Balancing Customer Service and Sales Focus
Customer service can be a tricky game, especially since a distributor has a duty to be multiple things to multiple people. On some days, your goal is to make the sale for your company, and when that happens, you’re practically Alec Baldwin in “Glengarry Glen Ross.”
Other days, your job is to make the whole process as smooth as possible for your customers and cater to their every need. But, on most days, you need to balance on the blurry line between customer service and salesperson—and that’s no easy feat. There’s no single approach to it, so we got plenty of input from Dan Hartlieb, owner of On Purpose Branding, Schoolcraft, Mich.; Dan Lunoe, regional vice president for HDS, Pittsburgh; Bre Marvel, creative specialist for XLDesigns4U, Mechanicsville, Va.; and Stephen Shipley, vice president of operations for Vanguard, New York City.
Know your capabilities
We’re not asking you to decide whether you want to be more sales-focused or customer service-focused. What you should take away from this is when to channel your energy into one side or another, how to do everything you can to make all aspects of a sale equitable for everyone, and how you can keep clients satisfied and (most importantly) sane throughout the process.
For Lunoe, it’s pretty simple: Offer a solution that makes the customer happy, but make sure it’s something that you can achieve. Remember the kid running for class president in middle school who promised pizza every week? How did that turn out? Stand out, but make sure it’s realistic.
“I think you try to make the customers’ lives easier,” he said. “Deliver on what you promise on, and try to offer them solutions to whatever the issue is that you’re helping with on a project. Try to offer them a solution more than a product.”
That last part is key. If you fully listen to your clients, you know that they don’t need just a product. They need an idea that fulfills a very specific goal for their company and their own customers.
“You have to know your clients’ goals, their purpose and what results they are looking for,” Hartlieb instructed. “So, consequently, ask a boatload of questions to know every detail on the order. With that being said, every detail matters. We like to say we provide worry-free results, and that’s how we hold onto our clients.”
Even though you’ve offered the them something that’s to their liking, you still have to deliver on your end. According to Hartlieb, that means being meticulous with details.
“We set up a lot of procedures and processes because we’ve all stepped on a mine and got blown up by something where we didn’t dot the ‘i’s’ or cross the ‘t’s’ on an order, like packaging and the event date,” Hartlieb said. “It’s knowing what your client wants and what the goal is. It’s not a product. It’s an outcome.”
There’s a philosophy in soccer called “total football.” It’s the philosophy that if one player is pulled out of position, another can slot in seamlessly. Every player should be able to do a serviceable job regardless of where they end up on the field. It allows teams to keep their structure no matter what variables hit them.
This is something that distributors can think about in their careers, too. You aren’t just a salesperson, you are a customer service rep. And vice versa.
“My golden rule is that service is everyone’s job, it isn’t a department in the company,” Shipley said. “I learned this throughout my career working with people who never said of a task or responsibility, ‘That’s not my job.’ Every interaction or touchpoint a client has with your organization—good or bad—is a service experience that forms and cements their opinion of you.”
It’s something that Hartlieb, being at a company with a smaller team, has to practice on a regular basis.
“There’s just three of us, and we work as a team, and we all share the same emails, because that way we can most responsively communicate with the clients,” he said. “So, it works really well, and we get a lot of compliments from the clients, because if I’m in the office, they can talk to me. If I’m out on a call, they know the other two in the office are there and they’re on the same page. We go over every job in-house Monday morning, and every morning we go over the reminder report, if you will, as far as all those things we all need to be thinking about so the client gets the result they want. So that’s one way—by having a team, we balance it.”
Practice your people skills
No matter how confident you are in your sales approach and your product offering, sometimes clients are just plain difficult. In that moment, it can be tempting to go scorched earth and cancel everything or maybe say something you’d regret later. In those instances, you need to play the game. An expert sailor doesn’t quit because the wind changes direction. This is where you use your business expertise and rational logic to come out with a win.
“I like to get a feel for what their personality is, what they’re looking for, and I kind of like to not necessarily train them, but get them used to a certain pattern that works for them, as well as us at the same time,” Marvel said. “We do have those clients who want to make changes all the time, want samples and want to see a zillion proofs, and we try to put a stop to it as soon as we can. We’ll say, like, ‘The first proof is free, the second or third proof after that may need a charge.’ Or, we may schedule a meeting where we can sit down face-to-face and go over different ideas so we’re not spinning our wheels, spending a lot of time going back and forth on details, colors and imprints, and thinking we’re going to work with this one product and then switching it up and going in a completely different direction.”
Marvel also recommended having your clients perform their own research on your website to narrow down selections. That way they have a clearer picture of what they expect from you, and no one is wasting any time guessing.
As Marvel also said, everyone’s personality is different, and this is something you need to take into account. It could be your own perception of things that seems negative, rather than the customer itself.
“One of my best accounts was, for a while, very hard to please,” Lunoe said. “At least that’s what I was feeling. But, it turns out that they were really happy. It’s just that person’s personality that they weren’t really showing me great satisfaction, but they were really happy. When someone else took over their role, I found out that they were all thrilled with us, and so was this other person. ... Just because they’re not being over the moon in person doesn’t mean they aren’t.”
In the end, you get from the world (even the sales world) what you put into it. Practice kindness if you can.
“I once read a quote that has stuck with me over the years: ‘Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind always,’” Shipley said. “The successful sales and customer service representatives know not to take things personally when dealing with challenging clients. In most cases, clients are unhappy with the situation, not with the person.”
Not all relationships are smooth, though, and putting yourself through endless frustration for a result that may or may not even happen might not be worth it financially or personally. It’s in this moment that you need to switch your brain from “make them happy at all costs” to “focus on what is good for the business.”
“I’m willing to say ‘no,’” Hartlieb said. “It’s got to be an enjoyable process, so be willing to say, ‘I appreciate what you need, but perhaps we’re not a good fit for each other.’”