How strong is your triangle?

01 April 2011 | Judy Reed Smith

Judy Reed Smith asks what sales activities can help businesses to strengthen their customer bonds.

If you wanted to contact all of your customers this week, could you? If you answer ‘yes,’ it’s a good bet that you are in sales or directly provide the services they purchase. If you’re a C-level manager, or work in marketing or another operations position, there’s a good chance your answer is ‘no.’ Your department may not have enough information about your customers to contact them beyond monthly billing. In other words, there’s a good chance you don’t have a direct line to the people who make or influence buying decisions. 

If this is true for you, you are not alone. You are, in fact, in a disadvantaged majority. My favorite professor from Harvard Business School, David Maister, offered a memorable lesson in his blog on “Loyalty to whom?” about the Management Triangle that I will share with you. Please imagine your company at the top, the sales person or direct service provider at the second corner, and the customer at the third.  The link between the direct service provider and the customer is typically the strongest bond; you want it strong. Therefore, the other two legs require constant attention to hold any power at all. We all know stories of sales folks leaving a company with their ‘books’ – it happens in integrators, equipment sellers and agencies, as well as wholesale and business-oriented departments of telecoms service providers. In a world of business relationships increasingly powered by LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter, the ‘portability’ of business connections has never been greater than it is now.

So, how do you stabilise the triangle? It’s a given that you focus on bonds with your sales force or direct service organisations, ensuring that compensation structures remain competitive with places they may go (and, potentially, customers may go along with them).  But, are you prepared for the “Number 9 bus?” If the Number 9 bus hit your direct link to the customer on their way home tonight, could your company pick up the workload tomorrow? Could you hold the value in the company? To plan for such scenarios, the customer relationship must be shared, with sturdy legs on the triangle. 

Once you can contact the right people at your customer companies, management attention may include communications programmes, tokens of appreciation and participation in third-party customer feedback programmes. Nothing communicates commitment to customers more than investing in customer’s opinions. 

No matter how much a sales person or agent believes in his relationships, customers are better served and more comfortable when they have teams devoted to their accounts. Any salesperson – direct or indirect – worth their salt would rather work with a company that helps them retain their own revenue base. We all know this intuitively, and customers also can detect salespeople that are looking out for themselves at the expense of customer service. Working with people who value the triangle is not only good for the company, but for your customers as well.

Judy Reed Smith is CEO of Atlantic-ACM. She can be contacted at: