Out of sight, out of luck

As managers, we do not tolerate employees who “call on the phone.” But have we set up our systems to be so low-touch and automated 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 main supplier follows the path of least resistance and places discretionary orders with a competing supplier who shows up regularly and solicits business.

This is one of a series of case studies highlighting “Key Questions and Course Correction Quotes” taken from 20 years of B2B customer insight projects. All the names are fictitious, but the situations are real. The case studies paint a picture of how important it is to know what your B2B customers think, but not what they say. These are real-world examples of how soliciting 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 supplier’s primary contact in this 5-digit 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. They have to realize my local guy is here every other week. He gets my discretionary business. He earns it by having a relationship with us. Actually, I’ve never known to anyone from Remote Provider”.

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. Customers notice when vendors work to cultivate a relationship or they don’t.

In contrast, a sales rep for a smaller local supplier made it a priority to check in regularly to pick up what business he could. He was also positioning himself to take over this account if for some reason the customer became disillusioned with the existing provider. The thoughtful salesperson would certainly get an RFP if the client ever decided to put the business up for bid.


This is another example of sellers leaving 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 is difficult for someone to look you in the eye and reject you.

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

  • Electronic newsletters and mass emails.

  • Paper newsletters.

  • Personalized 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 stay in touch. All some people need or want is a regular email newsletter to keep you in the loop. Others want me to call or email them every two weeks. Ask, don’t guess.

Cuts in spending budgets can range from travel to IT upgrades to headcounts. The cuts in the number of employees squeeze the remaining staff. At some point, spending cuts start to hurt the customer experience and start costing you revenue. When efficiencies begin to decrease in effectiveness, STOP CUTTING unless you’re intentionally trying to find a “new normal” revenue size that can be sustained by 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 their customers often. Cultivate relationships. Ask for more business.

Take heart: If you have prospects whose main 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, treasure hunts, or rescue missions. This project was an evaluation. The customer’s question was “Are our customers satisfied with us?” The answer was “Yes, and you’re missing out on easy deals by forgetting that customers come first.”

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