How to Eliminate Friction in the Sales Process
Every business has the same goal: To be financially successful and provide a service to their customers. It doesn’t matter what you make or sell.
However, the means of getting to that goal varies. That’s where you create your company’s culture, identity and reputation. That’s how you do business. And part of that identity is how easy you are to work with, how willing you are to go the extra mile, and how personal you want your relationships with customers and partners to become.
From a customer standpoint, no one wants high maintenance and frustration. Think about the biggest, most faceless corporation you’ve ever had to raise a problem against. It was probably a cable company. You might have sat on an automated telephone line for hours, just begging the robot to connect you with a real human who could help you.
If the problem was even solved, you probably swore you never wanted to do that again. Heck, you might have even canceled your service over it.
Your humanity is what sets you apart from those faceless giants even in—no, especially in—the print and promotional products industry. And your ability to diffuse frustrating situations (or prevent them from happening in the first place) is what will make customers come back and refer you to friends and colleagues.
Phil Cantore, vice president of sales and marketing for Hygrade Business Group, Secaucus, N.J., believes most problems can be avoided with honest communication. This can mean giving bad news rather than trying to appease everyone. Telling your customers when something isn’t in stock. Letting them know an order will probably take longer than they’d like. It’s always better to be honest and deliver exactly what you say you’re going to, rather than promise something and fail to deliver.
Yes, customers are going to be upset that that product won’t get there in a week, but they’ll be even more upset if you promised a week, but it takes a month. New distributors might get a little over-excited at the prospect of closing a deal, and, as they say, write checks they can’t cash.
“I know in the past, in my zeal or excitement to get an order, I probably over-promised delivery on something and said, ‘Yeah, sure, we’ll make that happen for you,’ and then really had to scramble to either make it work or have to come back after the fact and say, ‘Gee, I’m sorry, we’re not going to be able to get it to you,’” Cantore said. “Early on in my career, I learned that it’s important to be right upfront and honest about those things from the beginning, so that everybody’s on the same page. We understand that there are expectations on the client side, where they might have specific situations where they need something for an event, but there’s only so much that we can do.”
This also applies to inventory. At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, promotional suppliers had to break the news that, despite there being demand that any business owner would dream of, they were simply out of hand sanitizer. And worse, they weren’t really sure when they were going to have it back in stock. Some companies had automatic email replies set up, telling people basically, “Hey, if you’re emailing us about hand sanitizer, we can’t help you. Sorry.”
This was an extreme case, obviously. But the lesson is that if you don’t have something in your hand and don’t know for a fact that you can get it to your customer, don’t sell it. Don’t tell anyone you can sell it.
Cantore had a situation recently where a customer wanted a specific product in a particular color, and they needed about 500 of them. Rather than saying, “Sure, let’s do it,” Cantore checked in with his supplier to verify the stock. It turns out they were a little low on that item. They had it, but just barely.
“I was upfront with the customer,” he said. “‘Look, if you want 500 pieces, they only have 650 in stock. If you want me to place the order, I’ll secure the inventory. But if we wait, I can’t guarantee that the product is going to be there.’”
He also said that calling your customers and essentially starting a ticking clock for their order might come off as “a little pushy,” which no one wants to do, but it beats the alternative. “You don’t want them to be unhappy or dissatisfied if they don’t get it,” he said.
If you have a good relationship with your supplier, you can maybe work out solutions to problems, even if the circumstances aren’t ideal.
David Anderson, president of BrandRPM, Charlotte, N.C., remembered one promotion he worked on in the past that required a substantial quantity of T-shirts, and all of them had to be the same color. Obviously, that could be a strain on the supplier, or in some cases even impossible. Rather than abandoning the deal, he worked with his supplier customer and stashed away green T-shirts over time until he had the amount he needed.
Treat People Like People
Have you ever been to a restaurant, and you feel like you’re just being ignored? You’ve been seated at your table for what feels like an hour, and no one has even come by at all. It’s enough to make you want to leave the restaurant in some cases—maybe even tell your friends not to go there, even if the food is great.
Anyone who has worked in restaurants is probably already thinking of the solution here. If you’re the server, even if you are handling a holiday rush with six tables in your section alone, you at least need to make sure every customer knows they’re being taken care of. It really can be enough to stop by the table and say, “Hey, folks. Sorry, I’ll be right with you.”
Essentially, you’re saying, “Hi, I acknowledge that you are here and want something from me. I am currently drowning in demand, but I promise I will help you.” In the business world, this means taking time to respond to customer emails and phone calls punctually, even if you don’t have all the answers to their problems right this second.
“If someone sends you an email and says, ‘OK, here’s what we need,’ even if you can’t get them an answer immediately, just communicate back to them,” Cantore said. “‘OK. We got your email. We’re working on it. We’ll get back to you as soon as we can.’ Just that makes a huge difference.”
Also, try not to let it get to the point where they’re calling you for every little detail or update. A quick check-in, even if it’s just to say, “Hey, we’re still working on getting you those T-shirts. We didn’t forget!” can do a lot to ease the customer’s mind and feel like they’re being looked after.
Make Things Easy
You can read every book on sales strategies and customer service, and practice conflict resolution scenarios, but it won’t matter if you aren’t following through on your actions and providing something that will make things easy for your customer. And that means going above and beyond just handing them a product. You’re the print or promo professional, after all. Give them ideas.
As Rod Brown, founder of MadeToOrder Inc., told our sister publication, Promo Marketing, in a feature on how promo businesses can be true marketing partners for their clients, rather than just order-takers, giving your customers ideas about how to implement their products in marketing campaigns can remove a great deal of stress.
“That is so different than coming in and saying, ‘I want to sell you 55,000 pens,’” he said. “But that’s what [one] pitch just was—55,000 pens. You’ve got to sell distribution. Sell the idea of how the customer can get rid of it all. Because the more you can sell distribution, the more likely you are to sell more product, get more business.”
For Brown, success as a distributor has always come down to this idea of reducing friction. Your customers are used to one-click buying. A promotional products order can be far more complicated than, say, buying batteries on Amazon. But the best distributors—the ones that earn the most sales—are the ones that make ordering promotional products easy.
“Think about all the touches that are involved in an order,” said Brown. “If a customer says to me, ‘Look, Rod, I’ll get you the purchase order—it might even be after you deliver, but I’ve got to have this stuff on Friday,’ no problem. I’ll send them a confirmation email: ‘Here’s all the details of the order. Here’s what I’m doing for you. I’m going to assume that everything is good to go unless you say stop or no. All you have to do is respond stop or no. But if we’re good to go, you don’t have to do anything. Here’s the information. Here’s what’s going to happen. Here’s how I’m going to deliver it. Here’s every piece of information one time. You don’t have to do anything more.’”
Create the Right Experience
Think back again to that terrible customer service phone line, or the restaurant where you felt invisible. Think about how you felt. Do everything you can to be the opposite for your clients. Sometimes that means taking just a minute out of your day to check in. It might mean swallowing your pride and breaking bad news for the sake of transparency, or it could mean spending a few extra hours working closely to form a plan for them.
They’ll remember the effort you put in. If you don’t, well, they’ll certainly remember that, too.