Out of sight, out of luck

As managers, we don’t tolerate employees who “call on the phone.” But have we configured our systems to be so automated and low-touch that customers experience our businesses as “on the phone”? If so, we are creating opportunities for competitors who know how to balance efficient production-related systems with effective customer service processes. In this case study, a customer who is happy with their primary provider follows the path of least resistance and places discretionary orders with a competing provider who shows up regularly and solicits business.

This is one in a series of case studies highlighting “Key Questions and Course Correction Quotes” taken from 20 years of B2B customer insight projects. All names are fictitious, but the situations are real. Case studies paint a picture of how important it is to know what your B2B customers are thinking, but not what they are saying. These are real-world examples of how asking for and acting on customer feedback has helped companies retain customers longer, grow relationships, and win new business faster.

Case study: a satisfied customer buys from a competitor

Key question (asked to a purchasing manager, the primary supplier contact in this 5-figure relationship):

“Does ‘RemoteVendor’ show an appropriate amount of interest in his relationship with you?”

Course correction quote:

Purchasing Manager: “RemoteVendor is located hundreds of miles away. You have to realize my local employee is here every two weeks. He gets my discretionary business. He earns it by maintaining a relationship with us. I’ve never actually met anyone from RemoteVendor.”

My client when:

This customer was full of praise about the product quality, responsiveness, reliability, competitiveness and professionalism of “RemoteVendor”. At first glance, that’s all RemoteVendor hoped to learn: How satisfied are our customers with our business practices? When the conversation turned to a discussion about where the gaps were, this customer pointed out that by prioritizing efficiency, the provider had sacrificed all vestiges of customer intimacy. Clients notice when providers work to cultivate a relationship or don’t.

By contrast, a sales representative from a smaller local vendor made it a priority to check in regularly to collect what business he could. He was also positioning himself to take over this account if for any reason the customer became disillusioned with the existing provider. The attentive salesperson would no doubt get an RFP if the client ever decided to put the business up for bid.


This is another example of how sellers leave money on the table. This customer probably knew that RemoteVendor could fulfill their discretionary orders, but the local vendor showed up and asked about the business. It’s hard for someone to look you in the eye and reject you.

On some level, we all know that the following rules of thumb are true: The order of effectiveness in building and maintaining relationships with B2B customers and prospects is (from least to most):

  • Email newsletters and mass emails.

  • Paper newsletters.

  • Custom paper mail.

  • Personalized emails.

  • Phone calls.

  • Face-to-face contact.

Warning: each person has a preference. Ask each customer or prospect how she prefers you to keep in touch. All some need or want is a regular email newsletter to keep them in mind. Others want you to call or email them every other week. Ask, don’t guess.

Cuts in spending budgets can range from travel to IT upgrades to headcount. Cuts in the number of employees squeeze the remaining staff. At some point, spending cuts start hurting the customer experience and start costing you revenue. When efficiencies start to diminish effectiveness, STOP CUTTING unless you are intentionally trying to find a “new normal” revenue size that can be sustained with your smaller operating budget.

Keep in mind that your clients may also be running lean organizations, which means they take the path of least resistance when they can. If you can’t visit them, call and talk to your customers often. Nurture relationships. Ask for more business.

Take heart: If you have prospects whose primary supplier is out of the area, you may be able to get a foot in the door by offering to take on small projects. Simply showing up regularly could help you displace a remote competitor. Let “out of sight, out of luck” work for you!

I classify projects as assessments, investigations, scavenger hunts, or rescue missions. This project was an evaluation. The customer’s question was “Are our customers satisfied with us?” The response was “Yes, and you are missing out on easy business by forgetting that customers come people first.”

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