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When customers become partners: A case study

Steve Sorensen //October 11, 2011//

When customers become partners: A case study

Steve Sorensen //October 11, 2011//

A profound rumbling of discontent came from one of our newly acquired and prestigious Fortune 500 customers. This customer happened to be a very, very large memory storage company that would ultimately represent a great deal of revenue to our organization.

The salesperson “sold” this customer on our product with claims of leaping tall buildings with a single bound, running faster than a speeding bullet and of course ending world hunger as we know it. Another painful case of grossly over promising and woefully under delivering.

When our product didn’t work as “sold,” our CEO got the call from this logically irate customer. I was there when he gracefully received the broadside from all cannons and then looked me in the eye. In essence, the ship had struck the iceberg, and it was my job to fix it. The conversation went something like this: “Your job is to save this customer, and let me know how you did it. Good luck” (no pressure, right?)

So what happened?

Here are the five incredible opportunities that developed as a result.

1. Partnering with our customer saved the day and hundreds of thousands of dollars.

To save this customer meant going beyond the usual (we’ll make it right), really drilling into the issue. This meant: Think partnering with our customer. Taking time to unravel an amazing series of selling mistakes and uncover their specialized needs told us this sale should have never been made.
Immediate and sincere steps were undertaken to sort out this train wreck. We were positioned to take a huge financial hit (taking back the product) but they allowed my team to get to the root cause. We had two weeks to figure it out.

Step one: begin with active listening/full discovery; step two, the customer’s site needed to be engineered to determine if a solution was realistic; step three, we put the customer in the center of the process with open and honest appraisal of what was found, nothing withheld from either side. In other words, we had to determine beyond a shadow of doubt what was real and what was selling make believe.
Come to find out there was a possible solution — one that had never been done before and would need to be engineered from the ground up. The decision came down: spend more time, energy and resource to produce a product that had yet to be constructed — or lose this customer.

What would you have done?

2. Innovation, all organizations accelerate profits and growth through innovation.

Partnering with customers means a direct line to innovation: after all, aren’t they on the front line using our products? If we proactively seek their advice on how to improve our products, services or process, I have found them to be very forthcoming. In my career I have saved/or generated millions of dollars by simply asking my customers/partners how to improve.

Step one to thinking of partnerships: Take the opportunity to proactively ask both customers and employees how to improve our business. I often learn more in one candid conversation than years in business school. In our case study, after engineering the customer’s site, we had nothing in our arsenal that would accommodate their needs. But the question became, not what we have, but is there a resource out there that could help? If this customer needs this specialized product, how many other companies like theirs could as well? Get the specs and market potential to someone who can create this new product(s), and make that someone the third leg of this partnership, basically share the wealth.
I went searching. We needed a lighter, more mobile, more affordable series of products — basically from one big mountain to many molehills.

3. Trial marketing, working out the kinks in real time.

Because we had built a partnership with our customer, we saved thousands if not millions field testing this brand new product. All three partners, reseller, customer and manufacture had a vested interest in having this new product succeed. We were on the same team working out the bugs and actually had fun along the way. This new product had the potential to not only satisfy the needs of our customer, it had prime time, big market share written all over it. (As a result this product went into worldwide production.)

4. Joint ventures can create profits by partnering with customers.

Fourteen months later, we had one very happy, very large customer who bought this product for all of its locations. We had salvaged a customer who was buying everything we had and a manufacturer who put this new innovative product on the market worldwide and did very well. The partners shared the success, and we continued to discuss other ideas and services that would help us all.

5. Going deeper, getting into the C-suite.

One of the best outcomes of partnering is going deeper within the customer’s organization. I had access to people I would have never dreamt possible, and not because I was selling. I was partnering…actively listening …going beyond and providing something of real tangible value. The organization top down, bottom up were now vested, curious and saw the potential of what we were doing.

Not all engagements work out this well. It took me longer to get this through the legal wrangling than it did to make the product. But it was a great example within my own organization of how to leave selling behind and being partnering/customer engagements. Partnering is about being the trusted advisor who are invited in to discuss business process, provide referral networks and being an objective resource to customers. This goes way beyond the sales training catch phrase and is a real, tangible methodology based on customer engagement programs.

Simple is better, getting back to basics and treating our customers like partners is not only the right thing to do, but can also creates tremendous opportunity for mutual growth and prosperity. Today is the right time to rethink, reengage and reenergize your relationships with your customers.

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