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Most companies are in the middle, and for much of my career I was part of organisations who were in the middle too. We stood out enough to be noticed and provided enough value to be paid. We were chosen by customers, invited to meetings, we had great customer interactions and built strong relationships, we used customer retention strategies… We knew how to retain customers.
It felt like we were first in our customers’ eyes until the signs came…
- Loss of big deals from loyal customers we’d worked with for years
- Competition that marginalised our offer, and diminished value to our clients
- Loss of key contacts that resulted in the loss of strategically important customers
This is the story of thousands of organisations, big and small around the world. Organisations who thought they were the number one choice are NOW under threat of losing relationships they’d invested years into. We call this experience being in the “Middle” or the potential result of “Middle thinking”. How do you go beyond the middle to retain customers and truly maximise your customer relationships?
What is being in the middle?
Being in the middle is when a person or organisation who is doing well with its customers, but does not regularly evaluate its assumptions about its customer relationships, customers’ perceived value and loyalty to them, their brand and company.
The more an indicator or multiple impact points of an evaluation are ignored, the more likely an organisation will fall into “middle thinking”. We call these the 7 signals.
What is middle thinking?
Middle thinking shows up in a variety of ways but in most cases, middle thinking causes good people and organisations to:
- feel safe because they’re following all the best practices for serving customers in their market
- believe their results are due to a set of activities rather than other elements that serve and support those results
- be surprised and perplexed when a customer says they are going with another company, as when they review their metrics and customer satisfaction scores, it tells a different story so they wonder what went wrong.
Overall “middle thinking” is the reason we and our organisations struggle to break free from the same circumstances each year with our best customers. It’s what psychologists may label as confirmation bias…
…a bias of belief in which people tend to seek out, interpret, and recall information in a way that confirms their preconceived notions and ideas.
What I’ve noticed in my time working in and with businesses, and running my own, is that we make a lot of assumptions about our customers and our relationships with them.
The challenge is that being in the middle can be subtle and comforting. Being in the middle still pays the bills, you still get a pat on the back, and it keeps you in a job; so why worry?
Today you can make the choice to be picked first and go beyond simply how to retain customers, or settle for being in the middle.
The danger of staying in the middle
One of the largest B2B studies on customer service is Microsoft’s State of Global Customer Service Report from 2017.
It shows that 54% of B2B customers today have higher expectations for customer service today compared to one year ago. This percentage jumps to 66% for consumers aged from 18 to 34 years old.
The best practices you are adopting today, that were once the expectation of your customers even two years ago, may no longer be seen as a strategic differentiator.
A recent study on strategic account management by the Rain Group shows 60% of B2B companies believe they should be generating 25% or more revenue from existing customers.
Only those organisations who are willing to have the hard reality-based conversations and assessments of their customers regularly will access the 25% or more potential revenue in their most important customer relationships.
How do I know?
I see and hear it daily in the conversations, research studies and comments I receive.
Staying in the middle is a dangerous place, you only need to see the global customer service stats to confirm this. Customer service statistics show that year on year there are more dissatisfied customers feeling undervalued, underserved and seeing no differentiation in value and distinction in the relationships they have with their suppliers.
Today that could be you.
Now, I must confess…
I personally stayed too long in the middle.
But I got out…
My position changed because of these two simple questions.
Think of as many ways you know about how to retain customers; what ideas come to mind?
Think of as many ways to become irreplaceable to your customers; what ideas come to mind?
Take a moment to evaluate the two questions above.
Which one forced you to think more about the customer’s experience and perhaps raised more questions than answers?
For most it is question number two. But why?
Because it requires you to be someone or become an organisation that you aren’t today. It would mean you would have to get out of the middle.
To access the 25% more revenue, get out of the middle, and produce greater customer results, it’s vital to have an irreplaceable mindset.
It’s all about deciding to bring a new level of excellence to your role to produce highly valued results that are sought after, and unexpected by your customers.
If you’re like me, you won’t want to settle for just a single moment of brilliance only to fade into the crowd with all the average and uninspired examples of customer service.
Staying out of the middle doesn’t last, it requires a constant drive for improvements to offer something different.
How can we start getting out of the middle?
To help you stay “out of the middle”, to produce results and relationships that are highly valued, sought after and unexpected by your customers, begin with these three principles.
KNOW WHAT YOU WANT FOR YOU, AND FOR YOUR CUSTOMERS
We can all fall into the pattern of customer auto-pilot, turning up to work not knowing why we’re really doing the activity we’re doing, nor knowing the result we believe we’re producing.
Why does this matter?
