After a rather unsuccessful start with my first employer after college, I found myself looking for a second job. My first boss referred me to a friend of his who was opening several new offices for the advertising branch of a major media company and he was looking for a new salesperson. I had never once in my life considered sales and certainly not the breakneck speed of advertising sales, but, okay, what did I have to lose? It wound up being one of the most formative experiences of my business life.
I took the interview and met Steve, my first sales manager. He looked like something out of lumberjack folklore: a tall man with a barrel chest sporting a shock of red hair and, later, a mustache. From his mannerisms to his smile, everything he did was big. He had a big voice and a big presence and, in the end, a big effect.
Let me tell you what he taught me:
1) You work when your customer works. It doesn’t matter if you’re in intangible sales or service sales or if you sell a product. It doesn’t matter if you are a call center worker, a trainer, or a technical writer. You can’t do it when your customer is not available. If they have a question at 10:00 pm you have an answer at 10:05. If they go to work at 5:00 am, you are waiting for them with the coffee and donuts. You can’t sell to people who aren’t there and you can’t give service to your customer when they aren’t working.
You’ll get used to it.
2) Your customer does not owe you the courtesy of an uninterrupted meeting. If something comes up, get out of the way. Even if you only go back and sit in their reception area, get out of the way. Your customer does not want to share with you every detail of what is happening in their business and they don’t have to.
3) Make sure you’re talking to the decision-maker. In larger corporations it is not always clear who has the final say-so and many deals will be stopped by some manager behind a locked door who doesn’t like your offer or who is unhappy with your service. Get to that decision-maker. Use every trick in the book, but get to that manager.
4) Never neglect the gatekeepers. Admins, secretaries, assistants, and security guards are the gatekeepers to the money safe. Be nice to them every time. Learn their names and when you bring the boss a treat, pack an extra few in there for them. The easiest way to get your messages “lost” is by irritating or merely neglecting the person who takes them.
5) Remember that you have to meet people where they are and not where you want them to be. Every customer is not going to be as smart as you, and they are certainly not going to be as interested in your product or service as you are. Also, once they have bought from you, they may have difficulty implementing your product or service in the most optimal way for their business. That’s okay. That’s why they have you. Handle questions and usability complaint calls like any other objection. Walk them through why your product is good for them and how it works as many times as they need it. It is quite literally your job.
6) Don’t neglect the purely social. Learn names, kid’s names, hobbies, interests, and worries. Pepper your conversation with references to your own similar experiences, hobbies, and interests. The old adage “If you are like me, I will like you” will never stop being true.
7) Do service projects in your community. Every culture has its way of giving back to the community, whether by volunteering to coach a children’s sports team or offering your professional services pro bono to a charitable cause. Whatever your method, get out in the public and let people see you showing up for good things. No one wants to be around the person who is only in life for the payout. Pay a little forward. This will also help you with the next point.
8) Get used to rejection. Never forget that every objection is just information about how you are not yet fulfilling this customer’s needs. Fix that and you will have a customer for life. Nobody ever said, “He fixed all the problems I saw with his product but I still wouldn’t buy it.” Well, unless you have made them really angry. By the way, referring back to number 7, getting out and helping people who really are having a tough time will help you learn that hearing “no” is not the end of the world.
9) Complaints from customers are a gift! Complaints help us improve and show our customers that we care all in one step. This is awesome. Get your customer used to hearing you say, “The only problems I can’t fix are the ones I don’t know about.” Repeat it like a mantra until they believe you. Heck, repeat it like a mantra until you believe you. If you think a customer who you have never failed is the best thing, you cannot imagine the power of having someone out there saying, “Well, we had a few issues before with them, but the way they solved that problem was such a relief.” This doesn’t mean that you get to randomly fail your customers. Take the complaint with an open mind and quickly fix the problem and you will have a much stronger standing with that customer forever. Also, never forget the power of a sincere “I’m sorry.” Before you get all tied up in your feelings about how you aren’t always the source of your customer’s complaint, please be reminded: Your customer does not care. There is a support group for the injustice of being blamed for things you have no control over. It meets nightly at your local pub.
10) Never have a family fight in front of company. What does this mean? It means don’t complain about your boss, your team, your colleagues, or your brand in front of your customer. They will believe you. From their perspective, you work inside that place and you must know the truth. Your momentary irritation may turn into, “I’d love to continue to work with you Mr. Awesome-Sales-Dude, but after everything you have told me . . . "
11) No customer is too small. Steve would follow me around our projects as I described our progress on sales or distribution and pick up pennies as we went along. One day he asked me, “Do you know why I pick up pennies?” I said no. He then said, “You pick up enough of these and you’ll really have something!” The same goes for small dollar customers. They grow . . . just like that pile of pennies.
12) Your customer is your customer forever whether they are currently buying from you or not. You always have time for them. You always answer phone calls and emails. You always find a way to come through for them. Everybody eventually works somewhere else. Lots of people move up in their company. Some people get pushed out and start all over again in a new industry. People in customer care do not have the luxury of a forgotten name or face. Everyone is your customer all the time.
So, I guess we’re to the point where you’re saying to yourself, “Well, that all makes a kind of banal sense, but does it really matter?” It’s a reasonable question. This is how much it matters:
At age 40 I moved to a new country where I didn’t speak the language at all and built a freelance business that was immediately income producing and profitable within three years in an industry in which I had previously never worked. I was able to convert the customers of major industry players into my customers without offering bargain-basement prices and I kept those customers for more than eight years.
I did that by listening very carefully to the complaints that buyers had about the downfalls of working with the big players. Every single one of the downfalls related to customer care – from not customizing the service enough to the client to not calling when a service contract was about to end. Some customers simply got put off by not being asked about satisfaction. One customer, a very large international corporation, just needed a little extra scheduling flexibility. They didn’t even mind when I built that into the price.
All of this happened because I had the right boss at one time, Steve, who taught me the real keys to success. So, since I think he’ll probably read this someday, thanks, Steve. You’re the best!
Photo by Mike Wilson on Unsplash