Growing strong customer relationships is like growing a healthy garden. A good harvest is based in soil preparation, careful planting, and nurturing.
And the people who attended the group’s meeting this year learned about that harvesting process through active participation. Passive listening simply is not part of the experience at the forum. Because the contractors are active participants in the process, the entire group benefits from their combined experience.
CULTIVATING IMAGEThe meeting started with a discussion on company image. According to executive director Julie Bishop, “What we tried to accomplish was set around the sales process.” Before the meeting, participants were given a homework assignment to reach out to their customers and ask them what came to mind when they thought of their company.
Jennifer Varkalis, with contractor Air Comfort, said, “I heard back some wonderful things stressing our commitment and experience.” Bishop explained that such comments can become the seeds of marketing pieces.
“One church said they think of their boiler system when they think of Air Comfort,” said Varkalis. “Another said that we can handle big problems, but we’re run like a small company.”
Miles Adcock, with member contractor Design Mechanical, said he heard that “Design Mechanical is the only name we think of when it comes to a/c.” The company’s clean, attractive trucks are visible all over town. “For me, it was interesting not only because of some of the comments we heard, but how they gathered their information,” via e-mail or personal discussions. “That was fairly enlightening.”
Regarding negative feedback, “That’s one of the things as an organization that you seek out,” Adcock said. “It gives you an opportunity to sit down with the customer and discuss their needs. We didn’t have those comments come up, but I can see how you would use that as a tool.”
Bishop referred to presenter Woody Woodall’s “zone of indifference”: Customers may not say a lot, “but you’re not doing anything that blows them away. Those that tell us about their challenges are doing us a favor.”
MARKETING FUNThe marketing workshop broke the attendees into groups and gave them a creative assignment. “We like to have fun and have attendees involved in the process,” said Bishop. “So we went to Target, to the dollar aisle, and put four items into bags: a spinning wheel, sweatband, a doggie poop bag, and a mini Connect Four game with candy. The assignment was to come up with a marketing campaign with each item that could be used for the contractor’s business.”
Varkalis, whose company markets to data centers, used the dog poop baggies to reinforce the message, “We take the ‘sh’ out of ‘IT.’ ” The spinning wheel was used to demonstrate a punny idea: “We wheel ease your pain.”
A niche market breakout looked at various potential niches, encouraging members to think outside the box to develop various types of niche markets for their companies. Normal niches, for example, could include IT, controls, and welding, said Woodall. The more unusual could include pump controls and specialty plumbing items, health markets, and hospital work.
This section also broke into smaller working groups and roundtable sessions. People doing IT work shared what it takes to do that work. Health care work, heavy mechanical markets, and pump replacement repairs also were detailed. “We let everybody move around the room,” Woodall said. “They could see what contractors living in those worlds are up against.”
RELATIONSHIP BUILDINGIt could be argued that the entire event was really about relationship building. One session, however, was specifically about building customer relationships.
“The very first thing that we did was, we turned our normal cocktail reception into an actual networking situation,” said Woodall. The assignment was to find their specific clients, then to either set up a first meeting or get a card.
“We were very specific with the folks role-playing those clients,” Woodall said. “We tried to make it as real life as possible. And we had a great group of participants, a good mix of seasoned vets and newer folks. There was a fair amount of mentoring happening.
“Then we had a little session on networking,” he said. “We did a little role-playing on what not to do.”
When meeting clients for the first time, even in a casual setting, it’s important to do some research to have an understanding of what the business is. However, “What you don’t want to be is a pest,” Woodall said.
Adcock recounted a funny story. “At the networking function, we had to identify who was on our team and identify who our customer was out there. Another one of our members [on another team] would not leave Woody’s side at all. I would throw my arms around that pest and pull him aside; then we swooped in and got Woody’s card.”
Attendees also learned how social media is playing an increasing role in building customer relationships. It gives contractors more ability to learn more about their customers, and gives customers more opportunities to learn about the contractor’s culture. In short, it can make warm calls out of cold calls.
BEST PRACTICESA few new best practices were mentioned in the session of that name. “We talked about what a salesperson’s time looks like, and the challenges of going out there and cold calling or prospecting. Then the groups were broken up into teams, to share best practices as far as cold calling is concerned (such as getting past gatekeepers),” Woodall said.
When the groups got back together, they debriefed and listed their best practices. These included:
• Get customers involved in your company by asking them to sit on a board of advisors.
• Do in-house training and invite customers.
• Invite customers to your company’s social events, like a company picnic.
• Look for any practical way to share cultures back and forth between your company and customers.
Woodall also pointed out resources available through The Unified Group. Current pieces available are those that members have shared with the group. “You don’t need to feel like you’re all by yourself out there,” Woodall said. “Reach out to others; there is strength and comfort in others.”
And the goal, of course, is that all of these efforts to learn from others and build relationships will ultimately lead to a bountiful customer harvest.
For more information, visit www.theunifiedgroup.com.