Discussion2Of course we all talk to our customers, to establish what they want, to check details, to keep them up to date with order progress – but how often do we REALLY talk to them?

How many service providers have an in depth knowledge of their customers?  The sort of knowledge that encompasses how their business is doing, what their challenges are, which are their key members of staff, their vision of the future and so on.  No?  It’s understandable, you probably don’t have time to become your customers’ best mate.

Let’s put the boot on the other foot.  How much do your suppliers know about YOUR business?  Do they understand what your business needs?  Are they good at letting you know when they have a product or service that might make a significant difference?  Do they network you to useful connections?  When you are losing key members of staff do they know anyone who might be a good fit?

If your suppliers did all these things how would you feel about your relationship with them?  I’d be surprised if you were anything but pleased that they cared enough to offer help when you needed it.  That usually means your relationship is strong and long lasting; they’re the people you’ll go back to again and again – and will recommend to your network too.

Isn’t that what you’d like your clients to do?

It’s not just firing out emails with useful stuff every so often – although that’s great, as long as it’s not too often and it really does offer value.

It’s not just fulfilling their orders promptly and with a smile.

It’s not just being friendly and approachable.

It’s being genuinely interested in them and their business.

How do you change gears?

If this is a step or two further than you’ve gone with clients until now then how do you take the relationship up a step or two without the customer wondering what’s going on?

That’s simple – be up front.  Ring them up and explain that you’ve been looking at how you help your clients and that you’ve realised that there are some gaps in your knowledge about their business.  Ask them if they have time for a chat – either in person or on the phone (geography might dictate this).  If possible offer to buy them a coffee and meet somewhere on neutral territory where they are more likely to share their thoughts.

Go to this meeting (or prepare for the phone call) with a notebook and some questions.  Be genuinely interested in them – and how you can help them.  The key questions will vary depending on the industry you – and they – are in.  However, you should be aiming to explore:

  • How’s business?  Improving or could be better?  Bear in mind that, if this is the first conversation, they may not feel ready to bare all, especially if things aren’t going well, but you’ll get an idea.
  • What are the biggest headaches right now?  What are they losing sleep over, frustrated by, worried about for the future?
  • What are their big achievements over the last few months, years?  Why and how have these made a big difference to their business?
  • What one thing would they like to change about their business or industry – and what would the impact of that be?
  • What would be on their wish list in relation to what you supply to them – and why?

You get the idea.  Don’t spend hours and hours – you don’t have the time and neither do they, so keep it to the point and empathise with them.

You won’t be able to do this for every one of your customers – particularly if you have a long list of them.  Start with the best ones and work down the list. Even if you schedule one of these meetings a week you’ll soon start to gather valuable information.  Having the information alone is not enough – the next step is to take action.

Create value

Remember this isn’t just about offering them more of your services – it’s about becoming their most valued connection.  This means that your next job is to examine the information you’ve gathered and see where you can help them.  Who do you know who would be useful to them or might help them to solve their problems or promote their successes?  Some of these connections may have popped into your head during the discussion and you’ve probably already shared this information, but more ideas will come up after you’ve parted company.  Keep notes of how you could help – you may not have the right connections or suggestions today, but you never know what will come along tomorrow.

It may all sound like a load of extra work, but it really is valuable – not just for your customers, but for you too.  If you help people they are likely to return the favour one way or another and your reputation gets much shinier!

And, if your business needs a shot in the arm, what about all those former clients who you haven’t heard from for ages?  What might it do for you to have a chat with them too?