Guard your time

You’ve got a customer. In fact, it’s a very profitable, long-standing customer that pays its bills and is just generally great to work with.

It’s the kind of customer you wish you had more of.

This customer calls and makes a request that causes your company to jump through all kinds of hoops to respond to the request. But it’s OK. They’re a great account and you want to keep them happy. Heck, they’ve done this type of thing a few times before and it’s always turned out good. So unless they’re asking you to do something illegal or something that might send your company under, you’re probably just going to comply without giving it too much thought. And that, in my opinion, would be the right thing to do.

A prospect is not a customer

But why is it the right thing to do? Is it because your company adheres to the adage that, “the customer is always right?” I hope not.

In the case above, it’s the right thing to do because it just makes good economic business sense to do it…period!

I’m very unpopular in many circles because I think that embracing the adage – dare I say the cliché’ – that the customer is always right, in a very insidious way, brings more downside than benefit. It’s a noble-sounding notion that quickly takes hold in a company’s culture. Unfortunately, it then gets applied indiscriminately – even to “customers” that are still just prospects.

Here’s one of the more familiar ways this can play out. Gary is a strategic account salesperson for a capital equipment company. Suddenly, a request for proposal shows up in his inbox. He prints it and peruses it. Looks like a winner. Like most RFPs, this one will require input from numerous areas of Gary’s company – engineering, finance, production, etc. Plus, the requested deadline is very tight. But, “the customer is always right” is playing subconsciously in Gary’s head.

He pulls the team together. About 12 man-days later the proposal is off to the prospect ahead of deadline. Gary starts the follow-up process: “How are we looking?” “When will you be deciding?” After a few weeks of polite non-responses, things go quiet.

Then, well, you know how the story ends.

Many salespeople would like to think they, unlike Gary, would never get lured into such a trap. Perhaps. But their world is filled with potential traps. For starters, every meeting requested by a prospect or customer can be a trap, set by a truly well-meaning prospect or customer (customers rarely waste vendors’ resources in a malicious way).

It’s the rare salesperson who instinctively questions the worth – to his or her own company – of each meeting request. Most embrace a philosophy that prompts them to accept such customer-requested meetings without much question.

Then there’s the endless flow of requests for product information, pricing discussions, pre-sales analyses, proposals, demos, technical evaluations, and on and on that can all be part of any sales campaign. Each of these represents yet another potential trap.

Not all customers are created equal

During a recent client meeting, the director of the client’s strategic accounts sales team related an exchange she’d had the day before. At the end of an account review with a SAM (strategic account manager), “one of our better ones,” the director pointed out to me, she inquired about the SAM’s next steps with the account they were strategizing. “I’m taking a systems engineer and doing a demo of our new software next week,” she said.

Certain that it was a waste of time for an account with so little growth potential, the director asked why the SAM was doing the presentation. Without missing a beat, he replied, “Because the customer asked for one.” (After all, the customer is always right.)

Salespeople subconsciously invoke “the customer” the same way that politicians consciously invoke “the children” to justify many actions.

Unlearning the cliché

If you’ve continued reading past my earlier heresy and are interested in knowing how to shed your own version of the customer is always right, here are two ways to get started.

First, eight times per day, every day, for the next month, repeat aloud to yourself, “I am protective of my time and my company’s resources and I will make sure that every single prospect and customer somehow understands this.” You must convey this to customers with real finesse, which isn’t easy. But by the end of the month, you will have figured out how…and you will never look back.

Second, stop reinforcing a master/servant relationship with customers by thanking them for their time and telling them how busy they are.

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