When your customers are silent, do you take that as a sign they are happy? If your company has the attitude that “no news is good news” when it comes to your customers, get ready for a big surprise. No news is rarely good news.
A surprisingly number of your customers may, at this very moment, be at-risk. Maybe they simply feel like it’s time to “try something new.” Or that “there’s got to be a better way.” More likely it’s because they’re feeling like you simply don’t hear them when they voice their concerns. And once they feel unheard, they’re at-risk.
What is an At-Risk Customer?
Most of your at-risk customers are silent or unresponsive. For every customer complaint, there are 26 other unhappy customers who are silent according to the business management consulting firm Lee Resource International.
Other at-risk customers may complain excessively. “Customers don’t complain just for the sake of complaining. They are voicing a problem,” points out Jason Fisher, Senior Director of Customer Care and Inside Sales, Intertape Polymer Group (IPG). “Ignore those complaints and you put the relationship at risk.”
Those in sales and customer service actually welcome the complaining customer. “We love customers who do that,” says Jeffrey Deacon, Sr. Director, Global Market Development, Intertape Polymer Group (IPG). “If they have a problem it’s easier to fix if they don’t clam up.” Unfortunately, many at-risk customers do the opposite – they don’t communicate. “At risk customers go dark,” says Fisher. “They stop being responsive and they ignore attempts to reach out to them.” Such customers will avoid returning phone calls, put off regular meetings and, if they do schedule a meeting, they’ll often cancel.
Other symptoms of the at-risk customer include:
- Declining orders
- Rumors through the grapevine that they are checking out a competitor of yours
- Vague references about not being happy with the relationship
Spotting the At-Risk Customer
Companies that train their sales people in consultative selling can mobilize those skills to spot the at-risk customer and deal with their concerns before they jump ship. It’s all about listening. “Listening is part of an ongoing process that starts with the sale, but has to continue well afterwards,” says Fisher. “After our distributors make a sale, our customer service people reach out to them and to the end users to do a quality service assessment. We also give them inside sales associates who are assigned to their account who provide them with immediate answers to questions about product features and capabilities, pricing, samples, and supplies. Everyone throughout the process is looking for an opportunity to service them and to make sure that we identify any small problems before they become big ones. That kind of a culture makes it easier to spot and deal with any at-risk customers before they decide to go to a competitor.”
Prevention is always the best way to address a problem. “It’s our responsibility to make sure customer is satisfied after the sale – not theirs, says Deacon. “A lot of companies stop the sales process after the sale and that leads to problems.”
But even for companies that understand and promote support after the sale, problems do arise that threaten the relationship. “If a customer is dissatisfied, the best way to address it is quickly, openly and honestly,” says Deacon. “If the perception of the customer is that the solution you recommended isn’t working, you have to identify the core issue that’s causing their dissatisfaction.”
There are times when an account is at-risk because the decision makers are not looking at the full picture. Purchasing managers, for example, may look only at price without understanding the reason for a cost differential. Once that becomes an issue, that account is at-risk. At that point, sales people may need to seek out help from others in the company who understands the usage of the product. “If a purchasing agent becomes nonresponsive that’s a signal to our customer care team that we may need to reached to an intermediary within the company who can help us make the case for our product with the purchasing agent,” says Fisher. “Opening alternative channels within the same customer can also help us discover why they are considering a new vendor or solution. Finding a new advocate inside that company to support our mission for them can help uncover problems and deal with the issue directly.”
Keeping the At-risk Customer is Good Business
Dealing with the at-risk customer and saving those accounts is simply a matter of good business. “It costs a lot more to get a new customer than it does to keep an existing one. Servicing new business is more expensive in the short term than doing all you can to keep existing business,” says Fisher.
The facts support this. Three out of five consumers would be willing to try a new brand or company for a better customer service experience, according to the White House Office of Consumer Affairs. And that customer service experience is expected to become more and more important. The customer intelligence consulting firm, Walker forecasts that, by 2020, customer experience will overtake price and product as the key brand differentiator.
