Vijay had built a solid relationship with his contact, Evan, who was the director of fixed operations for a national car dealership group. They’d become good friends along the way and usually got in a round of golf when Vijay visited. While waiting on the ninth tee box for the group ahead, Vijay made a light joke about being Evan’s favorite account manager. To Vijay’s surprise, Evan deadpanned, “Actually, Linda Worthington is my best account manager. She’s always one step ahead of me. No matter what I’m thinking, she’s already there.” Linda was an account manager for one of Vijay’s competitors. They shared the service contract for Evan’s dealerships. “That hurt!” said Vijay. “At first I just blew it off but the more I thought about it, I knew I had to change. I needed to get more proactive with my approach if I wanted to stand out with Evan and pick up more of his business.”
It is a powerful statement, and you retain more control when you anticipate problems and bring solutions to the table before your customers ask for them. Smart account managers are constantly analyzing each of their customers and developing solutions designed to help those customers deal with their unique problems. This proactive approach not only ensures long-term customer retention, but it opens the door to account growth because it demonstrates to your customers that you care and you are a valued partner.
Why is this so important? When you proactively tackle problems, customers see you at your best. You are perceived as a confident professional who understands their unique business issues. You also save your customers time, relieve them of their overwhelming workload, and position them to win with their bosses, internal stakeholders, and company.
Meredith, like many of the top account managers we’ve worked with, schedules regular account reviews with her large clients. “When I first started setting up these reviews they were mostly a look back on what we had done in the account: service issues, cost overruns, quality problems, and things like that. After about a year, I realized that the meetings had become stale and boring and all we were doing was spending time rehashing the past and pointing out what was wrong. It was like trying to swim in quicksand. I was working hard but getting nowhere and I felt like these meetings were just opportunities for my customers to beat me up.”
So Meredith changed her approach. “After taking some advice from one of my peers, I began walking into these meetings with a plan for the future. Yeah, we still talked about past issues, but the dialogue changed. We began talking about ways we could innovate and how I could help my customers achieve their business goals. Over time, the conversations were more robust and I worked hard to bring real solutions and recommendations to each meeting. My customers liked it better and I walked away from those meetings feeling more confident and better about myself.”
Meredith told me how over time she became a trusted advisor for many of her customers. They began pulling her into strategy sessions to get her opinion. Conversations about contract extensions began earlier and were less tense. Her customers viewed her as a resource they could not live without and Meredith found it easier to retain her customer base.
Leveraging the Pull Strategy
One of my clients is a well-known and respected defense contractor. For years, the renewal of their government contracts was a given. Because they were so embedded within the fabric of the defense department and other governmental agencies, it was too hard or too much work to switch to another supplier. In other cases, they were the only game in town. Life was good. With their customers locked into long-term contracts that were effectively guaranteed to renew, account managers had no motivation to focus on relationships and proactive problem solving.
However, during the economic downturn that hit hard in 2008 and the subsequent political gridlock, things changed rapidly. Governmental agencies, driven by politics and a focus on cost cutting, began scrutinizing contracts more closely. At the same time, smaller and more nimble entrepreneurial competitors began to win contracts that for years had been considered untouchable. Suddenly, every contract was at risk and company executives woke up to the value of relationships. The stakes were huge—literally billions of dollars were on the line.
As more contracts were lost to competitors and cost cutting, there was an awakening within the executive ranks that they needed to change the way their account managers were engaging customers. Upon taking a closer look at the data, they discovered that some account managers, in the midst of intense competitive pressure and budget cuts, were generating significant growth within their accounts, winning contract renewals, and locking out their competitors.
A task group was created to discover what these successful program managers were doing right and thereby develop best practices that could be taught across the enterprise. The task force discovered a common thread among the successful AMs: They had become an actual extension of their customers. Customers viewed them as strategic resources and pulled them into meetings, relied on them as experts and advisors who helped solve problems, and trusted them as advocates who worked on behalf of the customer within their organization. Because these AMs had established such a foundation of trust with their customer and become such an integral part of the customer’s team, they had the unique ability to influence and shape their customer’s decisions.
It is important that you understand that in order to become a trusted advisor, the successful AMs left their personal agendas at the door. They understood that in order to win their customer’s trust, to be consistently pulled in by their customer, they had to be focused on their customer’s unique needs and issues. To become an extension of the customer, they had to leave their own wants and needs behind.
When you truly put your own needs and wants aside, customers reward you with trust and pull you in more and more for help and advice. A simple way to put your agenda aside is instead of focusing on how you and your company do things, ask your customers about how they do things. Do questions help you remain focused on what is important to your customer and learn more about them with follow-up questions to test your hunch like, “That sounds pretty important. How are you dealing with it?”
To gain your customer’s trust it is important that you resist the temptation to pitch your product or service at every opportunity. Your customer will be reticent to pull you in as an extension of their team if they feel like you are just going to dump your product or company information on them at every turn. Trust me on this point. You will sell far more to your customer by asking questions and listening rather than pitching. You become a trusted advisor by maintaining an acute attention on your customer and their business.