Lessons in how to lose a customer

Failing Grade

Chapter One. Very early in my business I was sitting across from a seasoned magazine sales rep. Our company had just created a methodology for the study of advertising, landed five clients, and we were talking to him about that method, which his boss just purchased . The methodology measures advertising in print with great accuracy using independent research studies from Starch, Harvey and other providers. It enabled the magazine to know ahead of time which ads were working, and which weren’t, giving the magazine rep a “heads up” in the battle for ad pages.

Now, this “advance notice” was important. Most of the time, agencies blame magazines when creative goes South. As a former creative director in the 8th largest direct mail shop in the country, I knew better. I knew when creative doesn’t work, it had to do with the list, the offer or the creative in that order. This methodology helped us understand advertising behavior, and it gave the magazine sales representative extraordinary information about how ads behaved in his magazine. Because if the publisher is maintaining his list, then it is either the offer or the creative, both the realm of the agency. In short, it enabled him to go directly to the client and discuss creativity in his magazine – something most reps are reluctant to do. But as an agency guy, I could never understand that. That’s another story.

When I brought this up in that early meeting so long ago, the magazine sales rep seemed confused. I said, “You can go directly to the client (customer) with this information.”

“You don’t understand,” he replied. “The agency is the client.”

“But who pays the bills?” I asked.

“The agency,” he said. “That is my customer.” I immediately understood: the agency, taking a commission, was the client. I understood, but I didn’t agree.

Even today, people get confused when you ask them who the customer is. They muddle the situation with terms like “value-chain participant” or some other word string. But knowing who the customer is, is really central to your thinking. After all, who can afford to lose a customer these days?

We built our business going directly to clients, our customers. Unlike other agencies, however, we never took commission. We put the magazine sales people directly in front of the client, our customers. Many of the magazine representatives took full advantage of the situation. Some of them used us as well, for information, insight, while calling directly on the client. Others, well, they bypassed us entirely once they were in front of the customer directly. They used us for the “paperwork.”

We didn’t mind being used either way. After all, if what you are selling benefits our customer, we’re here to help. But, odd things began to happen. Sometimes our evaluations would produce contrary evidence to what the client was being pitched. Our customers, of course, could do what they want; it was their money after all.

There was one time where we produced a report based on BPA statements showing the superiority of one publication over another, but the client bought the one they had a relationship with — the inferior one. It was a valuable lesson for me personally. It showed me that a real customer means there is a relationship that exists that can trump data. I never understood that either. Being a data guy, that was hard to swallow. In any case, knowing the data still gave us an edge in media purchasing, though we would bow to the client’s wishes and keep the knowledge when the client did what they wanted. After all, the customer is always right.

We took nothing for granted. Relationships with representatives helped, but you can ask those who dealt and deal with us, having a friendly relationship is no guarantee of getting on a client’s schedule. The magazine had to have the evidence: the list, inquiry paths, etc. Just ask any of the reps who have a love-hate relationship with us. Often was the time we invited them in for a lunch-and-learn, only to be grilled by Interline staff on their publication. They left better people for it, often battered, but wiser. Some didn’t come back.

Chapter Two. Recently, a major publisher and his VP called on us. The last time they visited us was over ten years ago. Like most meetings these days, this one started with e-mails. This particular publisher, having been used to dealing with our client directly and bypassing us, went to the client, where to their surprise, personnel changes had just taken place and their contact was no longer there after one year. They were forced to go a couple of levels higher. Here is the e-mail chain.

Publisher to Client: “It’s been a while since we’ve discussed your sales and marketing goals relative to my market. Are you available to meet next week? We’ve got an ever expanding portfolio of products and services, and some of our latest offerings might align well with your current and future needs. If you are available, please give me a few day/time options and I’ll confirm with you.”

Couple of days later, Publisher to Client:” I just left you a voice mail about the possibility of meeting next week. I think it would be beneficial to compare notes on what you are trying to accomplish and the latest offerings we’ve got that may help you reach your goals.”

Week later, Publisher to Client: “Assuming this week isn’t good timing, are you available 4th or 10th?”

Client to Publisher: “Please set up a meeting with Jim at Interline. He will be the point person for us.”

Publisher to me, cc to client: “Hi Jim…following up on (client) note, are you available 4th or 10th. Meet at 11:00 and lunch afterwards if you’re available? It’s been a while!”

Agency to Publisher: “The 4th works at 11AM…where do you want to meet? I have a presentation in the PM, so can’t do lunch. Let me know.”

