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Three Promises Every Sales Team Needs to Make — and Keep

Elizabeth Doty

Elizabeth Doty is a former lab fellow of Harvard University’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics and founder of Leadership Momentum, a consultancy that focuses on the practical challenges of keeping organizational commitments.

 

Customer loyalty has always been the holy grail of organic growth. The fastest way to increase revenue and margin is not to push sales and marketing teams to land new customers, but to stop leaking customers. In their classic study, W. Earl Sasser Jr. and Frederick F. Reichheld found that reducing customer churn by just 5 percent could increase profitability between 25 and 85 percent, depending on the industry. Loyal, satisfied customers usually cost less to serve, are willing to pay for quality, bring more of their business your way, and are more likely to refer other customers.

Today, however, as the sales model shifts further toward subscription-based services, longer-term relationships have become more critical than ever before. Under a traditional, product-driven model, suppliers receive all their revenue up front. But with subscription-based services, customers pay as they go and can usually switch suppliers easily. In many cases, accounts are not profitable for suppliers until the second year. This means suppliers need to ensure they keep customers happy just to maintain their revenue streams over time.

To reduce customer churn, many experts promote techniques for convincing unhappy customers to stay. But what they should be asking is: Why do customers want to leave in the first place? Often, it’s because they feel the company has not delivered the value that was promised. Despite the current focus on continual innovation, what customers tend to value most is reliability, as Reg Price and Don Schultz wrote about in their book, Reliability Rules: How Promises Management Can Build Your Company Culture, Bid Your Brand, and Build Your Bottom Line (Racom Communications, 2009). And, as marketing legend Christian Grönroos has explained, building relationships requires making and keeping promises throughout the process of engaging your customer. The next logical question thus becomes: Who makes promises on behalf of your firm?

Ultimately, it’s your own salespeople who are responsible for your company’s promises. Marketing may craft your brand promise, but your sales team makes the commitments that count for specific customers — what your company will deliver, when, and with what level of quality. In the past, faced with pressure to meet a quota, salespeople might have been tempted to say whatever they thought it would take to close a deal, then move on to the next customer. But sales strategy expert Steve Thompson, who coaches both buying and selling organizations, suggests that “in a world of relationships, a different kind of salesperson succeeds.”

If you want to keep a customer for life, stay invested after the deal closes.

To win in this new world, sales teams need to focus on whether customers are receiving the value promised — and whether their firm is getting credit for the value delivered. Thompson proposes three specific promises that can help any direct-sales business build longer-term relationships.

1. “I will focus on what matters to you.” The sales process begins with an exploration. What outcomes are your customers trying to achieve? How will they measure success? Without this context, you cannot advise them on the right solution. Unfortunately, customers often find this exploratory phase frustrating. They invest time and share information, but too often, reps do not listen or focus only on the products or services they want to sell. In this type of situation, you can differentiate yourself by taking a serious interest in your customer’s business and aiming to create value throughout the sales process. Thompson explains that “90 percent of the time, the buying organization isn't clear about what they need. Right off the bat, a sales team can create significant value by helping them clarify their needs.” And if their desired outcomes are not ones you can deliver, you build credibility by telling them who may be able to.

2. “I will craft the right deal.” The next phase involves crafting and presenting the right solution, and negotiating an agreement. “When salespeople focus on features, the discussion often devolves to price,” warns Thompson. “We turn our products and services into commodities by the way we sell them.” Instead, design a few possible solutions, each tied to a customer outcome. Make sure you can articulate exactly how each component is necessary. Then ask the buyer: Which option do you like best? How could it be improved? Now you are negotiating, but not as opponents. As you work together to adapt your solutions to their priorities, they will gain confidence that you can deliver, and pricing will be based on a win-win division of value. Crafting deals in this way also helps suppliers avoid the need to discount to close a sale to meet a quarterly deadline. For example, as one sales manager told me, “Our most successful sales reps are focused on the customer. These reps do not rush to recommend products until they are sure they would truly meet the customer needs. They are in it for the long term. And that means they can set their own prices.”

3. “We will focus on delivering these outcomes.” If you want to keep a customer for life, stay invested after the deal closes. This is the moment when most sales reps move on to the next prospect, leaving customers anxious about whether they made the right decision, and operations staff in the dark about the details of delivery. The sales team, which consists of your organization’s promise-making units, needs to be joined at the hip with the delivery team, your promise-keeping units. The sales team, your organization’s promise-making arm, needs to be joined closely to the delivery team. Sales staff can dramatically improve delivery reliability by involving service staff early in the process, which helps service staff know the customer and why they are buying. Once you have delivered, you solidify the relationship by self-reporting on the outcomes achieved. This demonstrates accountability and protects the buyer from a superior who might ask, “What did you spend all that money on?”

Focusing on what matters to your customer, crafting a deal you can deliver on, and providing outcomes all help you build profitable, lasting relationships. Of course, sales teams alone cannot make this shift. It requires organizational changes in management focus, delivery processes, and technology tools — with an eye toward customer retention, revenue, and relationships, not just costs. Sales compensation may also need to change, to reward reps for the long-term relationships they develop. Moreover, as your company delivers more reliably and self-reports, you earn the right to ask customers about new needs. “There is a whole lot of sales pipeline sitting there that companies don’t know about, because buying organizations are not voluntarily offering up the information,” laments Thompson. What richer source of leads could there be than your own happy customers?

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Three Promises Every Sales Team Needs to Make — and Keep