Best Practices

Best Practices


During my career, I have spent significant periods of time at various levels in sales, and one of the lessons I learned is that it is critical to know when to see the customer face-to-face and what support to bring to that encounter. Making the right decisions can make the difference between a good and long-lasting relationship with that customer versus lost sales for a long time.

One obvious time to see the customer face-to-face is when problems arise. The more serious the problem, the faster you need to get in front of the customer and the higher the level of management support needed. One problem here is that sometimes the problem may not seem serious at first, but it escalates and eventually becomes a crisis. My advice is to err on the side of caution and see the customer face-to-face promptly when a problem arises, especially if the problem is related to product quality or integrity.

What does promptly mean? I mean the next day if possible. (I made the mistake once of waiting a few days to see the customer and it took some time to repair that damage as the problem deepened.) There may be good reasons in your mind to delay the visit – such as waiting for test results so that the visit can be more productive – but keep in mind the point of the visit is not intellectual but rather emotional, e.g. showing concern and awareness and pledging the proper level of support to fix the problem as quickly as possible. Certainly it can be appropriate to consult your attorney in advance of such a visit, but in the end it is typically a business call as to how far you go to mitigate your customers concerns and show that you stand behind your product.

At the other end of the spectrum, it is important for sales and other company management to visit customers face-to-face on some regular basis. Of course you should prioritize the frequency and importance of these visits by taking into account such factors as customer preference, size and profitability, timing of critical customer decisions, competitive pressures, and degree and speed of change going on at the customer.

I have found it useful as a sales manager to build a matrix at the beginning of the year which lays out the customers I want to see during the year, and the intended frequency and people at those customers. A desired outcome of such visits is to build a relationship with key people in the customer organizations so that they feel comfortable calling and telling you if there are issues brewing that need attention, or if there are significant new opportunities on the horizon. Once in a while they may volunteer something you need to hear about the way the account is being serviced, so that you can address it before it becomes a real problem. It is also possible that you may be able to see higher-level, more strategic opportunities than your salesperson has indicated – or you may observe a trend across a number of customers that is not visible to any single account manager.

Of course when you make this face-to-face visit as a sales manager, it is critical to do prompt follow-up and close the loop with the customer. You may decide with your organization to do all, some or few of the things the customer has asked – but you should get back to them indicating that you did hear the request and how it will be handled and why.

If the customer has particular concerns or opportunities in a certain area, it may be worthwhile to follow up the visit with a specific meeting on that issue, with a team of people from your company that can get into more detail. This also provides an opportunity to gain wider access within the company organization and develop deeper and broader relationships.

A useful management strategy is to establish with key customers a calendar of regular topics to be assessed on an annual or quarterly basis. For example, an annual review of key projects and progress can be very informative for both parties and can provide an opportunity to get feedback from the customer on how well each project was done, with regard to quality of outcome, timing, budget or other factors. This can also provide an opportunity to look forward into the coming year and discuss new projects and new business opportunities.

Another regular encounter might cover supply chain issues, with sharing of data and discussion of any problem areas. Use this opportunity to gather information on how your company is doing compared to competitors, as well as to highlight where improvement is needed.

A useful engagement with your larger and more strategic customers could involve sharing information about your company strategy and business plans, and having the customer do the same. This can highlight synergies and/or disconnects, and lead to a rich conversation. This may be most successful where the relationship with the customer is long-lasting and trusting.

Throughout this process of visiting customers at various levels and across the customer organization, it is important that information is properly shared and follow-ups assigned and tracked. This can be done in various ways such as preparation and sharing of call reports, or capture of follow-up items in a customer database. Beware of systems that are not user friendly or ones which are overly complex as they will fall into disuse. The customer account manager must remain the focal point through the process, to avoid confusion.

I hope these tips will help you to build deeper and better relationships with your customers, leading to long-term sustainable success.

Sara Lefcourt of Lefcourt Consulting LLC specializes in helping companies to improve profits, reduce risk and step up their operations. Her experience includes many years in marketing, sales and procurement, first for Exxon and then at Infineum, where she was vice president, supply. E-mail her at or phone (908) 400-5210.

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