Who Really Owns the Customer Relationship?

That question is often a heated topic, particularly when it involves a conversation around a recently departed sales rep that is now in hot pursuit of business from customers of a former employer.

The business management perspective—Of course we’d like to lay claim to any and all sales activity related to an account. We have invested in the platform, the personnel and the systems to perform for our customers. We have a great deal at risk and want to avoid any chance of losing business from a broken employee relationship.

The salesperson’s perspective—Our relationships are our stock and trade. They are the only source of revenue we have and, in many cases, are our lifetime’s work. We live and breathe service to this group of customers, so why shouldn’t we be entitled to pursue these relationships when circumstances require a change.

There you have two perspectives from two very different vantage points…and one big problem.

A third perspective to consider is, what does the customer think? You might try thinking about this version of reality before you lawyer up and argue about who is entitled to the next order, because the answer to the original question—Who really owns the customer relationship?—is that your customer ultimately determines where the relationship rests.

If you want to secure your place in the future plans of your customer, then you have to earn it—every day. As a business manager, don’t allow a surrogate relationship to form. Be sure you know and interact with every customer and that they’re all comfortable with calling on you (personally) as a resource, not just your sales or service rep. A real, connected relationship with each customer is the only non-compete any business ever needs.

Owners, managers, presidents, are you listening? If you are out of touch with the customer, you run the risk of being out a customer if the rep leaves.

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  • wolffman

    Back in the day, I mean, we’re talking about 30 years ago, a sales rep from a business forms company left to form his own brokering business. His previous employer had a non-complete contract that had so many lawyers signatures, it resembled the Declaration of Independence! Of course, us purchasing people still wanted to deal with him, so his wife became the sales rep, but was always too busy to call on us, so she sent her customer service rep husband to call on us. Amazing how a little creativity can work, but, Bill, you know that!
    Brad Wolff (no longer in purchasing or sales, but really enjoying my teaching gig at Clemson, and I quote you guys, a lot!)

  • Rick Koh

    Don’t forget the greater the value you provide to the client the harder it will be for others to compete or for them to leave you.

  • John Hyde

    Customer relationships are the most valuable asset of most print, mail, and graphics communications companies. It’s a complex issue that is at the heart of business valuation, mergers and acquisitions, succession planning, and debt restructuring. The above article is a decent overview.

  • Myra Wilkinson

    I agree with Rick. During several years of employment at my last job I had formed a lot of sales/customer bonds that when I went on vacation or was out ill, my customers would call to be sure I wasn’t going anywhere again for awhile. They flat out told me they preferred to deal with me and not the others in the office. I have since left due to illness, but when I recovered, I started my own business for graphics and brokering. After contacting many of my former clients, several of them have followed me (not enough yet), but the ones that have, had reconfirmed my strong work ethic to treat them as they are the most important person I know and be honest and fair (which too many salespeople do not do).
    It works.