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As we come out of Thanksgiving and roll into the holiday season, I find myself gasping for breath.

Sales is a fun endeavor, with lots of randomity.  On any given day, I’m cold calling, following up on leads, generating proposals and following through on existing orders to make sure my customers are well satisfied.


The last point deserves some mention, for both buyers and sellers.  In the age of the almighty Internet, buyers have unprecedented access to a wide variety of vendors.  I was talking the other day to an account that buys custom printed envelopes from a small printer in Iowa.  By “small” I mean the printer was a one-man operation.  My prospect said he found the guy on the Internet while searching for a good price.

Given the fact that there seems to be more competition than ever, most sales people seem to succumb to cutting their price to be competitive.  I view it differently.  I’m not a low-price guy.  I save my customers money by consulting with them to design the form or options that best fits their needs.  I follow the process from start to finish, including the production, delivery and follow up stages to ensure my customers are satisfied.  When there’s a problem or delay, I let my customers know in a timely fashion so they are not left guessing at where their product is.  I answer my phone!

While all of this may seem to limit how much business I can win, on the contrary, I build a loyal customer base that understands the value of service.

As a buyer, keep in mind that the low price guy may not be the best option, especially if you want a quality product, or if you want to know that the vendor you’re using will get your product right and on-time.

I believe good is ultimately a better value than just good enough.


Time is Money

In our never-ending quest to save money or get a great deal, we often forget all that goes into a purchase. How reputable is the seller? What happens if I need to return the item? What if I’m not happy with my product or service? How convenient and responsive is the seller’s customer service?

For example, let’s say you want to buy some business cards. You call a professional printer (such as my company) to get a quote. After consulting with you as to budget, design, and features, the printer quotes you, say $50 per 1000.

Next, you browse the internet and come across an online company that has stock designs that you simply input your personal information over. The same 1000 cards costs only $20! Wow, great deal! Seeing such a great price, you jump on the internet site and order your cards.

After waiting a week, you receive your cards and realize that the name is misspelled. You go back to the website and realize that you typed in the name wrong, and got exactly what you ordered. The company you bought the cards from has an automated phone tree that takes 5 minutes to get through. Then, you get a voicemail (or worse, get stuck in a phone queue for 30 minutes). By the time someone answers your call after 30 minutes on hold (or after a day in the case of voicemail or email), you’re understandably frustrated. Hearing your angry tone (no doubt the 30th angry voice they’ve heard that day), the customer service rep curtly explains that the online proof is considered your authorization, and you can’t get a refund or credit, but will have to reorder.  Now, you’re either stuck with crossing your name off and writing it in, leaving it misspelled (both of which looks unprofessional) or reordering the cards.

At this point, if you decide to reorder, you’ve invested $40 plus all that time trying to get your issue resolved.

Had you gone with the first printer, you could have gotten a professional design uniquely suited to your business, an extra set of eyes to look over your information for errors, and an extra chance at officially proofing the information.  If the cards came back wrong, you could call the printer and talk to a real person, possibly gotten a credit or reprint or had the situation otherwise handled smoothly.

While my example is centered around business cards, it applies to everything.  Manufacturers are constantly cutting back on customer service, tightening their return policies and reducing customization; all in an effort to cut costs and offer everything dirt cheap.  Unfortunately, if there is a problem of any kind, you’re facing a truly daunting task in trying to resolve the issue if you’ve chosen a dirt cheap vendor.

All this is not to say that you can’t get a great deal from a reputable company.  All other things being relatively equal, I love cheap price as much as the next guy.  But if I have to choose between a manufacturer that I know has lousy customer service and a company with great customer service that is a few percent higher, I choose the more expensive option.

Why?  Because time is money.  How much time would I spend on the phone trying to navigate to a decision maker, explain the problem (as he or she probably knows nothing about my order), haggle back and forth and finally get approval for a resolution to a problem that is due to the vendor’s error (let alone if I made a mistake)?  That’s time that I should be spending on the phone getting more business or handling more important things in life.

Keep that in mind next time you’re out shopping.  And show some love to those of us who work just as hard to deliver great service in addition to good prices.

Knowledge is Power… and Money

The old saying that knowledge is power is true, but it also applies to sales.

Ten years ago, when I first entered into sales, a good account would have maybe two or three competitors vying for their business.  In this environment, the trick was to get the customer or prospect to like you, have a good product and present good ideas.  Typically, you could make a decent profit and subsequently, a decent commission check, just by being there.

Now, with the Internet, buyers have unprecedented access to options.  If I’m selling a commodity item, I no longer have to compete with 1 or 2 competitors, but potentially thousands.  A buyer can go online, type their product into a search engine, and find a dozen offers at dirt cheap prices.  While people still buy from people they like, a customer won’t like you much when they find out they can get the exact same item online for 40% cheaper.

The secret is knowledge.  What do you know that can help that customer?  What options should they consider?  How can your expertise help them make more money or save them money in the long run?  Your knowledge is the key to taking the sale from a commodity, dollars-and-cents negotiation (which you will eventually lose, every time) to a relationship-building, money-making sale.

In my business of custom print, people can certainly go online and order their marketing pieces, business cards, etc. from bargain basement online printers.  They probably can get it cheaper, too.  But do they know all of the options available?  Do they know which options work well for their application?  Which options really make an impact, and which options merely add to the cost?

