The No. 1 reason we lose vital accounts

Nicole was just hired by XYZ Co. as its new vice president of sales. She was brought on at a time when XYZ had one of its longest growth runs ever. But she sensed that that run had, well, run its course.

Her instincts were proven correct.

Incredibly, just two weeks into her new position, one of Nicole’s regional sales managers, Mark, came to her with bad news. Alpha Corp. — one of XYZ’s longest-standing, largest and most profitable accounts, had defected to XYZ’s competitor, PDQ Corp.

Nicole asked Mark the obvious question: “Why?”

Mark reported back to Nicole. “I talked to the ‘former’ Alpha account owner. There’s no way to sugarcoat this, Nicole, but his response was: ‘I have no idea; I didn’t see it coming. I’ve been continuing to nurture all of my relationships, there were no service issues and they continue to be happy with our product.’”

So, Nicole penned an email to Mark and his four counterparts around the country: “As all of you know, we recently lost Alpha to PDQ. This should never have happened! And it WILL not happen again!! But before you issue any mandates to your teams, I want each of you to ‘reply all’ by EOD your answer to this question: ‘What is the No. 1 reason companies lose good, ongoing accounts?’”

Much to her disappointment — but not to her surprise — they all missed it.

She then instructed the five of them to ask the same question to their teams. Goose egg. Nobody got it! “They just start taking them for granted,” “They let the relationships go stale,” “Service and responsiveness issue,” were pretty much the sum of everyone’s responses.

Nicole finally put the answer out to her team in an email with the subject line: “Why we lost Alpha and why we will lose more Alphas if we don’t do something about it.”

The body of her email had one word: “C-h-a-n-g-e!”

She didn’t have to say any more. Nicole knew everyone would get it. And they did! Responses poured in: “Change in buying philosophy,” “Change in org structure and key players,” “Change in company ownership,” “Change in the type and amount of competitive inroads,” “Change in the company’s business challenges.”

But Nicole knew that simply issuing marching orders to “get out there and get to know your key customers” would only lead to exploding expense reports and give the team a false sense of security. Because she knew that customers don’t just start organically sharing info about what’s really happening at the account…no matter how strong the relationship.

Salespeople won’t learn key, strategic information by osmosis. That’s not because customers don’t want to share such info, it’s because they have no idea it even matters to the salesperson. Customers are so used to everyday conversations being limited to project management, service issues and technical discussions, if not family, football or fashion. In most cases, they’re actually quite happy to share. All we need to do is ask!

But that — asking — leads to Nicole’s next challenge. Her third challenge was more real and practical: getting customers’ heads in the right place to openly share strategic information. And Nicole knew this came down to how the salespeople framed up the conversation at the start of the meeting.

So she penned yet another email: “I’d like each of you to read these two sales conversations and select which approach, Version A or Version B, you would be more comfortable using to frame up your information-gathering meetings with key contacts.

Version A: 

“Al, as I said on the phone, what I’d like to do in today’s appointment is take a new approach. I’ve been calling on your account for a number of years now and you’ve always been an important contact for me. So what I’d like to do is, instead of talking about a lot of the things that we always talk about, I’d like to get some information about your company and ask you some questions about the business. We’re trying to do a better job of researching our customers, and I think the more I understand Beta’s needs and priorities, the better job XYZ can do of bringing unique solutions to Beta. So that’s what I’m hoping to do in today’s meeting. Would that be OK?”

Version B:

“Al, as I said on the phone, what I’d like to do in today’s meeting is maybe go in a little bit different direction than we typically do. I mean, usually when we get together we’ve got a number of day-to-day project- and service-related things that we’ve got to address. And I don’t think there are any of those things necessarily pressing on us right now… I think that’s right, right? [Al acknowledges]. Yeah, okay great. So what I’d like to do is leave some of that day-to-day stuff at the door so that I can take a step back and kind of go into homework mode just to make sure I’m keeping my arms around the bigger picture business issues here at XYZ. I mean, clearly the better we continue to understand how you guys tick as a business and what you’re trying to accomplish, I think the better job we can continue to do of making a contribution to the ongoing business relationship between our two companies. So that’s the direction I’m looking to go in this particular meeting. Make sense?”

As the reps talked among themselves and with their managers, they admitted that while there were aspects of Version B they liked, there was just no way they could use words like “homework,” “day-to-day stuff,” “at the door” and “how you guys tick.” That all sounded just too corny and unprofessional, they said.

But Nicole went on to explain how Version A was filled with “sales trigger” words (e.g., “information,” “ask you some questions,” “needs”) and sounded like any other meeting the salesperson might position with the customer.

Statistically, the No. 1 reason for losing good accounts is that something changed and we weren’t aware of it. How we frame up the “information-gathering” meeting makes all the difference in its outcome and we salespeople are almost genetically predisposed to use comfortable (hyper-professional) language that, regrettably, makes our meeting sound like any other sales meeting.

Jerry Stapleton, owner of Delafield-based Stapleton Resources, has spent most of his adult life looking at real customer interactions through the lens of a microscope and loves to share what he’s learned. He can be reached at

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