Publisher to Agency: “Hi Jim…I’ll be driving in. Any ideas on a place that’s convenient for you?”

Agency to Publisher: “Our place is always convenient for me and not bad for someone coming in your way. See you at 11AM in our offices.”

Week Later: Publisher to Agency: “I’m confirming our meeting for tomorrow at 11:00. My boss, the President, will be coming as well. I mentioned I was meeting with you and he wanted to take the opportunity to catch up on things with you as well. I assume business casual is fine, but if I need to scrounge around my house to find an old tie, let me know : )”

The fact this was an e-mail string and not a phone calls tells you something. The tie comment tells you volumes. The fact that the rep believes ten years is just “a while” tells you even more. You see, this publisher — from the President on to the rep level — used us as paperwork for ten years. They never tapped us for knowledge…and we don’t do lunch. So, it was very interesting that the President was coming with the VP to see us after all these years.

Interline follows the rules of hospitality. When you visit us, we have refreshments, fruit on the table, snacks. We give you a tour of our shop (we have the entire first floor of an office building), and our infrastructure is really varied – we actually have a fulfillment operation besides graphic design, web development, research, copywriting and the other agency services. We are very proud of what we have accomplished and continue to accomplish for our clients.

So the day arrives, I greet them, show them around, we go into the conference room. I have my media buyer with me, and we begin the discussion. The conversation quickly spirals out of control. The exact issues/details are unimportant. What is important is that in any sales situation, knowing who the customer is, is most important. So when the conversation became heated over my comment, “suddenly you show up and expect an insertion order,” what occurred was this: the VP said, “I’m not going to listen to this” and stood up. I extended an invitation for him to leave the meeting, which he accepted, saying “I think will.” As he packed up his notepad to leave, I invited his boss to leave with him. The boss declined. “I think I’ll stay,” he said.

After the VP left, the President and I had a candid conversation. After all, it had been ten years. Blame was laid at the feet of the prior media buyer in our agency who had departed as being an obstacle to communication. It is always curious to me how the last person out gets the blame for almost everything.

I said, “Really, isn’t that when your guy goes to you and says, ‘So-and-so has told me not to contact Jim, can you contact him and find out what’s going on?” There is always a way to get to people. Besides, that possibility of our former employee barring communication was impossible. There was NO communication. We simply executed insertion orders.

What was clear was this: the publisher never needed us, never looked at us as the customer. The client was the customer and now that that relationship had evaporated, they were forced to deal with us AS the customer. But, no relationship existed. That long-ago experience with the magazine rep who said the agency was the client came flashing into my mind. I guess, I realized it for the first time that I was the customer, after all. It was a strange feeling since I usually have the butler role providing the service, not receiving it.

Anyway, we ended up agreeing to stay in touch, and then I said, “Let’s walk out together, arm and arm, and I’ll reach out to your VP and bury the hatchet. What do you say?” You could see relief in the President’s eyes as he said, “You would do that?” I smiled and said, “Of course!” I opened the door, and we walked out to the parking lot smiling and talking.

The VP was still sitting in his car in the back of the parking lot, and when he saw us approaching, got out of the car and walked to the front of it. I thanked his boss for coming shaking his hand, extended my hand to the VP and said, “Are we good?” He did not take my hand. Instead, he said with a slight sneer, “I don’t know.”

I withdrew my hand immediately, and said, “Well I do.” I turned, muttered an expletive and walked away.

A month later, the VP sent an e-mail to the client, cc’d his boss, me and my media buyer as if nothing had happened. It was a bold move, but then, the VP probably read Psycho Success written by some guy who won’t even use his real name. You can peek at the book on Amazon, but I would save your money; anyone who writes profound insights like “Embrace Fear and Make it Your Bitch” and doesn’t use his real name isn’t worth your time.

Because there’s a time for bold moves, but this was not one of them. And here’s why. Elmer Leterman, author of The Sale Begins When the Customer Says ‘No,’ wrote this many years ago:

“Countless sales are lost by men who believe that they have a customer in their vest pocket – that because he has purchased from them in the past, he belongs to them and there is no need to continue to cultivate him in any way.”

Cultivation is part of building a customer relationship. I had forgotten I was the customer. More important, so did the sales VP.

For more conversation on customers and relationships, please let us hear from you. Contact us at 847-358-4848. Or post a comment at: http://intrln.com/contact

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