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By A Thomas Young

Here's a statement uttered by customers every day: "We're perfectly happy with who we're buying from and we wouldn't consider switching." But if you're thinking this is an article on how to overcome that objection, it's not. It's about how you can get your customers to say it to your competitors.

A TSR subscriber sent me a note suggesting we address how to build relationships and retain customers once we've opened accounts. That topic could fill an entire book, but we'll cover a few tips here as starters for you to build upon.

First impressions are lasting. How many times have you walked out of a restaurant shaking your head in disgust and amazement at the horrifying service and indifferent attitude, vowing never to return, and to tell everyone you know about the experience? Likewise, how about being "wowed" by the overwhelmingly pampered treatment you might have received elsewhere? Those feelings linger with your customers also. Go out of your way to leave an indelible pleasing memory after the first sale.

Under-promise and over-deliver when it comes to delivery times. Throw in something free as a "welcome" gift. Mail a handwritten thank you note. Call after the order has been delivered with additional useful information. Reinforce their wise buying decision.

Learn their business as if it were your own. The bottom line is the bottom line. There's a lot to be said for building relationships on a personal level (which we'll talk about), but the best way to become truly indispensable is to be an integral part of their business. The more you know about them, the better equipped you are to make profit-building recommendations. If you're looked at as being a sales-boosting consultant--as opposed to a salesperson--customers will never consider listening to the overtures of competitors attempting to stick their foot in the door with promises of lower prices.

Provide value every time you call. Don't call to "just touch base," to "check in," or, "to just stay in touch to see if they need anything." Customers could potentially view these reactive, non-substance contacts as a nuisance. Make it policy that every time you call you have a value- added reason for doing so. And don't even think about whining that you can't come up with value each time you phone. Reps who cop out like that remind me of my eight-year-old daughter when she says, "I can't clean my room--it's too hard." No, you just haven't tried hard enough yet.

Answer this question: what information can you call with that would cause the customer to say they were better off after taking your call than they were before it? Any kind of industry or product news they might find interesting, notification of sales or promotions, or ideas you feel they could use are all value-added reasons for calling. Come up with your own.

Ask them why they continue buying. This is so incredibly simple, yet it's rarely used by companies. What you might think is a great benefit of doing business with your company could be meaningless to your customer; they might buy for a totally unrelated reason. My dry cleaner might like to believe he gets my business because he does superb work and has competitive prices; I use him because he's close to my office. He has never asked. Ask your customers, "Pat, I want to make sure we
continue providing you what you want. What is it you like best about doing business with us?" And, "What else would you like to see?" Not only will this help you build your relationship, it's information that can help you with your other customers.

Build personal relationships. With new customers, at appropriate points during calls (such as the end), ask innocuous questions about their plans for the weekend, or for the summer. Listen carefully to the answers, and react accordingly, sharing of yourself as well. If they mention they're
going to curl up in a beach chair with a good book, find out more about what they like to read, and what else, if anything, they do at the beach. Again, common-sense stuff, but this works. One word of caution: I've seen reps who were everyone's best buddy, but rarely sold anything. Likeable, yes. but also very easy to get rid of by customers, and reluctant to directly ask for business, fearful of being too "pushy."

Build relationships, sure...in the context of business.

Keep your name in front of them. You don't need to call every week--indeed you shouldn't--if you don't have a valid reason for doing so. However, in between your calls, stay in touch in other ways. I've received postcards from sales reps' personal vacations. Well-read reps clip industry-specific articles from any and every appropriate source and photocopy and send them to customers with a not attached. Send a fax to customers with confidential news of an upcoming sale. E-mail them if you're both on-line surfers. Advertisers call this strategy getting your piece of "mindshare," meaning they'll think of you if they have a need before your next contact, or when a competitor comes calling.

Romance them after the marriage, and be fanatical about making it work. Some sales reps are passionate about chasing the business, but lose interest once the relationship has begun. You need to be committed to the relationship, and be fanatical about service. Otherwise, nothing else matters.

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