You've been there before: Your company just landed a great piece of business. And then, in what seems like mere hours, the euphoria of closing the sale gives way and tension between you and the new client starts to build. The cause of the conflict could be "mission creep"—suddenly, the customer seems to be expecting more than you quoted for—or it might be caused by a lack of chemistry between the team members on both sides who are brought in to manage the relationship after your sales rep and their key decision maker step aside. Whatever the reason for the ill will, it has the potential to sour a great new opportunity.
"It doesn't matter if you can process orders well if you can't maintain a relationship with your customers and treat them right," says Russ Lombardo, president of PEAK Sales Consulting, a North Carolina-based firm that helps businesses develop new clients and retain old ones.
The good news is that there are steps you can take to make sure the early days of handling a new account run smoothly. We asked sales consultants to weigh in and offer their advice to business owners on how to manage customer expectations, deliver quality service, and negotiate effectively with new clients in the period immediately following a sale.
Managing Client Expectations: Avoid a Lull
After a sale is made, it's natural to relax and celebrate the win. But while sales reps may want to move on to the next customer right away, it is critical that the hand-off from sales to operations is smooth and that communication with the client is consistent and crystal clear. In too many cases, Lombardo says, "all the work that they created to get the sale goes away."
Instead, you should move swiftly to make sure the details are worked out, and swiftly. Don't be afraid to ask for more money if a client begins to ask for "value-adds" that are beyond the scope of the agreement to which you believe you signed them.
That said, you do have to walk a fine line and avoid nickel-and-diming a new customer. Steven Yastrow, a sales consultant and author of Brand Harmony and We: the Ideal Customer Relationship, says the early days of a client engagement are particularly crucial when it comes to creating a meaningful relationship based on mutual respect.
One of the principles that Yastrow teaches his clients is that every time you come in contact with a customer, your relationship can either get better, stay the same, or get worse. When it improves, Yastrow calls it an "encounter." But when it gets worse, he calls it a "transaction." The goal of a business is to maximize their encounters with their customers, and not their transactions. So after each contact with a new client, you should get in the habit of asking staff members if they believe the relationship got stronger, weaker, or stayed level. Your strategy should be to deepen that relationship as much as possible, "We're about making our customers feel closer to us each time they interact with us," Yastrow says.
Managing Client Expectations: Control the Flow of Information
It's important to keep in your customer's sight lines, but bombarding them with information can turn out to be a failure if done improperly.
For example, a national hotel chain with whom Yastrow worked sent e-mails to all of its customers. Over time, the company realized fewer people were actually opening the e-mails each time it was sent out. Why? The information was generic, and so people chose to tune it out.
"Part of personalization is knowing how much contact someone wants," says Yastrow. You might have some people that want their hands held, and others who just want to get the product. "The more interesting thing is that if I'm your customer and you're communicating with me through messages that I can tell are sent to hundreds of other customers, then it might seem like you're bothering me. On the other hand if it's highly personal and relevant, I'm much more likely to appreciate the communication."
In other words, you have to know how your customers want to receive communications, says Dick Wooden, president of CRM for Success, a Michigan-based company that helps small businesses improve customer relationships. By utilizing internal customer relationship management tools, a company can create automated systems that show how often people want to be contacted by e-mail, how often to contact them by phone, and how often to do a site visit. You can't leave it up to chance to know whether or not you're giving your client what he or she wants, Wooden says. "You have to have standards."
Another strategy is to send information that isn't a sales pitch at all. "Send newsletters," says Lombardo. "You want to keep educating your customers. You're providing them knowledge, but what you're really doing is becoming a partner. You've kept your name in front of them by helping them."
Managing Client Expectations: Negotiate Wisely
No matter how special your product or service is, customers will inevitably push the boundaries to see if they can get more from you, says Hamilton Wallace, an Arizona-based marketing consultant. "People do, that's the new normal," he explains. "So if you want to keep customers, you need to continually raise the bar. I think that is a reality of doing business and simply something small businesses must do.
Of course, giving away services for free is not that different from cutting prices, and that means reducing margins. It can also make you can appear desperate, Lombardo says.
If you find that many customers are demanding concessions, you may want to focus on your sales process and see if there is a problem with reps offering discounts too easily. It's elementary: If a customer detects that your company negotiates on price without much thought, he or she is conditioned to ask for more. "The next time they come back, if you gave them a 10 percent discount, it's almost guaranteed they're going to want a 15 percent discount or more," Lombardo says.
The same goes for value-added services meant to sweeten the pot. But remember, there's nothing wrong with a give-and-take relationship. "I don't mind giving a discount as long as I get back something from the customer," Lombardo says. That could be a press release, a case study, or an unlimited amount of references. In other words, the client needs to earn any concessions you throw his or her way. "If that becomes a practice then it's much easier to have a good working relationship, because the customer knows, as soon as they ask, they better start thinking about what they're going to give up."
Managing Client Expectations: Say No Sometimes
"The rule I've heard is fire 10 percent of your customers every year," Wooden says. "When you think about it, you have to do a little bit of soul searching and have the metrics to go by. You need to find ways to move them off your book of business."
And how to do it? "You say, 'Your business has gone this way and mine has gone that way.' Give them an out," says Wooden.