What’s it going to take to make your largest customers more loyal to you?
How can you make it harder for a competitor to come and take their business?
That’s a difficult problem for a lot of building material companies because it doesn’t take long working with a big customer to get the sense that they don’t really care about you. They hold so much purchasing power that you can start to feel replaceable.
Often, these large customers become such a big part of a building material company’s business that these companies end up focusing most of their efforts just on making this customer happy.
It’s the same thing whether your customer is a large builder like Pulte, a distributor like Ferguson, a dealer like 84 Lumber, a big box like Lowe’s or an owner like Starbucks. Once you get one of these customers, it’s like you go into a subservient mode. You become an order taker, not a problem solver and definitely not a respected business partner.
It doesn’t have to be that way. You can make your largest customers more loyal to you, more committed to working with you. You can start commanding more respect from them.
Here are seven things you can do to get your biggest customers to become more loyal to you.
1. Stay Ahead
Don’t wait for your customer to tell you what they need or want from you. Instead, think ahead a little bit. Predict what they’ll need from you.
You don’t need to have perfect insight into the company and its operations to do this, but you do need always to be asking yourself, “What will it take for this customer to become more successful?”
If you come to them every few months with some ideas about how they could improve sales, attract more customers or build homes more quickly, your customers will start to see you as a worthwhile asset, not just a commodity. Bring them valuable ideas, and you’ll find – maybe for the first time! – that your largest customers will start listening to you.
2. Stay Informed
You need to be aware of what’s going on with your customer.
As I said, you won’t have perfect insight into their business, but you don’t have to be completely blind to it, either.
One easy thing you can do is set up Google Alerts for your major customers. That way, you’ll get up-to-the-minute updates on anything they do, from rolling out new technology to changes in management.
With a little research, you’ll know about new developments before there’s a lot of buzz or they release their quarterly report.
3. Get the Data
When you work with a big customer, you’re working with a company that collects and analyzes a lot of data. So much so that they probably have a department dedicated to analyzing all the information they collect.
They’re collecting so much data; they’d be foolish not to use it. And so would you.
Ask them if they’re willing to share some of that data with you. Use the data they hand over. Analyze it for yourself, so you can become better informed and optimize the support you give them.
4. Understand Their Goals
Make sure you understand your customer’s goals – not just the way they’re operating, but why they’re operating that way.
What are they trying to achieve? What’s their next big move?
Don’t assume you know. Don’t just tell them you can help them succeed; ask them what success looks like to them.
I recommend asking about this at least once a year. Once you know where they’re heading, you can figure out ways to clear the path for them.
5. Prepare One Great Question
Another way to command some respect is to prepare a little differently for meetings with your customer.
Don’t just come ready to talk about your product or throw a bunch of your stats at them. Before every meeting, think of one great question you can ask them.
I know you’re probably used to asking them a lot of questions already. But I don’t mean “How many truckloads do you need this month?” I’m talking about more probing questions, like “How are you dealing with current labor shortages?” or “What worries you about off-site construction?” or “What do you think of Amazon moving in on your territory?”
These questions serve two purposes. First, it’s part of your research. You’ll often learn something new, like what they’ve got planned or a challenge they see coming. But it’s also a bit of signaling. Your question is showing them you’re taking an interest in their business, not just their purchasing power. You’re showing them that you’ve been paying attention to their industry and might be someone they can trust to provide them with support for the challenges they’re facing.
You can also ask them about how you’re doing. What are you doing well for them and what do they wish you did better?
Now, I can almost guarantee this is something your competitor is not doing. Most building material companies are afraid that a question like this will open up a can of worms.
It’s like they think that the customer isn’t noticing that they’re lagging in some areas and will only realize it if your sales rep brings it up.
Trust me, they noticed. The best thing you can do is ask how well you’re doing with order processing, with your shipping, with your customer service or anything else. Once you find out what is frustrating them, you’ll know where to focus your efforts, and you can commit to doing better.
6. Go Deep
Having a point of contact with the organization is good, but it’s just a start. You might have a great connection with that person, but it will be a shallow contact with the organization as a whole.
But how do you go beyond your primary contact?
Start by visiting different company locations and branches. If it’s a big box, visit new ones when you’re out of town. Introduce yourself to the people who work there. See what’s going on and find out what they do uniquely at each location. If it’s a builder, find a local sales office and connect with them.
LinkedIn makes this easier than ever. It’s basically set up to enable you to connect deeper into an organization. Connecting with a few people who work for your customer will open the door to connecting with more. When you request connections with people, and they see you’re connected to their co-workers, they’re a lot more likely to accept and get to know you through the platform.
This is not about going around your primary contact at the customer. It is about depending on your relationship with the company and giving you even more knowledge.
7. Sell the Right Story
I’ve got to give credit for this final point to Donald Miller. About a year and a half ago I attended his workshop, Story Brand. His whole philosophy is that everything follows the arc of a story, even when you’re selling products. In a way, what you’re selling isn’t just siding or insulation – it’s a narrative.
Now, every story has a hero. And naturally, we like to think we’re the hero. The customer is facing some problems (inefficiency, waste, customer dissatisfaction, you name it) and then you swoop in to save the day. The crowd cheers and you stand proud, knowing the customer has been saved by your product. Hooray for you!
Sounds great, right? It does – until you realize that the price you pay for that ego boost is less customer loyalty.
You see, the customer doesn’t see you as the hero of the story. They see themselves as the hero. They don’t want to hear the story of how your product is going to save the day. They don’t want to hear your success story. They want to know if you can be part of their success story.
If you want the customer to work with you and stay loyal to you, you can’t sell them a narrative where you’re the hero. Instead, you need to sell one where you’re part of their supporting cast. You need to tell them a story about how they’re the hero, about how they win, about how they succeed – and how they can do it with a little help from you.
Luke Skywalker would have never mastered the Force and destroyed the Death Star if he hadn’t been guided by Yoda. In Karate Kid, Daniel would never have won tournament matches against Cobra Kai if he hadn’t been trained by Mr. Miyagi. And if you tell the right story, you’ll show the customer that they’ll never get the success they want unless they have the right kind of support from a committed building materials company.
Trickle Down Effect
I’ve been talking about gaining loyalty from your biggest customers. But the great thing about this is that it trickles down to your smaller customers, too.
The more you start treating your big customers this way, the more it just becomes the way you do business – with everybody.
In fact, it might not require much more effort. All the knowledge you gain by trying to support your biggest customer is knowledge you can use to assist smaller ones, too.
What these seven points really boil down to is this: become a student of your customer. Learn everything you can about them, not just what they’re asking you to do.
You can also go beyond the company and become a student of their whole industry. If it’s big box retailers, you can keep an eye on the retail industry as a whole and see where things are headed, what trends are coming, and what your customer has to start worrying about.
If your product is a great fit for hospitals, become an expert in healthcare buildings.
A little bit of studying doesn’t sound like much, but it will put you ahead of the game. You’d be surprised at how few of your competitors do this. Most of them are stuck in subservient mode, and you don’t need to know anything about your customer if all you do is take orders from them.
Try it out, and you’ll see that this kind of investment gets rewarded. Your biggest customers will become more loyal. Your smallest customers will be impressed by the level of support they’re getting from you. And you’ll have a much easier time bringing new customers on board.