For years, building materials salespeople have been telling me that relationships no longer matter. Most of the time, it’s because they’re using the wrong definition of a relationship. They thought relationships meant:
1. My customer will continue to buy from me (forever)
2. They will not seriously consider buying from someone else
3. They shouldn’t expect me to have better prices or service
4. We have a personal relationship that gives me a pass
On those definitions, I agree with them – that type of relationship is over. But that doesn’t mean other kinds of relationships aren’t still very important.
What Do We Mean by “Relationships?”
Let’s start with a little bit of definition. When we talk about relationships in business, what do we mean?
The Oxford Dictionary defines relationship as “The way in which two or more people or groups regard and behave towards each other.”
Business relationships can be between:
-Two people, such as a salesperson and a customer or two company leaders
-Two organizations, such as your company and your customer’s company
-A person and an organization, such as a customer with your company
A relationship can be good or bad for both parties, or for good for one and bad for the other.
Personal Relationships Are at Risk
In an age of sales funnels, CRM, and marketing automation, the customer can easily become lumped in with similar customers, making them just a piece of data.
It goes something like this:
1. Customer took this action
2. We (our computer) responds this way
3. Repeat until someone actually has to talk to the customer
How to Build a Personal Relationship with a Customer
A builder was so impressed by the handwritten thank-you note he got from a sales rep that he sent it to me as an example of how to start a relationship.
Making a sale, say by converting a builder from one brand of windows to another, often starts with a salesperson calling an individual who works for the builder. Setting up and making an individual sales call is a big investment in a salesperson’s valuable time and travel budget.
If the rep invests the time to gain a meeting and makes a favorable presentation, it can all all can be lost by what happens next.
I am a big believer in the benefits of CRM and any tools that make you more productive, but it’s easy to let them remove the individual from the relationship. Your customer can tell when they are receiving “one size fits all” communication.
By taking the time to send a handwritten thank-you note, this rep strengthened his relationship with the builder. He improved the odds that his company will be considered if the builder is looking for a new window supplier.
And all it took was a little stationery.
I’m not saying that everyone should start sending handwritten thank-you notes. An effective follow-up over email, phone, or social media can make a strong impression, too.
The Benefits of a Strong Personal Relationship
1. The customer is looking for someone to guide them through the process of buying from your company. They know that changing from one supplier to another involves more than changing the purchase order. They are evaluating whether or not you will be there to guide them through the transition.
2. The levels of customer service and support from manufacturers are in decline. A good relationship with a rep can smooth over problems and even help you anticipate potential issues. The rep can keep the customer while the company is at risk of losing them. I know customers who stay with a supplier only because of the rep.
3. In a time when there are less job security and loyalty to employees, reps who have strong customer relationships have a more secure future. If they need to find a new job, the reps with the strongest customer relationships have the easiest time finding a new position. It’s not that they own or control an account; it’s that the customers recognize their skills as a rep, selling to their type of business.
How Building Materials Companies Drop the Relationship Ball
Here’s an email I got from a builder.
“I wanted to share with you something that has happened to us from several manufacturers over the past year. There is a lot of personnel movement in the builder channel sales force. They are moving from company to company but many times the builder customers are not notified of the change.
Sometimes the company sends out a notice to their customers about the change but they forget that not all of their “customers” purchase product directly from them. The notice goes to their dealer or distributor network but not the builders.
There are times that I will shoot an e-mail out to the rep but do not get a return email or the email is bounced back. If it bounces back at least I know that they are no longer there and I have to contact someone else. If there is not a bounce back the company has either left their e-mail open or redirected them but they do not have a process to respond so I will go weeks without hearing from them.
This is a great way to lose trust and show a customer that you are not important. It is such an easy thing to do but so many companies do not execute a strategy to handle the change. It is very frustrating to have to spend time to figure out how to continue to get service from their company.
This lack of communicate also happens with companies that I have rebate programs with. Things will be going on smoothly then they miss paying 1 or 2 rebates. This is when I find out that the person processing rebates is no longer with the company. I then need to track down the new person and push to receive what they agreed to pay us for our loyalty and product specification. What a waste of my time.
I had a great experience in a recent change over of a Regional Builder Account Manager for a faucet manufacrurer. I have a good relationship with the one that is leaving to a new company. He called me to let me know that he was leaving and where he was going.
The new company is not a competitor so it was not to steal my business. He wanted to let me know who the new account manager was and where he was going so that maybe we could work together in the future. Several days later the new account manager e-mailed me to set up a face to face get to know you meeting. We were able to meet at IBS and created a seamless transition. This is how it should work.”
If you don’t have a process in place for notifying customers when someone leaves, you should create one. Don’t make it even more costly when someone leaves or is replaced by throwing away the goodwill you have with your customers.
When you start a partnership, a good advisor will tell you to include a plan for ending that partnership.
In addition to your internal HR process for departing employees, you need an external plan to communicate with your customers.
Are You Moving in the Right Direction with Your Customer Relationships?
Building materials companies are at a tipping point as they learn to balance the three types of relationships:
1. One-on-one personal relationships with sales reps, customer service, technical advisors, company leaders and others, in person, by phone or email. This tradional approach to relationships will continue to have a higher and higher cost so it is important to do this right.
2. Person-to-person relationships where the customer interacts with someone from your company but they do not know each other (example: making an airline reservation over the phone). For better or worse, the customer still sees this as a relationship between them and your company.
This is where most companies drop the ball as employees from other departments do not understand how important they are to the relationship.
3. Person-to-computer relationships (example: ordering from Amazon). More and more customers want to have good relationships with building material companies in this way. They like knowing that there is a flesh and blood person available to help them if they need it but overall prefer the efficiency that comes with a great online relationship.
This is the new frontier for building materials companies. Learning how to make their website a relationship builder.