How important is your relationship with your customers?

 Voice-of-the-customer

I do voice-of-the-customer interviews for B2B businesses and investors, interviewing existing and potential customers. Over the last 5 years, I've spoken to many hundreds of businesses. As part of my methodology, I always ask what is important to the customer in their decision-making process and later, I ask how a specific vendor has performed relative to that decision-making criteria.

The relationship with the salesman and/or vendor is always on the list of criteria. And what I found is that the closer the business is to selling a commodity product, the more important that interpersonal relationship is. In other words, when there are quantifiable reasons (e.g. strategy, features, cost, quality, speed) to choose one vendor over the other, these business reasons win. But with close-to-commodity products, everything else being equal, interpersonal relationships become front and center. And that's when people want to deal with people and companies they like. Generally, they want sales reps who will listen and understand customer's issues and needs and advocate these needs within their organizations. And the most you can expect from a relationship is an opportunity to bid on new business and the right to first and last refusal.

This may sound obvious, but it isn't. Usually, in the same breath, customers tell me about differences between the different sales reps they've had over the last few years. And sometimes, they welcome a better sales rep. But more often than not, they prefer to deal with the same people and dislike changes in sales reps that happen because of vendor's internal reorganizations. Customers invest time educating sales people about their business, needs and building a relationship. And when that sales person leaves, the education process needs to happen over again. This re-education is additional work for your customer that does not give them any perceived return on their investment, unless they feel that the new sales rep is substantially better than the old. And because of this additional education investment required from your customers, sales rep turnover is an opportunity for your customer to give more business to your competitor who may have been trying to get into the account and may have already made some inroads on the relationship. 

So, the next time you think about realigning your organization "to better serve changing markets," think about the additional investment you are asking each of your reassigned customers to make, just to keep giving you their business. It might be worthwhile to invest a little extra effort into transition planning to least disrupt your relationships with customers.