Sales Challenges: Earning the 30-Year, 'Cradle-to-Grave' Client
Imagine holding on to a customer for 30 years. That amount of time could span an entire sales career. Back in the day, young salespeople just starting out were in awe of the veteran reps who had built a book of business made up of “Cradle-to-grave” accounts. They made it look easy. Repeat orders drifted in. There was time for lunch and golf. An air of confidence filled the room whenever sales meetings were held. These 30-year clients propelled legacy sales reps to the top of the sales leaderboard year after year.
But that was then. Is this a realistic goal in this day and age when prices seem more important than ever? Has it become unthinkable to hold on to an account for three decades? Should we have this in mind when we think about our clients? Sure, why not? There is no downside to seeing that far in the future. Getting to that coveted level requires planning, work, anticipation and even a little luck. Still, we control what we can control.
1. Never stay stagnant — First and foremost, you must understand that you are not going to make it to 30 years based on repeat orders. Your path between here and there will not be linear. That is, it will not be one repeat order after another after another while working with the same people on the same projects. There will be sidesteps, missteps, and walls to go over, under or around. Their business will change and so must your response.
Do not become complacent, never be satisfied and you will give yourself the best chance of sticking around. Remember that despite the fact that you might have an excellent relationship and a solid track record, you are still only as good as the last job you shipped in. You should constantly be looking for new ways to solve old problems.
Got a repeat job coming up in a couple of months? Now is the time to make some subtle queries as to how that piece works, what problems it solves, and if anyone who touches it has any information or ideas on how to make it better. Then, communicate your findings and suggestions for improvement to the “powers-that-be” so that you continue to work for their business. By challenging the status quo and bringing the client new ideas, you are saying to them, “This is why you buy from me.”
2. Expand Your Network — During the course of 30 years, you will have a great number of key contacts and “champions,” not just one. Therefore, another goal should be that you expand your network. Beginning with your current decision-makers, build concentric circles outward, getting to know support people and management alike.
Never leave the building without having met one new person. Stick your head into a cubicle and introduce yourself. Exchange business cards and find out as much as you can in a short period of time. Write it all down when you get back to your car and make certain to maintain that relationship with each return visit. You want to hear people say things like, “Do you work here?” or “Are we your only client?” or “Would you like to come to our holiday party?”
By expanding your network early and often, you increase your chances of sticking around when important decision-makers leave and a replacement arrives. Note: One side benefit to the strategy is that when people go, you can follow and open new accounts.
3. Anticipate — A wonderful quote from Dr. Joe Webb encapsulates this point: “It is far more important to stay ahead of your customer than it is your competition.”
In order to stick around for 30 years, you must look into the future and see where your clients are headed. What are their business challenges in the next six months, one year and beyond? This is information gained by asking the right people the right questions, as well as to do some research on your own, perhaps contacting their trade association and learning the bigger picture, the 10,000-ft. view.
Imagine the impact of sharing what you have learned in a client meeting. What would it say if you dropped a factoid or industry statistic, or quoted something from the Wall Street Journal? They care that you care.
Understand their print needs and order cycle, and you will hold on to an account for a job or two. Understand their current business needs, and you will be invited to the “cool table” where marketing decisions are made. Understand their industry and direction for the future, and you become an invaluable team member — one who is consulted for your opinion and advice and not just brought in to provide pricing after all of the decisions have been made.
4. Praise ... yourself! — Have you ever lost a long-standing account because they got a better price, and you think to yourself, “How could they? After all I’ve done for them, you’d think they’d be more loyal. Don’t they know how good they have it?” Actually, no. They don’t. Not unless you tell them.
Every time something goes well, every time you do something right (especially the major stuff like rushing a job and meeting an extreme deadline) you need to let the customer know what happened and cc everyone of power.
One day in the not so distant future, an evil Voldemort-like creature from accounting will walk into the buyer’s office holding print out of the spreadsheet with a large number circled in red ink and say, “Looks like were spending an awful lot of money on print. Could we get a better price?”
Because this is going to happen multiple times in a 30-year time span, you need to prepare ahead of time by making certain that as many people in the company as possible are aware of the miracles that you have pulled off, as well as the day-to-day, more mundane work that you do for them.
Thirty-year customers are earned. They are built from the daily effort of sales reps who are paying attention, constantly learning and continually thinking ahead. A good vendor delivers a good product, at a good price. A great vendor, one who stays relevant and maintains the title of “incumbent,” does all that and more.
Make no assumptions. Do not get comfortable. Find out where the customer is going, get there ahead of time and provide (or invent) the solutions that they need in order to be successful. Learn the story behind every printed piece so that your focus is on helping the client with the best print solution. Do all of this, and your next 30 years will be profitable and worthwhile.