“We need a clearly articulated proposition”,
Yes, yes, you do but that’s not what you’ll try to produce now, that’s not what you’ll get as you invest masses of highly skilled, very expensive resource in developing, packaging and creating delightful PowerPoint.
You’ll be trying to develop a differentiation, and here’s a secret*, these days, most clients don’t care about differentiation, they see all suppliers as pretty much delivering similar things, the real differentiation is about trust, understanding and value.
So, many businesses go into navel-gazing mode, without talking to clients to see why they chose you last time, without recognising that almost anything that can be sold now is a commodity, especially in the complex high value services space, without grasping the tricky nettle, that their people buy your products and services based on their relationships with your people, who are all (unfortunately) locked in a room somewhere producing yet more polished and pointless PowerPoint.
* it’s not really a secret
I keep hearing this sort of refrain, increasingly expressed by business folk, exacerbated,perhaps, by almost universal frustration with increasing levels of ‘noise over signal’ in social media, email and phone communication.
I hear, “how hard is it to be polite”, “he never called back”, “they just hung up”.
I hear of the frustration generated by the faceless mass of cold callers who, upon realising that they’re not getting anywhere hang up leaving a sense of real and palpable anger at this commodity approach to us. Increasingly, worryingly, I also hear such frustration around B2B interactions. This reaction is entirely human, we don’t respond well to bad manners, manners are a necessary social device to reduce friction, improve communication and enable the building of relationships. And you know how strongly I feel about the power of relationships in the B2B complex sales space.
But there’s a very real sales opportunity being missed here, let me tell you a brief story and see if it resonates.
I noticed a couple of occasions when the same chap looked at my linked-in profile, I didn’t recognise him or his company, let’s call it LeedForensics for the sake of discretion. You might not be surprised that, a few days later an email dropped into my mailbox, from this same chap, explaining that he’d looked at our website and thought that his company and their product might help us generate opportunities by using their visitor analytics to identify and pursue hitherto unknown and unidentified visitors to our website. OK, not something that interested me, but I appreciated the fact that he’d obviously done some research, crafted a tailored email and ensured at least an approximate match between their tools and our business profile. So I didn’t just ignore his missive, I wrote a reply and said that I didn’t see a match at this time, I bothered to explain at a broad level how we currently generate opportunities and I thanked him for his interest.
Had I been him I’d have thought of a number of possible responses to that…
Maybe, “Can I explore a little more how you do generate business Steve, I’m always eager to learn?” Result- the dialogue continues, I’ve won business after six years of that sort of occasional interchange.
Or maybe “Sorry to hear that, let’s do the Linked-in thing and keep in touch?” Result, if I agree, the dialogue continues.
Or possibly, “You’re a pro, (flattery) could you take a moment to give me some more detailed feedback on why our proposition didn’t appeal to you?” Result, the dialogue continues.
At the very least, how about “Just a quick thank you for responding”? Result, the door to future dialogue isn’t closed, and he has started to create positive awareness of himself and his proposition.
But no, what he did was nothing, the B2B equivalent of the cold-call hang-up, blowing the research and effort put in so far and creating a negative impression with a potential customer, a recommender, a professional and keen networker, a sales coach to large influential businesses and occasionally a highly critical business blogger and opinion expresser.
What harm could that do?
Many businesses are recognising that social media and customers”voting with their tweet” can cause a tsunami of negative feedback but it’s interesting that some of them, although they’ve established teams of problem handlers to engage with complainants in the twittersphere, still make some fundamental mistakes.
I’ve calmed down now and feel comfortable trying to draw some salutary lessons from a recent exercise in resolving issues caused by, apparently, a mishmash of individual incompetence and institutionalised customer hostile processes and procedures at one of our leading banks, who will remain nameless.
We’ll preserve anonymity and refer to them as Banklays in case you’re thinking of selecting a bank to support your business needs in the near future.
Back in July I met with a chap who styles himself our “business banker”, I had a short list of simple things that we needed doing to help one of our associates out by transferring one of our companies, along with the bank accounts, to his ownership, along with the funds in those accounts.
