Looking Out for Your Clients

The sale is made, but the war is not won. Without after-sale follow-up, your clients are vulnerable to sneak attacks by more responsive competitors. After
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Looking Out for Your Clients

Apr 20, 1997 12:00 PM, James Beckham

The sale is made, but the war is not won. Without after-sale follow-up, your clients are vulnerable to sneak attacks by more responsive competitors. After the flurry of the bidding war, after the dust has settled on a sale closed to your company's profit, after the celebration, you might be tempted to rest on your laurels a bit and forget one of the most important factors in this victory: the client. And you might get an unpleasant shock: The client was unhappy with some aspect of the system or installation and is now bad-mouthing your company high and low. Or maybe the client subsequently installed more equipment, but a competitor got the job. Or the warranty expired and your competitor sold the client a service contract.

Follow-up is like posting a guard around your clients. By looking out for the client's best interests, you look out for your own and keep a lookout for sneak attacks by your competitors. Follow-up lets you increase your sales closing rate, create good will with your customers, increase customer confidence in your firm and generate sales leads. And it's cost-effective - it costs nothing yet accomplishes these objectives with minimal effort.

Why follow up?The single most important revenue generator and business builder I know is following up with the customer. Follow-up can be done face-to-face or by telephone, mail or fax. Whichever method you choose, no other sales technique I know produces so many positive results.

For most of us (yours truly included), following up is one of the weakest parts of what we do as sellers. Most of us are pretty good at all the other parts of the sales process, but we fail to follow-up with our prospects and customers, and our profits suffer accordingly.

Following up is a lot like a golfer's completed swing or a baseball batter's follow-through. Follow-through is important whether you are executing a dance step, throwing a football or making a sale. Without completing the action you started, you are a less successful athlete, salesperson or business owner.

Calling the customer back after you've made a proposal, dropping by after the installation has been completed and checking with the customer to see that service was completed to her satisfaction are all examples of following up.

There are plenty of reasons you can find to avoid following up with customers. Perhaps you're afraid the customer is dissatisfied or might say no to your proposal. Maybe you're too busy, you forget, you aren't interested, or you simply don't care. You might think there are plenty of other prospects out there. And of course you and your company are making plenty of money anyway; who needs more?

Unless you are independently wealthy or prefer living on welfare, you need those customers you have been avoiding. Your installers, your secretary and your children also depend on income from customers. The best way to keep those customers buying from you is by following up.

Any follow-up contact does four things:

* Creates good will.

* Creates confidence in you and your firm.

* Generates sales leads.

* Creates TOMA.

TOMA? TOMA is just a FLA (four-letter acronym) that stands for top of mind awareness. TOMA is one of those '90s marketing terms you may have heard batted around. If, for example, I asked you to name the brand of facial tissue that first comes to mind, you'd most likely say Kleenex. That's top of mind awareness applied to a product.

What does that have to do with the contracting business? Suppose I called some of your customers and asked, "What company in your area sells access control systems?" Would the customers name your firm?

What if I called a customer whose system you installed two years ago and asked? "What salesman would you call if you needed a new CCTV camera?" Would the customer remember your name, or would he pull out the latest catalog from a wholesale CCTV company? Like the major manufacturers, we must constantly work to create top of mind awareness in our customers so they think of our companies first when planning a purchase.

Let's look at situations where following up will create good will, confidence in your firm and TOMA, and will generate sales leads.

Sales follow-up* Cold calls - Seldom are system sales completed on the first call. Selling complex electronic systems takes time and perseverance. It's important to follow-up after a cold call to prove to the customer that you are serious about wanting his or her business.

* Telephone inquiries - A customer calls and asks the price of six ceiling loudspeakers. You can look at this call as a throwaway, give-'em-a -price-and-if-they-don't-like-it -forget-'em call, or you can question why the prospect needs six loudspeakers. Has the customer's company expanded its offices? Do more loudspeakers mean they need a larger amplifier? Has the prospect thought about volume controls and who will install the loudspeakers? What about wire? If you can't get an answer from the prospect right then, a follow-up telephone call or personal visit may yield an equipment sale plus your labor to do the installation. How you approach the sale depends on whether you are a seller or an order-taker.