The answer is simple, you can’t improve what you don’t measure. And you can’t access greater customer results without improvements.
Ask this powerful question: What do I want for my customer?
This is a very helpful question to give focus, as it assumes you value the customer and want to put them first.
The famous speaker and personal growth speaker, Zig Ziglar once said:
“You can get everything in life you want if you will just help enough other people get what they want.”
This is exactly the symbiotic relationship that exists between you and your customers.
When you consider what you want to produce for your customers, your goals will naturally take a collaborative shape enabling your goals and those of your customers to become more closely aligned.
There are very few things you cannot achieve when you focus on your customer and the connected reality of how their success is directly linked to your own.
Decide what you want for your customers in terms of results, value, relationships and recognition. Then explore your own goals, and your customers, to see if they are relevant, valuable and aligned based on what you’re currently seeking to achieve for your customer.
MAKE YOUR CONVERSATIONS BILLABLE
Customer management is not just about serving up products and services that are attractive and valuable. It’s also about the customer’s willingness to follow you as someone who’s personal value is attractive to them.
Renowned business constant and author of SPIN selling Neil Rackham is famously quoted for saying…
“Prospect or customer meetings should be so valuable that even if you do business with them or not, they would pay you for the time you spent with them.”
In fact, I heard a story of Neil actually doing this in a meeting, where the executive he asked genuinely said yes they’d pay for his time because of the value-added.
We can’t expect to get the same response as Neil if we’re asking our customers the same questions every time we meet them.
If you ask the same questions, then you’ve probably fallen into the middle, and have little idea of what to do next or how to get out of the middle. So, take a step back.
Remember the lessons from PRINCIPLE ONE, and consider how you currently prepare for your customer meetings, especially the questions you might ask. Before your customer meetings ask yourself three questions about what you’ve prepared.
- Will this help us create better customers? – Does the question, topic or engagement you’ll get from the customer help to improve the relationship?
- Does this help my customer get better? – Does the question, topic or engagement planned, help your customer get closer to achieving their result?
- Does this meet my goal for them? – Does the question, topic or engagement help you achieve your personal and business goals with your customer?
Questions really are the answers and this principle helps to focus your activity so you can deliver higher value in every customer meeting. For more support on preparing great questions for your customers, you can pick up my free Ultimate Customer Questions guide.
When you’re in a thriving customer relationship, it’s usually based on a core set of understood and practised, values and expectations.
Studying social and customer relationships I recognised that truly thriving relationships only happen when there is a…
Mutually understood, respected partnership that is highly valued and sought after by both parties.
The key things are understood, respected, valued and sought after. If you’re not growing that type of relationship, you’ll always produce average results and be consistently in the middle.
How do you impact this?
It begins with influencing and maximising the attention you gain with your customers. Social media savant, entrepreneur and practitioner Gary Vaynerchuk speaks a lot about not taking customer attention for granted. He calls it the “attention arbitrage”.
The key thing is to recognise that once you’re in front of your customers you’ve got the greatest competitive advantage to influence trust, drive value and deepen relationships.
What you do with your customer’s attention really matters.
Customer attention can only be earned through the unique value you bring to your relationships. One of the most powerful ways to maximise attention is to focus on incremental progress.
Progress is a significant driver not just from a relational point of view, but fundamentally as human beings. If your interactions can pragmatically help and or demonstrate progress with customers by moving their thinking, decision making or results, you will by these increments earn more attention.
Today there is considerable research on the power of experiencing small wins or artificial progress. One such study was conducted by professors Joseph Nunes and Xavier Drèze at Marshall School of Business and Wharton on the Power of Small Wins. They called this study the Endowed Progress Effect which contributed to the Science Discipline of Human Progress. The study concluded that people who are given perceived positive progress before being asked for commitment, are more likely to gain greater commitment to future long-term actions.
In other words, if you can demonstrate in small but meaningful ways that your relationship is moving forward and results are being seen, you’re more able to not only ask for more time and other commitments but gain greater positive agreements.
A really easy way to start is to call your update calls “progress calls”. These focus on keeping your customers engaged with the four pillars of effective customer followup or conversations. The four pillars for each call must be:
- Intentional – specific and mutually agreed.
- Valuable – something that can benefit your client today.
- Future-focused – extend the conversation with a view of wider partnerships.
- Collaborative – there is committed action for both parties to succeed.
Together these four pillars ensure time spent with your customer is maximised on each call and moves the relationship forward.
I have a really strong desire to help committed customer serving professionals thrive, profit and grow the relationships with their most important customers.
I’d like to be of value to you.
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And, remember to stay out of the MIDDLE!
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