March 2013

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Client Relations – Part One

Sometimes it’s the little things that make a difference

Steven R Calabrese

Steven R. Calabrese
Control Engineering Corp.

Contributing Editor

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I’ve been in this business over two decades, and in sales for only a fraction of that time. Regardless, I’ve always looked upon sales as just good client relations. Meaning that, you need to follow some good rules and guidelines, and treat your customers the way you would want to be treated. And while you’re at it, it doesn’t hurt to simply be yourself.

Over the years I’ve picked up and gathered a few guidelines that I strive to abide by in my daily relations with customers and prospects. I depart from the “technical” content I typically offer herein, and take the liberty of sharing some of what I’ve found to help me succeed in delivering my clients’ expectations, demanding bunch that they are!

Apologize for being early

Huh? Okay, there are actually two messages here, the first and perhaps less obvious but infinitely more important, is to Be On Time! When you’re late for an appointment, you’re putting your client in a position, whether you know it or not. Granted, some folks don’t care too much as to when you arrive, as long as you do, however for meetings and scheduled appointments, tardiness should not be an accepted option. Of course if you’re running late, and we all do from time to time, give the customer a courtesy call ten minutes prior to your scheduled meeting, and give them your ETA in “unexaggerated” terms.

Over the years I’ve found that getting into downtown (Chicago) from my suburban headquarters is a crapshoot. You can believe that you’re giving yourself enough time to fight the traffic, road construction, one-way city streets, and 12-level parking garages, and still be late to your appointment. Being the worry-wart that I am, I always give myself too much time, meaning that I end up sitting in my car in a cold garage, or walking the city streets in search of a coffee shop. On occasion I’ll call the customer, and if it’s just a one-on-one meeting, I’ll ask if we can get together “a little earlier”. Nine times out of ten the answer is “yes”, and when I arrive, I make it a point of apologizing for being early. They typically seem to appreciate this, and it certainly beats the alternative (uhm, apologizing for being late.)

Receive an email, make a phone call

Really, with everyone carrying around smart phones with instant access to email and text messaging, we’ve begun to lose that “personal touch”. I’m always amazed when I receive an email from someone, asking me to call them asap. Huh? Why didn’t you just call me??? That aside, whenever I receive an email with a simple question or two, I’ll pick up the phone (or pull it out of my pocket!) and call the sender. That way I can answer his/her questions, and additional questions as they’d invariably come up in an email “ping-pong match”, and end the phone conversation with the matter resolved. Then at my earliest convenience, for me it’s when I get back in front of my computer and not via the tiny keypad on my cell phone (big fingers, and little dexterity), I will respond to the original email for record, starting with “As we spoke”, and summarizing our conversation. Just seems to be more efficient from a workload standpoint, than going back and forth responding to emails of “well what about this?”, and “what about that?”. A single phone conversation handles it all at once, and…you get to talk to someone!

Reply to an email with “thanks”, to acknowledge receipt

Another email guideline. Whenever I send out a proposal via email, and I prefer to hand-deliver if at all possible, I hope to get a response from the recipient, simply acknowledging that they are in receipt of my proposal. Sometimes I don’t get that, and a day or two will pass, and I’ll start to think…”I wonder if they got my quote?” So I put in a phone call to follow up, and most often they got it, just didn’t acknowledge. For me, when someone gives or sends me something, whether or not I even want it, I say “thank you”, because that’s what I was taught. And I understand that we’re all super busy, but it doesn’t take but a moment of your time to let the sender know that you got their email. For me, it’s something that’s become automatic, and I know that it’s appreciated on the other end, because it’s appreciated by me when I get that acknowledgment.

Don’t tell someone in advance that you won’t be available

It doesn’t work anymore (darn!). Seriously, we’re all connected, and so you can’t take a vacation day and completely disappear for 24 hours (although you can try). The point is, don’t tell a client in advance that you’re going to be unavailable tomorrow, because you’re taking the day off. They don’t care, and you have a phone, so if they really need to reach you, they know they should be able to. The choice is yours on whether or not you want to take their call or respond to their email. Moreover, the message you send when you tell someone that you will not be available, is that they’re not important enough for you to take a minute out of your vacation day to talk to them. Don’t say anything, even if you’re going to be off the next day and you know they might try to contact you. Let that play out. And if it happens, and you’re in the middle of, say, cleaning the pool, then kindly let them know and take a quick minute to address their immediate concerns. They will more than likely appreciate that you took their call, and will respect your “day in the sun”.

Strive to find a common interest

Being in sales is all about finding common ground. Of course the most important “common ground” to find is “price” and “deliverables”. In my line of work this means coming to an agreement on scope of work, which typically consists of a combination of deliverable goods (digital controllers, sensors, end devices, graphical interface, etc.) and services (engineering, installation, programming, commissioning, training), and of course determining the right price.

On the way to this, it doesn’t hurt to find some common ground outside of our business. Attention to the client, whether it be when he or she is speaking, or whether it’s a picture in his/her office, can give insight into what their interests are. If not, a simple inquiry can initiate a conversation. The one I like to use is “So what do you do for fun?” I know, right? Sounds silly. But when I’m walking down the hall with a client or in an elevator going up to the thirty-fifth floor, it’s a good way to simply fill in the dead air. Hey, not every minute of your time needs to focus on business, and talking about something else is a good departure. Often enough, I find that I can establish some common ground with the client by asking this question. Sports, music, family, cars (not necessarily in that order of importance!), any one of these can spark a conversation, and who knows, if you dig deep enough, you might find that you share an interest, more than you’d expect. When that happens, it can really work to your advantage. I was recently in a “three bid” situation, in which the client had to solicit three quotes from three separate contractors. During my meeting with the client, I discovered that he was passionate about playing the guitar. Bam, common interest! Just like that my proposal became the scope by which all other bidders had to generate their price from. Put me in the driver’s seat, gave me an (unfair?) advantage, and in the end my firm was awarded the contract (true story).

Tip of the Month: The Ancient Art of Personal Contact. When I was in project management, I used to have a rule: Do not send an email if the message can be delivered via a phone call, do not make a phone call if the message can be delivered in person. Nowadays it has extended to delivering proposals. It’s real easy to attach a proposal to an email and hit “send”. But I still prefer to print it out (in color with company letterhead), sign it by hand, put it in a glossy folder, and get in my car and deliver it in person. The drawback to this approach is cost (fuel, parking, lost time, etc.), but the benefits outweigh the cost, especially if it wins you the project!


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