The ultimate differentiator: How to keep your most important clients

You have an excellent ongoing customer — a steady, high-revenue, profitable and long-time account.

One day you wake up in a panic, gripped by three terrifying thoughts:

  1. You suddenly realize just how important this account is to you (Yes, maybe you’ve been taking them for granted).
  2. You suddenly realize just how little you really know about what’s going on inside the account, beyond what you glean simply from just being there. Your meetings with your main contact have been less frequent over the past year or so — mostly “checking-in/how’s the family?” lunches — or tied to ongoing projects your two companies are working on.
  3. You suddenly wonder: does this account see your company as nothing more than yet-another-adequate, reliable supplier? And has your product or service become nothing more than a commodity in their eyes – and one for which there are plenty of competing suppliers, equally reliable, responsive and trusted, and possibly less expensive? And with a sickening dread, you realize: You don’t know how ugly your reality — and your future commissions — might actually be.


Or, to sum it up: You have very little strategic information about this critically important account. And, to make matters worse, you suspect your company has no meaningful differentiation in the account’s eyes.

A walk on the beach

To sort things out in your head, you take a walk on the beach. You almost trip over a lamp half-buried in the sand, pick it up, and absent-mindedly rub your hand over it. A genie appears.

Like all genies, this one grants you a wish – but just one. (You try to negotiate for two; after all, you know that to feel secure about this account, you need perfect information and perfect differentiation.)

Forced to choose, you pick perfect information. And with that familiar “poof,” the genie makes you omniscient.

You suddenly know everything humanly knowable about this account — everything that every person in the account combined knows. You even know about changes long before they even take place! There’s nothing – nothing! – you need in the way of information.

But the other task is still up to you and your own devices: How to create the equally important differentiation.

You set up a meeting with Phil, your main contact at the account. And since you now know everything humanly knowable about this account, your only mission is to create differentiation for your company in Phil’s eyes.

How? By going in and delivering your latest elevator message or value proposition? By taking Phil to some demo sites? Maybe by taking him to an NFL game? Nope! You’re going to do it by going in and asking Phil a bunch of questions about his business!

Knowing it all

You’re probably asking yourself, Huh?! Why would I do that? That genie just gave me all the info I could ever dream of!

Why? Because that is precisely the interaction needed to create differentiation with Phil. So, yes, we are going to ask Phil questions to which we already know the answer – way better than he does.

Information and differentiation are two different things; but in another sense, they’re fruits of the same tree. I have found over the years that the very process of seeking information — the right kind (not “needs”) and the right way (not interrogating or surveying) is among the most powerful differentiators you’ll ever have at your disposal.

The difference it makes

I’ll never forget what happened years ago, when I used to make joint calls with client salespeople. I had accompanied John on a call with one of his best long-term customers, Al. John and I had just finished an hour-long meeting with Al wherein the two of us (mostly me) went into “homework mode” with Al, gaining all kinds of insights into Al’s business and organizational dynamics (we needed the info; we didn’t have a genie).

In the lobby, John and Al shook hands, when suddenly Al clapped his arms around John in a “man hug.”

“You know, John, in the ten years we’ve been working together this is the best meeting our two companies have ever had,” he said. “Don’t get me wrong, but this is the first time you came in here and really tried to understand what my company is trying to accomplish as a business!”

Now that was differentiation. You can bet Al never forgot it. And neither did John. n

Jerry Stapleton is the founder of Waukesha-based Stapleton Resources LLC ( He is also the author of the book, “From Vendor to Business Resource.”

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