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A sales lesson from the late Tip O’Neill

The late House Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill Jr. lost only one election in his life and that occurred when, as a young man, he ran for city council in his hometown of Cambridge, Mass. He lost by a small number of votes.

The morning after the election he ran into his next door neighbor—his former babysitter, in fact—and said, “Well at least I got your vote.”

“How do you know I voted for you?” she asked.

“We’ve known each other for many years. I just assumed you would vote for me,” Tip responded.

She put her hand on his arm and replied, “But you didn’t come to me and ask for my vote.”

In effect, she told him he took her vote for granted.

In this case, Tip just assumed he’d get her vote because of his past relationship. It was a lifelong-learning lesson for Tip who remembered that lost vote throughout his storied political career, capped off when he rose to become the third in line for the presidency. (In fact it led to the quote he helped popularize: “All politics is local.”)

Tip’s lesson is one that you can apply to your own business. How many times have you as a salesperson or business owner taken a customer for granted? You’ve probably done that more times than you realize.

Think about the time you spend on getting a new account. You pursue a prospect eventually getting the business, congratulate yourself on beating the competitor and then go after the next prospect. The “old” customer is sometimes overlooked because you’re already won his business. So you don’t call on him as often. He’s become a sure thing for repeat business.

It’s one of my biggest gripes, both as a consumer and a businessman.

It seems every month I see an ad or get something in the mail from my cable company offering reduced prices if I became a new customer. I called them to see if I could take advantage of the new rate and they said it was “only for new customers.” I thought about becoming an old one and re-signing and, yes, eventually I did get something from the company for staying.

I’ve been guilty of customer neglect as well.

Many years ago I was at an industry convention and noticed a competitor had run an advertisement that we should have had in our magazine. I always had an excellent relationship with that customer and obviously was upset. Actually, I was shocked.

The customer later approached me and asked if we could talk. “I suppose you saw we went with your competition,” he said. I could only ask why.

“They came out and visited me and, frankly, I thought they wanted my business more than you did,” he said matter-of-factly.

I realized I hadn’t met with that customer, or even contacted him, for some time. I learned my lesson.

No one likes being taken for granted. Getting an account may be the easy part. It’s harder to keep it unless you make a point of letting them know that you value their business.

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