The high price of customer advocacy


We just returned from the International Strategic Account Management Conference in Orlando, where we conducted a session on transitioning your sales force to a mutual value orientation.
We opened by posing two seemingly unrelated questions to the group of executives in our session. Now we’ll pose them to you (and explain their connection later):
1. How would your salespeople answer the following question? "I send a ‘thank you’ note after a customer/prospect meeting:"
a. Almost always
b. Frequently, but sometimes I just don’t get to it even though I know it’s important
c. Almost never, but if I had more time I would
d. Almost never, because I don’t think there’s any reason to send them
2. Over the last year, how many sales opportunities did your company lose? Of those:
a. How many were real opportunities your company could have won but lost because it didn’t pursue them hard enough
b. How many were opportunities your company pursued that, in retrospect, were "unwinnable" in the first place.
Now, assume you had won the winnable ones and not spent time on the unwinnable ones. Do a little rough math to put some revenue and margin numbers around those answers.
It’s about mindset, not qualification
Question two gets to the reality that salespeople spend too much time on opportunities that they’re probably going to win anyhow without involvement from the salesperson and too much time on opportunities they’re going to lose no matter what the salesperson does. Therefore, the troubling reality is that they are not spending enough time on opportunities where the salesperson’s involvement can be the deciding factor in the deal.
"It’s a qualification issue," you might argue. Not exactly. There’s a bigger issue at play here, one that is far more subtle than simply applying the right qualification criteria. It’s mindset!
Specifically, it’s the "customer advocate" mindset, and it’s part of the DNA of most salespeople. But it’s DNA that we believe should be re-coded. In fact, it’s because of the customer advocate mindset that effective qualification is such a rarity because it inhibits salespeople from asking hard questions. "Don’t want to upset the customer, you know."
Master/servant or business peer relationship: You choose
A customer advocate mindset is a way of thinking that is characterized by a sense of subservience to the customer. It’s usually disguised by euphemisms like "responsive" or "customer focused." But the unfortunate truth is that the customer advocate mindset results in a master/servant relationship with customers, not the business peer relationship that we would all rather have.
Here’s an everyday illustration of the consequences of the customer advocate mindset. Dennis sells I/T and networking hardware and related services. He received a call from an I/T director for a big company in town who said, "We’re going to be doubling the size of our network, so could you help us put together some preliminary designs and cost estimates?"
A month-and about 10 man-days of tech support work-later, Dennis meets with the I/T guy to go over his company’s recommendations. Smelling a sale in the works, he confidently pours over the plans and cost estimates with Mr. I/T. Then the waiting begins.
To fast forward to the end of the story, Dennis had wasted his and his tech’s time working on this one. Turns out, the company was never going to expand the network in the first place-at least not at this location. Next month, we’ll tell you what was really going down and walk you through the customer advocate dialogue Dennis had with the I/T person, as well as the mutual value one he should have had with him that would have prevented this costly exercise.
Wow, thanks for the favor!
Let’s turn to the first question – the deceptively innocent thank you note. Over 90 percent of salespeople choose a, b or c-which are really all the same answer because they reflect the belief that salespeople should send thank you notes. Why do we send "thank you" notes in general? Because someone did something nice for us or gave us a gift, right? When customers meet with us, are they "doing something nice" for us? Are they "giving us a gift?" Then why do we feel the need to thank them for the meeting? Salespeople who are guided by this mindset-like Dennis-are, by their nature, reticent about asking frank and direct questions of customers, and the results-ten wasted man-days in Dennis’ case-testify to that reticence.
A customer/supplier meeting is a mutually beneficial interaction. Nobody is doing anyone any favors. Both parties derive value. The feeling that prompts salespeople to think they should send thank you notes is the customer advocate mindset in action. It’s this mindset that is at the heart of why salespeople spend too much time on the wrong opportunities.
Here’s the first step-and it’s an easy one-toward making the migration to a mutual value mindset in your sales organization. Encourage your salespeople to stop saying things like "thank you for meeting with me" and "I’ll let you get back to work" in customer meetings.
Those phrases, especially the "thank you" one, seem to roll off salespeople’s tongues without their even being conscious of it. Have them replace the phrase with a mutual value one such as, "I’ve been looking forward to our meeting. I’m glad we were able to make our calendars connect." Far less subservient, wouldn’t you agree?
Jerry Stapleton and Nancy McKeon are with Stapleton Resources LLC, a Waukesha-based sales force effectiveness practice. They can be reached at 262-524-8099 or on the Web at

June 11, 2004 Small Business Times, Milwaukee, WI

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