Hitting the Wall

Is talking to certain prospects like talking to a brick wall? It may be time to cut your losses and walk.
Magazine Contributor
4 min read

This story appears in the March 2004 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

The customer is always right. We've heard that as a basic business truth since the beginning of business. And for the most part, it's true. But there are times when it's appropriate to tell a particular buyer-the one who saps your strength and wastes your time again and again-that although the customer may be right, the relationship is wrong.

I'm not saying get rid of every customer who is difficult to deal with. I'm suggesting that it may be time to weed out your customer base so you can harvest the greatest rewards. Here are some ways to do that:

1. Know when to walk away. Persistence in selling should add value. But if you've tried again and again to reach a prospect who just doesn't understand your product or service, who doesn't see its value, or with whom you can't establish a connection, it may be time to walk away. If you're being stubbornly persistent down a path that leads nowhere, that's counterproductive. You want to spend your time where you're getting results.

2. Follow the 80/20 rule. Take stock of your customers. Which ones give you the most business? Which give you the most headaches? How much time are you spending with each? Eighty percent of your business comes from 20 percent of your customers, so focus on those customers that have the highest potential to increase your bottom line.

3. Ask the difficult questions. Too many salespeople are "stuck" with problem customers because they don't ask the hard questions. They get sucked into a long, drawn-out sales process because they have never asked, "Is there anyone else besides yourself who is involved in making this decision?" They spend a lot of time with an indecisive customer because they haven't asked, "What's our next step?" or "What do we need to do to get a decision by the end of this month?" They're afraid of rejection and objections. But getting an objection is often the only way to truly understand how the customer is thinking and get the sale back on track-or to realize that this track is not the right one for you or your customer to follow.

4. Measure your return on investment. How do you know when it's time to end the relationship? First, you have to know what your value is. You have to have the confidence and belief in yourself and your product or service to be able to say, "I can spend this amount of time with this customer and no more. I can sell my product or service for this price and no less." Next, do a thorough and honest ROI analysis. How many times have you called on this customer without moving the sale forward? Is the time you're putting into this account worth what you're getting back?

5. Leave the door open. Never lock the door behind you when you go. There's no point in telling a customer, "You're not worth my time." Say instead, "I appreciate the time you've invested with me, but it doesn't look like this is a good match for us." You might even recommend another product or service you think is a better fit for their needs. Try to walk away on friendly terms so that both of you have the option to call again should the situation change.

The next time you deal with a difficult customer, ask yourself this question: "Is the time I'm spending with this customer taking time away from others who need me more?" If the answer is "yes," then it's time to cut your losses and walk away. So the next time your first thought is "The customer is always right," stop and ask yourself this instead: Is this customer right for me?

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