Last week I attended a great webinar (sponsored by the Next Level Purchasing Association) on Procurement Innovation where Peter Nero from Denali Group discussed just how critical a customer service orientation is to the future of procurement within the organization. While I listened to him discuss some of the changes procurement will need to make to improve the status quo, I couldn’t help but think about how sales reps deal with demanding customers on a regular basis. And for them, not satisfying those customers often means not getting a sale.
To get some more thoughts on the topic, I put a call into The Sales Guy, our on-call sales insider. What I expected was some commiseration about dealing with difficult people and some clever tips for pacifying them. What I got was entirely different…
Sales People have internal AND external ‘customers’ too.
We obviously think of the buyers/users a sales rep/supplier has to satisfy in the course of doing business, but they also have to successfully navigate/collaborate with a number of internal groups at their own company. While sales presents functions as the face of their company to procurement, they often need to seek the approval of finance (as an example) to make complex deals happen or to get through a non-standard offering. It is easy to forget that when we make a demand of a supplier, they may have to trade internal favors to make that happen on the home front.
Problems ARE going to arise.
The role of a good customer servant is not to avoid all problems, but to be good at resolving problems once they have happened. Much like personal relationships, professional relationships have to be able to weather naturally occurring storms. If someone asks one of your internal stakeholders who is there to help them in the face of problems, will they say procurement? In order for them to consider us problem solvers, we need to make ourselves available whether they accepted our award recommendation(s) or not. As TSG said to me, “too many times when procurement’s recommendations are not taken they wash their hands of the situation.” I’ll admit to being guilty of that myself.
Absence makes the heart grow… DISTANT.
Unlike the old saying where distance makes individuals long for each other’s company, too much physical separation between procurement and the engineering/operations people we are employed to support can make an already challenging relationship extra rocky. While your company’s geographical layout may make this tough, make sure you get face time with your stakeholders. You don’t even need to be working directly with your stakeholders to get credit for the time. Ask for space in a conference room or spare desk once a week and just do your regular work there. The time you spend interacting with your stakeholders – even if only a few minutes – will go a long way towards bridging any philosophical gaps that may exist.
The last lesson about all these groups of customers is to remember that your stakeholders have internal and external customers too. In many cases they serve your end consumer, whether business or individual, but they will still have managers or functions they have to serve in your company. Knowing how to use those relationships to everyone’s advantage is the key.
Let’s say you are considering proposals for a purchase. As a dutiful procurement professional, you are encouraging your stakeholder to select the most cost effective option. The stakeholder, on the other hand, wants a more expensive solution because they like or see value in some of the bells and whistles included in that option. Rather than walking out or berating your stakeholder about meeting financial targets in a tough economy, remind them of the interest of their customers. Suggest that you understand the appeal of the perceived value but that you need to document/measure the return on that additional value to the company. You will either help the stakeholder realize and acknowledge that there isn’t as much value as they thought, or you will have document that shows measurable benefit justifying the additional cost, or you will be able to tell your manager that the stakeholder wants what they want, but can’t justify the expense.
In conclusion, here is a listing of guidelines for providing good customer service and a link to read the rest of "Good Customer Service Made Simple" by Susan Ward on About.com. As Ms. Ward says, "If you're a good salesperson, you can sell anything to anyone once. But it will be your approach to customer service that determines whether or not you’ll ever be able to sell that person anything else. The essence of good customer service is forming a relationship with customers – a relationship that that individual customer feels that he would like to pursue." And procurement is no exception.
1) Answer your phone.
2) Don't make promises unless you will keep them.
3) Listen to your customers.
4) Deal with complaints.
5) Be helpful - even if there's no immediate profit in it.
6) Train your staff (if you have any) to be always helpful, courteous, and knowledgeable.
7) Take the extra step.
8) Throw in something extra.
About The Sales Guy
TSG is a sales VP with 30 years and approximately $1B+ in sales under his belt. We are keeping his identity under wraps – for the same reason magicians never reveal their tricks, his colleagues might not like him giving us the inside scoop on sales’ view of procurement. TSG joins us to bring a two-sided perspective to the procurement process.
Without revealing too many specifics, I’d like to give you some information on The Sales Guy. I’m sure everyone with experience in procurement has sat across the table from him at some point in their career:
- He can process numbers in his head at the speed of light, even in the middle of a high stakes negotiation.
- No one has ever beaten him at “chicken” and he has a poker face of stone.
- He is a tough enough negotiator that several customers have asked that he not be present at future discussions – but they all still took the deal he offered.
- He is able to maintain positive long term relationships with his customers despite being a firm negotiator - both sides need to come away with a win.