The Banklays business banker had failed to provide me with a mobile number so I was unable to contact him and discover why he didn’t turn up on time, after thirty minutes I rang his office, they wouldn’t give me his mobile of course, they said they’d ring him, he turned up 20 minutes later. Relaxed and perfunctorily apologetic explaining that he’d been with a client, I’d assumed so, but, wasn’t I a client?
Although I’d made it very clear, the task at hand, he, our “business banker”, seemed more intent on impressing me by demonstrating his skills at coaching businesses, which seemed odd, bearing in mind that is what I do for a living and that he’d never started, built or run a business, and indeed had been a Banklays minion for some 15 years.
But he noted down each of the things I asked him to do, simple things. Transfer these two accounts. Change the recorded directorships. Amend the mandates. Simple banking things I assume. We discussed how we kept track on-line of our accounts and transactions and he offered to stop sending paper statements. To be honest I’d not been aware that we received paper statements but it seemed to be a good global citizen call.
“No problem” he declared skipping off to his next, presumably also tardy, assignation…
Nothing happened, nothing happened again, nothing the next day, it kept on happening.
I expected an email detailing the tasks he’d accepted and his plan for completion. The prevalence of nothing continued. I rang his office. They promised to chase him. A week later I got a brief email explaining that he’d been really busy but was actioning my requests.
It took three months and many calls, emails and form-filling by myself, my partner and our associate to get the simple transfer of accounts to actually happen, I’ve still to work out how, or indeed if, the business banker added any value. I chalked it up to experience, and then a slightly annoying thing happened.
I received a Banklays statement in the post. In the same post I also received a letter from the same address telling me that we would be charged thirty pence for the statement, this seemed odd on a number of counts. Why two envelopes? Why spend 62p sending us a letter explaining that they were charging us 30p for another letter which also cost 62p to send. And crucially, why were they sending me this stuff at all when we do all our banking on-line?
Really, really crucially, you may recall, our business banker had promised to cancel our planet-harming waste of two statements a month. Four months ago.
In trying to get hold of this chap over the previous frustrating quarter I’d finally managed to extract his mobile number. So I called him. I got a voicemail message from another banker, explaining that he was temporarily taking our bankers’ calls but actually he wasn’t as he wasn’t taking any calls so why not ring the (it turns out) ironically titled “customer service centre?”
So I did, a lo-call (0345) number, so I was still paying for the joy of helping them reduce their costs. How? By keying-in more than enough ID to satisfy GCHQ and then to hit buttons pretty much at random to select the lucky lady who would be fielding my very reasonable question. None of the menu options available were “to tell us we’ve screwed up and to help us put it right.”
So I finally got to speak to a young lady, I identified myself once more, apparently all the original account specific data recorded was simply to permit me to press buttons on my own telephone. My question, in essence, “why are you charging us for doing something you told us you’d stopped doing months ago?”
She couldn’t tell me, she made me go through another set of identification questions, then announced that the telephone banking system wasn’t working for our accounts.
“Why?” I asked, I’m curious like that.
“I don’t know”, she replied, obviously a less inquisitive personality type.
“Well” I offered, “that doesn’t matter to me, I don’t use the telephone banking system.”
“No” she replied “but we do,and I can’t do anything till I can see your account.”
I was confused, “Well I’m looking at our account online?”
“But I can’t”, said the nice lady from the Banklays customer service centre. I’ll have to talk to a colleague in another team to fix your problem.”
“Woah there lassie, not my problem, your internal system problem. Look I’m busy, once you’ve done that can you ring me back?”
“No, we can’t do that”
“We’re an inbound call centre”
“That, again, would seem to be your problem. So I have to stay on the line, paying for the call while you get someone else in the bank to fix a problem with your systems so that you can actually have enough information to fix a problem that you have inflicted upon me, your ‘customer’?”
“Oh well that’s just fine then, do you have some irritating music I can enjoy as the meter keeps ticking and my customers wait for me to get back to doing something useful for them?” (That might not be verbatim but you get the drift).
