The Realities Of Customer Relationships

If you are a regular reader of Competing Ideas, you know that I stress the importance of building relationships with customers. Sometimes the process of building these relationships can be frustrating, but take heart, there are ways to cope with these realities.

Columns From: 10/1/1999 Modern Machine Shop,

If you are a regular reader of Competing Ideas, you know that I stress the importance of building relationships with customers. Sometimes the process of building these relationships can be frustrating, but take heart, there are ways to cope with these realities.

Reality #1: The people you deal with will not be with the company forever.

Now, more than ever, many employees face better opportunities elsewhere and frequently take advantage of these opportunities. As a result, you must be prepared to work with many different people during your dealings with a customer.

How to cope with Reality #1: Try to build relationships with a number of people at your customers' sites. Ideally, you should try to build relationships with people in different departments such as purchasing, manufacturing, engineering, and even accounting. By following this approach, you are not as vulnerable if one of your contacts leaves the company. More contacts will give you a better chance of maintaining a long-term relationship with a customer.

Reality #2: Customers are hard to reach and do not always return calls promptly.

Even though tools such as personal computers, e-mail, voice-mail, pagers, personal digital assistants, and other inventions can help us do our jobs better and more efficiently, we still seem to have too much to do. Many people cannot find the time to respond to your calls quickly.

How to cope with Reality #2: Don't get angry or frustrated. Try to make your messages as clear as possible and convey the appropriate sense of urgency. The nice thing about today's communication technology is that, for the most part, you can be sure the person did receive your message, so it is likely other priorities are keeping the person from responding. Be ready with a follow-up call if you do not get a response in a reasonable time. To avoid playing "telephone tag," let the person know when you will be available. If you will be available after normal working hours, that may give the person an extra opportunity to reach you.

Reality #3: Company priorities frequently change.

What once may have been a major company initiative may be replaced by more pressing needs. Changing priorities are frequently due to a change in personnel at a company. When new people join a company, they often want to make an impression and do things their way. Unfortunately, this situation may have negative repercussions on suppliers.

How to cope with Reality #3: If you are involved in a project that has experienced a priority drop-off, make sure you get in touch with the person setting these priorities to learn why. Shifting priorities may actually be advantageous, leading to bigger and better opportunities. Be sure you advise your customer of the effort you have expended to date. If possible, have documentation ready. Try to negotiate payment for work performed thus far. Most companies will be reasonable in this regard, especially if they realize the reasons for changing priorities have nothing to do with your performance. For the most part, companies do not wish to hurt their suppliers and are willing to accept reasonable accommocations under certain circumstances. The key is to communicate early and to present as many facts as you can.

Reality #4: Company politics exist everywhere.

Every company, from the small "mom and pop" shop to the large corporation, has its own internal politics. Disagreements between people and departments, are all too common and can make things uncomfortable for everyone, especially those outside the company.

How to cope with Reality #4: Quite simply, stay out of your customer's internal politics. You must recognize the politics of a particular situation and avoid taking sides because you will lose 50 percent of the time. As an outsider, you cannot possibly recognize the history of the company's politics, so focus on your role and avoid alienating those involved in the decision making process. When it comes to company politics, stay neutral to stay in the game.

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