If you are a salesperson or in sales management, you probably spend well more than half your time going to meetings with customers and know all the places to hang out in airports all over the world. Since that has been the way business is done, it is really hard to figure out how to build and maintain customer relationships without face-to-face meetings. Social interactions build customer rapport and trying to really get to know your customers without meeting them makes it really hard to see how to get them to see you as a partner instead of just another sales pitch.
I have lived the life of a globe traveling sales leader, catching planes, changing flights at the last minute and finding my way to unknown hotels and restaurants to get a few hours meeting face-to-face to close a deal. Then a few months ago – BOOM – everything changed overnight, and there is no real guess when or if it will ever return to the old comfortable way I love to sell.
Now I work from home, we have happy hours on Zoom to build sales team confidence, all my customers are working from home, and I don’t really have a plan about what I need to do over the next few weeks to meet my goals.
The 64 thousand dollar question is how do I keep building connections with customers when all I have to work with is a phone and a bunch of internet communications tools that don’t really work all that great and especially don’t build the personal connections that I feel are essential to get engaged with my customers.
So, based on what I have learned over the years here are some thoughts about how to make the best of this mess.
Below are a few practices I have implemented these past few weeks to maintain strong customer relationships and build new ones, even while I’m not out on the road. I hope that by sharing, you too will be able to strengthen your bonds during these trying times.
Pay attention to what your customers are saying.
People will forget what you say but they won’t forget what you did and how you made them feel. Everyone is upset and concerned about the future so now is the time to pay really close attention to what customers are saying and try to get them to feel like you are there to help them. You aren’t there to make a pitch, talk and listen. Set up a time to meet up and have a coke or just exchange ideas. Don’t worry about the details just listen and talk about ideas that can help solve their problems. You can do some really simple things that can help and don’t take a lot of effort – get them prototypes for example, even if they don’t have a clear business case, find out where projects are struggling and get your engineers engaged to help, make small changes to your tools to get them better information and make it easier to help them. If you actually try to understand and help they will remember that long past the time your pitch is forgotten.
Don’t forget, the world isn’t frozen. Business is being done, competitors are talking to your customers, and they are releasing contracts so get on their list of people they trust so they are calling you first instead of your competitors.
Be careful to respect your customers’ time
Since you can’t take your customers out to dinner or wine and dine them what can you do? The best way to get engaged is to make sure you are careful to not waste your customers time. Make a plan, have an agenda that you share, and make sure small talk stays small. When your customer’s dog interrupts your discussion make it part of life and not an issue. Let them get their work done, deal with the normal family issues that come up working from home and make your discussions convenient and productive. Even better is to make sure you follow up and do the things you agree to, keep careful notes, and keep your eye on how you can help.
Your team needs attention, listen to them too
Guess what, your team is probably at least as fearful about their future as your customers are. They are all living in a different paradyme where all the news is that companies are struggling and layoffs are coming. You need to be just as mindful of getting them to focus on their customers and not so much on their fears. You need to have a lot of empathy for what they are going through ( and maybe what you are going through too). They are really watching to see any clue from you what will happen. You can have team calls, regular team meetings just to socialize, one-on-one discussions that try to show them you care by talking about yourself as much as them. You can’t do too much and now is the time to get them to open up to you and for them to interact with each other to figure out what works and what doesn’t.
Organize the plan, keep an open mind and lead by example. Even if the discussions are just short interactions, it is more important to do it often than to have long drawn out meetings. Keep it simple works most of the time, but do it often and build on each interaction is what makes you a leader.
Figure it out together
None of use has been in this situation before and it probably doesn’t feel very natural. You don’t and you don’t have to have all the answers, you do need to work together to find an answer that everyone thinks can work. You can discuss with your customers besides your team how they would like to continue to engage. We all have to figure out how to take advantage of all this digital stuff, and don’t assume one size fits all. You might have to have a social call with one customer, have a happy hour with our team, and conduct formal presentations with another customer and keep it all constructive and positive as you continue to grow your business and out compete your competitors.
NEHANET (www.nehanet.com) has a lot of experience and best practices that can help steer a path through this mess. We would be happy to discuss what we see and how we can help you grow your relationships while we are all working remotely, and the future is cloudy.