As business leaders, we are always looking for ways to relate events in our everyday lives to our business strategy. We search for insights in the seemingly insignificant changes that happen in the world around us. And every once in a while, something that most people ignore turns out to be a revelation that we simply cannot look away from.
We just had one of those revelations at HNI.
A new vendor that was seeking to replace an existing product in our office approached us recently. The new vendor offered a great product line with the latest technology and the ability to seamlessly integrate with our organization and brand. What could be better?
Overnight, a wedge was driven between us and our current vendor.
Did I mention that our existing vendor offers the same products and technology? That they provide great service and have always been reliable? Absolutely nothing is wrong with their product or service offerings. But...the wedge.
Yesterday, the existing vendor visited us and found the new product (a health foods vending machine) right alongside his product (a traditional vending machine). He seemed hurt. He was upset and had a lot of questions. He approached his contact here and said simply, "We could have done that."
I have no doubt that he could have. But he didn't, and therein lies the problem.
After he left, our conversations ranged from, "Why didn't someone ask him about the new product?" to, "We shouldn't have to ask. We are the customer, right?"
Avoid the relationship wedge. Talk to your customers—now.
This got me thinking about our own customer relationships. Are we innovating and embracing technology? Are we suggesting new products and ideas? Are we asking questions?
Have you lost business to a competitor that does exactly what you do (maybe you even do it better!)? Perhaps your customer simply had no idea that you had the same capabilities because you never suggested it; you never asked.
The business climate is changing rapidly, and the "tread water" style of customer relationship management can't be sustained. If you are looking for ways to attract new business and retain what you have by avoiding that dreaded wedge, consider the following.
- LOOK. I mean really look at what is going on within the four walls of your customers. Are they undergoing big changes or a brand refresh, investing in new equipment or an office makeover, or implementing more wellness initiatives? See what is going on, talk about it and be an important part of where they are going
- TALK about how you are innovating in your own firm. Some of the best moments we have experienced with our customers are when we have talked about our own successes with new technology. Everyone wants to improve their own operations, especially when they can learn from another firm that has done it effectively.
- BE the one to strike out! Not all ideas are good ideas, and one size definitely does not fit all. If you share an idea and it is shot down, that's great! Your customer will be less likely to entertain ideas from other innovators if they already have an innovator in their circle that they know and trust (and that isn't complacent!).
- PLAN and ACT. Set a game plan, stay focused and follow it. Spend time with all of your customers right now to talk about new products or new ideas that you may have been holding back. Don't be afraid to strike out! You will gain valuable knowledge if you ask them where their business is headed, talk about their succession plans, and provide strategies and tactics to help them reach their goals.
Remember, you don't need to have all of the answers. We certainly don't. But what you do need is a passion for the purpose you serve in your customers' businesses. It's their livelihood and they want the best ideas, strategies, products and services to thrive for the long term.
If you believe that your relationship alone—without innovating—gives you a lock on a long-term customer, you could be the one saying, "we could have done that."