Selling the Relationship

By Tom K. Bucher of Bucher Financial Group

When developing and maintaining a customer base, one of the most important areas for success is to properly manage the customer relationship. Because of many variables, such as the kind of products/services you are selling, customer types, competition and industry practices, it’s difficult to prescribe one or two methods that always work.

Selling is all about production. Production, however, is more than simply taking orders. If you are engaged in direct customer relations and your product/service requires the ability of human intervention to make the sale, then you must understand your customer. This sure sounds simple; this is sales/marketing 101, right?

We all are engaged in numerous activities every day where we encounter people that come from a wide range of social, economic, academic and cultural backgrounds. So when we talk about developing and maintaining customer relations, many other factors play into the mix before we even think about product/service issues.

There’s not a sales representative alive that does not want to improve its customer relations. If a sales representative does not want better customer relations; shoot him/her! So, what does work in today’s competitive market where hi-tech stuff, like hand-helds, laptops and Nextel’s seem to be every sales rep’s choice of tools?

How about taking TIME, to learn your customer? What’s that mean? Well, I don’t really care if you are just getting started or have been selling for 30 years, you better be able to reflect every day as to what you learned that day about your customers. It amazes me when I talk to sales folks about their customers how much they really don’t know about their customers. I find it even more amazing when, as a credit/finance manager, talking with a sales rep about one of THEIR customers, the sales rep will comment, “well I’m too busy to find that out”.

Any sales rep’ that is too busy to learn more about his/her customers is destined to fail. When we talk about customer relations, it goes way beyond JUST getting the sale. Because most products we sell are commodity based, price sensitive and can be purchased from a variety of resources, customers will not beat a path to your door to buy from you. Learning more about your customer will give you more tools to meet the challenge and will tell your customer something about you and your business.

When I talk about improving customer relations, I don’t mean we do it by giving them bigger discounts, better terms or freebee handouts as a first line of service. I mean really understanding their business needs. That takes TIME, ENERGY, DEDICATION and PERSISTANCE.

In the building supply business sector, we deal with a variety of critical issues. It’s a really tough market considering the economic environment, competition and general financial condition of the contractor base. Construction projects take on a life of their own. Each is different. Each has the potential to bring in significant business for your company. Each has the potential to become a disaster. The very best customers in this sector are hard to come by. We can’t do business in this sector the way we did it 10, 15 or 20 years ago. You can’t increase your sales base by only selling to a select few customers. That is dangerous and can spell failure.

The construction contractor sector is extremely fragmented. Unlike many industries, where you may have a few key players, you don’t have that aspect in construction. That’s not to say there aren’t large contractors where you can get a substantial amount of business. They’re out there. But, they often can be very costly to do business with. It’s the smaller to mid size contractor that is looking to grow aggressively where new/future business can be developed. This is the thing about construction contracting; too often no matter if it’s large or small, the sub-contractor or general contractor has big expectations. The key to success here is, have they planned, organized, executed and evaluated their performance. And as a sales representative have YOU planned, organized, executed and evaluated your customer’s work? Here, this is an opportunity to know your customer.

By understanding the contracting customer, the nature of his/her business and his/her history, make managing the relationship much more productive. We’ve got to be much smarter and put more effort into developing customer profiles and getting more specific information.

You may be wondering at this point what all of this has to do with the function of extending credit. After all, isn’t it the job of the folks in credit to approve, deny extending credit and then just collect the money? If you made the sale, move on to the next sale, the credit department will worry about the rest, right? Now, let me get this straight, you want to be the relationship manager, so then manage the account! Relationship management is a continuous process, make sure you are part of the ENTIRE process; not just the sale.