“Dysfunctional business partnerships cause more emotional and financial* distress than any other troubled relationship, with the possible exception of a troubled marriage.”
I’m not keen on arguments, disagreements, or any type of conflicting situation, particularly when I’m involved and need a resolution. However, when I look back to the times when I’ve been in them, I realise that I learned quite a bit about myself and how to avoid the same predicament next time.
One of the easiest ways to ‘fall out’ of favour in a business relationship is by not adhering to a structure or framework that clearly states the responsibilities of all parties involved. A lack of commitment to the framework (if there is one at all!) will ultimately lead to failure. If either party feels there is deviation from the framework and can identify it as soon as possible, you can quickly initiate ways to rein it back on track.
For those of us who don’t sell a service or product where the brand precedes its capabilities such as the Blackberry, iPod, Hoover, or Ferrari, we have to work hard to ensure we communicate effectively. This happens from the time you engage a prospect/client and is continuously re-enforced at all stages of the relationship through a variety of appropriate messaging.
Never forget that the sales process does not stop once you get that signed purchase order in your hand; the sale itself is only the start of the business relationship. If you don’t understand that from the get-go, then you may find yourself with a lot more work than you expected delivering product and supporting the customer!
As part of building a positive relationship with your customers, you have to realise that it is important to focus on increasing the return on investment (ROI) that both of you have made. If at any point of the sales process either of you does not understand completely what or why something is being communicated, then there is the chance for conflict. Some of the biggest instances of misplaced customer expectation can be found within the car and home insurance industry where the ‘small print’ is overlooked as to what is and isn’t covered. What’s more, given the coverage of unlucky situations, many of us view a relationship with an insurance company as a ‘necessary evil’ – what a challenge for the insurers to face!
1. Planning which involves understanding your market and desired accounts; here you ensure that the objectives create measurable ROIs.
2. Marketing this help generate awareness and leads. Again, you must always look to ensure that whatever you do, you can justify your business activities.
3. Selling. Here you can use a planned sales cycle (typically a seven point strategy) to qualify, influence, and achieve a sale.
4. Retention. Once you have the customer, how do you achieve a mutual win-win relationship to reward loyalty and continued business?
This should be your basic framework and with a well devised set of processes to help support your business activities, you can complete each engagement more efficiently.
For many businesses that start without a framework (or even a business plan), poorly set expectations can arise and cause all sorts of short- and long-term problems. Being able to manage the situation back to the initial framework not only disciplines the process but allows for measurable outcomes. If you’ve grown to a point where life would be easier with a framework, then be sure to get this in place to ensure easier business engagements in the future.
So with all this framework in place, surely that means that everything is plane sailing for ever more? Not necessarily.
All of us are customers to someone and we’ve all experienced at first hand how it feels when we’re caught on the back foot of a relationship. Think about how you felt when you didn’t get the support you wanted with your computer, or when the hairdresser was a bit too enthusiastic with your hair, or when the house you bought had more problems with it than initially thought. What procedures were in place to help you fix the situations? A dedicated person to help manage the problem until it was resolved? A discount or complimentary cut on the next visit? Support from your insurers or property agents?
I would imagine there are very few people who enjoy working in negative situations. We all hate chasing those customers who purposely delay payments or try and drill you down for every last bit of your profit, but in most cases we could have eliminated those problems from the very beginning; even if it means walking away from the business to protect it.
Using your framework and a genuine belief that what you are selling is appropriate, you can guide the customer through the process outlined above so that both of you are in control. This could include ensuring they respond in good time to your proposal, or that they dedicate a specific amount of time to liaise with you to manage a project appropriately, and that both yours and their visions are shared and understood so that mutual goals are achieved.
Here are some suggestions on how to aid positive customer expectations:
1. If they come to you with a problem then let them explain it fully – you have two ears and one mouth and should use them in that order. If the conversation is fraught with emotion, be sure to help guide the conversation so that the cause of the problem is understood and that you know what needs to be resolved. Once you have all the information you need, summarise back to them what you understand to be the problem (and the effects on them) and how you intend to resolve it. They will let you know if you’ve missed anything out so you can ensure you are working to a complete resolution. Also give them a time line in which you envisage resolving the problem. That way, they don’t call you every hour to check progress.
A problem brought up by the customer is more valuable to you than if they went elsewhere to buy (even though the latter in the short-term** is less effort). They are calling you because they want to continue working with you but they need a resolution; they are not calling you so you fail.
2. If you are submitting a proposal, ask them what format they would like to receive it in. For some, they may not be the ultimate decision maker and may have to submit yours/their proposal to a board. If they are presenting it, perhaps a four slide PowerPoint presentation may be more apt than a 10-page document? Also, be sure to ask them when they expect a response on the proposal so that you know when to contact them again… you don’t want to be like the customer in point one where you call every hour to check progress!
3. Should your customer be dealing with a number of people within your organisation, ensure that the customer understands each of the roles and responsibilities each person holds and who manages any escalations. You may want to provide this information in the format of a diagram or as a simple list via email. Remember, some business relationships don’t work simply because of a personality clash, replacing someone because of this is no reflection on their capabilities.
4. Ensure your customers and clients understand your business fully. If your aim is to be proactive than reactive but in practice it’s the opposite, unless you set the right expectations from the start about how you operate, you will continue to cheat yourself out of your ideal business strategy. Think about how the one-off, time-hungry problems prevent you from completing another task to the best of your abilities. If you have a four-hour response time for standard customers and a one-hour response for premium clients, ensure that this is clearly communicated so that clients understand they are getting what they expect.
5. Manage your customers properly, be it in the form of a roller deck, a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) program, or in a way you can track your activities with each of them. Ensure you have covered every stage of the process so that the journey you take them down is logical and progressive. There’s no point sending the same email with the same information about something they deem irrelevant unless you are in the business of delivering SPAM.
In serious conflicting situations where personalities clash or emotion clouds the problem, you may want to enlist the resources of someone who can be objective to the situation. In most situations like this, you should still want to achieve an outcome much like what was envisaged at the beginning. You do yourself no harm by bringing another person to help achieve this and you further endorse your integrity and commitment to the customer. I myself have come out of the other side with a client more loyal to me than any other simply because I partnered with them for more than a quick sale.
Thinking about that, you may find yourself entering into a business relationship as a result of conflict so be sure to be sensitive to the situation you face. If you aren’t sure about anything that you are presented with, ask questions until you are. If you don’t have the complete picture, then your expectations will be different and conflict could arise as a result. For example, you may be given a sales opportunity because your customer is reacting irrationally with their existing supplier, so rather than ‘buyer beware’ it’s a case of ‘seller beware’.
Whatever the situation, be it negative or positive, always remember that people who feel understood are more receptive. Even in a time of conflict, creating a resolution that is appropriate to their needs and expectations through your framework will allow you to retain control and ultimately success.
- Emotional Intelligence – a definition, online test, book reviews.
- Business Processes – a definition, Business Process Trends
- Conflict Management – *online toolbox, conflict resolution and negotiation guide (three parts)
All external links are not endorsed by Purple Cow Ideas Management but are in place to help give you a few start points with regards to your research.
** remember, it is harder to win new business than to keep existing business.
Susanne Dansey is the Managing Director of Purple Cow Ideas Management – an organisation that facilitates a paradigm shift in the collaborative nature of the ICT Industry. You can follow her on Twitter and join the conversation on Facebook.