A colleague was recently lamenting the proliferation of competition he was now facing. “Customers have so little loyalty anymore. They jump around from one new thing to another, and the result is that they have a much less cohesive operation and lack overall direction.” His business is sales and sales management for a digital and legacy media organization, but his problem is not unique. All kinds of businesses are facing all kinds of new competitors… and it is likely that you, too—whatever your business—are finding loyalty more difficult to come by.
When you find yourself in this “Squirrel!” sales environment, it’s important that your degree of objectivity prevails over your level of frustration. That new company you see as an emerging threat or competitor? Your customer sees it as a new option. When that option is attractive to your customer, the reasons are usually pretty simple. Some of these issues you absolutely can control, some of them you can’t. And sometimes, these sales challenges are found somewhere in the middle of the influence spectrum, meaning you are neither in control… or without it. So why do customers look past you, and beyond your product line?
Maybe this new option helps the customer seize an opportunity that was previously unrecognized or poorly addressed.
You have control here, equal to your Needs Analysis and problem-solving skills. Make sure your Needs Analysis is ongoing, and that you are in a constant state of learning where your clients’ operations and priorities are concerned.
Perhaps the new option solves (or could solve) a need that was not previously being satisfied.
Again, you have some influence here. Start by reviewing the paragraph above. Then, make sure you’re establishing clear expectations during the sales process, including (for our media clients) the use of The Results Checklist, as you finalize each project. Only the customer gets to dictate whether they are satisfied and whether their needs are being met. And after-the-sale satisfaction is based not only on objective metrics, but substantially on pre-sale expectations. And if you don’t know their expectations, it’s kind of hard to develop a solution that produces the right metrics.The Results Checklist (type "results" into the search function), as you finalize each project. Only the customer gets to dictate whether they are satisfied and whether their needs are being met. And after-the-sale satisfaction is based not only on objective metrics, but substantially on pre-sale expectations. And if you don’t know their expectations, it’s kind of hard to develop a solution that produces the right metrics.
It could be that the risk of trying the new thing seemed relatively low, and the customer had a penchant for experimentation.
Again, you have influence here, provided you’re the one bringing this customer a lot of new ideas and options. Keep them up-to-date about new additions to your product line, and constantly ask if they have any ideas to improve on the ones you’re already bringing. Oh, and stay close to the innovators and the “creative types” in your company, so you’re aware of new products and services ahead of the pack… and so your clients get first shot at those new alternatives.
The new option may seem more time or cost efficient, in the client’s mind, than the existing alternatives.
Again, you do have some control here, albeit not always complete control. But you must focus on this issue constantly, not just after it has been allowed to surface. Realize that the notion of time savings are often as much a matter of process as product. Talk with your customer about the kind of service you are providing, and ask whether there is anything else you could be doing to make that process easier for them. Concerning cost savings, have straightforward conversions about value, always focused on the problem they’re trying to solve, not just the products you are trying to sell. Allow your experience, problem-solving ability, and expertise to help prevent your products—or your time—from becoming commoditized.
Or finally, the client could be bored, feel unappreciated, or like their business is being taken for granted.
This is the most preventable, controllable matter on the list. When was the last time you sent an authentic “thank you” note? Are you consistent about sending recaps after each project? Are you in touch—in a helpful way—between sales calls? Do you send research that focuses on your customers’ business, not just your own? Have you given the customer, and the gatekeeper, your personal cell phone number? Do they feel like they’re welcome to call you after hours?
Now, there is no silver bullet for every time a customer is threatening to cancel their order with you because of a shiny new option on the market. Some of these issues you have no control over, but others are very much within your sphere of influence, if you are looking at the situation objectively. Remember to focus on the things you can control to help your clients stay focused, and accept the things you can’t.
It’s also important never to become confrontational or adversarial with your client when you learn they’re considering a new alternative. Indira Gandhi is credited with the saying, “You cannot shake hands with a clenched fist.” That is so true. Instead of, “How could you do this to me?” respond with, “Interesting. And what problem will this new option help you solve?” Perhaps you can get a dialog going again, and uncover ways that you can address the issue without putting your client through the discomfort of getting acquainted with a new provider.
Will you lose some customers to the novelty of a new competitor? Of course. But the novelty wears off. Your best course of action is to remain the reliable solutions provider that people come back to, again and again—or the kind that few would ever leave.