Executive summary

  • Understand that the customers’ representative is only the tip of the iceberg of a much larger decision making unit.
  • Ask probing questions to understand both the person, and the company they represent.
  • Treat the customer rep as your sales agent based deep inside customer territory. Equip them so that they can represent your business to your satisfaction when they go back to their office. 

Picture sourced from www.retailshakennotstirred.com

Your customer is not just a person

As a small business, your customer is important. Seriously important. If there is one email you respond to, one call you take, it is your customers’.

Small businesses bend backwards for their customers.

But from the work I have done with small businesses I find that many of them do not really understand their customer well enough. There is a mismatch between how important the customer is and how well the customer is understood. The result is that the relationship with the customer always feels under pressure, insecure and it never really delivers the returns of a true partnership.

From my experience many small businesses confuse the person representing their customer, with the real customer. 

The fact is that the customer representative is only a small part of the larger puzzle that make up the real customer. The question then: How does the customer representative fit into the larger picture? This larger picture is the total decision making unit of the customer and as the small business owner, you need to communicate with all these people, using the customer representative as your mouth piece.

Below follows a decision-making unit analysis that I recently did with the owner of a small manufacturing business – it shows all the potential different customer demands that sits behind the representative – or gatekeeper.

In order to understand the full spectrum of who the customer is, requires asking the person representing the customer some probing questions and get beyond often superficial, one-sided interactions. A recent article on the website entrepreneur.com gives an example of such questions:

Probing questions to ask your customer:

  1. What have we done recently that you have found particularly valuable?
  2. Can you give me suggestions for how we can improve communication with you and your organization?
  3. What are your three most important priorities for next year?

The customer rep as your sales agent

Once you have the answers to the above questions, I suggest you go one step further, and empower the customer service person.

Treat the customer rep as your sales agent with a seat deep inside the customers’ office. 

What do they need to represent your business to the full decision making unit back at their HQ? How do you equip them so that they can make as good a case for your business as you just did?

  • Do they need a few PowerPoint slides that summarizes what you have spoken about? 
  • Do they need a short summary of the key points emailed to them?  
  • Would they like you to personally present or contact other people in the decision making unit?
Ultimately, during my own career in “Big Corporate” I was often struck by how one dimensional the interaction between myself, as the customer rep, and the outside party was. Rarely did the outsiders equip me to represent their case internally to my boss and bosses boss and the various divisions that may have an interest.

Managers in small businesses tend to be super busy people. So busy that they are almost always in “fighting fire” mode, a mindset dominated by “…dealing with what is in front of me, right here, right now.”

The problem is that this same mindset gets extended to client interactions. The customer rep is in your boardroom and you feel compelled to make sure that they are happy – on the spot. This is where I urge: Take a deep breath and try and go beyond the moment and find out what goes on behind the scenes.

It all comes down to knowing your customer intimately – and this requires you to go beyond the obvious.