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Good marriage, bad marriage Featured

9:37am EDT July 22, 2002

I recently lost a big account to my competition. My boss says it's my fault because I didn't do enough to ensure the business wasn't at risk. From what I understand, my competitor made an offer they couldn't refuse. It seems there is no longer any customer loyalty. What can I do to ensure this does not happen again?

The best source for new business comes from your current customers. Yet in today's highly competitive world, it seems to be more and more difficult to stave off the competition and keep our customers.

Here are seven habits you should develop to keep and grow the business you have with your current customers.

Habit No. 1: A good client relationship is like a marriage. Make sure your client shares your expectations.

Marriages typically fall apart when expectations are not being met. Similarly, we lose customers because our idea of service doesn't match our customers' expectations, which brings me to the million-dollar question: What degree of service do your clients expect from you?

How do you go about developing this inventory -- determining exactly what your clients expect of you? The answer is simple -- ask them.

Habit No. 2: Your best customer is your competition's best prospect. Treat every customer like a prospect.

Every day you keep a customer, you're one day closer to losing that customer. Do you know what it would take to lose an account? Why did your best customer switch from his previous supplier to you? How will your customers deal with your competitors who call on them?

Ask these questions and be prepared for the worst. Once you know the answers, rehearse your prospect on how to deal with the barrage from the competition.

Resist the temptation to put words in your clients' mouths, as they will always be more committed when it comes from them. If they need a little help, give them ideas on how to handle it but be sure that your client buys in to it.

Habit No. 3: Nobody likes confrontation. Get at the truth, even when it hurts.

Your customers hate to tell you they are unhappy, and you hate to hear it. Nevertheless, your job is to uncover the truth, even when it hurts. How many times have we been less than fully satisfied with a meal at a restaurant, yet when the maitre d' asks, we tell him that everything is fine.

How will you know if your customer has a problem with your company if he or she is afraid to tell you because you refuse to listen or repeatedly explain away the mistake? Make sure the customer knows that it's OK to tell you bad news.

How will you know if your customer has a problem with you? Have a backup -- someone else the customer can go to with complaints. Realize that you are only human, and it's quite possible that one day you could mess up or there could be a misunderstanding. Tell your prospect that, while you aren't planning for that to happen, it could, and that if it ever does and he is upset enough, that you want him to be absolutely comfortable calling your manager.

Habit No. 4: You don't lose customers because of price; you lose them because of stroke deprivation.

Everyone needs to be stroked, and in today's fast-paced, impersonal world, everyone is running around stroke-deprived. The way to keep customers is to ensure that they are getting their fair share of strokes from you. How much do you know about your customer's career aspirations, about his or her personal aspirations? Is what you're doing for your customer's company good for the customer himself?

Keep a fuzzy file on each of your good customers. Know their likes and dislikes. Do things for them -- little favors, e-mails, send news clippings, take them to lunch, remember important dates in their lives. How often should you give strokes? Every chance you get, as long as you can do it with sincerity. Become a fuzzy source of stroke gratification for your clients

Habit #5: Never seek stroke gratification from your clients; only give it.

Oftentimes, salespeople will look for strokes from clients. Your job is to become a stroke source, not a stroke recipient. Get your needs met elsewhere.

Habit #6: Get an IOU for everything you do.

There is a difference between service and servitude. Your customers won't know you are extending extraordinary service to them unless you let them know you are providing it. The more you give, the more you get. Cheerfully provide terrific service but let your customers know when you've gone to extraordinary measures for them.

Sometimes you'll find yourself in a situation in which the customer has a request you cannot fulfill. Manage those expectations up front

Habit #7: Conduct a Chief Executive Semi-Annual Review (C.E.S.A.R.).

A C.E.S.A.R. program is an important way to help keep and grow your accounts. Twice a year, contact the CEO or the ultimate decision-maker at your account in a meeting, via telephone or in writing to find out where you and your company stand and to uncover other opportunities where you can be of service in the account.

Calling at this level does two things: It keeps you more in tune with what the honest feedback is and it doesn't keep you at the lower levels with which you may be accustomed to dealing, day in and day out, to maintain the account. It gets you in front of the chief executive at least twice a year to have good and meaningful dialogue. Larry Lewis is president of Total Development Inc., a Pittsburgh-based firm dedicated to helping companies and individuals improve their sales performance through training and personal development. Send your comments via fax at (724) 933-9224 or visit totaldevelopment.com. Reach him by phone at (877) 933-9110.