In good times and bad, Golden Rule of sales holds true: Know Your Customer

After many decades of being a business owner and salesman, I have never, ever changed my Golden Rule of Selling: Know Your Customer.

Customers are the reason we open our doors every day and keep the machines humming all night long. Customers determine what we eat, where we live, whether we stay in business. We can keep our factories and offices going until we run out of money, but unless we have customers to sell to, we have no purpose.

Economic times like we're experiencing right now challenge those selling even the most essential products. That's why knowing your customer positions you to retain business that may otherwise be subject to underbidding. A customer could decide that your product may no longer be necessary.

Anyone can research information on a company. A Google search usually produces more facts than you'll actually need. But the company isn't your real customer. There's a person in that company who makes decisions about how they will spend money, and whom will get their business. That's your customer.

I've written many times about the Mackay 66, a 66-question customer profile that I developed as a young salesman. It includes absolutely no information about the envelopes a company buys, but focuses on the person who does the buying. What are they like as human beings? What are they proud of accomplishing? What's their life like outside the office? In other words, what makes them tick?

Then, we guard this information with our lives, being very sensitive to how we use it and who has access. This is not office gossip. (You can access the Mackay 66 at my website, www.harveymackay.com.)

In tough times, having an established relationship with a person often determines the outcome of the sales call. Here's a sample of what I've heard:

•"We received a lower bid from a different company, but I'm a little concerned about their follow-through." (Our price is more than fair when you consider our track record.)

•"Our end-of-year budgets are mighty tight; can we arrange for deferred billing?" (Sure, because we know the company is financially sound.)

•"Our business has really fallen off lately. We'd sure appreciate any business you send our way." (May I take a few of your business cards?)

"Whenever you are faced with tough times, it's time to get busy," writes Tom Hopkins in his book, "Selling in Tough Times." The subtitle, "Secrets to Selling When No One is Buying," should grab the attention of any salesperson who has experienced a sales slump. But make no mistake, this book is not just for tough times -- the advice applies to every sales presentation you'll ever make.

While there is a gold mine of selling wisdom in every chapter, I was particularly interested in chapter 5: "Start by Keeping the Business You Already Have." Hopkins says, "If you have provided an exceptional level of service to your clients, there's a wonderful side benefit. During tough times you will likely be lower on their list of services to reduce or eliminate than another company that hasn't provided your level of extraordinary service."

He summarizes that chapter with five brief points that we all need to remember:

•Loyalty is built over time and by giving consistent attention to your clients.

•End every client meeting with these words: "Is there anything else I can do for you?"

•Have multiple ideas for building client loyalty through phone calls, e-mail and postal mail.

•Know how to approach a neglected client to regain their trust and keep their business.

•Begin a study of other companies that have loyal clients and incorporate some of their strategies into your business.

Hopkins' final bit of advice is critically important. "During challenging times, it's more important than ever to dedicate yourself to training, practicing and improving everything you do," he writes.

"Being well trained will help you become one of those people who thrives not just now but when things turn back around, as they always do," Hopkins writes. "Don't just rely on your company to train you, either. Too many average salespeople try to blame the lack of training or motivation from an external source, such as the company, for their challenges. Nobody can motivate you but you."

In short, you have to ignite your own passion.

Mackay's Moral: Tough times come and go, but great salespeople just keep going.

Harvey Mackay is a Minneapolis businessman and author. Contact him at 612-378-6202 or send e-mail to harvey@mackay.com. His column is distributed by United Feature Syndicate.

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