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HomemibusinessBusiness to Business: Building a Customer Base

Business to Business: Building a Customer Base

The profession of optometry uniquely combines the businesses of retail and clinical care, necessitating relationships and interactions with diverse suppliers.

In this article, business coach Rob Ellis advises suppliers on how they can cut through the competition to become a valuable business partner for practice managers.

Do you ever think about building a sustainable business by adopting a different approach to customer management?

In the February edition of mivision, I mentioned that there is one element that is consistently common to all successful and sustainable businesses; and specifically retailers. They are committed to being remarkable and relevant to customers. They also accept that they can’t be everything to everyone – customers don’t believe it, competitors won’t allow it, and resources won’t permit it.

It’s a similar story for those involved in business to business (B2B).

In the industrial era, product innovation and operations management were key. Product innovation ensured the continuous flow of new products that would sustain growth or market share or both. Operations management ensured that costs and quality were managed so that competition could be based on price and profits were derived from scale. Customer management was relegated to promoting and selling the company’s products. The customer relationship was seldom the issue.

The new economy changed the dynamics. With the evolution of computer and communications technologies, particularly the internet and database software, the customer can now initiate the business transaction and simply choose to avoid the salesperson’s overtures. Instead of being on the end of the value chain (‘product push’), the customer is now at the beginning (‘customer pull’). It’s therefore critical that organisations in the B2B field establish a relationship that allows them to maintain contact with their customers over the long term.

Clearly there is more to this game than relationships, as what you offer must always create value. The focus of this article is on customer management and the four key themes – customer selection, customer acquisition, customer retention and customer growth. I don’t expect that much of this information will be new news, but it may convince you to re-examine your approach (or to learn more and practise specific techniques via my full day workshop).

Customer Selection

If you believe you can’t be everything to everyone, then how do you select the right customers? Segmentation is the key. I’m always bemused when suppliers tell me that their sales reps have to call on 200+ accounts? How do you have a meaningful relationship with so many customers? The answer is often based on call frequency and the scope of services offered. That is, a customer generating relatively low revenue or profit contribution may be entitled to one or two face to face visits each year. More than often, the call is limited to an hour or so during which the customer may receive an update on new products and there is some social interaction. I question the value of these calls to both the supplier and customer.

I suggest you start detailing what an ideal customer looks like. Consider the following factors:

  • Profile: geodemographics, scale/size, influence/advocacy,
  • Behaviour: do they pay their account on time? Are they organised? Are they loyal? Do they act appropriately? You don’t want to be spending time on non-value adding activities in situations where you are consistently putting fires out (squeaky wheel come to mind?), and
  • Economics: are they profitable to your business? Many years ago banks decided that they needed to curtail their investment in unprofitable customers.

Customer Acquisition

Assuming we have a good handle on our ideal customer, then how do we get in front of them to give ourselves the best opportunity for success? There is no set formula, and I would certainly encourage you to prepare scripts when trying to set up a meeting over the telephone. I’m not an advocate for using external companies that provide outbound lead generation strategies. Other avenues include:

  • Using existing customers to endorse you and encourage the prospective customer to meet with you,
  • Leveraging other relationships to act as a spokesperson for you eg. industry or association management,
  • Attending trade events, and
  • Inviting prospective customers to events of interest to them.

I love this quote from Tom Peters: “Life is pretty simple. You do some stuff. Most fails. You do more of what works. If it works big, others quickly copy it. Then you do something else. The trick is the doing something else”.

More importantly, when we do get an opportunity to sit down face-to-face with a prospective customer, this is when the rubber hits the road and you need to be on your A game. I have seen these meetings go spectacularly well and just the reverse, even to the point where post-meeting, your business can be seen in a worse light than it was. There is a process and it works.

Like anything, preparation is key and being clear about your desired outcome and intent. Having excellent technique in terms of eliciting and detecting is paramount and requires lots of practise.

You also need to be accepting of the fact that not every pitch will be successful. Amway said it best: “Some will, some won’t, so what”. The point is, doing nothing will deliver nothing! Two of my favourite sayings in this space are “Activity drives results” and “Hope is not a strategy”.

Customer Retention

So, you’ve won the business. It’s time to celebrate (yes, that’s important too). Of course, this is just the start of what should be a long-term relationship. I’ve used various initiatives that have proven to be successful – none of them are earth shattering. All should be focused on building relationships and discouraging defection. It seems obvious that you must deliver on your value proposition (never ever say things that you can’t deliver on and the old cliché applies – under promise and over deliver).

Do something that others don’t – monitor your service levels and have feedback mechanisms in place. I’m often surprised that this gets such limited attention until the customer advises that they are going to a competitor and then see the flurry of questions that are asked from the owner/CEO to the sales manager and sales representative. By then it’s all too late. Finally, I never ask a question in the negative e.g. “Why did you end up going to our competitor?”. As customers, we typically don’t like upsetting people we do business with and we only tell you things we want you to know. Always ask the question in the affirmative e.g. “Why did you end up choosing us as your preferred supplier?”

Customer Growth

Wow, you’ve made it this far and all looks good. Yet, you must never forget that increasing the value of each existing customer should be the ultimate objective of any customer management strategy. I’ve seen lots of initiatives work well in this space and none more so than actively engaging customers in your development plans, typically associated with products and services, avenues to market etc. A happy customer wants to be part of something even more successful and experience tells me that often all it takes is for someone to ask the question!

The final word from Patricia Fripp;

“You don’t close a sale, you open a relationship if you want to build a long-term successful enterprise”.


Rob Ellis is an independent speaker and coach and provides full day workshops on the subjects of B2B Customer Management (discussed here) as well as Leadership, People, Culture and Retail WOW. Visit robellis.com.au