. The customer just needs some reassurance, a lot of pro-activeness, and laser-sharp accountability on actions taken by you. It sounds so simple but we all know that sinking feeling when we don’t match up as an organization.

I vividly remember a situation when a new customer relationship hit a snag in a company I used to work for. After a few months of clocking quarter-busting revenues, we had hit a customer tsunami. We weren’t delivering to expectations. Our project team was well-meaning but crucially we lacked one voice back into the customer. In our eagerness to get over the bump, everyone was talking to everyone. With multiple channels of communication, the harder we tried the tougher it got. Frustrated, the key customer stakeholder kept berating everyone he could lay his hands on. We did not make much progress after a month of back and forth and the product roadmap kept slipping. We seemed to be in hand-to-hand combat, attacking personalities rather than resolving issues. We tried to resuscitate the relationship but the goose was cooked.

So the key is to listen to those signals from that canary in the coal mine. It usually warns you of trouble ahead. Your canary could be your customer-facing colleague, your Sales guy, or the customer sponsor himself. Listening for cues earlier helps you avoid flapping like ducks later. So,

  • Anticipate if you can (or get your act together fast if you couldn’t),
  • Admit Mistakes (this does not make you culpable, the customer will like you for it),
  • Act on the Problem (it’s not employee-specific, so don’t stand still) and
  • Always One Voice Back In

Customer Life Time Value – a.k.a Battling Sales Ops

 “With time and patience, the mulberry leaf becomes a silk gown” –Chinese Proverb

The goal of the organization is to make a profit. Yes, everyone gets that. However, I recently read an HBR article (from 2010) about customer-driven capitalism. It takes an interesting stance. It mentions how business has moved from managerial capitalism (management should be divorced from ownership) to shareholder value capitalism (maximizing shareholders’ wealth) but argues that we really should be moving to customer-driven capitalism (maximize customer satisfaction while ensuring that shareholders earn an acceptable risk-adjusted return)

Without getting into financially engineering this philosophy, it does bring home an important point. It reminded me of an anecdote a friend of mine once told me about his Dad’s bustling restaurant business (his Dad had migrated as a refugee and now owns a host of restaurants in London). He said to his son: “In this business, the trick is to kill a customer with kindness”.

Before you roll your eyes in disbelief about what you just read, let me clarify. He wasn’t advising us to use curry (or spit-roast chicken) as a weapon of choice to commit multiple homicides. He was urging us to treat the customer so well that she came back for more. That is a universal truth in any industry.

I remember an end-of-quarter classic (which the Sales guy doesn’t!) from a previous company I worked for. The sales operations lead was breathing down my neck for a small unpaid customer invoice on the last day of the quarter. He was technically right to get that paid but we were still recovering from an extremely negative client perception on a project for a very large customer.

He boomed down the end of the phone,” Tell your customer, you have a very irate boss who needs every penny in as we are having a so-so quarter so please help!” We offered: “Jack, we can push this down their throat and get paid, but this could turn out to be a self-inflicted wound. They have promised to pay us the moment we fix the issues and deliver to schedule. For now, they just want us to help them succeed”. Thankfully, after much cajoling he relented and we focused on re-building the relationship.

The key take-away is to not get caught up at the end of quarter/year madness and remember it all starts with a customer at the top of this food chain. This is not every man or woman for himself game. Sure, chase the money and get it in but ensure that while making your quarter you don’t end up losing your customer. In the long run, it’s the little things that matter.

“Customers perceive service in their own unique, idiosyncratic, emotional, irrational, end-of-the-day, and totally human terms. Perception is all there is! “–Tom Peters

Some customers are analytical and data-driven, while others like to deliberate, look and and feel the service and some just like to issue that purchase order after five liberating pints of London Pride.

Every customer relationship starts with a common purpose, takes shape by our ability to deliver, and thrives over time as a two-way partnership. To do so requires copious doses of trust, respect, and raw determination to make it succeed.

So move that relationship by grit to great. Happy Selling!

P.S: Please note that no Sales Ops or Project Delivery teams were harmed inadvertently in the typing of this piece. They remain an integral part of any well-functioning Sales driven organization 

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of his company/employer.
About the Author:
Name: Abhishek Somani
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