So after a little while I got to speak with another young lady, who made me identify myself, presumably in case I’d committed seppuku whilst waiting and some passerby had picked up the call.
She was mustard this new lady, she quickly worked out what had happened, for some reason they (not us, them) had suspended telephone banking as we transitioned the accounts back in July/August and never got around to reinstating it.
She reinstated it, she admitted that it should have been done as a matter of course, she had no idea why it hadn’t. Now that she could access my account, once I’d identified myself, again, she could address my original query, remember that? Statements? paper? 30p?
She could see that we’d been changed to paper statements after my July meeting with the “business banker”. She couldn’t explain why. I tried to convey just how frustrated I was that resolving a stupid 30p charge, inflicted on us by an incompetent, had, thus far, cost me nearly an hour and several points on an already borderline explosive blood pressure situation.
She offered to call me back, I expressed my surprise, but it transpired that I was now magically connected to a different call centre.
I kicked myself for not demanding proof of identity.
Thirty minutes later she rang me back, I had to identify myself. Of course I did!
She advised me that she’d reset our statements to on-line, couldn’t offer any explanation as to why the cockup had originally been implemented and offered reimbursement of the charges and a £25 compensation for my trouble. It was made clear that this would be an end to any complaint I might think I had whether it was about management incompetence, institutionalised ignorance or a customer-hostile service culture. (To be fair those are my words, not hers)
“Well” I thought, “it’s been a tough day, how much Valium can one buy for £25?”
Serious lessons, probably falling on deaf ears at Banklays, but relevant for everyone else trying to run a customer friendly business I think,
1. Stick to your knitting, only if you’ve delivered the banking tasks which I’m paying for might I be interested in your added value services, so get the basics right.
2. Empower your staff, trust your staff, to actually make decisions and help, New York hotel doorman can spend a grand to help a client, Banklays help staff can’t make a phone call.
3. No matter what it says in the script, leave out that last line. If we’ve fixed your mistakes, never ask if there is anything else you can help me with, I’ve helped you fix your mistakes, nothing in this interminable transaction has helped me to do anything.
Right, blood pressure back to normal, time for a call to Voldamortfone…
Every 3 months I seem to spend a little time holding the hands of, and listening to the tales of, hard-bitten, hard-pressed sales teams, sales managers and sales directors complaining of the inevitability of the end of quarter, end of month, end of half, end of year drive to achieve the sales targets arbitrarily set months before.
Of course these targets are invariably driven by the desire of the company to deliver predictable results, driven by the demands of stockbrokers, analysts and traders.
But, whimper my overwrought sales chums, the downside of this for the business is classic, panic, pressure, reduced margins, stress, slippage, poor prioritisation, rushed responses, lower quality, less-than-well-thought-through solutions. No one challenges the assumptions, evidently there are many businesses resigned to it, taking repeated body blows, morale, financial and credibility hits to feed the expectations of the share speculators.
There’s another hidden problem, articulately nicely by a client partner manager I met with recently, he described the process as effectively “training customers to hold out till the very last minute”. Now we’ve long preached the benefits of investing in selling conversations, in building open relationships, recommending that B2B businesses, selling complex stuff, build a serious, honest, pragmatic and (dare I say it) win-win approach to customers.
This periodic and artificial rush to close means that many sales organisations are simply undoing much of their own good work, making it sensible for the customer to play the deadline game, to get the best deal, to take advantage of the vendors need to hit the sales numbers, responding to an embedded set of drivers which bear little relation to the actual financial and organisational well-being of the company.
The irony, we agreed, was that we suspect that these targets make precious little difference to the business-savvy majority of shareholders, the ones looking to invest in a grown-up business are sanguine about ups and downs, it’s the speculators, the fundamentally disloyal investors who drive this game.
We don’t like it, it’s not a team game, it’s a fundamental dichotomy caused by financial drivers which create precisely the wrong behaviours, for all parties.
But, what do you think?