Putting the Customer First

Putting the customer first-1

“Put the customer first” is a common phrase among businesses of every size and shape, but it’s rarely reflected in the way they do business. In reality, too many businesses are more interested in making a sale than really serving the customer.

Putting the customer first means serving them and helping them meet their goals even if there’s no guarantee you’ll make a sale. Impossible? Wreckless? Not at all. I’ve seen it in action — and it makes all the difference.

What’s Important to You … Is Important to You

A few years ago I worked with a client in the fruit processing business, one of three premier national suppliers. We’ll call this company Premium Fruit. Premium Fruit had great market penetration with their maraschino cherries, having sold them to nearly every quick serve restaurant (QSR) in the marketplace. The company’s revenues were down and the economy was flat when I began working with them.

One of the largest QSRs in the country was revamping its entire drink category, and Premium Fruit had been successful in positioning their maraschinos as a garnish for the restaurant's milkshakes. However, the Premium sales team was not proactive in closing the deal. When I began my engagement, they were just waiting around for the QSR to call back with a signed purchase order.

The first thing I did was set an appointment to visit the QSR’s purchasing team to establish a relationship. Their buyer offered us 30 minutes to make our pitch.

Premium Fruit’s vice president of sales, national account manager and I put together a PowerPoint presentation on the virtues of the company and our perceived key value proposition: our status as a farm-to-fork supplier.

When the time for the meeting arrived, I sensed my colleagues wanted to jump right into the presentation after just a few minutes of rapport building. Luckily, before they could do so, I addressed the scowling buyer, who had been sitting back in her chair, arms folded.

“We have done business with nearly every quick serve restaurant in the United States,” I said. “We’ve never sold to yours and, quite frankly, do not want to assume anything. So I’m curious, what is important to you in a supplier?”

The buyer admitted the 30 minutes she had given us was merely a courtesy. Our two largest competitors had already been in her office and won the business. There was little to no chance we were going to take it away from the incumbents at this point, but after hearing my question, the buyer unfolded her arms, leaned forward and said, “I’ll tell you what’s important to me: food safety, food quality, uninterrupted supply and price. The truth is I’d pay more for the first three.”

Still wanting to dig deeper I asked, “Of those four, which is the most important to you?”

The buyer didn’t hesitate. “Food safety is the corporate focus, food quality is expected, but what I really need is uninterrupted supply. When I walk into my office Monday morning, the last thing I need is to find out a restaurant ran out of cherries.”  

Serving Without a Purchase Order

We had walked into that meeting assuming “farm to fork” was the most important thing to tell the buyer — because it was our most important value proposition. Now that we knew what was actually important to the buyer, we changed our entire pitch and focused on our ability to ensure on-time deliveries consistently.

If we had skipped asking a few questions at the beginning of our meeting, we would certainly have walked away empty handed. Instead, our 30 minutes turned into two hours and the buyer began to see us as a trusted advisor instead of salespeople who just wanted to close a deal. This trust enabled us to uncover more needs that we could fulfill, such as helping the QSR plot their expansion of a new version of a milkshake to all locations nationally.

We served the customer for five months before ever getting a single purchase order. Because of the way we demonstrated a commitment to putting them first with no obligation on their part, we ended up with 52 percent of their business the following year. The other two suppliers split the remaning volume, despite the fact that Premium Fruit’s price was the highest of the three.

The lesson is simple, and one I’ll never forget: Great companies and salespeople don’t see a customer as merely a person to sell to. Great companies and salespeople see a customer as a person with real needs and, after discovering what those needs are, actually put them first by serving and solving problems.


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About the Author


OneAccord Principal Richard Brune is a sales and marketing professional with over 25 years of experience in building and managing some of America’s most recognizable consumer brands. 

Richard has an unbroken record of substantial sales and marketshare increases with such brands as Stanley Tools, Hartmann Luggage, REI Inc., Swiss Army Brands and licensed products with Eddie Bauer and Disney.

Richard has a proven ability to develop new markets and expand existing ones. He is an effective leader with the ability to build highly productive and motivated sales teams. He is a bottom-line executive with the ability to reduce operating expenses while continuing to enjoy growth and profitability.

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Published: 10/15/2019

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