Much has been written about how business-to-consumer firms show their "love" to customers and win loyalty in return.

But how about business-to-business customers? How do savvy firms love these buyers and win their loyalty?

A recent speaking engagement for a Carrier Air Conditioning distributor serving dozens of high-volume dealers across Florida, Alabama, and Mississippi brought me in touch with a B2B sales rep whose sales strategies exemplify what it really means to "love" your customers.

Feeling His Customers' Pain

Wayne Craig began his career journey in the early 1970s, working the parts counter for a wholesale heating and air conditioner distributor. A few years later, he received a promotion to purchase agent. For the next eight years, Wayne heard countless spiels from scores of sales reps and, in the process, experienced first-hand the pain of "being sold."

Wayne explains, "One of the things that I intensely disliked about salespeople was they would come in and flop down on the chair in my office and sit there and really waste my time. They actually had nothing better to do than to drop in and give me the price sheet. Period."

So, several years later, when Wayne himself became an outside sales rep, he was determined to find a better way.

"When I got out there and started talking to customers, I saw that my competitors and I...were basically selling the same thing for basically the same price. [If] I didn't do something to set myself apart I was never going to go anywhere."

His early years in the industry had given Wayne some important insights. He knew that his customers—as contractors—were preoccupied with selling their systems and making sure their mechanics got out the door to their next installation or service call. That meant inventory control often received scant management attention, and this lack of attention often carried significant costs.

For example, when a mechanic goes out on a job without the right part on his truck, his drive across town and back for that $6 replacement part typically costs the contractor an hour of billable time. Moreover, this unscheduled delay now meant the deletion of one whole service call from the end of this mechanic's day, causing even further revenue loss for the contractor.

But looking through the eyes of his customers, Wayne saw even more inventory control complexities for those contractors who were buying from multiple wholesalers. Explains Wayne, "A mechanic goes out and installs a fan motor that he pulled off the inventory shelf. And three months later, the motor goes bad and it needs to go back for warranty replacement. From which wholesaler did the part originate?"

And then there's the problem with a contractor that buys the same part from, say, five different wholesalers. When it's time for the contractor to bill out the customer for a particular job, the contractor may have five different prices for the same item, making it difficult to accurately calculate the job's real cost.

Customers Problems = Value-Making Opportunities

So Wayne embraced these customers' problems with a different context: His job was not about simply making sales; his job was about making customer value.

He began thinking about developing a contractor stocking program with the vision of making the purchasing and managing of inventory as hassle-free for his customers as possible.

First, he compiled a recommended list of 10 days' worth of inventory for a service truck and parts room, and approached one customer with his new idea: "Let me set up and organize your parts room—complete with bins labeled by part number, shelving to hold the bins, a 'want list' that hangs on the wall for recording additional parts requests, a warranty basket to exchange a bad part and a pricing book for easy cost reference."

The contractor said yes, and was soon experiencing the value of a greatly simplified system for ordering parts, processing warranties, costing out jobs, and reducing pilferage. In the eyes of this customer, Wayne had now distinguished himself from the herd of reps trying to simply sell parts.

Now, this contractor saw Wayne as a real problem solver and time saver. And Wayne knew how to leverage this first success.

On his next sales call, he reported to the prospect, "I have this stocking program... but don't take my word for it, call this guy and see how it's working for him." Wayne's reference selling had begun!

What Have You Done for Me Lately?

Wayne understands that, in the mind of the customer, it's not the amount of value delivered yesterday that counts. It's the value delivered today and tomorrow that drives relationship loyalty.

Wayne keeps a vigilant eye for slow-moving parts, and that's why he's quick to suggest that the contractor send those items back for customer credit. (Or, conversely, he watches parts that are quick-moving, and considers it his job to recommend a higher level of inventory.) Recalling his time as a purchase agent, Wayne is careful not to use such condescending phrases as, "You need to do this." Instead, he approaches his accounts with the more consultative approach, "I've got some ideas and you tell me if you want to do it or not."

Wayne has discovered two critical questions for earning customer loyalty and, in turn, making sales: He's constantly listening and watching for clues to "What's on my contractor's worry list?" and "How else can I add value?"

Through this constant probing, Wayne spied another problem: The contractor's time-consuming task of costing out a job. Wayne knew that even with one price list and one price book, it still took close to an hour of his customer's time to cost out a residential air conditioning installation job. With multiple wholesaler price books, the costing-out job took even longer.

So Wayne joined forces with his company's programmer. Using Microsoft FoxPro as a base code, they customized job costing software for Wayne's customers. The result? The contractor's job costing time went from almost 60 minutes to 10.

The Payoff

Would you want to sell against this guy? Not me.

Wayne is proving again and again, that it's darn hard to compete with a real value maker. In a cutthroat market where competition has grown from 4 wholesalers (30 years ago) to 22 today, Wayne's customer relationships are strong and thriving.

He affirms, "Everything I do, I try and make myself as much a part of that company as any other employee that the guy's got." Spoken like a true value maker who knows what "loving" your customers really means.

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image of Jill Griffin

Jill Griffin is an executive trainer ( and author.