Clients can come and go and sometimes the loss of the relationship comes out of nowhere.
“Order/client problems can be like an iceberg. Ninety percent of the problem is below the water, and 10% above,” says Ryan Sauers, president and owner, Sauers Consulting Strategies, and author of Everyone Is In Sales. A problem that starts out small can quickly grow bigger if the rep is not paying attention, he says. “Sometimes our customers are slowly turning, and we don’t see the signs.”
Our experts offer their best tips for regaining the trust and business of those that got away.
KEEP IN TOUCH
Print & Promo Partners (asi/299844) lost a big order when a new sales rep at the firm failed to check availability on an item a client had requested. After the order was placed, the rep realized the item was not in stock anywhere.
Print & Promo owner Jennifer Miller jumped in to help. She researched and tried to find a distributor that carried the item, a Ping windshirt with zip-off sleeves, and even called Ping directly, to no avail. The item had been discontinued.
Miller phoned the client and offered different alternatives, but the client had been set on that particular item and took his business elsewhere. Undeterred, she stayed in contact with the lost client, e-mailing him periodically with ideas and relevant information, and offering to handle the account personally.
Her tactful persistence paid off. The client recently reached out to Miller proactively for quotes on items for several golf events.
“Be honest with the client,” Miller says. Always check pricing, availability and deadlines. Also check where the item is shipping from. “Many times vendors say they can ship overnight, but depending where it originates from, the cost can vary,” she notes. Great pricing may not be so great if the shipping costs are too high.
Sometimes, losing a client is beyond your control. Candace Cummings, territory sales manager at Fey Promotional Products Group (asi/54040), has personally lost large accounts because either a client has been bought out, or her company realigns its territories and a major client is no longer within her region.
However, more often than not, suppliers lose orders due to availability issues. “Losing orders as a supplier is different than as a distributor. When I’ve lost them it’s because of a stock or lead-time issue,” says Cummings, explaining that her distributor clients are at the mercy of their own customers, who might like a particular product but wait six weeks to order, and the item is no longer available.
When this happens, Cummings does her best to retain the business. “I go out of my way to see if there is a substitute item, like a better pen for the same price, or I see if they can wait a little longer for the item. I ask questions to see if there are other options.”
While some customers are understanding, some are not. “If a client says they won’t work with me again, I apologize and offer a ‘favor card’,” she says. She stays in touch, sending occasional e-mails, or dropping off a catalog and sample, and goes out of her way to say hello at trade shows.
These efforts can pay dividends. While working for a different industry supplier, Cummings had a distributor client in Ohio requesting she take his name off of her e-mail chain. The client said, “I appreciate you reaching out, but I’ve had more than one problem with your company and I’m not willing to work with you again.”
When Cummings changed suppliers, she reached out to this same client, and this time he was receptive. “He said, ‘I like you, it was just the company I had issues with” and now she and this particular distributor are back in business.
She checks Fey’s daily order report, and if a distributor she doesn’t know places an order, Cummings reaches out and introduces herself. “I ask them if they’re familiar with our products and catalog, and they end up in my loop of constant contact,” she notes. If an existing client places an order, or if a large order comes in, she sends a handwritten thank-you note.
She also uses social media to track significant events in her clients’ lives, and sends congratulations or happy birthday notes when appropriate.
REACH OUT TO DORMANT ACCOUNTS
Supplier iClick (asi/62124) has a full-time “relationship manager” named Chelsea McKillip whose job is to reach out to dormant accounts, which are any that haven’t ordered within the past 12 months. “She has converted many dormant accounts to regular ones, and is one of the best additions we’ve made to our company,” says Reggie Gonzales, vice president of product sales.
McKillip calls the client, introduces herself and finds out why they haven’t placed any recent orders. “She asks if we are in good standing, and gathers information that allows us to go back to the customer and find out how we can get back in the fold,” says Gonzales.
“An amazing majority of those calls result in renewed business. Often the client says they haven’t had an opportunity to use our products, which are tech-oriented, but our name now becomes top-of-mind, and we find we get an immediate response for quotes and orders,” he adds.
“After being in the industry for 25 years, I know how hard it is to stay in touch with everyone,” says Marsha Londe at industry consulting firm, Tango. The bigger clients get the most attention, and the smaller clients can tend to fall off, whether from “benign neglect” on the part of the sales rep, or because they become someone else’s important client, she says.
If you lose touch, it’s OK to reach out again. “There is simply no downside to re-approaching someone with whom you once worked,” says Londe. She covered the topic of reviving inactive accounts in a series of weekly “Tango Tips.” When approaching a dormant client, she advocates initiating a “warm call” and using a personal touch to make your business and your name familiar again. Even if the client doesn’t immediately respond, keep the contact on your outreach list.
A few “warm-up” tips from Tango: Include the contact in any marketing programs you develop. Invite them to any shows or meetings you host. Send a handwritten invitation and follow up with a phone call. Send samples appropriate to their business with a note saying you thought this merchandise would be perfect for them. Update the client on any new services your company has added, and request an appointment to discuss them.
When you do receive an order, ask if the client needs anything else and find out what else they’re working on. One distributor client got an additional 500-piece T-shirt order to accompany a small hat order, simply by asking “what else?” says Londe.
If a Print & Promo client hasn’t placed an order in a while, Miller looks back at the order history to see what month the last order was placed and reminds the client of their past order. “For example, you ordered camp shirts at this time last year; can I help you again?” she offers, adding, “We do get orders that way.” She also lets clients know if a particular item they ordered in the past goes on sale.
CONNECT WITH THE NEW GUY
As an e-commerce, Internet-based promotional products company, IASpromotes.com (asi/230891), owned by Independent Ad Specialties, it’s a bit more difficult to discover it has lost a customer, says Bill Litton, president. “We gain and lose customers differently than brick-and-mortar companies. Most of the time we don’t know when a customer moves on.”
If an e-mail bounces back saying a customer has left their company, IAS contacts the replacement person and offers incentives to establish a relationship with that existing account.
“We try to reach out if someone hasn’t ordered from us in a while,” he says. The impetus is on us to find out why we haven’t heard from them, and re-engage them,” he says.
This paid off last year when IAS noticed that one client company, which typically issues a blanket purchase order to spend a certain amount with IAS, failed to spend their PO amount. “We noticed they didn’t buy from us, so we contacted them and it turned out that our contact was on vacation,” Litton says. “The client mistakenly bought from a different vendor.”
When they realized the mistake, the customer placed a re-order with IAS and has again issued their blanket PO for the current year. “If we didn’t reach out, we wouldn’t have realized the error and gotten the business back,” he says. “It’s important to always maintain a dialogue.”
IAS stays connected to its top customers, but it can be a challenge to keep up with all of the approximately 10,000 customers in its database. “I can’t go out and meet every client,” Litton says, although he is stepping up efforts to engage customers near the company’s Philadelphia headquarters.
The company stays on top of clients’ minds by encouraging accounts to follow it on social media. IAS sends e-mail blasts – but not too many. “I know if a supplier e-mails me more than once a month, I opt out,” says Litton. “We try to stay on top of our customers’ minds without being annoying.”