Your best account is interviewing an experienced technician who had replied to a help wanted ad they had placed on Craigslist. You know the company the technician had recently worked for and that owner had told you he let that technician go when had proven unreliable. Should you say something?

You have been calling on an account for nearly 5 years and have created good working relationships with nearly everyone in the company. They depend on you and in return for your support you earn the majority of their business at a fair margin. The owner recently hired a full-time purchasing agent and she just told you that she is paid based on her ability to reduce their product costs. She just asked you to reduce your prices by 10% across the board. What should you do?

The sales manager at a key account has asked you to bid on a commercial project that you know is not the kind of work they have done before. He said they are slow and need the work. You offered to help with the takeoff and he said he would handle it because he needed to shop around for the best prices and didn’t want to feel obligated to any single supplier. You think the sales manager is over his head and there is a good chance he will miss things that will cause them to lose money if they win the job. You started to say something to the sales manager and he said, again, that he would take care of it. What should you do?

Any or all of these scenarios are likely to be familiar to you. Each poses a dilemma where you are faced with a choice between “minding your own business” or “doing the right thing”.

Do you tell the owner that the technician he wants to hire has a questionable past? If you go around the purchasing agent to the owner will you permanently damage both relationships? How do you prevent the sales manager from making a mistake you have seen many other contractors make…without having him look incompetent to his boss?

I realize these situations could have many more variables but for our purposes today let’s just work with the circumstances as I’ve described them. I’ll assume your choice is to “do the right thing” with intention to help your customers avoid problems or losing money…or both. Here are the fundamental questions to ask yourself before you take any action.

Question #1: How have you defined your relationship with the owner?

If your relationships are with the company’s staff and not with the owner, it may be a little awkward for you to approach him with something as sensitive as this technician situation. In matters like this there may even be a legal issue if the technician would not be hired based on something you say and that gets back to him.

However, if you have created a personal and professional relationship with the owner, you could ask for some time to discuss a concern you have and the owner would likely be interested in hearing what you had to say. This might be your side of that conversation:

“Bob, I just learned something that has me a bit concerned. Would you have 10 minutes where we could talk about this privately?”

“First, I’d like to confirm that if I have some information that I felt would be important for you to know, would you want me to share that with you?”

“Thanks. I understand you are interviewing for that open technician spot you have. Is that correct?”

“I’ll bet it will be a relief to fill that position. Good, reliable technicians are nearly impossible to find.”

I wonder if you make it a practice to actually call a candidate’s references including past employers. This often does not get done and sometimes a guy gets hired and then information that could cause concerns comes out later. Does someone call?”

“No, there is nothing specific I can tell you because anything I hear is usually second and third hand. I’m just looking out for you and want to reinforce that checking on any potential employees background is a good idea.”

The owner will understand what you are getting to and because of your relationship will take it seriously. The next step is up to him.

Question #2: Have you established yourself and your company as a value-added partner in your customer’s business?

There is a very old joke about a married couple that meets with a counselor and the wife complains that the husband never tells her he loves her. The husband replies that he told her he loved her when they got married and if it changes he would let her know.

Earning the business is one thing while keeping it is another. Every customer contact is an opportunity to remind the customer how you value your business relationship. Think of this as building up a bank account of “business relationship equity” that you can draw on when things might go awry.

In the purchasing agent scenario you are going to need some of that value-added equity. Hiring a purchasing agent might look like a good idea on the surface to some but the fully-burdened overhead of a capable person in that position could far exceed any cost savings that she could wring out of already price-competitive suppliers. It is far better for the territory manager to be constantly focused on helping the contractor be more profitable, and reinforce that at all times, so that the thought of the supplier possibly being “overpriced” never enters the customer’s mind.

If you haven’t been doing this, then passionately defend every penny you now get. Giving any price concession simply affirms to the customer that you had been overcharging for as long as you’ve been doing business and that may be digging a hole you can never climb out of.

Question #3: Do you have credibility with your customers?

The sales manager may be desperate to find new business to keep the crews busy or to create an income opportunity for the company, his sales team and himself. All of this pressure could influence any of us to ignore sound advice.

If your relationship is based on trust and mutual respect then you can easily say, “Bob, I’m sure the commercial job is important to you and the company right now. As you know, I call on a lot of commercial accounts that bid on and do this kind of work. I’ve seen some things that you may be interested in considering. Would you want to plan a time for me to share what I’m talking about?”

What if you aren’t an expert in the area you have concerns about? It wouldn’t do to get halfway into a discussion and have his questions go unanswered. Better to bring in support in the form of another territory manager, your boss or any coworker who has a background in what is being considered. In some cases you may need to draw on a third party such as the contractor’s own mix group associates or an organization such as Service Roundtable.

Seeing Yourself as a Business Partner

When you see yourself as a business partner then everything that occurs within your customer’s business is important. By appropriately engaging in discussions about anything you see that may be impacting your customer’s success, you will be creating a relationship that no competitor will be able to breech.

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