July/August  2004

Supplier Know-How


Don’t Be Outsold
Put Customer Service Questions to Work for You
by Art Ramey

Have you ever wondered why the customer presentation was a really great meeting, everybody was excited, lots of business cards were exchanged, the feeling of new business was in the air, and then six months later, nothing?
No order, no returned phone calls, no feeling of euphoria, no flowers, no cigar. So what happened? The meeting felt great, more than three hours of really great information was exchanged, and two of the three hours were product features and benefits that demonstrated things far and above all the competitors’ products. Test information verifying the back-up support for all the performance claims was exchanged, operations and engineering people talked constantly and everything was wonderful.

Does this scenario sound familiar? Blaming the customer and blaming the support people doesn’t work. Blaming yourself only ruins your day. The bottom line is that you got outsold! Consider this response as an answer:
“The most important part of any business opportunity is how much impact you can demonstrate to the prospective customer short term and long term on their business.”

Did anyone ask the right questions and pre-qualify the situation? Was the final decision based on product alone? Who was the real decision maker? (This is not necessarily the top man or woman on the organizational chart.)
Based on more than 30 years of experience and listening to some of the best business consultants, 12 questions and an action plan have proven to be successful. Some or all of you may have heard or used these before, so forgive me for any redundancy.

Top 13 Customer Questions to Grow Your Business

1. In order for me to have a better understanding, would you please give me an overview of your business?
2. What are your company’s goals and challenges for the year?
3. What is your market strategy? 
4. What are your customer types and distribution channels?
5. What demands are your customers placing on you?
6. Who are your current suppliers and what do you like most about them?
7. Are there opportunities that are not being fulfilled, and if they are not, where would they be?
8. How do you evaluate your current suppliers?
9. What are your expectations of your sales representatives and their customer service?
10. Who makes the decisions with regard to selecting your supplier?
11. What are your biggest concerns regarding your operation?
12. Are there any concerns that you have about our products, our company or me?
13. What do we need to demonstrate to you to obtain your business?

Action Plan
Have an ongoing three-year plan of what to sell and how the benefits fit the existing and prospective customers. Show the market potential, set sales and profit goals for the customer based on market potential with dates you want to see it happen.

The process builds the value of the sale and you as an integral part of the customer’s strategic answer to achieving success.

When the discussion is based on product alone, the strategic vision gets cloudy, and, in most cases, lost, allowing price with short-term thinking to become too large a percentage of the equation.

Product, price, features and benefits are all critical to the selling process and should never be overlooked. The company that can solve the customer’s long-term plan will be the winner versus trying to rely on just product “sex appeal.”

A very good exercise to use with your sales people when reviewing the status of the customer prospect is asking some or all of the 13 questions initially and during the follow-up process to verify if they understand how your overall program, products and approach to the market meets the client’s goals. Then, the next step is to evaluate how you will communicate the answers to the client in a manner that meets or exceeds the client’s goals and challenges.

Some words of caution from experience. While one person may be the final decision maker, there will be many people who influence the final decision. Covering your bases is very important to be sure your message is consistent at all levels. Never assume the person who is the client contact person will take the time to keep everyone in his or her company in the loop. The number one reason this doesn’t happen is having the time to do this and the second reason is that your contact is evaluating other competing programs and needs to be objective while the evaluations are in progress.

Don’t assume the customer has worked out a full business plan including how to go to market, the promotion, target markets and understanding where your new and improved product fits versus the competition’s value in the distribution channel.

Fulfillment is the key to any long-term business relationship and the reason great programs materialize. Closing the sale has everything to do with the value built into the foundation of the selling process and how you prove your company creates the greatest long-term impact on the customer’s business. This is the difference between being a “supplier or a true partner.” 


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