Changing vendors or looking for new solutions is also difficult for the customer. “When you go through a consultative sales process, you identify their needs and come up with a solution to their problems,” points out Deacon. “If that new process results in a new way of doing things, there will be disruption in the organization. Changing again will cause additional disruption. So saving the relationship is worthwhile for them and you. It’s an investment in making a mutually beneficial relationship work again. Once you’ve made that investment in terms of time and money you don’t want to flush it down the toilet because there’s been a little glitch.”
Recovering When Things Go Wrong
How do you rebuild the relationship with an at-risk customer? “You solve the problem. You address their dissatisfaction quickly and efficiently. That’s what our technical application specialists do,” says Deacon. “You’re never done with customer relations. You’re constantly going back and reinforcing the buying issues. And you’re looking for any problems so you can solve them before they become threats to the relationship. Customers need to know that if something goes south you’re going to take care of it.”
Rebuilding the relationship often comes down to finding out the real reasons a customer is moving away from the relationship. Because they either “go dark” or give other excuses, rebuilding may require some detective work. “We have to uncover the true reasons before we can repair the issue,” points out Fisher. “That means drilling down with your contact and with others in the company with whom you have a relationship. Time is your enemy in this case. You need to fix the problem quickly and give the customer the confidence that you have fixed it so that it won’t happen again.”
Bringing the At-Risk Customer Back
Can you bring the at-risk customer back into the fold? Both Deacon and Fisher say yes. They point to three recent cases where IPG’s people were able to turn around a relationship that displayed every sign of being lost:
- In one case, the customer believed the product was no longer doing the job they needed it to do. The situation was originally flagged by an inside sales rep for IPG, who noticed the customer wasn’t purchasing their normal volume of supplies of the water-activated tape the customer sells. They got in touch with the territory manager and the distributor to find out why. Through the distributor they found out that the end-user believed the tape was no longer sealing properly. Through some detective work the distributor found out that the end-user was using the wrong tape to ship a product that had to withstand changes in temperature. Once they had uncovered the problem, they worked with the end user to provide tape that would work under the extremes of temperature they needed. They got the customer back and they continue to use the IPG brand water activated tapes.
- In another case, the relationship turned rocky after a price increase. An IPG customer in the food industry was unhappy with the increase and, instead of discussing it with their distributor, they told members of a buying group that they intended to search for an alternative product. Fisher recalls how things developed: “The customer become very nonresponsive. We tried serval different ways to get in touch with them, but to no avail. To understand the issue, we started with some contacts we had in the buying group. Through them we discovered that there was trouble brewing. The buying group gave us an excellent contact within the customer’s business. He contacted someone in senior management in the company who understood the technical aspects of why using our tape was critical. They brought that knowledge to the purchasing agent. Purchasing agents only look at purchase price. They aren’t hung up with the technical aspects. The senior manager understood those technical aspects and was able to discuss our product and how it was different from products that appeared cheaper. Our product was doing a job that the buyer didn’t recognize. In this case, we averted disaster for them and us. Had the company used the cheaper tape, it wouldn’t have performed in the way they needed.”
- Deacon adds a third example: “A significant customer of our water-activated tape dispensers’ brand, Better Packages, informed that some of our manual tape dispensers were arriving with the water bottle bracket broken. This was perplexing, because we always do drop tests of all our packed equipment and do not ship products until they pass the test. With some detective work, we began to solve the mystery. The first clue was that these issues were taking place in the winter. Plastic gets brittle when it’s exposed to cold temperatures. We examined the bracket design and material and decided that it didn’t need to change. Our solution was to redesign the packing materials so that it would better protect the contents in extreme weather conditions. Working with the carton manufacturer, we tested many designs. We shared the test results with our customer and decided together upon a new packaging solution. The problem has never recurred and the customer is still with us today.”
At-risk customers do not need to become former customers. Through a combination of detective work, listening, responding and adapting it is possible to turn the at-risk customer into a solid, long-term customer.
Andrea Obston firstname.lastname@example.org
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