* Proposals - Following up after making a system proposal should be obvious, but some sellers don't bother. Personal attention paid to the prospect in the days after you have delivered a proposal are critical to closing the sale.

* Bids - Bids solicited by governmental bodies, industrial purchasing departments, school districts and the like are always evaluated by people. (Read that sentence again.) We sellers tend to assume that the only way to win any bid is to be the low bidder. That's not always the case. I have often been the successful bidder even though I was not the low bidder because I followed up with the purchasing agent, did some selling, spread some FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt) and reinforced TOMA. Purchasing agents are people, and people can be sold. Prompt, courteous follow-up shows your interest and can sway the people evaluating the bid to consider your system benefits over a low price.

* Requests for proposal (RFP) - I love RFPs because so much of the project is open for interpretation (my interpretation, not your interpretation, because I intend to win this bid). RFPs give me the chance to earn my keep as a seller. Follow-up is critical to keep your case in front of the prospect and assure that you get every consideration -- after all, your system is the best, isn't it?

* Telephone prospecting - Telephone prospecting saves hours of time over making cold calls in person. If done properly, telephone prospecting can generate a gold mine of sales leads. Be sure to follow up with prospects after making the initial call. Just like a face-to-face cold call, that first telephone call opens the door and creates an interest in your product or services. However, a customer's enthusiasm wanes with each passing day, so follow up promptly by phone, in person or by mail.

* Lost bids - Believe it or not, I recommend you follow up regularly with customers whose business you didn't get. Am I crazy? I don't think so, but read "The Loser" (S&VC May 1995) and you decide. In a nutshell, I've won back lost customers, gotten customers I never had in the first place and sold a lot of add-on equipment to customers who bought from someone else. The reason I got the business later was that I followed up and the guy who won the bid never called the customer after the initial sale. Would you like to have the after warranty service on the system you didn't get? Could be really good money, so follow up. Will the customer realize he made a mistake buying from the competitor and need a replacement system soon? Follow up and ask. You know the equipment the other guy sold tends to break down a lot. You might sell the customer a replacement system. Follow up and try. Would you like to sell the church whose bid you lost the add-on mic cables, microphones, direct boxes, and other things your competitor left off his bid? Follow up.

* Bids you thought you lost - I can't tell you how many thousands of dollars in business I've given up simply because I assumed the customer had bought from my competition. Two months, six months or a year later I finally follow up with the customer and he tells me, "We didn't buy right away, after all. We decided to make the purchase last month, and we didn't think about calling you." Aaargh! My failure to follow up cost me business. All I had to do was pick up the phone every few weeks and ask the customer where he stood in the purchasing process. Instead, I made a wrong assumption and lost the sale.

* Sales leads from the factory - We all get leads from the factories we represent. I'd calculate that 50% of the leads I get generate no business, 20% waste a lot of my time, and 30% result in sales. It's a lot like fishing - you never know what you'll get. I suggest a telephone follow-up call for each lead. Qualify the prospect, then decide whether the lead is worth pursuing further. Often factory leads are prospects gathering information for future purchases, which takes months of follow-up to get to the point where the customer is ready to buy. If the potential sale is large enough, invest the time and keep following up.

Be kind to the factory who spent several hundred guilders, grochen or dollars generating that lead. Let the factory know the results of your follow-up call and the quality of the lead.

* Direct mail - Direct mail can generate huge sales (just ask L.L. Bean and Land's End). However, to make a system sales from a direct mail solicitation requires good follow-up. I like to mail 25 church letters, for example, wait a week, then follow up by telephone. "Did you get our letter?", "Are you considering a new sound system?", "Is there another person in the church to whom we should direct the same letter?" are all good questions for you to ask in the follow-up call.

