How to Keep Your Best Customer from Going to the Competition
Heather Baldwin

Out of the blue one of your best customers calls to say he or she has switched to your biggest competitor. As a sales leader, what do you say? And would your reps know how to handle this kind of call?

Sales trainer Art Sobczak offers the following six-step plan for handling this type of unexpected call from a big customer:

1. Prevention. Your first step should be to prevent the call from coming in the first place. Be in touch regularly with your best customers, but don't make those popular but useless "just checking in" calls. Make sure all your calls have value, such as letting the customer know about an upcoming special or that you've just received an interesting industry report that you'd like to share. Position yourself as a valuable partner and you'll reduce the likelihood of having to deal with such a call.

2. Ask questions. When prevention fails and the call comes in, your first goal should be to get as much information as possible about the decision to switch vendors. Sobczak says the first words out of his mouth would be, "Wow, let's talk about that. What's going on?" You need to figure out if there is something your company did that can be fixed or whether there's an offer you can counter.

3. Buy some time. If the situation is one you might be able to salvage, try to buy some time. Ask, "Can I get you to hold off on doing anything for one day?" That will give you time to think and react, whether that means gathering information, preparing to renegotiate the contract, or grabbing the company president and getting on a plane to meet with the client in person.

4. Salvage small pieces. If the situation is a done deal, then aim to keep at least part of the business. For instance, if you sell aircraft maintenance and handling services, acknowledge that, while the new contract for heavy maintenance is already signed, perhaps you could continue as the client's fuel supplier.

5. Guide the customer's transition. Whether you retain a small piece of the business or none at all, tell the client what to look for from the new vendor. Zero in on areas in which your company is superior to the competition, e.g., "We had a 100 percent on-time delivery record with you. I know how crucial on-time delivery is to your operation, so keep an eye out for that."

6. Keep the door open. Ask the client, "If anything should happen with the new vendor, can we be first in line to earn the business back?" Also ask for permission to stay in touch. Then devise a strategy for getting your name in front of the customer on a regular basis in a way that adds value.

It's important, not only to read through these steps, but also to role-play them, says Sobczak. At your next sales meeting, ask a rep for the name of his or her top account. Then act out a call, with you as the client: tell the rep that you're moving your business. See how the rep responds. Likely, you'll get shocked silence. At that point, you're ready to walk through and discuss each of these steps, and then your reps will be ready to handle unexpected bad news from a big client with poise and professionalism.

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