Building relationships

 Business leaders often enter a customer meeting with an agenda about their role as a vendor, but Guy Dille says that is the wrong approach.

Dille, president and global business unit leader of SofTechnics Inc., says it’s more important to ask customers about their objectives and listen to the answers to help achieve those goals.

“It all comes down to knowing your customers,” Dille says. “If you work closely with your customers, and you’re a business partner, not a vendor, the customers will tell you what you have to do to grow.”

SofTechnics, a division of Switzerland’s Mettler-Toledo, provides retail price and inventory management solutions. The 50-person Columbus company has grown from revenue of $6 million in 2003 revenue to $15 million-plus in 2005.

Smart Business spoke with Dille about how he creates partnerships that benefit both his clients and his company.

How do you become a business partner?
There are always these questions of, are you trying to just close a deal with a customer, take some revenue and some profit, and then go on to the next customer? Or are you really trying to establish yourself as part of their community for an extended period of time?

You can always close a one-off deal with a customer at any point in time, then run away and leave the customer where they got value but may not have gotten the maximum value. You’re talking a seven-, 10-, 15-year relationship that you’re establishing.

Go at it from the beginning as, ‘We’ve got to understand what the customer’s needs are. We have to make sure that we’re honest with them about what we can do to help them solve the problems.’ Where do you have strengths, and where do you have weaknesses?

If you don’t come at that very honestly from the beginning and look to make it a win-win, you’re setting yourself up for a miserable seven to 10 years. If you create an adversarial relationship, you’re going to deal with it for a very long period of time.

How do you manage that?
We tend to take a very long-term view. We understate what we can deliver to a customer. We encourage them to have their own people very involved in the projects that we do with them because we want to transfer knowledge to them and make them capable of really understanding our products and our solutions.

Our best salespeople are our current customers because we can say to a new account that’s looking at us, ‘We’ll give you a list of five or 10 of our current accounts. You call and talk to them.

You find out what we do well and what we don’t.’ It forces us as a company to be good. You can’t afford to alienate or aggravate your customers because when you want to use them for a reference, you don’t have them.

What advice would you give other top executives trying to grow their companies?
Know what you do well and how to leverage what you do well, but don’t think that you can be all things to all people. There are times that you just have to say to a customer, ‘That’s not our area of expertise. 

We could try and do that for you, but I don’t think you’re best served by having us do it, and I don’t think we’re best served at trying to do that.’

It’s hard to say that the first time because you want to solve their business problems. But if you do something that’s not in your core areas of expertise, you run the risk of damaging that reputation that you’ve built with them.

We all know about how many good experiences you have to provide to overcome the one bad one. Do you really want to knowingly walk into a bad experience?

If it’s a partnership, it may, in some ways, enhance your credibility. When the next project comes up, instead of the customer saying, ‘I’m not going to talk to those guys.

They said no last time,’ you could end up in a position where they come to you first — no matter what — because they want to kick it around with you. To get to that level of relationship with a customer, that’s really what it’s all about.

HOW TO REACH: SofTechnics Inc., (330) 665-1698 or