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Working with Customers in Hard Times

While I remember reading Charles Dickens, Hard Times, as assigned in college English Lit, little of the plot comes to mind except his dreary depiction of 19th century industrial England. Hard times then didn’t just mean an economic cycle – life in the working class was hard all of a lifetime.

Hard times for at least a season, are upon many now in B2B, causing strategies to be reconsidered. One learning in times like these is how strong a relationship you really have with key customers. When budgets are pressured enough, buyers have "the talk" with their vendor contacts about delaying or reducing orders, discounting, etc. Sellers or consultants, in turn, offer rejoinders showing the value being provided. And of course nobody’s enjoying these converations. 

On the selling side, it’s a good time to leverage the trust built into these relationships. Listen carefully to your customer’s tales of economic woes, and to some degree grieve along with them. It’s not like there’s any question that times are tough. People can well know the value of your offerings and still face harsh budget realities, and feel conflicted. Probe and clarify what’s really going on.

At the right moment, you’ll be able to offer suggestions. But customers appreciate your hearing and showing concern, vs. being distracted by your own arguments. Rather than reacting in disbelief or frustration with their intentions to spend less, stay focused on the main issue which is, "How do we get through this together?"

Stay visible and communicate by various means. The ideal would be proactively checking in with key customers to note how their business is adjusting to economic pressures and collaborating on ways to help their performance and your own.

A final point is to resist the temptation to chase as many leads as possible and frantically contact every customer to make up for the loss of spending by some.  Now more than ever is the time to focus on the most valuable accounts and prospects. Seek out customer segmentation insights from sales support or finance that identifies the relative value of customers to your company; then use that data so your resources and time are spent on the ones offering the most in return.

These are hard times. Managing customer relationships won’t seem ideal during this economic cycle, but that doesn’t mean we can’t work to make it optimal.

About the Author

Jeff Marr

Jeff Marr

Marr provides thought leadership to Walker and the customer strategy profession. In keeping with the newest proven approaches, Marr designs services used in client engagements. This includes facilitating customer-driven action by clients at the corporate, functional and account team levels, and creating new measurement solutions. Formal approaches Jeff helped create and launch include value mapping, account engagement, strategic assessment, won/lost bid assessment, and assessing lost/diminished customers.

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