Are You Important to Your Customer?

I have to admit, and apologize to a few folks, I lost it in a meeting today.

Author: David Brock, president, Partners in Excellence

We were talking about an account strategy. The sales person wanted to meet with the top executives from a very large corporation. I’d been asked to help strategize this and figure out how they attract the attention of the top executives.

The conversation went something like this…

  • Me: “How is what you do important to these executives?”
  • Them: “Well, they spend a lot of money on us. They should be interested in talking to us.”
  • Me: “I know they are one of our largest customers, but why would they be interested in talking to us?”
  • Them: The sales person was getting frustrated. “Well, they are important to us!”
  • Me: “I know they are important to us, but why are we important to them?”

The sales person was getting frustrated. He just wanted to get on with the conversation to meet with a senior executive at the company and my questions were slowing him down.

Putting Customer Spend in Proper Context

While he was trying to respond, I happened to be looking at that organization’s 10-K.

  • Them: “They spend a lot of money every year with us, so we have to be important to them,” he said definitively.
  • Me: “Well, last year what they spent on us was less than 0.01% of all their spending. We’re a rounding error in their P&L; why are we important to them? Why should they want to meet with us?” I replied.

As you might guess, the conversation stopped; at least for a few moments. The sales person was annoyed. I suspect he thought I was derailing his strategy and not supporting what he wanted to do.

Are You Important to Your Customer?

This sales person isn’t unusual. Too often, we think that just because the customer is important to us that we must be important to them. Just because they may spend what we think is a lot of money doesn’t guarantee that. We may not be important to the customer.

We have to be able to articulate our importance in business terms to our customers, not based on what they spend. The reality is our importance probably has little to do with how much the customer spends on us but, rather, what we help them achieve.

In the case of this particular account, looking at the same 10-K and then looking at their most recent analyst report, we were critically important to the customer. As we looked at their top four strategic initiatives, my client’s solutions were on the critical path of three of them. While we were a small part of the overall spend, the ability of the customer to achieve their goals was entirely dependent on the solutions my client provided. (Think, “For want of a horseshoe nail, a kingdom was lost.”)

Sadly, the sales person never understood this. He never took the time to put the pieces together or connect the dots. He didn’t realize, also, that he could dramatically expand the relationship by serving more of this organization’s needs.

The sales person should have been able to start figuring this out, but he never took the time. There was a good reason for the top executives of the company to meet with us. While what they were currently spending on us was small, from their point of view, it was important to what they wanted to achieve.

More importantly, the sales person suddenly realized, we could and should be selling much more to support this customer’s ability to execute their strategy.

The sales person was lucky. In this case, it turns out we had the opportunity to reposition our solutions and grow quite substantially with the customer. We had figured out why we were important and why these top executives should invest their time in talking to us (plus, we now knew what to talk to them about).

But what if things aren’t so dramatic? We always have to be able to answer the questions:

  • “Why are we important to the customer?”
  • “Who are we important to?”

We should always be talking to the people with whom we are important. But that may not be at the top. And trying to meet with people with whom we can’t create direct value is a waste of their time and tarnishes our brand equity.

If we cannot determine who we might be important to and the value we create with them, we have no business selling to the customer.


Contributed blog courtesy of Partners in Excellence, and authored by David Brock, president at Partners in Excellence. Read more contributed blogs from David Brock here.

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