The questions I’m about to share with you were originally created to help salespeople who just took over an account or a territory to keep and grow their inherited customers. Keep in mind that a change in salesperson was -- and still is -- one of the top five trigger events that cause customers to switch vendors.

However, in the last 10 years I’ve learned these three questions should also be asked when:
  1. A new decision maker is brought on at a client's organization (a new CIO replaces your former CIO contact), or someone becomes the boss of your primary contact (a new CIO joins a company where your primary contact is the VP of technology). 
  2. A decision maker you know leaves and joins a different company. 
  3. The incumbent vendor’s salesperson moves on and a new salesperson is assigned to the account.

The Satisfaction Formula

Before I reveal the questions, let's talk about customer satisfaction. Finding, keeping, and growing customers is all about meeting or exceeding their expectations.

When an incumbent vendor and their salesperson’s performance meets or exceeds a customer’s expectations, satisfaction is the result and the decision maker sticks with the status quo. But the moment a decision maker’s expectations exceed a vendor's or salesperson’s performance, they enter the window of dissatisfaction, and start to think of changing.

Here's a simple formula that represents the above:

Performance > Expectations = Satisfaction
Expectations > Performance = Dissatisfaction
 

But just because there’s misalignment between what customers want and what they’re getting doesn’t mean they'll change vendors. If you're the incumbent salespeople and you learn of your customer's dissatisfaction early, you have a chance to fix things before the competition even realizes there’s an opportunity.

The most common event that causes a customer's expectations to rise and become out of whack with the vendor's performance is when there is a change in decision makers. Keep in mind a new decision maker means not just elevated expectations but sometimes completely different expectations. The sooner you understand and meet or exceed these elevated or new expectations, the less likely you are to lose a key account.

On the other side of the equation, two common events that can cause a vendor’s performance to falter are when they merge with another company or launch a new product. The most common event that causes a salesperson’s performance to falter is when they are new to an account. 

When a new salesperson takes over an account, they don’t understand the expectations of the customer, so they are likely to disappoint them and put the customer into the window of dissatisfaction. In addition, because the new salesperson does not have a strong or long-standing relationship within the account, the customer is less likely to complain to them and bring their dissatisfaction to their attention, and more likely to simply switch vendors.

The Three Questions

Now that you understand what prompts a customer to become dissatisfied with their vendor or salesperson, here are the three questions you should ask to keep and grow your key accounts:

  1. What did my predecessor do that I need to keep doing?
  2. What do our competitors do that we need to start doing?
  3. What does nobody do that you wish everybody did?

To whom should you pose these questions? Start at the top of the organization and work down to get an accurate satisfaction reading. Ask the C-suite first, followed by financial influencers, technical influencers, and eventually end users.

I started asking the above questions to my new-to-me clients in the mid-'90s, and one answer to the third question kept coming up again and again: “When I send you an email with a request, please send me a reply letting me know you received my request and the date when I should expect a response.” In the '90s, email was new, and contacts were often unsure if their emails went through. Today, with everyone’s spam filters turned up to eliminate as much junk mail as possible, I think this answer is as relevant as it was 20 years ago.

It’s important to realize that our customers’ expectations are not created by us. More often than not, their expectations are created by the history they have with your competition or even personal experiences outside of work. 

If you ask these questions early during each of the four scenarios mentioned (read the first paragraph again if you only caught three), not only will you keep and grow your best customers, you’ll create loyal, profitable customers who will gladly give you testimonials and, if you ask for them, referrals. Getting the best referrals is the next topic for this series of blog posts.

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Originally published Mar 6, 2015 8:00:00 AM, updated February 01 2017

Topics:

Sales Strategy