Exceeding the Expectations of Large Customers

Nestle gets a visit from orangutans -- better known as Green Peace activists -- after a 2010 social media campaign which accused the candy company of destroying habitats to get cheap palm oil. Photo provided by Green Peace, and used with permission.

Recently, I’ve been revising a chapter in the 21st Century Marketing book that David Coursey and I are writing.  Of all of the chapters in the book, it’s the one that’s had the most revisions and changes.  That’s because it’s about the customer service challenges that come along with social media and online help desks or live chat.

It seems like every week brings another headline about a customer service disaster that went viral on YouTube or Twitter.  You’d think that business to business marketers might be insulated from these kinds of problems, but it isn’t so.  For one thing, businesses are run by people — people with families, and lives outside the corporation.  And negative publicity about how a company treats one person makes other people wonder how they will be treated — whether they’re buying an airline ticket or a SaaS software solution.

Take the experience of Nestle, which found itself in the middle of a social media backlash last year just as thousands of stores were stocking Easter candy.  Greenpeace took issue with Nestle’s use of palm oil from Indonesia, because producing the palm oil was destroying a habitat where endangered orangutans lived. So Greenpeace activists showed up at Nestle’s headquarters in orangutan costumes, handing out leaflets asking passers-by not to buy Kit-Kat and other chocolates from the company.

The resulting video went viral on YouTube, and sparked Twitter, Facebook, and email campaigns around the world, as well as protests in other places.  As a result, thousands of large and small store chains pulled Nestle chocolates from store shelves in the days just before Easter, costing the company a lot in terms of relationships, sales, and brand reputation.

Perhaps the brand managers at Nestle should have read IDC analyst Irina Zvagelsky and Michael Gerard’s September 2010 Insight report called Executive Sponsor Program:  Exceeding Expectations of Your Largest Customers.  I did, and took away some valuable lessons.

Among them:

  • The matching of a vendor’s executives with its most important clients/prospects to improve the ability of the vendor to exceed its customers’ expectations from a tactical as well as a strategic prospective establishes the vendor as a trusted advisor to the customer, enabling business growth for the customer and greater profitability for the vendor.  Translation:  If your top people have good relationships with your customer’s top people, you’re less likely to lose the business over a PR fiasco that doesn’t affect the customer’s business directly.
  • Target only your largest revenue clients and potential prospects for the executive sponsor program.  Translation:  Not all customers are created equal — and your top executives don’t have time to invest significant amounts of time on all of them.
  • Selecting the right executives to participate is a critical first step in a successful executive sponsor program.  Translation:  Title is important, but the right “fit” is more important.

Any common links between the customer and the vendor executive helps.  Look for common schools, boards, organizations, personal connections (including social connections and LinkedIn connections), common business backgrounds and interests, product and industry knowledge.  Above all, look for personal styles that match. 

I once had a client who was a member of the international management team for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.  He didn’t drink, didn’t smoke, didn’t gamble, and couldn’t abide bad language.  The client’s largest single client?  A chain of restaurants and private clubs whose executives enjoyed a life that, to put it mildly, at first glance seemed much closer to the “playboy lifestyle” than my nice Mormon client. 

But they worked well together, because beyond the obvious difference lay many more less obvious similarities, including a passion for their shared business, philanthropy, and treating everyone they met with respect.  The executive sponsor at my client company (I’ll call him Pete) was committed to making sure that his customer succeeded.

Pete was constantly evangelizing the value of his own products and services, but he never lost sight of his customer’s needs and goals.  He had an active account strategy, and stayed on top of every interaction between his brand and his customer — not just opportunities for cross-selling and upselling, but every customer service contacts to technical support calls to billing inquiries.   He knew everyone on his company’s team who interacted with the customer, and made it his business to make sure that they had the information, tools, and resources they needed to keep the client satisfied — and that they were rewarded for providing outstanding customer service.

At least once a quarter, Pete met face-to-face with his counterpart (the contract owner) at the customer’s office, during a trade show, or at a social event, even when there was no active selling going on.  And he spoke with the customer regularly, establishing a strong relationship that helped him fend off competitive pressures from other vendors with similar products and lower prices.

The training, coaching and guidance that the executive sponsor provided to his team was outstanding — and may explain how he rose to prominence in his church and his community at a relatively young age.  Several of the account managers who reported to him when I began working with the company were promoted to positions where they became executive sponsors for other large accounts. 

More importantly, he had the lowest turnover of staff and customers that I’ve ever seen.  Pete made it look effortless, but I know it wasn’t.  At any given moment he knew exactly what the business drivers for each of his accounts was, as well as the intimate details of the bios, org charts, budgets, and pain points of every part of his client companies. Of course, he also knew his team, his product, and his industry inside and out.  Nothing ever seemed to surprise him unless someone didn’t meet his (high) expectations.

I saw that happen once.  A very large client became unhappy, and several people on  his team didn’t report the problem until it had escalated.  Pete slashed the customer’s invoice, pulling money out of his own bonus pool to do it, rolled up his sleeves, and got the problem fixed, staying personally involved until the client was satisfied.  Then he started retaining the employees who had let the client down out of fear for their own jobs. 

That was nearly 20 years ago.  Pete didn’t even know he was running an executive sponsor program.  He just figured that he was the “missing link” that was needed to build deep relationships with priority clients, and he took it personally if his client was anything less than delighted with the results.  

It’s too bad that so many companies don’t realize that the personal touch is still vital, even in the “always connected” world.  Treating your customers the way you’d like to be treated is always good for any business.

About debmcalister

I'm a Dallas-based marketing consultant and writer, who specializes in helping start-up technology companies grow. I write (books, articles, and blogs) about marketing, technology, and social media. This blog is about all of those -- and the funny ways in which they interesect with everyday life. It's also the place where I publish general articles on topics that interest me -- including commentary about the acting and film communities, since I have both a son and grandson who are performers.
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