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Customer Relationship Building 101

By Bridget McCrea

The competitive dynamics of the distribution industry lend themselves to strong distributor-customer relationships. After all, when the next selling source is literally one mouse click away on an electrical contractor’s laptop or tablet, what’s to keep him or her from straying? Two words: strong relationships. That’s right – when a distributorship and its staff work to form lasting, trusting, and mutually beneficial alliances with customers, the rewards will come.

If your distributorship needs help in this area, try one or more of these seven strategies for success from sales experts across the country:

  1. Stay the course, but also be willing to flex a little. Just like a Starbucks customer knows that he or she will get the same product and service across multiple store locations, your customers have come to expect certain things from you. Be sure to stick to these core values and offerings, but don’t ignore the need to adapt and flex as needed. “You may have to switch up your marketing style, think differently about how you deliver services,” says Eric Hills, senior vice president of sales and marketing at Zilliant, a predictive pricing and sales solution provider in Austin, “and/or revamp your firm’s core value proposition from time to time.” Doing this lets customers know that while your firm is still the steadfast, reliable distributor it has always worked with, it’s also willing to bend and adapt to changing market conditions.
  2. Ferret out the market opportunities and gaps. No one will dispute the fact that wholesale distributors have their work cut out for them in today’s competitive business environment, but Hills advises companies to search for opportunity in those challenges. An electrical contractor that’s struggling to find the right power management or automation solution, for example, will welcome the expertise and support that your firm brings to the table not only in that one instance – but also on future projects. To maximize these opportunities, Hills says distributor reps must be well trained on current technologies and solutions. “They must also know how to apply this knowledge and ultimately take it right out to the customer,” he says.
  3. Don’t allow your customer relationships to stagnate. If you know that some of your distributorship’s customer bonds are dying on the vine, it’s never too late to do something about it. “Work to maintain vibrant, relevant relationships,” Hills says. One way to do that is by consistently delivering new information and insights to the customer, who in turn will view your firm as the “value-added” option (versus an online seller, for example, that sits back and waits for the orders to come in). “Take a proactive stance by knowing at a given moment what products you should talking about to which customers,” says Hills, who points out that the average rep works with 50-100 accounts and manages thousands of different products. Urge those reps to go beyond their “top tier” when forming and cultivating strong relationships, says Hills, and to continually deliver value-added services and insights to the widest possible swath of past, current, and potential customers.
  4. Remake your reps into individual “brokers of expertise.” In the good old days, people bought primarily from sources that they knew, loved, and trusted. That same philosophy doesn’t necessarily translate into today’s selling environment, where a lower price or faster delivery time may be just a website away. The distributor that understands this stands a better chance of successfully growing its customer relationships, according to Stephanie Woods, executive vice president of marketing at sales training firm Huthwaite in Arlington, Va. “Assuming someone will place an order with you because they know you is yesterday’s sales philosophy,” says Woods, who advises reps to uncover their customers’ pain points and then come up with ways to solve them (or, to help customers solve issues on their own). “Our own research shows that customers are willing to pay more if the rep points out problems that clients were unaware of,” says Wood. “The idea is to serve as a sort of ‘broker of expertise,’ versus a source of product.”
  5. Help your customers become their own specialists. It’s no secret that product and application training hold high rankings on the typical electrical distributor’s list of value-added services. Because they specialize in intricate, critical products, such distributors are in the prime position to turn their own customers into experts. This, in turn, helps solidify the distributor-contractor bond and help pave the way for future sales. “The best companies help their customers see things and solve problems in new and innovative ways,” says Wood. “So while lasting customer relationships are great, the connections can be fortified even further when you help them become even better at what they do.”
  6. Make sure your reps understand your distributorship’s differentiation points. In 6 Ways to Communicate Your Distributorship’s Value in the Marketplace,tED Magazine showed how even the 2-location, 20-employee electrical distributorship can benefit from solid branding tactics and a commitment to stand out in today’s crowded marketplace. The same advice applies to the relationship-building arena, where reps should be trained on the fine points of differentiation versus, say, price reduction. “Look at how your company can differentiate against competitive products,” says Wood, “and make sure reps can convey those differentiations in a way that helps to enhance the customer relationship.”
  7. Get ready to take the good with the bad. According to Eastbridge Consulting Group, 70 percent of complaining customers will do business with you again if you resolve the complaint in their favor. In Building Customer Relationships (6 Tactics),customer relationship expert Ross Beard says negative feedback and customer complaints actually give you the chance to hear what your clients really think about your service. “Complaints help you improve your service, give you a chance to redeem yourself, and keep potentially toxic reviews from hitting social media,”Beard writes.”The last thing any business owner wants is a customer keeping all their problems inside, telling a bunch of people, and generally being a nuisance.” Take the opportunity to fix the customer problem. “If they want to share their painful experience with you, it’s your job to listen respectfully and pick out what you need to know about the issue, and fix it quickly.”
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