I’m the expert.  I know printing.  By providing them with advice, options and using my experience and expertise, I save them time and money.  More importantly, the end result will be a professional product that will deliver the most bang for their buck.
As a sales or marketing professional, don’t be an order taker.  Don’t be a vanilla, low-price dealer.  There is always someone else out there who will do it cheaper.  With the Internet, buyers have virtually unlimited access vendors to purchase their product.  But if you are the expert, and you help them navigate the options to the best solution for THEM, they’ll respect you and continue to do business with you.  Be a professional.

As a buyer, don’t fall into the trap of cheaper-is-always-better.  Are you really getting the best value for your purchase?  Does service count?  Will that online vendor with a phone tree 9 button-pressing options deep, who is located halfway across the country be there if something goes wrong (especially if you’ve wringed every last penny out of the cost)?  Support your professional salesmen.  The good ones will always be there for you.

The Lost Art of Customer Service

Recently, I had a frustrating experience with one of our vendors (who, because they finally DID resolve the issue, shall remain nameless).  After they notified us on our monthly statement that they would be charging us additional fees that were not part of our contract, we started a claim to get the fees removed.  In handling the issue, they took over three weeks to finally get us an answer.  During that time, for well over a week, they didn’t return any of my calls or emails, or attempt to communicate to me in any way regarding the status of my claim.  When I finally did get the customer service specialist that was handling our case on the phone, asking why she hasn’t returned my calls, she said she was training some new hires, and hadn’t checked voicemail (apparently, not for several days, as I had left several).  I can only hope she is a hypocrite, and not teaching the same bad habits to the people she was training.  She said it would be 5-7 business days before she would have an answer from her corporate office, and that she couldn’t do anything about it until they got back to her.  After ten business days, we again didn’t hear from her, nor did she return our calls.

Finally, I got so frustrated that I called the original salesperson who sold us the service.  I explained, in an annoyed tone of voice, that it was imperative that she call me back before talking to her company, so I could explain what has been going on (my intent was to save her some time, rather than having to go back and forth to find out what has been happening).   I also said that if we didn’t hear back in a timely manner, we would be leaving her company.  This salesperson sent my owner an email (bypassing me entirely) saying, “I would prefer to drop you an email..instead of interfacing with Jim.  In all the years of selling I have never worked with someone as RUDE and difficult as he is.”  After explaining what steps had been taken up to this point, she said we would still be liable for the $195 cancellation fee if we chose to go to another company.  For the record, I didn’t attack her personally, use any foul language, or say anything else that I would classify as “rude” or “difficult”.  My anger and frustration was apparent in my brief explanation of the hell her customer service specialist had put me through up to that point.  It saddens me as a salesman to hear another salesman with such a thin skin and low tolerance for a customer’s frustration.

All this brings me to my point: customer service is a dying art.  A big reason why companies like this come and go is that they don’t take care of their customers.  Imposing fees, altering the terms of agreement of a contract, burying disclaimers and loopholes in a sea of legalese on contracts, ignoring complaints, not returning phone calls and forcing customers to wait on hold for several minutes at a time (only to connect with someone who can’t resolve your issue–thus requiring many more minutes on hold) has become, to greater or lesser degree, the norm in business today.

Many companies lure in new customers in with great prices, only to lose them due to lack of service, or worse, lack of CUSTOMER service.  With the Internet, social media and all of the other informational tools available, companies can’t afford to have a bad reputation.  Today, word of mouth isn’t just limited to 4-5 housewives gossiping over a fence.  With social media, Manta, Google and other tools at people’s fingertips, word of mouth can spread virally to hundreds or even thousands of people.  Great prices can only win you so much business.  If people look up your company and see negative comments and reviews all over the place, and from many sources, they won’t buy from you; and in many cases, justifiably so.

While no company or organization can be totally fee of negative criticism, you can avoid the lion share of criticism by doing the right things in the first place.  First, be proactive in your communication to your customer.  If you have established a good communication line with your customers, you will avoid most problems before they become problems.  If you know something will be coming that will adversely affect your customer, such as the fee increase mentioned above, call them and let them know beforehand.  Don’t wait until the increase happens, try to covertly mention it via email or on a statement (as the above company did), or the ABSOLUTE worst thing: don’t EVER try to sneak it by a customer.  If you routinely do that and force customers to find out for themselves about a fee increase or charge, keep your resume up to date and handy, as you will be needing it soon.  In the event a problem has occurred, do the following:

1)      Listen to and understand the complaint.

2)      Give your customer a time frame to resolution.  If you think it will take a day to find out, say so.  If the process must be referred to someone else, make sure that person understands the time frame that was communicated to the customer.

3)      Stay in communication with your customer.   If it is taking longer than expected, communicate that to the customer.

4)      Handle any negativity or frustration with patience.  Understand that the customer is probably adversely affected by whatever the issue is (they can’t afford the cost difference; they need the product, etc.).

5)      Be respectful of the customer’s time.  If you can’t resolve the customer’s issue right then, ask to have the appropriate person call them back instead of making the customer waste their time on hold.

6)      Work diligently to solve the problem quickly.  If you handle problems quickly and efficiently, you will actually improve customer loyalty and respect instead of losing it.  Mistakes happen.  How you handle it determines whether your customers like you and continue to do business with you or start looking through their rolodex for that competitor who has been calling them.

Most people reading this will react to the above by saying, “of course.  That is just common sense.”  For those who read it and thought, “That’s ridiculous”, please refer your customers to me.  I could use the extra business.

Jim Kurtz