When Bad Things Happen to Good Salespeople

It was a nightmare Larry didn’t need. First there was an angry message on his voicemail from a large account wanting to know where the stuff was that was supposed to be on their loading dock two days ago? Then there was the message from the Shipping department informing him that they couldn’t ship because the shipment was on credit hold. Finally a testy message from Accounting telling him they didn’t have the customer’s credit application and what was he going to do about it.

Now Larry’s schedule for the day was going to be shot as he tried to get these problems solved. First, he called the customer and let her tear a strip off his back that he didn’t deserve. During the flogging, the customer informed him that she had returned the #@&% credit application several weeks ago and, if they couldn’t even keep track of paperwork, maybe she should buy from someone who could. The customer wasn’t a happy camper!

Having just been beaten up by his customer, Larry was probably harder on the shipping manager than he should have been. Instead of being annoyed with the situation, he should have tried to get to the bottom of the matter in a more rational manner. As it was, he ended up creating more problems along with some ill will.

Then it was on to the Accounting department. For a salesperson, dealing with the Accounting department is a challenge at the best of times and this wasn’t the best of times. First they insisted they didn’t have the credit application and nothing, but nothing, leaves the back door without a credit application. Then they implied that the customer was probably lying and hadn’t sent in the application at all. Finally, when someone discovered the misfiled application, they told him it would probably take two weeks to get it approved because they were so busy. Larry’s suggestion that they might want to call the customer with an explanation and an apology was met with stony silence. Thoughts of doing physical damage passed through his mind but he left before he created even more havoc.

Is this story farfetched?

Maybe. But I’ll bet there’s any number of salespeople who will say this is mild compared to what they’ve gone through from time to time. You probably have your own personal horror stories.

How we handle situations like this separates the sales professional from the person who just happens to be in sales. A sales professional doesn’t want or need problems like this but he or she knows that this type of thing comes with the territory. Others often run and hide or wave their arms around, pointing fingers in all directions instead of trying to resolve the situation.

I’ve known people who won’t do an after-sale follow-up with a customer just in case something went wrong and the customer might be upset. Excuse me! What’s wrong with that picture?

That’s like saying if you don’t know about the problem, it doesn’t exist. Being afraid to call a customer doesn’t make a problem go away. If anything, it will only get bigger.

Problems happen. Always have and always will. It is our responsibility to deal with these problems. Notice I said deal with, not solve. We can’t always (nor should we) try to solve every problem, but we can deal with them. Here are some helpful tips on dealing with problems.

1. First and foremost, quickly respond to the customer.

The operative word here is quickly. Problems are like a noise in a dark room. The longer you take to find out what’s causing the noise, the louder it seems to get.

2. Apologize sincerely and emphatically.

It doesn’t matter who is responsible for the situation. A simple, “I apologize for the situation” is a good start. Laying blame at this point sounds more like excuse making than problem solving.

3. Let your customer rant.

If he’s really angry, he wants you to know about it so let him tell you. I know it’s probably not your fault and that you’d like to spread some of this blame around to others, but don’t. Just keep repeating this mantra, “I apologize for the situation,” “I apologize for the situation,” “I apologize for the situation,” until the customer comes back down to earth.

4. Tell the customer what you’re going to do and when it will be done.

Have a plan of attack before you call the customer so you’re able to put his mind at ease that the situation, although bad, is under control and steps are being taken to correct it.

5. If possible, do something to ease the pain.

Is there something, anything, you can do for the customer to lessen the aggravation? Can you offer a discount? Something for free? (Offering to hang yourself from the nearest tree, although creative, is probably unacceptable.)

6. Above all, keep your promises.

Remember, whatever you tell the customer will be perceived as a promise so be careful what you say. If you fail to keep a perceived promise, the situation will get worse. On the other hand, keeping perceived promises makes you and your company look good (or at least not as bad) and helps put your relationship back on the rails again.

No One Solution

As I noted earlier, you can’t solve all the problems, but you need to know whom in your company you can go to with customer challenges. In the example above, it’s obvious that the Accounting department isn’t going to fast track the credit application without some outside intervention from a higher authority. Should the salesperson ask his sales manager to step in or should he or his manager talk to the president? We need to know the extent (or lack) of our authority and whom we can enlist to help us get a problem resolved.

We also need to learn from problems like this. The above situation would not have occurred had the Accounting department informed the salesperson before the ship date instead of after. The questions to ask are: What went wrong? How can we avoid the same problem in the future?

No one like problems but they can be a growing experience for the salesperson with the proper attitude.