Protect Those Existing Customers

The experts tell us that it’s much less expensive to keep a customer than it is to get a new one.  In fact, it can cost five times as much.  I was reminded of this when one of my sons was taken out to dinner Saturday night by a sales rep.  The occasion?  This rep once had 100% of the business in his particular product line at a major St. Louis hospital.  He had the business locked up and he knew it.

He was so sure of the business that he stopped doing the things that had gotten him the business in the first place.  He didn’t visit as often.  He wasn’t as prompt at returning phone calls.  His service level fell.  He was spending his time on other things. 

Things happen very quickly at hospitals, at least we hope they do.  Doctors need answers now, not later.  When they couldn’t get a quick response, they started filling in with items from other suppliers.  It didn’t happen all at once, just a little at a time.  But those other vendors were chipping away at the business until the rep realized that he had a problem.  Now, he’s trying to get back in the doctors’ good graces.

It’s very natural for someone in sales to spend time on the things that are the most productive.  It’s easy to assume that you "own" certain business and that your time is better spent looking for new customers.  But, nobody "owns" anyone’s business, as this rep (and every other rep) has learned the hard way.  It’s true whether you’re in wholesale or retail sales.

Picture this scenario.  You’re in the process of trying to sell a big-ticket widget.  A regular customer comes in, one who’s already bought several big-ticket widgets, and she’s obviously looking for some information or maybe some low-cost accessory item.  You know she only buys widgets and widget accessories from you, so you let her wait while you finish the other sale.

Whey you finally get to her, you find out that you were right.  She has a question about her most recent widget purchase which you answer.  But something’s not exactly right.  She seemed disgruntled.  She leaves and you wonder what was wrong with her.  Oh well, maybe she’s just having a bad day.

Of course you know where this is going.  Your existing customer expects the same great service from you every time she comes into your store.  You’ve already set the standard.  Like the medical equipment salesman, you’ve created an expectation in her mind that she expects you to live up to.

But the fact is that there are always going to be times in any retail store where a customer has to wait.  If that’s not the case in your store, then you’re probably spending too much on payroll.   So who has to wait?  The existing customer who only has a question, or the prospect who may be about to spend a lot of money?  It makes no difference, but your job is to make sure that the one who does have to wait doesn’t feel like she’s being shortchanged. 

This is the time when you turn on the charm and make both customers feel important.  It’s a balancing act but we all have to do it sometimes and the better we are, the more likely we are to end up with two happy customers.

You either excuse yourself from the prospect, letting her know that you’ll be right back after she’s had a moment to look at the widget in question, possibly mentioning that the other lady is a very good customer and you pride yourself on your service after the sale; the same service that she’s going to receive once she becomes a widget owner.

Or, you acknowledge the existing customer, asking her if she minds waiting.  You assure her that you’ll be with her very soon.  You might offer her a cup of coffee, or point out something new that she can look at while she waits.  An unexpected bonus in this situation is that the prospect may speed up her decision, knowing that someone is waiting.

It just may turn out that one or the other, or maybe both ladies will insist that you help the other one first.  They might even strike up a conversation with the widget owner helping you sell the widget owner-to-be.

The key is to make both ladies feel important.  Both ladies would like to feel like they’re your only customer, but since that’s impossible, the next best thing is to make them both feel like they’re your only two customers. 

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