Business owners are naturally protective of their sales information. What they don't realize is that sharing that data with customers can be a great way to engender goodwill and boost sales. You probably sit down once a year to review your employees' performance, why not have an annual review meeting with your customers?
As a consultant who helps companies improve their sales operations, I once worked with a client that supplied New England medical centers treating an especially life-threatening disease. One of these medical centers had the potential to become a major customer, but sales were lower than expected.
What amazed me was that this medical supply company had more impressive sales data and analytics than any other client I had ever had. But the managers were very reluctant to share this information for fear that officials at the medical center would react negatively to the data. What happened instead was that the top executive they met there couldn't keep her eyes off the information. She kept asking for more.
My client's sales began to climb after the meeting. Sharing sales data with customers makes you a business partner, not merely a vendor. That type of relationship can make it even easier to sell, and you will be less likely to lose the customer.
This approach works best in a business-to-business scenario, but I can even see it working in a business-to-customer situation, especially with contractors. If the owner of a roofing company called me and said its data show that on average a house of a size similar to mine gets the roof replaced after a certain number of years, I would least consider whether my house were due for some repair.
Don't think you're going to shock people with the information you give them. They have a general idea of what's going on. You might bring it into focus for them. If you approach sharing information with a positive attitude and provide good data, people appreciate it.
In the process you might provide two types of information: data about the customer's business purchases and general data about their peers. It's important to be discreet and keep confidential any specific information about individual companies. I'm not instructing you to help customers spy on one another.
If you've never done something like this before, start with meeting to hold an annual review of each top customer. You might conduct such a review anytime in the year. Just try for at least once a year for a major customer. With the very top customers, try to share data with them every six months or even every quarter if they are open to it. Follow up with them later on, too.
Here are some tips for sharing data in customer review meetings:
- Go with the flow. As you crunch the data and assemble it in charts, you may have "aha" moments. But your customer may not necessarily have the same experience. Your customers know their industry better than you, so don't force your insights on them. Go with what they're keyed into.
- Don't sell the customers. The purpose of the meeting is to build a relationship, not to sell a product or service. Avoid going in prepared to sell something.
- Err on the side of brevity. Be brief, especially if you've never done this before. Plan to limit the consultation to five to 10 minutes.
- Make it graphically interesting. Assemble a short printed report to leave with the customer. Use your business presentation software and incorporate pie charts, bar graphs or any great-looking visual.
- Rehearse the meeting. If you have never done this before, practice with a trusted associate or peer. Get an honest opinion. Many people with sales backgrounds find review meetings difficult. They're used to structured situations with yes or no answers rather than a freewheeling discussion.
- Think of a good ice breaker to broach the topic with the customer. If it's a long-time customer, start out recalling how you began doing business in 1972. And recall how the first invoices were handwritten.
Don't be afraid to share bad news. If an index is trending downward, put it on the table for discussion. A good customer relationship will only become stronger from the exchange.
Suzanne Paling is the principal consultant of Sales Management Services, a consulting and coaching firm in Boston. She's the author of The Accidental Sales Manager, published by Entrepreneur Press. It was a finalist for a Best Books 2010 Award from USA Book News and a bronze medalist at the Axiom book awards. She is also author of The Accidental Sales Manager Guide to Hiring.