Customer Outreach in Tough Times

Charlie Fewell

Face it: you have no control over the state of the economy or the potential loss of revenue and profits that may occur when times are tough. You do, however, have total control over your behaviors during an economic slowdown. Many companies pull back and reduce overall spending in an attempt to preserve the bottom line. My consulting and coaching experience has shown me that in many cases, proactive customer outreach stalls during tough times because "consumers aren't buying anyway, so why waste the money?"

You may think I am crazy, but I am convinced that in tough times, your outreach program needs to kick into high gear. If people are going to exercise more frugal spending practices, then you surely need to be top of mind when they decide to purchase. Further, remember that what you do creates images in your customers' minds about your products and services. If you disappear for all practical purposes, some of your customers will determine that you have gone out of business. Customers don't typically sit around at night and discuss all the potential vendors for products and services like yours—unless they are in need. The question is, if they are in need, are you on the list? Are potential customers aware of your products and services?

Define your plan: the process or strategy you currently use for staying top of mind with current customers when times are good. How do you contact customers, and how often? Do you use direct mail, radio, personal sales calls, Internet, telemarketing, or television? What is your annual budget number (percentage of sales) for marketing and advertising? Right now you might be saying "Budget? What budget?" That's another article for another time.

Do you produce a newsletter for your customers? Do you use incentives to help current loyal customers bring you names of potential purchasers of your products and services? Do you use incentives with your commercial accounts to promote preventative maintenance practices? Why I'll bet you presume that your current customers are aware of all the products and services you offer. Right? My work with business leaders and sales teams has taught me that there are some common reasons this happens. Due to the fear of being pushy, we let customers buy what they currently want or need and have no clearly-defined process to follow-up and help the customer know everything we can supply to meet other current or future needs. Another reason is that some days we are operating like our pants are on fire, for various reasons, and we simply give the customer what they ask for and move on.

Let me emphasize that if you don't have the processes in place to deliver excellent customer service and create advocates for your business from your current customer database, then there is no need to attempt to ask for more business from them or to ask for referrals. You must deliver whatever you sell with excellence, or you will be frustrated when attempting to obtain referrals. Another prerequisite is knowledge of your customer satisfaction rating. If it is not in the "exemplary" range, fix it. It is worth noting that "no complaints" does not equal satisfied customers. Research reveals that, on average, 96 percent of unhappy customers never take the time to complain…they just don't come back.

Selling is both an art and a science. Successful companies have a well-defined selling process, yet allow their team members some flexibility to drive creativity. Remember that every employee is in sales. Each one represents your business, whether a technician or a service advisor.

In the service environment, one important part of the selling process is the interview through which customer needs are revealed and understood by the service advisor. By this I mean both present and possible future needs that could be met by your products and services. In my selling model, I emphasize the importance of asking appropriate questions with sincerity, in a genuine attempt to understand how to meet relevant customer needs.

With commercial accounts, we simply must never presume what their needs are or that they are the same as they were just a few months ago. As I write this, I am reminded of the pressure that comes with the dramatic increase in fuel prices we are currently experiencing. What can you do to help your commercial account customers reduce overall operating costs of their fleet?

If a commercial account comes to your business with a service need on a piece of on-road equipment, what do you do? Of course you accommodate an excellent repair, but do you think how many more of these types of failures the account could experience? Do you know how many of these pieces of equipment the fleet operates? Do you think of how you may be able to design a program for this account to reduce the possibility of an on-road failure and the related expense that would occur should one happen?

In the service process, courtesy, respect, and knowledge are key—together with repairing the vehicle to a high standard, of course. This kind of customer connectedness is a skill and it takes time to build. I call this perfect customer experience the Muy Simpatico Momento. This roughly translates as a highly empathetic experience. The goal is to create Muy Simpatico Momentos at every point of interaction where a representative of your company is interfacing with the customer. If these moments can be maximized, the value of the interaction will deepen the relationship in a way that results in repeat business, referrals, and the development of a customer for life.

Are you continually educating the retail customer on the benefits that will accrue to them by proper maintenance of the various systems on their vehicle? Do you have a selling cadence? A selling cadence is a carefully organized process, containing regular reoccurring actions moving forward toward a sales goal. Think of a sit-down restaurant. When you enter, you are greeted, seated, and then your server has a definite cadence that is followed while you are enjoying the dining experience. First is the drink order, then the appetizer, followed by the entrée, and after a delightful dinner comes the dessert and coffee.

The server's job is to ask and allow you as the customer to say yes or no. A few months ago I was in a meeting with almost 50 other attendees. We went to dinner together and were seated in the same area in booths of six and tables of eight. One server and an assistant came to take care of us. The assistant brought water and the server began taking orders. She asked every person for the drink order and the appetizer, each time. Less than 10% ordered the appetizer, and she never became weary, for her job was to simply ask and allow the customer to say yes or no. She didn't vary because she was busy, and had a number of us to serve. She faithfully followed the cadence that her employer outlined. What's your cadence?

When times are tough, we sometimes pre-qualify that all our customers are pulling back, waiting for things to improve, not interested, or don't have the money now. This thinking causes us to become paralyzed. So if you are convinced that customers aren't going to buy, change your thinking to: "how can I help educate my customers now so when they are ready to buy they can make a more informed decision?"

I don't buy into the premise that pre-qualifying is ok. I think it is a terrible mindset. If you and your team members are stuck in this insane rut, resetting the mind from selling to educating can help you get out of it. Here's how it goes. Make a list of all the products and services you provide. Alongside each product or service, create a value statement or a statement of benefit that will accrue to your customers who purchase them. Now take the list of your top current customers: the ones who make up 80% of your business. In the last 12 months, have you or one of your team members communicated with these customers to share the list of products and services you offer? How are you staying top of mind?

In this short article, I cannot describe the entire process, but I can tell you that through a detailed needs-analysis approach, you can uncover needs that you did not know existed. Further, you will educate your current customers regarding your entire offering. If done well, you may even garner referrals that you would never have received without using this kind of process.

Charlie Fewell

© Charlie Fewell 2008


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