"We are installing systems in two other churches in your town," and "We have a special this month on church microphones," pique a prospect's interest and generate further conversation. "I am going to be in your town next Tuesday to survey another church. Could I come by at 1:00 and visit with you?" The statement is designed to impress the prospect that another church is interested in your products; the question draws the prospect into a commitment to see you.

Service* After the service call - Many sellers and owners pass up one of the best opportunities to build TOMA and good will, instill confidence and generate sales leads: following up after service calls. Two weeks after I complete a service call, I have a secretary call the customers whose systems we repaired.

"Is everything still working properly?", "Was the serviceman courteous?" and "Are you satisfied with the work?" are all questions that should be asked.

This line of questioning gives you valuable information. You'll learn about problems - such as the system failing again right after the serviceman left or the serviceman never finishing the work - before they get larger, and you can make sure the work was complete, avoiding such mixups as the serviceman telling the customer that you would order a replacement part but forgetting to tell you a part was needed. You can also ascertain whether training is needed and determine when a salesman needs to call on the customer about upgrading or replacing the system.

Follow-up calls after service has been run create tremendous good will because they show customers you are genuinely interested in their satisfaction. These calls instill confidence in your firm as one that takes care of its customers. TOMA is reinforced because the customer is pleased with your service and the fact that you cared enough to follow up.

It is not unusual to find a customer whose system is down again only days after your service call. A follow-up call will let you learn this promptly, and your recommendation of a new system may be the same conclusion the customer had already reached. Bingo!

* Competitors - You are driving down the street and see a competitor's service truck parked at ABC Wholesale. Is ABC buying a new system or paying for service? Does the company need new equipment to replace something that is broken? Is there a potential sale here? Better follow up and find out.

Installations* While the installation is in progress - Remember good will, confidence in your firm, TOMA, sales leads? Drop by the job periodically to check on the progress of the installation and the quality of the work. Visit with the customer contact. Besides showing your interest in doing a professional installation, this gives you the opportunity to recommend upgrades and additions at a time that saves the customer money: before the installation is complete.

"My installers tell me the cable to your outside card reader is in really bad shape," you tell the customer. "Replacing that cable now will be less expensive than doing it later, and the new cable will let you add that extra keypad we discussed."

* After the installation is complete - Your installers just finished. Before you send the bill, you need to question your installers to be sure they are completely finished. Find out whether the customer has been trained and ask whether written documentation has been delivered to the customer.

You should also follow up with the customer. Ask the customer the same three questions you asked your installers. Then ask the customer whether she is satisfied, whether she knows anyone else who might need a sound or security system, whether you can put her on your reference list, and what else she needs that you might help with.

For obvious reasons, this follow-up is best done in person. What better time to ask for more business than when the customer is excited about a new system? And what are these questions designed to do? Create good will, instill confidence, build TOMA and generate sales leads.

* One to three weeks later - Shortly after the job is complete, call the customer with the same follow-up questions detailed in the service call section of this article. Nothing is worse than a customer telling his friends about the awful system you installed for him, but never calling you to complain! Perhaps the customer expected you to call, ask how things were going and give him the chance to explain that his employees still can't operate the system. You never called, six months has gone by, and now he is telling all his friends what a lousy system you installed. You should have followed up.

* End of the warranty - I love the end of a warranty period. Envision a circling vulture waiting for the victim to expire so he can feast. Got that picture? You have just imagined a scene from a 1950s western movie, having no bearing on reality or this article. Quit imagining things and let's get back to the subject.

The end of the warranty period provides an opportunity to - once again - create good will, instill confidence, reinforce TOMA and prospect for sales leads. There's no better time to sell a service contract than just before or after the warranty expires. Offering to inspect the system for a nominal fee will often generate service income. The warranty is up, so perhaps the customer will consider an upgrade or trade in his nearly new whatsit for the newer model before prices increase.

So, do you want to make more money? Want your customers to have a better image of your company? Want customers to think of you before the competition? Need more sales leads? It's all out there for the taking. You just need to follow up and find it!

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