Won’t You Be My Champion?

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by Mike Bradley

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A few days ago one of our sales people covering a large corporate account received the following email: “Please be advised that, effective immediately, John Q. Champion, supervisor security technologies, is on special assignment and no longer in this position. For any related matters please contact us through....” Translation of “special assignment”: our former champion with the big account did something bad, has been reassigned to his home, his desk cleaned out, and is not allowed to have any contact with the company or vendors.

Earlier this year another John Q. Champion with a large education customer was reassigned to a different department outside the scope of our relationship with the district. His position was subsequently eliminated. Another one bites the dust. We recently learned that the John Q. Champion with our largest customer is considering retirement in the next 12 to 24 months. One of our favorite general contractors has watched its entire market disappear during the past 18 months of the recession and has laid off several of our greatest champions, with whom we had great relationships.

Every good integration company I know has built its business on referrals and relationships. What do you do when those key relationships disappear overnight? Maybe the bigger question is how do you create a backup plan to avoid starting over if you lose your champion?

The current recession has created plenty of business challenges, not least of which is instability among the workforce. Organizations are doing more with less. Some organizations are cutting the highly paid, yet experienced people, leaving operations in the hands of amateurs. Others are more sensitive than ever to internal conflicts and pull the trigger quickly when someone steps out of line or there is even the smallest hint of impropriety. Most are not replacing attrition, allowing tasks to go unperformed or shifting responsibilities to the overworked and inexperienced. This is the reality of today’s business environment. And you thought your low-priced competition was your biggest threat.

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My recommendation to our sales staff has been, “go deep and wide.” The days of stability and depending on a single customer champion year after year are gone.

Going Deep: You need to be selling deep into every organization. In other words, sell to several levels. From the CEO to the facilities manager, make sure everyone with influence knows you exist, knows your reputation, and sees you and your company as the obvious business partner for your products and services. This can be accomplished by asking for introductions from your champion to other key players. When you have a planning meeting for a new project and the CEO drops in to say hello or listen for 15 minutes, get their name, send them a follow up note, and offer to be directly available if they ever have questions. Then stay in touch periodically. You might send them a note saying what a joy it is to work with John Q. Champion, and how you look forward to providing a successful outcome on the new project.

Going Wide: Everyone reports to someone. Every large organization has at least an informal succession plan. Get to know the direct reports to your champion. Do little things to make them look good to your champion (their boss). You never know, someday they may have his job. Also, get to know your champion’s boss. Do everything you can to make them look good to their boss. Constantly be about the business of widening your good reputation throughout the organization. If your champion is the director of facilities for a school district, make sure you also treat every school facility manager as your customer. Make sure they are happy all the time.

Managing relationships and planning for change has never been more important. The extent to which you “go deep and wide” with every customer will determine your chances for survival if your champion bites the dust.

Mike Bradley (mcbradley@safeguard. us) is president of Safeguard Security and Communications, a security and communication systems integrator in Phoenix, AZ. Bradley is a past president and director on the board of the NSCA with 25 years’ experience in sales and management in the low-voltage contracting industry.

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