Can you service your way to account growth? Not likely
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Can you service your way to account growth? Not likely

You know how some things just kind of feel true? Like the idea that if you’re nice to people, they’ll most likely be nice to you back. Or that good deeds will be rewarded.

There’s an idea like that in sales. It goes something like this: “If I provide excellent service and support to my existing customers, they’ll order more from me and I’ll be able to grow the account organically, without applying pressure that might upset the apple cart.”

This feels true. It seems to make emotional sense. After all, most people do show some gratitude, don’t they? But it isn’t true, and if you believe it, you won’t be as successful as you’d like at expanding your existing accounts.

Taking it for granted

Don’t just take our word for it. Have a look at some research produced by Gartner, the big research and corporate advisory firm.

Gartner surveyed 750 business-to-business buyers and asked what leads them to buy more from a supplier. Guess what? There was no statistical difference in growth between accounts where the seller provided top-notch service, and accounts where the seller provided only so-so service. Far from rewarding their vendors with more business in return for great service, customers apparently get used to that service and take it for granted.

So do we mean to say that providing excellent service is a waste of time? Of course not. Top-class service does pay off, but in retention, not account growth. Gartner found that the likelihood of retaining an account doubles on average when the vendor provides excellent service and support.

But back to account growth. If service doesn’t drive it, what does?

The power of Customer Improvement

Gartner’s research found that it’s something the consulting firm calls Customer Improvement. This means showing customers something new that improves performance, eliminates threats, or otherwise makes the customer’s business better. When salespeople focused on customer improvement, Gartner said, they enjoyed a spike of 48 percent in sales to existing accounts.

Why is showing customers something new such a powerful technique? It has to do with buyer inertia, which is something salespeople always struggle against.

Buyers who stick with the status quo – that is, those who do nothing – are likely to perceive inaction as easier and less risky for them. In the case of an existing account, it means sticking with whatever tried and true products they’ve always bought from the vendor, in more or less the same amounts.

But when you show a buyer something new – like a way to eliminate inefficiencies in production, or leverage a competitive advantage – you’re laying the groundwork for a whole new, or increased, volume of business from that buyer.

It’s not about aggression

Oh, and by the way, what about the argument that by aggressively cross- or upselling an existing customer, you risk causing damage that will hurt your chances of maintaining the account, let alone growing it?

Well, that’s a valid argument. Gartner’s data shows that aggressive selling has no impact on account growth, and does in fact slash a salesperson’s chances of retaining an account by nearly 70 percent. But remember, customer Improvement is not about aggressive up- or cross-selling. It’s a process of showing existing buyers how their lives and businesses could be better if they bought more of something, or something entirely new, from you.

And because buyers appreciate it when you show them this kind of vision of better things, they’re more, not less, likely to maintain their account with you. Gartner’s survey found that where salespeople engage in customer improvement techniques, their likelihood of retaining the account almost doubles.

So if you make things better for your customers, you’re more likely both to keep their business, and to open up new avenues for business with them. What’s not to like?

(This blog entry is adapted from the Rapid Learning module, “Growing Existing Accounts: Show Them Something New,” based on the following research paper: “Why Accounts Aren’t Growing, and What to Do About It,” Gartner.)



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