"The Navigator" News Blog

The Three Levels of Customer Relationships

If I ask salespeople how they describe themselves, one of the most common ways would be as a “relationship salesperson.” Unfortunately, “relationship selling,” which should be one of the most meaningful phrases in selling, has become meaningless through overuse.

When I drill down on what these candidates mean by “relationship sales,” 90% of them give me an answer that is some variation on the Stuart Smalley Affirmation on Saturday Night Live: “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and gosh darn it, my customers like me!” Well, not to diminish the importance of being liked by your customers, but there’s a lot more to successful relationship selling that that.

Successful relationship selling has several different elements, which we will get to in a moment. But, for me, the key questions to the quality of a relationship are:

Can you monetize the quality of your relationship with your customer? This is selling, after all, not running for Homecoming King (or Queen). Being liked is great, but if you can’t turn that into money, you are not engaged in “relationship selling.”

Can you maximize your business relationship with your customer? By “maximizing,” I mean the ability to extract all, or nearly all, the potential opportunities with your customer. If they’re buying stuff they could be buying from you, but buying it from a competitor, you’re not “maximized” within that customer.

Essentially, there are three different levels of customer relationships, and most salespeople will have customers in all three:

The Loyal Customer: This is the Holy Grail of customer relationships. When they buy, they buy from you. When competitors call, they not only don’t buy from them; they don’t entertain proposals or appointments. You have contacts at all the appropriate levels within the company, you are able to maintain good profit margins. Moreover, Loyal Customers evangelize for you; when they hear of others that could make use of your services, they recommend you freely and willingly. Ideally, you should have a game plan for any customer who is NOT this level to move them in this direction.

The Habitual Buyer: The Habitual Buyer can be deceptive; Habitual Buyers sometimes look like Loyal Customers. When they buy, you are their default source. However – and this is an important distinction – you have very little leeway with a Habitual Buyer. Mess up a delivery (and, let’s be honest, we all sometimes make mistakes), and you lose their business. Raise a price, and you reopen the buying decision. Often, Habitual Buyers will also screen you from getting multiple contact levels within the company, and will be much more guarded in their dealings with you. The dangerous part about Habitual Buyers is that salespeople can be lulled into thinking that they are Loyal Customers – then a competitor picks their pocket, seemingly out of nowhere.

The Occasional Buyer – The Occasional Buyer is just that. They shop you every time, and typically have no real pattern to their purchases (although if you’re losing business on price, Occasional Buyers will be where you lose it). The Occasional Buyer has no real affinity toward you or your competitors; you’re just a place to get stuff, as are your competitors. Most of the time, if you’re dealing strictly with a purchasing agent, the customer is an Occasional Buyer – which is as good an argument as any against dealing strictly with purchasing agents.

The true “relationship salesperson” will have more customers at the Loyal Customer level than other salespeople; more importantly, they will have a game plan in place for advancing Habituals to Loyals, and Occasionals to Habituals. Getting there isn’t easy; it involves a lot of hard work and preparation, and focus in the selling process. It also involves a level of honesty that is uncomfortable. Ego-driven salespeople (which is most of us) want very badly to think that all of our customers are Loyal Customers; recognizing that many are not is tough. But if you want a good way to build your business in 2015, identify all your major customers by the three levels above, and then create a game plan to move them up. Your boss – and your wallet – will thank you.