The Best of the Worst

Sales Best Practices When Dealing With Unhappy Customers




It is one to thing find yourself under the bus from time to time—we all make mistakes, and mistakes can be a good thing since that’s how we learn—however, if you keep making the same mistake, it’s like having the bus back up and move forward, over and over again. Not learning from your mistakes is painful.



After I had been with Cisco for a few months, I was asked to attend a sales call at a large insurance provider. I was warned the customer was unhappy with some of our services and prices. “Great,” I thought, “they think we‘re not delivering and we cost too much, what a way to start a relationship!” I joined two of my team in a large conference room on the third floor of the client’s office. There were 12 or so members of their information technology staff and three of us. We were definitely feeling outnumbered.


In walked the lead for the insurance firm like a somber Brahma bull. We’ll call him Bill for the convenience of this story. Bill strolled up to the head of the table and glanced down both sides where my team and I were spread out amongst his team. We made short introductions and then he looked at me and without a smile began:

“George,” he said, “it’s very nice to have you come to see us today, but I’ve got to tell you a few things. The first thing is...” He then rolled into a litany of our sins from an inability to deliver, to an inability to deliver on time, to an inability to deliver on budget. He went on for a good ten minutes, summing up by saying, “The only thing I can tell you is that all the other vendors are no good, but you, Cisco, you suck the least.”


So we were the best of the worst; at least I had a starting point.


The room went silent. I knew this was going to be one of those defining moments. I have learned from a long history of intense moments that a calm demeanor helps disarm almost any situation. I leaned forward in my chair and said, “Bill, thank you very much for sharing. If I can, I’d just like to ask you a few questions to get a few more details so that eventually, as we work together I can reestablish Cisco’s credibility with you.”


I realized that not only did we need to do a better job of delivering high quality service to him, but we needed a shared definition of success. I asked him a series of questions, although I knew at that point what the answers would be:

  • How often do we talk to you about your company’s business objectives, about where you are going over the next one to three years?


  • How well do our teams get along together?


  • Have we agreed upon the accountabilities for my team and for your team?


  • Have we agreed what success is for your organization?


  • If something goes wrong, do we have a defined escalation path?


  • Finally, do we have a common set of metrics in place?


The answer to all the questions was “no,” as I knew it would be. I looked at my team and nodded. We had a clear way forward.


There were four indices we had to focus on:

  1. 1.- A common definition of success and a means to track it.
  2. 2.- A way to measure the quality of communication at all the significant touch points between our client and us.
  3. 3.- Clear roles, responsibilities and agreed upon metrics with accountabilities.
  4. 4.- A defined escalation path that actually worked.

By the way, these are four indices every service provider should track with their clients (internal and external). It comes down to a commitment to cadence and quality—regularly scheduled time for deep, open discussions (otherwise known as Level 2 discussions, which we will cover later). Proactive, meaningful communications will keep you ahead of the bus; reactive, rote communications will place you under the bus.


The point of this story is, I had a wealth of experience to pull from to help me manage the call. I had an idea of the basic scenario—unhappy with our service, thinks we cost too much—so I immediately began to think through similar situations I had experienced. In fact, two weeks before a customer had taken me “out to the woodshed” on a few of the exact same points. Being a quick learner, as we discussed Bill’s issues in more detail, I started to suggest processes tied to metrics that would mutually improve the situation. The solution we agreed on wasn’t something I made up on the spur of the moment. It was based on principles I had seen proven out many times before; the same principles which I had recently experienced.


Being able to draw from experience is one thing, being able to present that information in a credible and cohesive way is another. If you want to be able to build relationships by drawing on your experience you’ll need more than luck on your side. Simply said, “dive and catch” saves feel great, yield results and allow you to play hero for a day, but over the long run they’re not sustainable. A great game comes down to practice and structure.


The team that had previously worked with Bill was not incompetent. In point of fact, they were quite well versed in their area of expertise. The problem was that area of expertise was limited to the science of selling. The skill I brought to the table, literally on that day, was that I took the customer’s perspective and created a collaborative atmosphere in which we could build a solution that directly addressed the customer’s needs. Part of what I did was  science—e.g. four indices, a scorecard and methodology—and part of what I did was art—drawing from extensive experience and applying lessons learned to the situation at hand. The beauty of this event was in its recursive nature. I drew from a wide breadth of experiences to work through an immediate problem. My team, who had been stuck at this juncture, learned from the situation and then added it to their repertoire of experiences. Two things became part of their toolkit that day: A relationship dashboard we created with the client and the art of “experience mining.”



To this day the account team still talks about that meeting as being the most pivotal moment in our relationship with Bill and his company. In the months that followed, my team and I delivered on everything we promised and more. We met our metrics (and in some cases over-delivered), gained his trust and rebuilt our credibility. Those months of strong delivery turned to years of unsurpassed service. That one meeting began to lay the foundation of a long-term business relationship between that account and Cisco and a long-term personal friendship with Bill. I have been great friends with Bill and his wife for over 12 years now.


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