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Earning Customer Loyalty

This is a reprint from the MHEDA Edge

In the late 1960s, I stormed into the office of Ed Quintana, then the owner of Cisco Material Handling in Dallas, Texas. Ed was my boss and I was venting to him. I had drawn a layout for a warehouse operation where I had saved a considerable amount of space for a customer only to have them push out my ideas to everyone for competitive bids. I told Ed I was going to start charging for my layout work. He replied, “Good luck with that.”

That part of the business has not changed.  Material handling dealer salespeople study their customers’ operations and make suggestions only to see others sell the products that bring those suggestions to life. It is not right, but it is not going to change.

At the heart of the problem is that the enduser does not see or understand your stake in their business. They aren’t loyal to you, because you haven’t sufficiently shown them why they should be. Through the years, I have had a lot of good customers and a few great customers and I wondered what made the great ones so great? Why couldn’t I earn their loyalty back then? Why can I now?

To find the answer, I started by looking back at how I started off as a salesman. In the beginning: I was not an expert at what I talked about to them. Many times I was just a brochure delivery boy. Too many times in my early career, I had nothing to add to the conversation once I handed over the literature.

Many times I realized (too late) that the product I proposed didn’t really fit the application.  I just wanted to sell something and move on to the next deal.  I really did not understand the customer’s problem. I had an idea, but not a true understanding. I hadn’t studied it. I wasn’t able to think outside the box because I hadn’t examined the box closely enough. I worried too much about the competition.What were they bidding? Was their solution cheaper than mine? How much can I cut? I should’ve been focusing on what I could bring to the table.

5 Keys to Earning Customer Loyalty

I wish that I could say that overnight I changed my thinking and started cashing big checks. The truth is, that didn’t happen right away. However, with the help of some good teachers and a willingness to learn on my part, I was able to develop a high-quality, loyal customer base. The following are five lessons that enabled me to do so:

1. Study problems before you develop solutions. Sometimes, the customer calls and says, “I need a particular product; get me a price.” It is hard to be expert there, but it can be done. Listen to what your customer wants, but also use your own expertise to determine if what they want is what is best for them.

2. Study products. Knowledge is paramount. Read everything you can find about the products that you sell. Talk to your customers’ employees. Find out what has worked for them and what hasn’t. Many times the customer thinks he needs to come up with the solution rather than rely on you. That shouldn’t be the case. You need to have a broad knowledge of your inventory before you can truly be a collaborative partner.

3. Make suggestions about process or safety before you are asked. Send a written outline of a problem or a potential danger you see in their operation. Offer a solution complete with a cost. Just because someone doesn’t ask you for a quote doesn’t mean they will not consider one.

4. Operate the way your customer asks of you. Technology has us communicating many different ways, but the customer gets to pick which one to use. If they prefer e-mail, but you’re a face-to-face guy, you’re going to have to type away.

5. Look at the seams. In any operation, a great deal of time and money is spent on systems and process. Many, if not most, of those are package deals and work the way they are designed. It is where one process intersects another that there is opportunity for a smart salesperson. Sometimes the gains are in fewer rejected parts or safety issues or wear on equipment. Most of the time, it is a problem the customer has decided he just has to live with. If you can fix that, you open yourself up to a world of possibilities.

If you can turn yourself into a worthy partner in your customer’s business, if he thinks that you are truly interested in his success, you will find that he roots for you. He finds ways for you to win because that is what you have done for him.