Q: I’m doing a thorough examination of my customer base in anticipation for 2011. One thing I found is, sales with my best customers have leveled off in the last year, while I’ve been getting a slight bump from a few smaller players. Who would you spend more time with in 2011?

Nate — Seattle, Wash. 

A: Depends on your definition of “best.” By best, do you mean those who currently spend the most with you? Michael Shrage wrote in a blog for the Harvard Business Review that perhaps those folks aren’t your best customers after all. He explained it to a CTO of a global software company who was getting nowhere with collaborating with his biggest customers.


“I’m sorry,” I replied, “but your company must first accept that these are not your best customers. They may be your biggest customers or your most profitable customers or your most demanding customers. But any customer that won’t collaborate or innovate with you can’t be your best. Those firms may even be your most dangerous customers because they treat you more like low-cost vendors than partners in design and development.”

“So how do we get them to see us as innovation partners?” he asked.

“Unfortunately, that’s the wrong question,” I replied. “Ask, instead, what makes you the best innovation partners they could possibly have in this product category? They know you’re a terrific vendor. But could they name two things you’ve done in the last six months that would make them believe you could help them innovate significantly better? Why do they refuse your offers to innovate?”

The CTO grimaced when he heard that. Did you?

Sales blogs and columns harp on reps not to be order-takers, but have you considered the dynamic holds true with customers? Sure, you’ll get your disposables and other essentials covered from the order-makers, but which of your customers truly buys into you as a source for them to increase revenue? That’s a good place to start when considering your “best” customers; they’ll probably be around the longest and turn to you in time of need.

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