How well are your salespeople serving your customers?

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That’s right. Serving, not selling. I know you are concerned with sales. It’s easy to determine how well your people are selling to your customers. That’s what sales reports are for. But your customers are more concerned with how well they are being served by your salespeople.

Why is that important? Because you are in it for the long run. You don’t want to just sell something to a customer, you want to build a relationship that lasts over time and results in years of sales. In one sense, your business is not really a sales business, it’s a relationship-building business.

And when it comes to developing long-lasting profitable relationships, it is not how well your salespeople present features and benefits and overcome objections that counts, it is how well they serve the customers’ needs.

Which brings us to a couple of questions. First, what does it mean for a salesperson to serve the customer? And second, how do you know that it is happening effectively?

Serving the customer

Clearly, you know what it means for your company to serve your customer. On-time deliveries, competitive prices, reliable service, competent CSRs, etc. But what do your customers want from your outside salespeople? Ask each salesperson what it means to serve the customer, and you can expect to hear a variety of answers. Some define service as picking up purchase orders, others will define it as taking inventory, some will propose that following up on back orders or short shipments is part of it, while others will say that it involves visiting the customer on a predictable basis.

That’s the problem. Few companies have any consistent description of what it really means to serve the customer. Generally, salespeople are left to figure it out on their own, create their own definitions, and develop their own standards.

I have yet to meet a salesperson who did not believe that he/she provided excellent service to their customers. Every salesperson perceives that they are doing a good job. Not once has a salesperson taken me off to the side at a break in a seminar I was teaching, and confide in me, “You know, Dave, I really do a poor job of serving my customers.”

So, on one hand, we have vague and general definitions of what it means to provide good service to the customer. And on the other, we have the often-inaccurate perceptions of the salespeople.

The result? Inconsistent service, and lots of unmet expectations on the part of the customers.

I recently worked with one of my clients to gain a deeper understanding of what service means by, of all things, asking the customers! We gathered six of this client’s brightest and most insightful customers together for a half-day focus group. I facilitated the videotaped discussion, and the client viewed the tape later. What did we discover?

How customers define good service

Here’s how those customers defined “good service” from the outside sales force.

Don’t waste their time. If there was one theme that popped up over and over throughout the day it was this: We have less time to do our job than ever before, so you better not waste any part of it. In other words, don’t come into my business unprepared. Have something of value to share or don’t come.

They need to see some value in the time they share with your salespeople every time they see them, or they won’t see them. Don’t waste their time with idle chit-chat, don’t take longer to do something than you need to, don’t be unprepared and don’t waste their employees’ time. If you don’t have something important to do or something valuable to bring, don’t visit. And when you do visit, make sure you have all the answers. Know what the product does or doesn’t do, know what the pricing and terms are and be prepared to answer all their questions.

Be empowered to handle things now. One customer talked about the salesperson as “victim.” He was referring to the salesperson who spends time explaining how the truck broke down, or the manufacturer backordered the product, or it was recalled, or whatever. All of these were seen as the salesperson saying, “It wasn’t our fault. We’re the victims of someone else’s mistakes.” These customers weren’t concerned with whose fault something was, nor were they concerned with the reasons why something wasn’t as it was supposed to be. They only wanted solutions.

“Don’t be a victim,” they said. “Bring us solutions now.” One customer remarked that the Ritz Carlton Hotel authorizes its maids to spend up to $2,000 to make a customer happy, while the salespeople who call on him cannot resolve a problem over a $50 can of paint without several phone calls and days of approvals. Good service to these customers meant that the salesperson could solve the problem immediately.

Know my business. Don’t waste our time or insult our intelligence by presenting products or services that we can’t use. These customers expected the salespeople to know what their processes were, know who their customers were, know what their goals and strategies were, know the limitations of their facilities, budgets and timetables, and take all of that into consideration before they present some product or program. “The best salespeople,” one remarked, “are like extensions of my business.”

Bring us solutions, not problems. These customers did not want to discover after the fact that a purchase would be back-ordered or short-shipped. Find the problems before we experience them, and then bring us solutions. Tell us what our options are, and we’ll decide what to do. In other words, the salesperson who says, “I’m sorry about last week’s back order,” is not serving the customer. The salesperson who is serving the customer is the one who says, “Next week, we’re going to short ship this order. If you need the balance right away, we can do any of three things to help. Here are your options …”

While these weren’t the only definitions of “good service” this group of customers volunteered, they represent a good starting point.

If you’re like most of my clients, at this point you may be feeling a little queasy in your stomach. You may be doubtful that your sales force is really serving your customers like they want to be served.

Take initiative

What to do? Here are some initiatives you can consider.

Make sure your salespeople are thoroughly prepared to present any new product or program. Don’t think that just because someone presented a new product in Friday afternoon’s sales meeting that the salespeople are fully equipped to thoroughly present it.

Role-play a customer asking questions. Don’t stop until everybody gets it right. Think through every possible question that a customer may ask, and make sure that every salesperson has an intelligent and thoughtful answer.

Give quizzes on the new products and programs. Don’t allow anyone to present it until they have passed the quiz.

Hold the salespeople accountable for having accurate and thorough knowledge.

Insist that each salesperson have a plan for every sales call, and something of value to bring to the customer. Train them in this.

Use your contact manager software to spot-check sales call plans and reports. When you or your sales managers are traveling in the field with salespeople, check for their preparation.

Empower the salespeople to fix problems on the spot. Create some guidelines for the level of authority the salesperson has. For example, you may decide that a salesperson can issue a credit of up to $500 on the spot to fix any problem he/she needs to fix.

Instill information systems that allow the salespeople to have online 24/7 access to order status, inventory, pricing, etc.

Train and equip the sales force to “know their customer’s business.”

Create detailed account profile forms (either electronic or paper) and require the sales force to use them.

From time to time, ask a customer to come in and talk about his/her business to the sales force.

Hold focus groups like the one I mentioned and show the videotapes to the salespeople.

At sales meetings, instead of only discussing your products and processes, educate the salespeople on a typical customer’s business.

Teach and equip the salespeople to become proactive problem solvers. Make sure they have the right information tools to proactively discover problems before they hit the customer. Train them in using them. When you and your sales manager ride with them, watch to make sure they are using them effectively.

Finally, ask your customers. From time to time, personally visit some of your customers, and ask them how your sales force is doing relative to other salespeople, and relative to that customer’s expectations. Take a form to make sure that you are thorough. Ask your customers to rate each of the issue mentioned above. Use that input to refine your system. And then, find out how else your customer defines good service.

Do these things and you’ll begin to field a sales force that the customers view as valuable. You’ll take a huge step forward in developing the kind of relationships you’ll need to prosper in the 21st century.

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