Here's how to find out what's really happening inside your customer's business.
When customers change, their needs change. If you're not keeping tabs on the major changes at your customer account, there's a risk you'll either lose the account or miss new opportunities to sell.
It's not enough to depend upon your customer contacts to keep you informed. After all, if there are big changes afoot, they've probably got more on their minds than filling you in on what's happening.
A better approach is to set up a regular schedule for keeping tabs on your customers. Here's how:
1. Check major news about your major customers. (real-time)
If something big comes down--like a lawsuit against your customer or the threat of a hostile takeover--you want to be among the first to know what's happened, so that you can figure out what it means to your relationship to that customer.
Set up a news feed that sends you a warning when your customer's firm pops up on the "Internet radar." I use Google Alerts for this purpose since it's free, but there are paid "news clipping" services that have more features.
Ideally, you want the news feed to filter out the day-to-day BS and only give you a heads-up if something hits the news cycle that's really important. To do this, set the feed to search for the corporate name in article titles rather than in the contents.
2. Check your customers' press releases (daily).
Press releases are your basic tracking mechanism for every customer account because they document and briefly describe new products, new initiatives, personnel shifts, and financial milestones.
If you're following steps two through four below, chances are that you'll seldom be completely surprised by what becomes available in publicly-available press releases. However, if you read between the lines, you might see trends that your competitors miss.
For example, a firm that acquires two start-ups within a year is probably intending to make further acquisitions. You'll want to expand your contacts in that account so that the resulting personnel churn doesn't weaken the overall relationship.
3. Check your customers' "jobs available" page (weekly).
A customer's "jobs available" page is your secret window into what's actually happening inside the account. More than any other source, it gives you insight into both what a company needs and where it's headed.
An increasing number of positions usually signals the intent to expand while a decreasing number signals the opposite. The nature of the jobs also tells you where the customer feels a weakness and thus wants to "muscle up."
More importantly, job descriptions (especially for engineers) often describe specific skills that imply future product strategy. For example, if a company that makes Windows-based software advertises for iOS expertise, it's probably planning a port to the iPad.
4. Call your customer contacts to "touch bases" (monthly).
Needless to say, if steps one or two signal a big change, you immediately contact the people you know at that account and find out the details. However, even if nothing leaps out at you, you should have regular contact to catch up on the news.
Pay especially attention to personnel changes. Such shakeups may change the way that the customer's firm make decisions, or that your contacts are losing or gaining internal clout.
Personnel changes may also reflect an alteration to the customer's business model, in which case your offering may become more (or less) valuable. Either way, you need to understand what's going on so that you can adapt accordingly.
5. Check your customers' SEC filings (quarterly).
Finally, if your customer is publicly-held, you should glance through any new 10K or 10Q document that your customer files at SEC.gov. These documents contain far more financial details than "earnings announcement" press releases.
Comparing the official document to the press release reveals the "spin" that the customer's management wants to put on their performance. When you see "spin," try to figure out why that's important; you might find a "hook" that opens up new doors.
For example, a financial press release for a consumer electronics firm that emphasizes market share but omits mentioning a year-to-year loss in profitability probably means that the customer is having problems manufacturing products profitably.
One more thing about SEC filings--don't forget to read the "Risk Factors" section. It provides a high-level description of everything that keeps the customer's top management awake at night. That's useful to know when you're positioning your offering.