Sometimes a topic rises to the top of my long list of candidates because it seems to come up repeatedly. It may be a coincidence (probably is), but a single business ownership issue is raised in multiple coaching sessions or Board meetings in a period of days or weeks.
I work on the theory that for every business owner I know who is dealing with an issue, there are three more in my circle who haven’t discussed it, and 300,000 out in the world who are dealing with it as well. So it becomes a topic.
I have several members who are wrestling with personnel changes in a large customer. They are all vendors to businesses that are many times larger than themselves. In a few cases the customer is an 800 pound gorilla- the single largest account in their portfolio. In others it is merely a good account, not a game changer, but certainly not one you’d want to lose.
People change jobs. The myriad of reasons that they do so aren’t important here, let’s just accept that as a fact of life. Unless you are dealing directly owner-to-owner (and sometimes even then), the employee of the customer with whom you’ve carefully cultivated a relationship will eventually move on.
Sometimes that is positive. One client of mine admits that the bulk of his new business is generated by buyers who have moved to another employer, and come to his company as soon as they are established elsewhere. That’s great, but he also admits that most customer attrition is due to other employees who come into his customer’s organization and reach out to their old vendors. It’s something close to a zero-sum game.
Another client has a product that is frequently enhanced with new features. They work diligently to tell customers about the many things their product can do, and how each improvement fits in with the whole system. Yet they regularly lose customers who move to another product, citing their need for a feature that his product already provides! The information disconnect almost always traces to a change in personnel. The feature or benefit wasn’t needed at the moment of knowledge transfer, and so was lost.
The most obvious preventative for this situation is to build knowledge depth in the customer. When I sold auto parts, I frequently increased my business by having a parts manager move on. He went to a new dealer and remained a customer, but I had made sure that the assistant manager who took his place knew me well, and was happy to do business with me. Paying attention to the second in command was one of my most effective business development techniques.
In a lot of cases, however, the second leaves and you don’t know about it, or the lead person you work with says they will do the training themselves, or they feel they know the product and it isn’t necessary to have someone else up to speed. Then that lead person moves on, and you are left hoping that his or her replacement learns fast.
Every company needs a regular process for stepping into a customer knowledge gap. It starts with regular checks to make certain your contact is in place, and maintaining a record of who your contact’s boss is. When a contact moves on, you should be offering training to a replacement, enhanced support, or even a fill-in temporary if the customer warrants it.
The alternative is to let the customer work through the change on his own. That just puts you on the list of old relationships to be reviewed.
By the way, I’m making one of my regular visits with Jim Blasingame on his Small Business Advocate radio show tomorrow, 7:00 AM EDT. Listen in!