Crickets. That’s what I heard when I direct dialed a bunch of sales reps to inquire about pricing, timing, delivery and credit. Here I was, flush with cash (to pay in advance of services, as the new corporation had no credit), and a very large percentage of sales reps from all industries were lax or never even bothered to call back. They literally left cash on the ground. I couldn’t believe it. I was a "call-in" with ready money.
We think that our sales organizations know customer service.
But in the real world? It’s practiced much less than you think.
After working as a commissioned sales rep for a number of years while my teenagers got through school, I jumped back into the entrepreneurial world. With two partners, we started a gold “buyback” business, Goldarama. I spent millions of dollars in media advertising, in office supplies, in stationery, and in hotels. Millions. And it didn’t go to any of the persons who neglected the four things outlined below.
All of these were more important than price, even with a commodities purchase where all pricing is more transparently compressed.
1.) Speed matters. Return inquiries quickly—and try to be the first to do so. If you are first in the door, you get to set the table. If you are second, third, or later, you’ll be defending the narrative instead of leading the narrative. I was starting up a new business in four states and busier than the proverbial wallpaper hanger in a windstorm. I had time neither for small talk nor for lunch. It wasn’t personal. I needed answers, and I needed them fast. We didn’t have time for drawn out RFP’s—the world is getting faster, and we all have to move faster, too. The sales reps that respected my time, and had rapid response, got the inside track—and a lot of the time, the sale with it. Time is money.
2.) Ask me the right questions about my business and what I need to accomplish. When sales reps asked me targeted, sharp questions about who my customer was, behaviors, what they are looking for, competition and how they could help me position Goldarama, they engendered my trust and confidence. They sounded like they genuinely saw us as partners, not as customer/peddler. If they had done even a cursory search on Google, they could ask these types of questions. I always found more time to talk to them. Always.
3.) Give me what I ask for. The first time. If I want a media schedule reaching 50 year old women, don’t sell me a “hip-hop” station as an add-on; if I want IT services in the cloud, don’t pitch me your servers on clearance; if I ask you for display space in a certain building on a specific date, recommend an alternative only if it isn’t available. I cannot tell you how many times the sales rep was pushing something that undoubtedly was part of a “sales contest” that had nothing to do with my business succeeding or what was requested for pricing. (After being a sales rep for so long, I could recognize those pitches at 100 paces.) I didn’t even have time to call those people back; they were so far off the mark.
If you give me exactly what I ask for, and THEN include alternatives, I may look. But if you don’t, your proposal goes into the “too much time to review” basket. And that one is under the desk… with a recycling logo on it. It's not personal. It’s a time thing.
4.) Make sure your accounting department is in the 21st century. That may sound like an afterthought for many of you in management positions, but with an increasingly competitive world for your exact same products, a dated credit and collections procedure can kill you with new and existing customers (which everyone professes to want—retaining best customers and more new customers). It did with me. Customer service is the whole experience with your company—sales, fulfillment, credit and collections and everything in between. If your accounting department wants someone to fill out a “credit application” in ink and “fax” it to a lowly paid credit and collections person, when your competition can easily ascertain the genuine financial health of a company in two clicks on the internet, you are hopelessly behind. Many of Goldarama’s vendors had online applications and their headquarters e-mailed or called me immediately. They had the order in hand a week before their competition had their sales rep call me to “ask a few questions for accounting” after they reviewed my “fax.” Technology is very expensive, I know. Losing sales and market share is more expensive. Spend the money and update. If you don’t, you’ll join the ranks of Kodak sooner than you think.
These four items were critically important and determined winners and losers.
We all want to believe our own company is focused on customer service. If you want an eye-opener, do this exercise—try to buy something from five companies similar to yours (but without affiliation) in another city or state, or even another country. Give yourself a budget, a rapid timeline, make the calls and see for yourself how challenging we make it to do business with ourselves. Or better yet, ask your direct reports to do this exercise and report back to you. You’ll experience the good, the bad, and the ugly... and get great insight on how you can improve sales performance simply by making it easy to do business with your company.
The purchasing side of a new business venture opened my eyes much wider on how my own company needed to treat customers and what was important. The additional peripheral vision it afforded allowed us to do very, very well with a little part-time precious metals recycling business.
Imagine what it could do for yours.
Laura Wilkinson Sinton is a principal of Vox Advisory, LLC, a strategic social media marketing and integrated marketing communications advisory firm serving Fortune 1000, mid-cap and start-up ventures. She currently owns two radio stations in Bend, Oregon, has two other hare-brained scheme start-ups in the works, and has written for the New York Times and other publications.