Customer relationship research / surveys – Third of three articles

This is the third and final article in my series on deep relationship research, particularly for B2B. You can find the first article here, and last week’s article here. The main topic this time is how to overcome objections to the process from within your own company. I conclude with some advice about relationship research when you don’t have enough resources to interview all relevant customers face-to-face.

Common objections to relationship surveys

Relationship survey interviews with large customers can be difficult to arrange. Contrary to what you may expect, the difficulties are almost always with your own sales teams rather than with the customers. The objections usually take the form of “I already work with my customer every day. I understand what they think and want in great detail. You can’t possibly tell me anything new.” These objections become stronger if you decide, despite earlier advice, to publish a score by customer. If you make the further mistake of deciding that these scores should be part of the formal evaluation of the sales leader at the individual customer level, you may as well forget about the feedback process. The sales person will prevent you interviewing anyone who is not ecstatic about everything.

Your CEO may be paying an inappropriate amount of attention

If the account-level score exists and is (at least formally) not part of the sales team’s annual evaluation, you can still have problems. One of our HP CEOs regularly read the interview reports for low-scoring customers only, and then phoned the sales representative to discuss it in detail. This did not happen where the scores were good. At one point, I wanted to get an account manager to agree to have some of his contacts interviewed specifically for software, not knowing that he had just ‘benefited’ from one of these CEO calls. His answer: “OK, and I will do all the interviews for you. What score do you want?”

A sales leader cannot possibly understand everything that everyone is thinking

A sales leader’s claim to understand everything that every key contact is thinking cannot possibly be correct. In our interviews, we have constantly been able to surprise sales teams by showing them changes in customer views, at the individual level, or that their preconceived notions about an individual are not correct. Customer contacts who have been vocal critics in the past sometimes turned into our most powerful advocates, if we listened to them and acted. The problematic relationships are not the openly negative ones. At least they are communicating with you, and most want you to be successful. The problematic relationships are the ones where you have fallen into the deadly zone of mutual indifference.

Overcoming objections from sales teams

In a perfect world, you will already have other sales teams who have gone through the process and found it effective. You then use these first teams as references for the others. In the absence of such references, here are some suggestions, in priority order:

  1. Be clear, in writing, that the sales person will not be evaluated on the overall score that comes out of the survey or on its trend over time. This can be tricky to word correctly, as it is not impossible that you will find bad chemistry between the sales person and essential people at the customer end. This might lead to changing the sales person. (To minimize the exposure to ‘bad chemistry’ issues, your account managers should be interviewed by the customer before they are appointed.)
  2. Demonstrate to the sales person that you have the resources and sponsorship to drive the improvements suggested by the customer. This should be positioned as unburdening the sales team from the corresponding workload.
  3. If you are in the customer experience leadership position, negotiate with the sales leader so that the customer experience lead becomes a formal position in the account team, accepting guidance from the sales leader. The formal description of the work should concentrate on the improvement process, and not on the gathering of the feedback. As customer experience leader, you should also agree to function as part of the sales staff, and attend all their meetings, no matter where you report formally. These steps are designed to prevent perception of customer experience as a pure audit function.
  4. Concentrate your messages on the individual people in the customer’s organization chart when communicating feedback results. Your audience will find the individual stories highly interesting.
  5. Involve the key sales people assigned to the customer in the feedback and improvement process. It may be easiest to start this when conducting a win-loss analysis, as described in the next chapter.

If relationships are not quite that deep

If your customer coverage is not quite that dense or you simply don’t have the resource or travel budget needed to go and see them face-to-face, the second-best approach is to interview them by phone, or a video link such as Skype. Just remember that the main work is not the interviewing, but the improvements. In all cases, you must tell customers what you have learned quite soon after the interviews have been completed, then execute. Finally, if you only have the resources to do relationship surveys by email, I would suggest not doing them. I don’t believe you can have deep relationships by email. You should worry if your competitors are better resourced.


Thank you for reading these three articles. Your comments, objections and suggestions are always welcome. As usual, this article is an edited version of an extract from one of our books; in this case from Customer Experience – Design & Implementation.